Writing is a solitary affair. The average writer spends hours in his or her own head receiving, sorting and polishing ideas from the ether. Between periods of writing and editing, they drink coffee, listen to music, and try to fit in. Writers have universes between their ears, and those disparate worlds clamor for attention. Sometimes writers find themselves too eager to answer the muse, and in so doing, they make careless mistakes.
Mistakes aren’t all bad. Okay, running over your little brother or never paying taxes is bad, but succumbing to talking-head syndrome for three chapters in a row is not the end of the world. You can fix that. We learn from our mistakes, and in time, we learn how to avoid them. We become better, stronger and faster. Here a few hacks that you can use to expedite this process.
Use Word Lists
Word lists are wonderful. They can prevent you from becoming robotic. Most writers — myself included — fall into word-use patterns. The word “whispered” was a big one for me. When you use a verb like “whispered” so much that your reader notices, you rip them right out of your fictional world. Speaking of patterns, this nifty tool ranks the words in your work by usage. Words like “the” and “and” will top the list, followed by words that you overuse.
Alternative Word Lists:
Create A Character Bible
I love writing by the seat of my pants. I can lose myself for hours with a good visual writing prompt. Unfortunately, these sessions of spontaneous creativity don’t lend themselves well to long-form fiction. While you may find writing this way great fun, it isn't the best way to produce a marketable novel.
You can solve this problem by creating character bibles. This requires, obviously, that you decide beforehand who and what your story is about. The character bible should contain a brief life history and a very detailed breakdown of motivations. Once you know the motivations of the characters in your story, you’re a hop and a skip away from creating great drama.
Naturally, you’ll want to create an overall story bible as well. As a compulsive automatic writer, I find it helpful to create at least three plot points before I put down a single word: the beginning, the middle and the end. Groundbreaking, I know.
If you intend to work with beta readers before releasing your story to the public, this very simple sheet from Scholastic can help. You can use it as a template to make something more complex, but it’s fine as-is for basic feedback.
Pick Up An Adverb Detector
There’s no getting around it, adverbs are bloat. Adverbs like “additionally” are useful in non-fiction to create transitions and flow, but they don’t add much to fiction. You can often replace an adverb with a stronger verb.
“You can remove words which are unnecessary and tighten up your prose.”
-Hemingway, to himself.
Hemingway — the app, not the person — can help you write with more urgency. It looks for indirect words and phrases. This free tool has a list of over 2,000 adverbs baked in. It’s lightning fast, and it highlights the buggers so you can remove them easily.
Yes, you can find adverbs in published work. Here are a few examples:
“No,” Sephrenia said sharply. — David Eddings, The Ruby Knight
“The wife helped,” Mina said shortly. — C. J. Cherryh, Rider at the Gate
“You have cut open my liver,” said the man accusingly. — T.H. White, The Once and Future King
“I’m fine,” Anna said automatically. — L. E. Modesiltt, Jr. — The Soprano Sorceress
Suddenly the Librarian felt very alone. — Terry Pratchett — Lords and Ladies
The above list was sourced from here.
So what’s the big deal, you ask? Well, adverbs are often redundant. Your reader will get annoyed if you hit them with passages like these over and over:
….the girl shouted loudly.
….the cat clawed savagely.
….the fly buzzed incessantly.
….the man swung the crowbar enthusiastically.
“Shouted” connotes a high volume, “clawed” implies savagery, flies must buzz to stay aloft, and if someone is swinging something, you can bet they have a good reason. Worse, this is lazy writing. Don’t tell us what they did, tell us how they did it. Paint a picture.
Steve hefted the crowbar. As he held it aloft, his lips flapping, his veins popping, globules of spittle erupted from his craw like jellyfish spawn spewing from an ocean crevice. The saliva payloads fell, showering Rob with millions of microscopic ambassadors of The Loathing of Steve. The crowbar made contact with a hollow metal pipe an inch from Rob’s left temple, and shock waves played octopus tag with the boy’s eardrum.
Okay, so that sea-themed example might not win me any awards, but the point I’m trying to make is that removing as many adverbs from your writing as possible will force you to build a richer word.
Use An Emotion Thesaurus
You can build these yourself with minimal effort, or you can buy one. The idea is to never describe character action the same way twice in your career. That’s impossible, of course, but it’s a goal worth striving for. There are three categorizes for each emotion:
• Physical signals
• Internal sensations
• Mental reactions
A great way of identifying physical signals is to watch interviews with the sound turned off. Police interviews, in particular, are treasure-troves of physical signals. A deceptive suspect prefers short, closed-ended questions to open-ended questions. This allows them to answer in kind.
“No sir, I did not go to work that day.”
On the other hand, truthful suspects prefer open-ended questions because this type of questioning allows them to search their memories for details. Providing a detailed answer allows the innocent suspect to express their subconscious desire to be helpful and appear non-threatening. The officer will ask open-ended questions so that the suspect does 80 percent of the talking. If the suspect is lying, they’re going to have to do an awful lot of invention on the spot.
Even a practiced con artist will often look down and to the right or left when spinning a yarn. A suspect who is recalling from memory and is of otherwise sound mind will stare the officer in the eye while recounting events. Such a suspect will “talk with their hands” in an effort to express their desperation to be heard and believed. It’s sort of like shouting, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m telling you the truth!” A deceptive suspect may move their hands slowly, if at all.
Learning to recognize these physical tells will help you create vivid characters that leap from the page. You may find internal sensations and mental reactions harder to pin down. Keep in mind that most physical signals have a mental trigger, either conscious or subconscious. Furthermore, internal sensations are often the result of mental reactions. Let’s take a look at an example from my notebook.
• Flushed skin, especially on the face, chest and arms
• Teeth exposed, lips retracted over gums
• Unusual muscle rigidity that pushes against skin and makes large veins bulge
• A pounding in the ears caused by increased blood flow
• A spreading sensation of warmth in the chest and extremities caused by increased blood flow
• Dry throat
• A desire to lash out
• A preoccupation with conflict
• A climax of rage at the moment of violence followed by a sense of release or relief afterward
• A need to feel something solid and heavy in the hands
Know The Story Archetypes
Like it or not, your stories will fall into general categories. You might as well know what readers expect so you can surprise them — or not.
a very typical example of a certain person or thing.
“the book is a perfect archetype of the genre.”
an original that has been imitated.
“the archetype of faith is Abraham”
synonyms: quintessence, essence, representative, model, embodiment, prototype, stereotype;
a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.
“mythological archetypes of good and evil”
Thanks, Uncle Google. Here is a handy-dandy list of story archetypes:
- The Quest
- The Task
- The Journey
- The Initiation
- The Ritual
- The Fall
- Death and Rebirth
- Nature vs. Mechanistic World
- Battle Between Good and Evil
- The Incurable Wound
- The Magic Weapon
- Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity
- Light Vs. Darkness
Wow, those are pretty heavy. Note, however, that even comedic stories will fall into one or more of these categories. That’s right, your story can feature more than one archetype, and you can tweak your story so that it favors one more than the other. Star Wars, for instance, contains elements of “The Magic Weapon,” “Father-Son-Conflict,” “Battle Between Good and Evil,” and “The Initiation.”
Think of your primary archetype as the overall flavor of your story and subsequent archetypes as seasoning — but don’t overdo it. Happy writing!
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