What do I mean by “Keep your writing real”?
Before I answer that question, I want to point out that the question mark in that sentence above is correctly placed. Why? Because the question mark applies to the whole sentence, not to the sentence in quote marks, which is an imperative statement.
What I mean by that imperative is that you should keep your writing accessible to the reader by making it feel natural within the context of the story. Put more succinctly: Don’t try to make your writing sound like writing. Keep it natural.
What if J. K. Rowling had written her Harry Potter books more in the style of Charles Dickens or the Brontë sisters or some other eighteenth century or early nineteenth century writer, or had gone full Shakespearean?
Not only would her books not have been accessible to a young adult audience, but most adults who bothered to pick up the first book and read a few lines would have put the book down. Possibly some readers of literary fiction might have appreciated such writing, but those readers were not Rowling’s intended audience. And even had her writing garnered a prestigious prize (like a Pulitzer), her novels would have gone down quite a different path that almost certainly would have excluded the millions of her adoring fans and likely never would have improved the revenues of the movie industry and theme parks.
A couple of months back I did a series of three posts called “Overwritten.” You can search those if you did not read them. What prompted this current post were some encounters with pieces of writing that got a little carried away with trying to force a voice on the writing and in the process made the writing sound stilted.
Consider the following examples (1)–(3).
(1) Sitting in the beige, microfiber armchair, she leaned forward with arms on knees. Her clasped hands pointed down between her legs.
He sat on the matching sofa and faced her with his legs stretched and ankles crossed.
(2) She sat in the middle on the eight-person semi-circular sofa.
He sat directly across on an oversized white and royal-blue striped silk chair that matched the sofa. A beveled glass coffee table with mirrored surface separated them. He leaned forward with fingers arched on thighs.
(3) Hugo entered the room. Alice had her smiling eyes on Mary. Joe had curious eyes. Robert had a blank expression. Mary had happy eyes with a closed mouth. “I have some distressing news,” Hugo began.
What do any of these accomplish for the story? Do the extraneous details of the furniture matter? If the room were being described for the first time and these details were necessary to show the overall appearance or condition of the space, then maybe they would matter, but that’s not the case in these examples. The writer is describing furniture that’s already in play in the scene, not showing it for the first time to a character entering the room. And while body language can be important in real life and in fiction, these arm, leg, and hand positions are unimportant distractions. Further, they provide no insights about the characters or their feelings. Well, maybe example ) does, but why would you note people’s expressions BEFORE the mention of distressing news?
These are, by the way, slightly modified examples from an actual piece of writing, and the biggest problem is that such mundane details dilute, distract, and detract from the narrative. Novels are not movies, and any attempt to capture every visual detail and nuance that a movie would bring will be wasted in a novel.
What about the following example?
(4) Sleep came to me only with extreme effort. My intractable insomnia was exacerbated by high anxiety caused by personal and exterior events.
This example was inspired by a line in a piece of fiction I read, but I reworked it to make it somewhat worse to drive home the point of what can happen if one overuses a thesaurus. This is one of those examples of something sounding like “writing” instead of how a real character would actually speak or think. We could write this so much smoother, and I will leave that exercise up to you.
Voice is an important part of any writing because it sets the tone for the reader. Example 4 was an attempt at trying too hard to create a “writing voice.” This comes off as strained instead of natural, but one has to ask why that was necessary. Does it make the piece more interesting? Of course, the only way to judge that is to read the entire piece, but trust me that was not the case with the piece I pulled this from, which was over 4000 words of all telling broken up by not even a half dozen lines of dialogue.
If you’re going to use an unusual or unconventional voice, make sure it truly serves the story and that the story is engaging.
Let’s consider the original opening paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling:
(5a) Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved with anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
It is telling, but those two sentences convey a lot of information and set the mood and stage for the story well enough.
But what if that had been written differently? Consider the impression that the following revision makes on the reader:
(5b) Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, long in residence at number four Privet Drive, assiduously avowed that nothing about their lives deviated from the mundane. Furthermore, nothing in their demeanor offered the least intimation that anything unusual or inexplicable had interposed itself into their lives in any manner.
For one thing, the rewritten passage is both stiffer and more distant. It lacks the more whimsical quality of the original. The reading level is different as well. The original is more friendly toward a younger (the intended) audience. The revision might even put some readers off, especially as the opening sentence of the book.
Now, let’s look at a passage (example 6) from one of my favorite sci-fi novels: Psion by Joan D. Vinge. This is the fourth paragraph on the first page. This one paragraph provides excellent sensory details of the setting. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how one has to be careful with descriptions because they tend to stop the forward momentum of the story. But the author here makes the setting part of the character (named “Cat”), and her description is anything but a story stopper. It puts the reader into both the story and the character, and it propels the narrative forward. On a side note, this is part of a short introduction, almost a prologue. The main part of the novel is a first-person narrative of the main character. If you’re interested, you can read the entire opening and part of the first chapter on Amazon.
(6) The kid settled into a crevice between piles of castoff boxes, where the unsleeping gleam of the pavement was buried under layers of back-alley filth. He didn’t mind dirt; he didn’t even notice it. Dirt grayed his worn clothes, the pale curls of his hair, the warm brown of his skin. Dirt was a part of his life: like the smell, like the constant drip of sewage somewhere in the darkness, leaking down through the roof of his world from Quarro, the new city that had buried Oldcity alive.
Did you notice that the author uses NO fancy words here? None of the words stand out from the others. All of them blend seamlessly together into a compelling description. If you want to learn how to write good descriptive prose that pulls the story along, you could do no worse than reading and studying Joan Vinge’s novel. This one is the first of the three-novel “Cat” character series.
I can hear some of you objecting that you don’t write science fiction or these types of characters or settings. That doesn’t matter. The same principles apply no matter what kind of story you’re writing. In a well-written story, the reader should want to read every word and NOT feel the urge to skip over any. You should want to engage your readers in such a way that they don’t want to put down your book. And if you’re like me, you should want your writing to be as good as Joan Vinge’s.
As an exercise, you might want to try rewriting one or more of the poor examples of writing I gave above to see how you could give them life, or decide that you’d cut most or all of those words if they were part of your novel.
I’ll leave you with this advice: Pick a section of one of your novels or stories and read it carefully and as if it were someone else’s writing. Ask yourself what words or sentences are unnecessary, or don’t fit the voice, or fail to advance the story. For each description, ask yourself WHY you need that particular description. What clear story purpose does it serve? Would the story be worse without it? If it’s necessary, is it the best it can be? Should it be trimmed, reworded, or even expanded?
But most of all, whether it’s description, dialogue, exposition, thoughts, or action, is it realistic in terms of writing and does it fit with the rest of the story? Are you writing just to put words down on paper or to show off your perceived writing skills? Or are you actually telling a compelling story? Are you writing how you think it should be written or how it should be written?