Instead of telling the reader that your character is remembering something, just get right to the point: the memory itself!
by Jennifer Silva Redmond
Recently, working with an author client, I had to use a real bummer of a phrase about her writing: yes, I said it was “half-hearted.” That might not sound bad to you, but it’s a cardinal sin for writers. Nothing turns off an editor or agent (or ultimately, a reader), like writing that feels tepid or warmed over. So take chances—raise the stakes—make it more important.
What does that mean in writing terms? It means that if someone is coming to the end of a job, a marriage, or a friendship, then make today the day in that character’s life that it ends. Show us the argument that precipitates that demise, or start with them walking out of the office for the last time.
Don’t start with them waking up and thinking (again) about maybe quitting. I always tell clients to make page one “the most important day of the protagonist’s life,” and then page two the even-more-important day, etc.
If you’re writing about someone falling in love, write about the moment they discover that they are in love. Don’t let them muse about how they “guess they had really sort of started to realize it” last week. Again, make this the most important day of the protagonist’s life!
And let’s all be careful of those casual modifiers we use in everyday speech—such as those I used in the example above—as well as “kind of” and “sort of” and “might be” and “a little bit.” Who wants to read about someone who “might be, a little bit, sort of” falling in love? Or “kind of beginning to think she might almost be ready” to finally quit her dead-end job?
Use definite language—let your characters take a stand. And don’t use everyday words for extraordinary situations—try using words that sparkle, resonate, and provoke.
If you’re writing about someone falling in love, write about the moment they discover they are in love. Who wants to read about someone who “might be, a little bit, sort of” falling in love?
There have been many studies done on language concreteness—the fact that specific, vivid, definite words and phrases evoke mental images—and it has been shown to be an important determiner of reading comprehension. In a paper published by the International Reading Association, the authors write: “‘snarling tiger’ is concrete and image-evoking, but ‘policy concept’ is abstract, less likely to evoke images.”
Though this conclusion—that some words are more likely than others to produce mental images—seems intuitive, many writers are still ignoring it, and not writing in a way that is most effective at producing word-images. All of those writers’ readers suffer because of it. A great acting teacher once wrote, “speak to my eyes, not to my ears.” It is the same rule for writing: “write to my eyes,” in other words, write things I can see and taste and smell.
Case in point, a writer I was working with had written this sentence: “She remembered how she’d sat there by the fire as a young girl, having her hair brushed by her mother.” So, what’s the problem here?
Well, “remembered” is not visual—can you picture someone in the act of remembering? “A young girl” is something we can easily picture (though all of us will have a different picture), so the sooner we get to that phrase, the better the imagery-inducing effect. We don’t have to wait so long for it. I brought up the concept of language concreteness and visual writing and we changed the line to: “As a young girl she sat there by the fire each morning, her mother brushing her hair.”
We don’t “ponder,” we pace; we don’t “contemplate,” we wash the dishes. We are thinking at these times, but we don’t need to tell readers this—they already know.
This of course, explains the war on “thought verbs” that I’m continuing to wage, along with Chuck Palahniuk and others. Thought verbs are not visual, they are thoughtful—that doesn’t make them bad, it only means you want to eliminate them from your writing where you can. And the current focus on eliminating so-called “filter words” is in some ways driven by the same concept.
One great trick for spotting all this thought-full filtering is to read your work out loud—or have someone else read it aloud. You’ll hear endless iterations of your characters having “thought about” and “remembered” and “contemplated” and “mused” and the like. Mark those words and phrases. When you go back and rewrite, you’ll find ways to substitute verbs that make your writing much more active—and, in the process, much more visual.
Look around at life: we don’t “ponder,” we pace; we don’t “contemplate,” we wash the dishes; we don’t “muse,” we drive to work. We are thinking at all of these times, but we don’t need to tell readers that—they know.
Finding ways to “up the ante” for your characters, and using lively, visual, and exciting language gives your writing more oomph—not to mention it’s fun and challenging. And isn’t that what being a writer is all about?
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, as well as a popular writing instructor and speaker. Long-time editor-in-chief and acquisitions editor at award-winning Sunbelt Publications, she teaches at the Southern California Writers Conference, San Diego Writers, Ink, was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3, and co-founder of the critically acclaimed Sea of Cortez Review. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies, magazines, and books, including Latinos in Lotusland and A Year in Ink; More info, a select list of edited books, and client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com.
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