Monday, January 13, 2014

The Difference Between Good Writing and Better Writing

By Julie Daines

As I've been reading many novels lately by a variety of writers--some established authors and some first-timers, I'm noticing some definite differences in the quality of writing. The one I want to mention today is about describing physical reactions and expressions.

This partly falls into the show don't tell category. We don't want to say someone is mad (because that's telling) so instead we think we are showing they are mad by clenched fists and a tight jaw. The problem is, that is also telling. You're telling us what the character is doing.

Let me demonstrate. In the first story I ever wrote, I sent the first chapter to an agent, and she had some great feedback, but this one particular comment really made me think.

I had written a great sentence along the lines of: "The corners of her mouth pushed up into a smile no matter how hard she tried to keep them down." Well, I thought I was doing this great job of showing and not telling, but the agent simply said, "Don't tell me WHAT her mouth is doing, tell me WHY."

As we writers try to steer away from telling, we often end up using physical descriptions as a substitute for real in-depth interiority. We tell WHAT our character is doing, not WHY. It's the WHY that makes all the difference.

Don't get me wrong. There is a time and place for physical description, but it should be used sparingly. Pay attention next time you read a really good book. Authors who win awards don't use hardly any physical descriptions. They get into the meat of the matter and focus on the WHY.

This is hard. Really hard. Here's a tip that might help. Don't stress about it as much on your first draft. But as you go through and revise, notice every physical description and see if you can simply delete it. Often we write the physical cliche as a transition when the words that follow the physical description are enough to answer the WHY.

EG:

Amy frowned and clenched her fists. George always treated her like a child, and no matter how hard she tried to please him, he never saw her as more than a spoiled little sister. If she was old enough to vote, she was old enough to make her own decisions. This time, even if it ruined her, she would do it her way.

This paragraph doesn't need the physical cliche sentence at the beginning Amy frowned and clenched her fists. It can simply be deleted. The rest of the paragraph carries the emotion and the interiority, no cliche needed.

Here is a list of cliches to avoid. This list comes from award winning author Martine Leavitt. (Her books are an amazing example of this concept.) I admit that I'm not a good enough writer yet to avoid all of these all the time, but I'm working on it.

heart pounding
throat constricting
fist/feet/stomach clenching
swallowing
widening eyes
gasping
all manner of breathing
tears

And I'd like to add biting of lip/cheek until tasting blood. So overused!

What physical descriptions are you inclined to overuse? What physical cliches have you noticed lately?

(I usually try to keep my posts here short, so I apologize for this long one. )

Related Post: Never Name Emotions

3 comments:

Bruce Luck said...

I'm inclined to overuse many of the physical clich├ęs you mentioned. I like the concept of interiority and telling WHY rather than WHAT.

Scott said...

Being so upset that the character wants to puke. I think we've all written that.

Michelle said...

I hate the cheek biting one. Wouldn't you have to bite your cheek/lip pretty hard to draw blood?