My last post, Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel, was an info dump. Sorry about that! Today I'm just focusing on one thing: Making our prose clearer and more powerful.
I loved the way Dwight V. Swain talks about writing and structuring stories. Sure, at its core it's nothing we haven't heard before, but the way he put things together made a light-bulb go off for me. What I want to do today is talk about--in Emeral Lagasse's words--kicking our writing up to the next level.
We're going to look at two things: First, how to use Motivation-Reaction Units to make our writing clearer. Second, we're going to discuss how to make your readers feel. This last point goes, I think, to the very heart of what it is to tell a story: we want to entertain.
The Flow Of Narrative: Motivation-Reaction Units
What do we mean by "motivation-reaction unit"? It's simple. We're talking about cause and effect, stimulus and response. Mr. Swain writes:
Where your character is concerned, when you stick a pin in him he yells, "Ouch!" He doesn't yell "Ouch!" and then you stick in the pin.Simple, right? But there is something more subtle going on here. Look at this example:
The wind had an icy edge to it. Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. The wind kept right on chilling his hands so, still shivering, Eddy turned his back to it and headed for the house. Even as he did so, the lights went out.Let's unpack Mr. Swain's example.
Eddy stopped short.
Motivation: The wind had an icy edge to it.When I read this it was like a light went off for me. THIS sort of thing is what makes a piece of writing easy to read and understand.
Reaction: Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets.
Motivation: The wind kept right on chilling his hands ...
Reaction: ... so, still shivering, Eddy turned his back to it and headed for the house.
Motivation: Even as he did so, the lights went out.
Reaction: Eddy stopped short
If you're scratching your head wondering what I'm going on about think of it this way. Would it have seemed excessively peculiar if Mr. Swain had written:
Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. The wind had an icy edge to it.That seems to work, but it doesn't work as well. Or at least that's how it seems to me.
Help Your Readers Feel
Everyone writes for different reasons, but one reason common to many writers is the wish to entertain. That doesn't mean we have to turn our readers into human-shaped tear factories but it does mean we need to engage their emotions.
The 64 thousand dollar question: How can a writer make his, or her, readers feel things?
Dwight Swain gives four practical tips.
1. Use Action Verbs
Action verbs show something happening. For instance:
He sat down
2. Pictorial Nouns
Pictorial nouns are specific. Dwight V. Swain uses this general rule of thumb: The more specific the noun, the better off you are.
For instance (this is based on Mr. Swain's example), if you wrote, "The female sat," you haven't given your reader a lot of information. The subject could be a young girl, a teenager, a middle-aged woman, and so on.
If you wrote, "A woman sat," you've communicated more information to your reader but the image formed is still vague. However, if you wrote, "An elderly woman with a lined face sat," then you would have given your reader a much clearer idea of what the subject looked like.
The more specific the noun, the more pictorial, and the more it paints a picture in your readers mind.
When your readers have a clear picture of what's going on in the story it's easier to generate narrative drive.
3. Use Sensory Language
Mr. Swain urges us to write in terms of what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. For instance:
Sight: bleary, colorless, faded, dim, glance, hazy, indistinct, shadowy, smudged, tarnished.Here is a list of sensory words (it's a .pdf file).
Sound: Bellow, cackle, grumble, howl, jabber, murmur, rant, screech, squawk, thud.
Touch: Balmy, chilly, dusty, feathery, gooey, hot, icy, moist, oily, prickly.
Taste: Bitter, creamy, gingery, nauseating, piquant, peppery, ripe, rotten, salty, sharp, tangy.
Smell: Acrid, fetid, odor, pungent, putrid, redolent, sweet, musty, waft, moldy.
4. Use An Emotional Clock
I hadn't heard the term "emotional clock" before, but it makes a lot of sense.
Subjective vs Objective Time
Objective time is clock time. It's the time on your watch. Every second is the same.
Subjective time has to do with how each of us perceives time. We live by subjective time, by the excitement and tension of the moment.
Here's Dwight Swain's example: Einstein once said time passes quickly when you're talking to a pretty girl and slowly when you're sitting on a hot stove.
We need to write to an emotional clock
So, what does an emotional clock have to do with writing?
Here's the idea: you measure the amount of copy you put down according to the tension and excitement of what's happening.
For instance, if you're writing about lunch at a greasy spoon you're not going to give that a lot of space. You could probably tell rather than show.
On the other hand, if you're writing about the villain holding a gun on you and his finger going white on the trigger and the knowledge you're going to be blown away in the next minute, you stretch that out. You make the character suffer. How? By writing in terms of motivation and reaction. When you do this you slow down the pace and show.
(This post has been based on Dwight Swain's Master Writing Teacher CDs, especially the first two.)
Do you have any tips for how to kick one's writing up a notch? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?
Other articles you might like:- Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel
- Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel
- Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television
Photo credit: "Harry" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.