Voicing Opinions

Opinionated
There are more subtle ways of sharing your characters’ opinions. (Photo credit: iceman9294)

Whenever I meet a new volunteer at the bookstore, I introduce myself as Loudmouthed and Opinionated (seriously, my rants are pretty much legendary). But you don’t need to be able to go on hour-long rants to have an opinion. In fact, most opinions don’t need to be stated outright, because often they’re so ingrained in your worldview and belief system that it bleeds through into your everyday language.

This is also true about characters. And hopefully, those characters don’t spend nearly as much time as I do ranting their opinions to anybody who wants to avoid doing work for the day.

An important part of narration (especially first person narration) is finding the character’s voice. A lot of people accomplish this by making the character off-beat, sarcastic, funny, or just plain weird– but that doesn’t always mesh with the personality of your chosen narrator. A great way of bringing out that personality and adding color to that voice is to let the narrator’s opinions take forefront. The way they see the world will inform huge swaths of their perceptions of the world around them.

Consider the following sentence:

I walked into a large building that stood on a wide lawn.

That’s bland. It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. Now let’s add in some personality. A few made-up-on-the-spot characters and their opinion of the same building:

  • The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in E...
    The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Architect: I hurried between an arrangement of Roman columns, glancing up at a vaulted ceiling so high I had to crane my neck to take in its full scope.

  • Agoraphobe: The building was a lousy shelter from the overwhelming expanse of the lawn; the pillars felt like some giant monster’s fangs, open wide to swallow me whole. 
  • Guerrilla: The openness of the green space was unnerving. The inside of the building wasn’t much better, but at least I could take some cover behind the columns.
  • Gorilla: Finally I find some trees– but there’s something wrong with these. They’re cold and hard and have no branches. This place smells wrong, like lemon and leopard piss.

For each of these, that one sentence (or couple of sentences) might very well be the only time the building is ever described, and none of these are particularly time-consuming descriptions. But each of these sets the stage with a setting, a mood, and an insight into the mind of the narrator.  The end result is often prose that is dynamic, compact and (hopefully!) just plain interesting.

The Editor’s Scalpel

Brief Housekeeping:

Some of you may have noticed a lack of updates this month. Due to school being school, I’ll be changing my schedule to post every other week instead of weekly. 

English: Diamond scalpel
I was seriously considering a photo of a scalpel leaning on a pig’s heart, with a caption about ‘yeah, that’s what it feels like’. Because I love you, here’s a diamond scalpel instead. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my experience editing, I’ve noticed I use two words more than any other: “comma” and “cut”. The former, being one of the most absurdly complicated elements of English grammar, already has a blog post dedicated to it. And then there’s the latter.

A double-edged sword

It’s a writer’s job to explain, to take that vivid picture in your head and use words to paint it in mine. That takes a lot of effort, a lot of detail, and a lot of words. Sometimes, though, those words can clutter the sentences, bog down prose, or otherwise get in the way of the image. We’re left walking a razor’s edge: too many words, and you risk overwriting. Too few, and you risk not being understood.

(That’s the last blade-pun, I promise).

You might notice the problem: it’s very difficult to identify that line in your own writing. After all, you already know what you’re trying to convey. For a matter like this, which is dependent on clarity and reader understanding, I recommend getting a beta editor to look over your manuscript and point out which sections are unclear or overwritten.

What is overwriting?

There’s different varieties, but these are the ones I see most often:

Purple prose — When the writing calls attention to the author instead of the story or characters. Often it comes in the form of waxing poetic at length about… anything, and it typically comes across as the author trying too hard to be fancy. That’s not to say good writing can’t be poetic, but you’ll often get a stronger effect with a single significant detail than with a paragraph-long abstract description.

Needless repetition — Sometimes it’s as subtle as using both a dialogue tag and an action beat for the same section of dialogue. Sometimes it’s characters repeating the same information to one another. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase being reused too frequently in a short space, when one or more of them could be replaced by a synonym. And sometimes it’s the same detail being given in two different ways.

Understood — “He reached down to his belt level, wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, tightened his grip, contracted the muscles in his arm and shoulder, pulled the weapon from his scabbard, and raised it into the air in front of him.” Or, once my scalpel has had its say: “He drew his sword.” There are a lot of secondary and tertiary details that readers will assume to be true when they’re given a little bit of context. The biggest offender: “he said, looking at her.” If two people are in a conversation, unless it’s explicitly stated they’re avoiding eye contact, we will always assume they’re looking at one another, because that’s the way people hold conversations (outside of movies and television, of course).

Unnecessary words –– Descriptors can often be trimmed if they’re understood. For example, “He sat down in the chair” can usually be slimmed into “He sat in the chair” (unlike “he sat up in the chair”, which indicates an entirely different action). Similar examples include “stood up” and “woke up“.

These are all things to give you ideas, but like all writing, it’s subjective. In the end it all comes down to whether that word or phrase helps to create a vivid image or emotion in the reader’s mind, or whether it’s just clutter. .

A tip from the internet

Meandering through the internet, I found a pair of images that really struck me. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

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Source: https://www.facebook.com/TheBestOfTumblrV2 – Originally found on Tumblr
monster
“It was finally destroyed with a nuclear weapon carrying the destructive energy of the Hiroshima bomb.”
Source: XKCD – http://xkcd.com/1257/

The difference between the first and the second is staggering. One is vivid and evocative, the other is silly– and makes a striking point. These comparisons are so overused (so cliche) that they have ceased to actually mean anything. Essentially the comic can be rewritten: “It’s big, it’s fast, it’s heavy, and it’s stupid… it ate a bunch of people, and caused lots of destruction.” And this is why we encourage people to stay away from cliches: because they’re generally just a very long way of saying something very simple, without adding any meaning or context.

On the other hand, the description of red is vivid. The color’s association with passion and rage maybe often used, but in this case it becomes personal, because it’s directly tied into the story that’s being told.

Writing Exercise: Gender Bender

marilyn
Marilyn’s traditional poses are given a whole new perspective. (Photo credit: bionicteaching)

I’ve heard a lot of people say gender doesn’t matter– that we are all equal in soul and under the skin– and I’m not arguing that, with or against. But it’s undeniable that society changes our expectations of how men and women look, think and behave, and how they should be portrayed– at least on some level. The Hawkeye Initiative plays with this concept a lot, pointing out that what we consider acceptable poses for female comic book characters are just plain ridiculous when you make a male character try to pull them off.

Even in my own writing, gender plays a big role in how my characters behave. My first finished manuscript began as an idea for a character, but without a sex to go with it. After consulting with my little sister, I decided the name was more feminine than masculine, and the rest of the story fell into place. I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be the same story if Chicago was a teenage boy being stalked by his childhood maybe-girlfriend. In another manuscript, I’ve got a very powerful and confident woman… who, when genderflipped, stops seeming powerful and starts looking like a sexual predator.

ZurJagdSaison

I’m not saying all traditional gender-based behaviors and actions are necessarily bad, but they do open the doors for us to gain some new perspective.

If you’re having trouble writing a scene, try flipping it– all the dudes are now chicks, all the chicks are now dudes, all the MtF are now FtM, etc– and write it from that perspective. What are they saying that they weren’t saying before? What are they suddenly hiding? Pay attention to the changes in their body language, changes in vocabulary.

Once you’ve written it gender-bent, go back and turn it right-side-up (or maybe you’ll find it works better that way, and change the rest of the story to match it). If you decide to keep your initial gender roles, rewrite that scene back in the old style, but still pay attention to the body language, the vocabulary, the taboos and secrets and posturing. You’ll be amazed what you find.