Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Three Style Tips for Well-Dressed Fiction

By: DeAnna Knippling

The first rule of fiction is: don’t waste the reader’s time. My favorite three ways to dress up my fiction save the reader time by cutting words and increasing clarity—all without requiring me to change out of my bathrobe.

1. Dress for success by wearing your subject on your sleeve.
There is an unnecessary amount of piffle gallivanting about on the Internet.

Who’s doing what here? What’s the subject of the sentence?

Beginning writers often hide the subject of a sentence. With a hidden subject, you can avoid responsibility and deliver opinion as fact, a survival trait when you write reports and business emails. However, in fiction, you want your characters to take a stand in their opinions and actions.

What’s the real story in the sentence?

I think the amount of piffle gallivanting about on the Internet is unnecessary.

What? I love cats who can’t spell!

2. Verbs are shoes, not accessories.

Procrastination is about as low as it’s possible to go.

Make the most active verb in your sentence do the walking. What’s the actual verb in this sentence? Is. But what’s the most active verb?

Ah, well, it’s procrastinate. This sentence used procrastination as an accessory, not as a method of moving the story along. And this sentence conceals the subject; poor subject and verb choices often go hand in hand.

You’ve procrastinated yourself into my contempt.

We can rewrite the first example sentence to fix the verb, too:

You gallivant your piffle about the Internet unnecessarily.

Also, if you need to modify your verb with an adverb—you may be clipping sparkly toe-gems on a pair of stinky, overused running sneakers.

She nodded furiously.

When I see adverbs like this, I ask, “How many times has the writer used nod in the last chapter? Probably more than ten.” A more visual description might better prevent wasting the reader’s time, even though it takes more words.

She stabbed her waffle with her fork so hard that the plate cracked underneath and the tines were driven into the tabletop. “Fine.”

Have fun with your verbs.

3. When you accessorize, accessorize with class.

With excessively hyperbolic enthusiasm, the rabidly cheering fans supported their team from their hometown where they lived with their families and friends, jumping and shouting, until after their voices were hoarse from all the shouting, loud and deafeningly fierce.

The old sawhorse goes, “Avoid adverbs.”

However, adverbs don’t inevitably fatten a sentence; the problem is when you tack on any unnecessary modifier.

Let’s get rid of some of the modifiers from the example above:

·         Anything hyperbolic is already excessive.

·         We can tell from the rest of the sentence that the fans are enthusiastic—let’s cut that whole phrase.

·         We already know their team is from their hometown, where they lived with their families and friends.

·         We know their voices are hoarse, because only voices can be hoarse.

·         We know that they were hoarse from all the shouting, because there’s nothing else they could be hoarse from (other than really hot chili peppers, maybe).

·         Loud is the same as deafeningly fierce. But loud bores me, so I’ll take it out, even though it’s shorter.

·         Interestingly, deafeningly fierce isn’t the same as shouting, so we’ll leave it for now.
Removing all that, we’re left with:

The rabidly cheering fans supported their team, jumping and shouting, until after they were hoarse, deafeningly fierce.

Often, when you’re untangling a sentence, you discover some bits don’t make sense. —They never did make sense, but the sentence was too tangled for you to tell.

Is the subject correct? Fans looks good to me.

Is the verb correct? Supported is not the most active verb; jump and shout are. Let’s rewrite to:

The rabidly cheering fans jumped and shouted for their team, until after they were hoarse, deafeningly fierce.

Cheering means the same as shouted for their team. We could use either as the verb, but let’s stick with shouted for their team, because I like it.

The rabid fans jumped and shouted for their team until after they were hoarse, deafeningly fierce.

Now that we have the sentence stripped down to its remotely necessary parts, we can see it well enough to edit:

Deafeningly fierce, the rabid fans jumped and shouted for their team well past the point of hoarseness.

We could remove rabid; the fans’ behavior demonstrates it already. However, I’d like to keep a sense of hyperbole without actually writing excessively, so I’ll leave it. Also, we could cut one of the verbs, but it’s another unobtrusive hint at excess, so leave it.

Your “style” isn’t in how poetic or descriptive you are, but in how you solve problems. Solving problems inefficiently—or solving them by concealing the fact that you didn’t solve them at all—will never endear you with readers. Write for clarity, efficiency, and elegance, and your personal “style” will take care of itself. Check out your favorite books; not a word is unnecessary or unclear—even when they appear to be (but that’s a topic for another blog). For starters, sticking with these three style tips will make your writing more professional and, more importantly, more enjoyable to read.

About the Writer: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

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