The amount of writing tips that exist in the known world is endless. Well, maybe not endless, but it can certainly feel that way. When you start searching for tricks and tips to improve your writing skills, the abundance of advice can easily become overwhelming. Trying to sort out what’s good advice and what’s nonsense can be its own chore, headache, and deterrent. I’m sure this makes you eager to hear my tips then, now doesn’t it? Probably not. But just in case you’re still reading this, here are three simple tips that can help you on your journey to good story telling.
1. Don’t state the obvious.
So what does that mean? Here are few examples of the obvious being stated:
-It was a dark night.
-The water was wet.
-The snow was cold.
-The fire was hot.
See how obvious each of these statements are? Of course the night was dark, what else would it be? Now, arguably, if you’re writing fantasy and in your world the night sky is always bright pink, then yes, by all means, mention that on this night it was dark as Jack strolled down the deserted road. But aside from that, we already know that it’s dark out if it’s nighttime. Water is always wet, so don’t tell me that either. Snow is inherently cold and fire is 100% hot all on its own without you mentioning it. I know this seems really obvious, but that’s the point. Sometimes when we’re typing along and letting our words pour out of us, such obvious mistakes get overlooked.
2. Don’t forget that we have five senses.
Our senses are always working. We don’t randomly turn off our hearing or our ability to taste. They’re always on, picking up information from everything around us, and it should be that way for your characters too. Was the floor cold to Jack’s bare feet when he walked across it? Was the candy sour when Jack greedily stuffed it in his mouth? Is there a dog barking outside? I think I hear one. Whoever’s dog that is, they need to take it inside. Jack just walked into the room, can he smell the bleach that I accidentally spilled? If he can’t smell it, then I hope he notices my panic over it going all over the new carpet and will be a gentleman and offer to help me clean it up. And move my couch and bookcase while he’s here.
Personally, I tend to leave out taste and smell the most in my writing. When I go back over my work, I make the effort to be extra mindful of those two and how much I’m not using them. You don’t want to send your characters into sensory overdrive -or your audience for that matter- but it’s good to be aware of places in your writing where adding in the smell of the meat roasting, the feel of the tile floor, the sound of a cat dying in the driveway, the taste of too much salt on the potato chips, or the sight of an empty house after Jack’s family was robbed, can really punch up your writing and make it pop.
Mad props to my editor for lending me her insight when it comes to this.
3. Information Dumps -don’t do it!
An information dump is when you give the reader a whole bunch of information all at once. This usually happens when we’re attempting to describe something or giving the backstory to a character. Big, bulky paragraphs of information are NO fun to read. The eyelids start to droop, the mind starts to turn off and -if you’re lucky- the reader will only skim through these blocks of information rather than getting frustrated and simply putting the book down all together.
Here’s an example (a short example so you won’t get too bored) of an information dump.
Jack walked out into his backyard. The sun was out and he was enjoying its warmth as he took in a deep breath of the summer air. He loved summers. Winters were never his cup of tea ever since he was five. Jack’s older brother had passed away that year, and although he couldn’t remember much about him, the loss of his older sibling had granted his family with a grief that never seemed to leave. When Jack was seven his mother fainted at his piano recital when she saw a boy that looked and sounded like her deceased son, Darren.
When Jack turned ten his father freaked out at the video arcade when Darren’s favorite game was out of order and he couldn’t play it. Then there was the massive supply of apples that his parents always kept on hand. Apples were Darren’s favorite treat and so they always had tons of them around. Apple pudding, apple sauce, apple pie, baked apples, boiled apples, apple bread, apple fritters, apple danishes and every other kind of apple dish you can think off. By the time Jack was twelve, he’d grown to hate apples. He loathed them, though he’d never admit this to his mother.
Jack’s mother loved apples and she demanded that everyone in the family loved them too. She wore shirts that had little apples stitched on the front and her jacket had a gold apple on its zipper. She had apple clips for her hair and even her perfume was apple scented.
Should I go on? I can keep rambling about Jack and his apple issues, but I think I’ve said enough to get the point across. Just look at those paragraphs. It’s a lot of information, and worse than that, nothing has happened. By the time you get to the end of the apple talk, Jack is still standing in the backyard. No progress has been made.
So how do we fix this? There are a few ways you can save yourself and your readers from going blind on apples…I mean, from information dumps.
-Go through your bulky paragraphs and see if there’s anything you can take out. Is all this information really necessary? If it’s not moving the story forward, or doesn’t build up your character, you should consider removing it. I know how easy it is to get attached to your own writing. A sentence or paragraph will roll off your tongue and the thought of cutting it seems damnable. But trust me, if it’s not serving a purpose, your readers will never miss it.
-Divide out your bulky paragraphs. A lot of times it’s not a matter of getting rid of information, but a matter of spreading it around. Take those big blobs of information and share the love. Chop it up and put some of it over here and some over there. The audience doesn’t need to know every single detail about a character or someone’s house all at once, let those things be discovered over time.
-Dialogue is your friend. One of the smoothest ways to get information across to your audience is through dialogue. Your character was in a car accident when they were little and that’s causing issues now? Instead of your narrative going through the details, let your character tell the details, while having coffee and her new boyfriend, Jack, asks about the cute little scar on her chin.
Don’t be the rambling noise that people will tune out, but let your characters tell their stories to each other. This not only allows your audience to find out information, but it allows other characters in your story to find it out as well. Can you feel the bonding going on? The girl with the cute scar just shared a very personal story with Jack and we got to witness it. I’m invested in them both now, and not because the narrator told me that she told Jack the story over coffee, but because I watched her tell her story and I saw Jack’s reaction to it. I watched as her hand trembled when she was recalling how their family van was sideswiped by a pickup truck. I watched her hold back tears when she told him her mom had died two days later at the hospital. I heard Jack’s words of encouragement and sympathy to her and I saw her give him that loving smile for being so sweet. It was a moment the three of us just shared, and that is really worth something.