On Writing: Vividness, Vocabulary, and more on Said

Vivid descriptions are key to drawing readers deeper into your writing, whether prose or poetry. Your challenge as a writer is to create images and scenes with words, to reproduce intense emotions and experiences with descriptions so your readers can experience what you have. It’s creating vicarious experiences for readers, affording them a glimpse into your world, into your mind. Writers who do not take advantage of the wealth of words available in the English language create their own handicap and limit their writing to the mundane. Besides limiting their potential, writers who do not stretch their vocabularies where the language takes them also limit their potential to teach their readers the beauty and power of language. As a writing teacher, I am committed to helping my students improve their vocabulary because vocabulary is essential to writing. A writer with a poor vocabulary is like a runner with only one leg.

I have written several times about using exact language, especially in writing, and it’s not something I will ever stop writing about. Society is no great help in this regard, especially when it promotes vague language by using words such as “stuff” and “things” for objects, or “nice” and “great” for anything positive. Writing teachers have been trying to teach their students year after year how to use more precise language, more vivid words. After all, writing is about creating images for the reader in words. If your writing cannot provide the reader with sufficient details to recreate the picture or scene you, as the writer, imagined, then you have failed. Let me revisit “said is dead”. If you haven’t yet found enough words more vivid than “said”, here’s a short list of “a” words to get you started.

Acknowledged, acquiesced, added, addressed, admitted, admonished, advised, advocated, affirmed, agreed, alleged, allowed, announced, answered, approved, argued, assented, asserted, assumed, assured, asked, attested, avowed.

As a reminder, I admonish writers not to use a dialogue tag to merely repeat or state the obvious. In this case, I refer to writing a question in dialogue and ending it with a question mark, then using the dialogue tag “she asked” or “he asked”. The use of a question mark to end a sentence, in itself, indicates a question has been asked, hence, the dialogue tag can be dispensed with and replaced with a description of an action or expression, instead. For instance, what do people do when they ask questions? Some might raise an eyebrow or both eyebrows, frown, shake their head, raise their hands to their sides with palms facing up, scratch their head, or rub the back of their neck. As in previous writing, I continue to recommend keen observation of behavior because that is what will give you, as a writer, the images you will recreate in your writing.

On Writing: How Much Detail Do Characters Need?

“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!”
~ Anton Chekhov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886

Some of my students have asked me how much detail they needed to include when creating character descriptions or character profiles and I have always told them there is no such thing as too much. In fact, I encourage them to invent as much detail as possible, because those details will make their characters more real. How do you decide what details to include when creating a character profile? I tell my students to look at their characters from different angles: physical, psychological, professional, and biographical.

The physical description is straightforward: What is your character’s physical appearance? You should include everything from gender to height, weight, girth, hair and eye color, skin color, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, hand size, feet size, and so on. While highly detailed physical descriptions do not always play a huge part in stories, they can certainly be part of the main character’s problem, if not the main problem. Otherwise, a character’s physical attributes will affect how that character will interact with other characters or the environment. For instance, an unusually tall character might have to stoop to go through certain doorways, look down when speaking with others, or push back a seat to fit in a car or at the dining table. Physical descriptions should also include any physical defects, abnormalities, or diseases. Not to be overlooked are physical issues or distinctions such as moles, birthmarks, limps, missing fingers, a broken nose.

Character psychology ranges from personality type to personality disorders, phobias, insecurities, likes and dislikes. This would also include habits and mannerisms that distinguish this character, such as nervous habits, tics, stutters, and the sort. Beliefs can also be included in character psychology, as these shape the way people think and act. Our gangly tall character might be uncomfortable with his height and this would show in a slouch or a general discomfort or uneasiness when interacting with shorter people.

I recommend separating professional and biographical characteristics even if a character’s professional description could be included in biography. This helps distinguish a character’s past from present. Biographical details would include information you’d find in a birth certificate: date of birth, place of birth, parents, and birth order. It would also include family history, places lived, educational background, religion, work background, affiliations, achievements, and awards. This is also where knowledge and skills can be described. A character’s professional description would focus on the character’s current job or occupation, skills, and knowledge. This can be significant because a character’s current job could explain a great deal about habits, work hours, milieu, relationships, preferences, economic status, and so on.

Creating characters can be tricky. After all, you are trying to create real people–or beings, as the case may be–on paper through nothing more than words. We know real people are not perfect, so there really is no reason your characters should be perfect. In fact, they will be the most perfect if they are flawed. That is what makes your characters more real, more human. All the best literature in the world, from the age of classics to contemporary times, reveal characters with a particularly fatal flaw which becomes the cause of the character’s downfall. It can’t be just any arbitrary flaw, either, That fatal flaw must be part and parcel of your character’s complex being–just like any human being. The more intimately you know your character, the better you can lead your character through your story. You will also know what your characters will do, how your characters will think, feel, act, and react because you know every little trait and quirk your characters possess. All those details come from a well-written, highly detailed character description. As I also tell my students, whatever you write in your character profiles and character descriptions don’t necessarily have to appear in your story. Your character profiles and descriptions are your guides to how your characters will behave throughout the story, what they think, do, and plan to do. At no time must you feel obliged to dump your whole character description on your readers in one sitting, unless you plan to choke your readers on unnecessary information. Sure, the information might be important, but not all at once. The way to reveal your character to your readers is gradually. We do not get to know any one person we meet in real life in a single sitting. As a matter of fact, it sometimes takes us years to get to know people–and even then, we sometimes never get to really know every little thing there is to know about them. In the same way we reveal the setting in a story as it is encountered by the characters, we should reveal characters in the story as they are encountered, and character traits and details as they would be revealed in real life. Think of it the same way you meet a real person: the first thing you notice are physical details. Their appearance, their dress, their mannerisms. If you are in the same situation, you might discover that person’s professional attributes–what their job is, what skills they have, where they work. As you continue to interact with that person, you discover a little more–maybe a bit of their family, where they live, where they used to work or study. The longer your relationship and interaction, the more you learn about that person. That is just how your readers should encounter and be acquainted with your characters. Of course, there are ways to accelerate the process, for instance, in an interview or a tragedy–nothing reveals character more than a tragic event. This is when people are at their weakest and also when we see just how strong they really are. Regardless of the scenario you create to reveal your character, remember that not everything will be revealed at once. It’s always good to keep some things a mystery. It’s one of the reasons people are interesting.

On Writing: Developing your Fictional World

Writing fiction requires the creation of the world within which your characters exist. The shorter the fiction, the smaller the world, simply because you don’t have much time to include or describe a very large world in short stories. In fact, one of the limitations of a short story is restricting the action to a single scene. On the other hand, if you write a novel, your world will necessarily be as big as wherever your story takes your characters.

World creation is not simple and becomes less so as the world expands. You need to know every single detail of your story world, whether it is modeled after a real setting or completely fictitious. The easiest way to do it is, of course, to pattern your story world after the real world you know. Whether it is a single room, a house, or a whole village, you can create your story world with better details than if you have no idea what the story world looks like. Is your character a teenage male? Pattern that after your teenage son or nephew or brother’s room. Is it an old house? Use your grandparents’ house or some old house in town which you have access to. Is it a museum? Visit your local museum. Do you want to use a complete village? Get a map of your village or some little village you want to use, rename the streets, change the names of the commercial establishments, put in your landmarks, and voila! You have your own village. You can add or remove buildings as you need, but regardless of the changes, you will have a complete setting where your characters can come alive. It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing fantasy and creating a whole world because you don’t have much to go by. Despair not! All you need to do is take a detailed geographical map of a particular area, region, island, country, or continent. The geographical map will give you a land with the physical features you want. Throw in forests, add a few more mountains or water systems and you’ll have a wonderful land your characters can explore and adventure in. As usual, I advise students to take advantage of the Internet. Get your maps from Google maps or Google Earth. You can also use Google to explore specific areas by using street views or searching for photographs that give you incredible details of nearly any place in the world. The Internet also provides you with boundless information on architecture, history, culture, anthropology, economics, technology – just about everything you need to create your own world in such minute detail the information could overwhelm you. Unlike the past when writers were limited to write only what they knew or imagined, writers nowadays can travel around the world and experience different cultures enough to include that in their stories. Your biggest problem will be how to become more selective, what to include, what not to include, and how to make use of the information you gather in your writing.

With the glut of information available on the Internet, writers can be overwhelmed and end up creating an information dump. Beginning writers, in particular, need to restrain themselves from including every bit of information they write when developing their setting. This is often the case with my writing students, who have felt so attached to the settings they developed, they felt compelled to include everything in their stories. The point of creating detailed settings prior to writing the actual story is to know the setting so intimately your characters can walk through them blindfolded–or, at the very least, not walk right through a wall another character just bumped into. Creating a detailed setting description helps you create consistency in the physical environment so it is clear your characters are moving around in the same space. What you should not do, however, is to describe the whole setting before the story begins. As far as I am concerned, the best way to describe your setting is to reveal it as the characters encounter it. If your story begins in the bedroom, by all means, describe the bedroom, but don’t go ahead and describe the rest of the house until your character leaves the bedroom and moves through the house. If your character stands at the bedroom window and looks out, by all means, describe the scene outside the window, but don’t describe what the rest of the neighborhood is like. If your character eventually goes down into the basement, don’t describe the basement until your character goes there. That way, you will never be in danger of dumping a load of irrelevant information on your readers. You will have less of a tendency to digress, as well. The same rule of thumb should be applied to other characters in the story, as well. Do not describe them or introduce them until your active character meets them or encounters them. It’s a good way to keep your readers involved and keep your writing focused.

A Writer’s Vocabulary & Tips for Improving Yours

Have you ever read a literary work and wondered at the range of vocabulary used within the work? Sometimes, the hardest thing for writers is finding the exact word, that perfect turn of phrase that conveys precisely what is meant. Sometimes, the exact word is elusive and understandably so because we do not always have that word in our vocabularies. Ideally, as writers, we should expand our vocabularies so we have suitable words at our fingertips, ready to convey the slightest nuance of meaning to our readers. Unfortunately, we might not all be equipped with encyclopedic memory or dictionary-like vocabularies. Lexicographer and dictionary expert Susan Dent posits the active vocabulary of an average English speaker is about 20,000 words, with a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 more words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, 47,156 obsolete words, and 615,100 definitions. This suggests that each word, on the average, might have up to three definitions and we know, sometimes, those definitions are not always related. Research also reveals reading fiction widens our vocabularies more than non-fiction, simply because fiction uses wider vocabularies than non-fiction. It’s highly likely, therefore, you have a larger vocabulary if you are a wide reader of fiction. If you want to expand your vocabulary, I always recommend reading fiction. Not only is it enjoyable, it’s highly educational as well.

My penultimate session in writing courses always includes tips on how to improve writing style and formatting your work. One way to improve your writing is to review your word choices, identify weak, imprecise, or indefinite words and phrases and replace those with more picturesque and exact language.

The vocabulary of younger generations seems to be narrower than it ever was, with colloquial usage and catch-all words replacing more exact language. What is more appalling, yet, is how mass media has picked up on the use of weak language, settling for imprecise expressions rather than looking for the best word. As writers, there is no excuse for you to settle for the most common, most innocuous words that pop into your head. Some of those words involve adjectives modified with qualifiers or quantifiers. Nearly every adjective modified by “very” can be replaced by a more precise word. For example, “very small” = tiny, minute, minuscule, diminutive, petite, microscopic; “very big” = large, huge, humongous, gigantic, massive, colossal, vast, tremendous, monumental; “very dry” = arid, parched, dehydrated, withered, shriveled; “very tasty” = delicious, delectable, flavorful, mouthwatering, ambrosiac, luscious. These examples are, by no means, exhaustive. That is why a dictionary and a thesaurus are a writer’s best friends.

Prepositional idioms are often redundant and don’t deliver the same effect as a singular word. For example, “get up” can mean stand, rise, arise, awaken, advance; to “lie down on a bed” means exactly the same things as to “lie on the bed”–there is just no way to “lie up”; “go forward” = advance, proceed; “climb up” = ascend; “climb down” = descend; “shut down” = shut, close, terminate, end. I could go on and on with lists of words that can be replaced with more precise and more picturesque language. In fact, I could probably write a book or two or three filled with such replaceable words. In the meantime, check your friendly dictionary and thesaurus. If you don’t have a print copy handy, there’s always the Internet. A simple word search will give you multiple sites giving you not only synonyms and antonyms but usage as well. Who said writing was easy?

Valentine’s Day Again, or Love and Other Emotions

You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love.
~ Ernest Hemingway

Valentine’s Day is around again and, while that might not mean much to some people, it certainly means something to the masses victimized by commercialism. At the very least, it’s a good time to reflect on love and its accompanying emotions. Yes, love afflicts people with various emotions, depending on the situation. When we fall in love we are elated, feel joy, happiness. Sometimes we become obsessed with the object of our attentions and we end up despairing,  miserable, insecure, and uncertain if the attention is unreciprocated. If the one we love loves someone else, we become jealous or envious, which can lead to anger and rage. When we lose love, we go through sorrow, grief, despair, and misery all over again. When our love is reciprocated, we become excited and exuberant. Clearly, love is one powerful emotion that floats us up to cloud 9 or has our heads in a tizzy. No wonder people celebrate Valentine’s Day. It brings the promise of so much more than just chocolates and roses. It reminds us what it is to be alive.

Imagination is enhanced by inspiration and, usually, the best inspiration comes from being in love. That’s probably why literature is littered with so many love poems, songs, and love stories. Love and courtship have certainly been the motivation for countless historical events, giving rise to a couple of eras when the subject of literature revolved around the themes of courtly romance, chivalry, love, and beauty. Even outside those eras, there has been no shortage of literature dwelling on similar themes. However, I believe imagination is likewise enhanced by any other powerful emotion. A great deal of writing has emerged from anger and rage, fear, despair, grief, depression, and joy. Inspiration certainly is not limited to what only those emotions evoke—humans are afflicted with myriad emotions in varying intensities and writers take advantage of that. Writers are moved to express the infinite nuances of each emotion in countless ways and fill millions of shelves with the whole gamut of emotions pouring out of millions of characters that entertain and—yes—inspire the reading world.

Writing Short Stories: Beginning with Character

In my short story writing classes this year, I started a new approach that’s working wonders. We started with creating the main character, the protagonist and giving that character a problem. I’m going out on a limb and saying that’s all you really need: a character and a problem. You might wonder how that becomes a story. The story comes from how that character reacts to the problem. Usually, you’d think a character with a problem would want to solve the problem. Not all the time. Sometimes, characters will try to avoid the problem or ignore it. Or they will try to get rid of the problem–not necessarily solving it–but hiding, disguising, or pawning it off on someone else. Does that sound familiar? That’s because that is exactly what people do when they’re faced with problems: they try to solve them, avoid them, or get rid of them. There is a requirement before you can even write how your character approaches the problem: you need to know your character intimately–possibly even more than you know yourself. You need to know your character’s traits, which I identify as physical, psychological, and professional. Remember, not all traits are ideal–just because nobody is perfect. All human beings are complex and have one or more shortcomings, flaws, or faults, and this reality should reflect in your characters. Physical traits include all physical characteristics, down to crooked yellowing teeth and a mole on the left elbow. Psychological traits include personality, emotional profile, even personality types. An easy way to get general psychological traits is using zodiac personality traits or look at personality profiles based on different tests (Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are easy to find). You can also include habits and preferences, similar to a slumbook — favorite color, favorite song, favorite clothes, favorite movie, favorite food, and all other favorites as well as any particular dislikes. Professional traits don’t necessarily mean your character is a professional. This is just a way of describing what a character does–and professional can simply be a housewife or househusband, student, or retired navy captain. After identifying your character’s traits, you need to create a biographical history, a background, family, friends, associates, milieu. You need to know where the character grew up, lives, works, studied. You need to know what your character has for breakfast and where he or she gets coffee. Finally, you need to examine your character’s motivations: Why do they do what they do? Why do they think, act, speak, or feel a certain way? What makes them happy, sad, angry? What are they passionate about? Only when you know how your character feels and thinks will you be able to write how your character will react, what your character will do when faced with a particular problem. Then you will have a story.

 

Improve Your Writing through Observation

Writing is as technical and scientific as it is creative. Yes, even when you write creatively, there is no end to the use of scientific methods. Those of you who remember science classes will recall the scientific method requires (1) observation, (2) questioning, (3) hypothesizing, (4) experimentation, and (5) conclusion or generalization. We use the same skills when writing creatively. How? Let’s begin with observation. Writers observe the world around them, probably more so than any other people. It is from observation that writers find topics to write about. From observation, writers are able to create detailed descriptions of just about anything. How else would you describe the expressions on a person’s face who receives news of a tragedy—the widening of the eyes, the jaws dropping slightly or more, the blank expression of being unable to comprehend, and then the realization of the actuality. You watch people as they react to different situations and then ask yourself: Does the recipient accept the news, understand it, control emotional responses? Or does the recipient break down in shock, express denial, anger, depression, pain, or anguish? What emotions are expressed or shown? How are the emotions expressed? Some emotions might show similar facial expressions and body language but there are universal similarities in the way people react and the way they express emotions. The next thing you do is make certain predictions or guesses. What will the person do next? Why did the person react that way? What about the news affected the person so much? Experimentation might not be a very evident step, but when you explore the different reactions to the same situation, change certain factors—maybe where or when the news is delivered, or who receives the news, or how the news is conveyed—you could come up with several possible situations you can play around with. When you know how your characters will respond and commit that to your story, you will have come to a conclusion. The whole process of creating stories involves the exact same process in a gazillion permutations and each combination will be a different story. That’s why you’ll never run out of stories to tell.

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