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Style of Writing

No, I am not an expert.  Don’t play a writer on TV, even.  But I do have thoughts on style that suit me.  Maybe they work for you.

Start with action.  I really do not like stories that start with a two or three page description of a sunset on a lake.  I have seen plenty of sunsets, sunrises, moon phases, storms, mountain ranges, deserts, lakes, rivers, beaches, and forests and the one thing I am certain of is that a writer’s words will never portray their actual look nearly well enough to be worth my time reading.  Instead, start with action, with somebody doing something or with something happening.  We do not need to know your character that well to know why he or she is running away from the man with the gun and the gap in knowledge provides a mystery for the readers to solve, keeping their interest.  Likewise, we do not need to know the layout of the whole building to have a character running down a staircase.

Start after the beginning.  Maybe this is the same thing as above, but if you start the story at a point where things are already moving fast, then you avoid a lot of tedium.  Again, you can fill in the blanks later.

Do not introduce all your characters at once.  Really, I just cannot keep track of them if you do that.  Introduce one or two, then add one at a time, as you need them.  So, don’t start a story in a boardroom, the bridge of a ship, the family dining table at Thanksgiving, or anywhere else characters congregate, unless you can do so in a way that only a couple of characters have anything to do and we can find out later about the other people in the room.  “Yes, I was at the meeting where your grandfather fired Billingslee.  I thought he was wrong!”

Remind us.  If you have not used a character or an acronym in the last hundred pages, please give us a subtle reminder of who or what they are.  Really.  Yes, Mr. Clancy, I am talking to you.

Use dialog over description.  Two or more characters talking about what is going on is usually more interesting and moves more quickly than your merely describing the action and it gives you more opportunities to flesh out your characters.

Avoid he said, she said.  You have to do it sometimes, to specify who is speaking, but it is rarely necessary, even with more than two characters in a scene.  For instance, instead of writing “Close the hatch,” Zeb said to Hilda, you could do what Heinlein did in Number of the Beast and simply make it read “Sharpie, close the hatch.”  After the second chapter of that novel, Heinlein rarely had to tell us who was talking to who, because every character had a unique name or nickname for every other character.  This increases the speed of the novel tremendously and, as it happens, is faster to write.

End quickly.  Sure, I like Lord of the Rings as much as the next man and Tolkien had every right to use – how many chapters? – to get his characters back home and resolve all the story lines.  Most of us, however, are not Tolkien and we do not need to indulge ourselves this much at our reader’s expense.  Again, look at Number of the Beast, all resolved in a short chapter set at a conference probably years after the previous chapter.  Atlas Shrugged ends, if memory serves (I am not rereading that VERY LONG NOVEL anytime soon), with a short day at Galt’s Gulch, probably the only time Rand used brevity.

No, I don’t always follow these self-inflicted rules either, but I do try to.  I have others as well.  I will write them down later, if I ever happen to remember them.

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Categories: Writing
  1. John G.
    March 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

    Just to pick a nit. I found the “Number of the Beast” ending to be a little too abrupt. It had an unsatisfactory feeling to it. I’ll put that one back on my list and reread it ti see if I was just in a foul mood when I read it the first time.

    • March 3, 2012 at 8:17 PM

      Perhaps it was abrupt. Probably should have used another example, but NOTB was already on my mind from the previous paragraph. Extremely economical on wordage, though, in that last chapter.

      Glad to see that you survived the tornadoes.

      – JKB

  2. John G.
    March 3, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    I had an additional thought. Be careful with dialect. Writers like using local dialects for color or to invent them to look clever. It can backfire and wear out your reader. Here are some examples. Carol read “The Help.” If people had not insisted that the book was fantastic, the dialog would have caused her to stop reading it. She eventually got into the mode of the characters manner of speech and it ceased to be an issue. The first time I read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” I stopped 3 chapters in and didn’t pick it up for years until people insisted I should. Color is good, making the reader struggle when you aren’t a big name author or you don’t have hype backing you up is dangerous.

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