Using Foreign Language Effectively in English Stories

3 EurosAlthough our stories may center around English-speaking characters, there are occasions when they include characters who don’t speak the language well or at all. Although inserting lines in a foreign language may seem like a daunting task, following these helpful guidelines can help you add realism and depth to your stories without confusing your readers.

  • The most important rule to follow when using a foreign language in your story is “keep it short.” Your readers will come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and you can’t expect them all to navigate a lengthy passage in a language they have not encountered before. Keep your foreign language interjections to one or two sentences.
  • In addition to keeping it short, you must provide context for your foreign language lines. Make absolutely sure your reader understands what the conversation about and where it’s going before you use any foreign languages. Then, you must describe the characters’ body language, facial expression, and tone, and be sure to describe the reaction of characters who speak the same language.
  • Consider using a multilingual character as a translator who helps the other characters understand lines in a foreign language. To avoid confusion, define this character’s role before you introduce foreign dialogue. If you don’t have room for a translator character, make it very clear from your English-speaking character’s reactions what is going on.

It takes practice and careful editing to use foreign language lines in your English language prose. Lengthy, out-of-context passages in a foreign language can confuse your readers and draw their attention away from your beautiful prose in the language they know. However, by following these guidelines and practicing, you can add realism to your story’s world and get your readers more involved in your stories.

What Editors can Learn from Pulling Weeds

Thistles with mountains behindGardening and writing are strikingly similar processes. In addition to being time-consuming, aesthetically complicated, and deeply personal, both of these occupations involve a lot of weeding. While you might not get as dirty or as bug-bitten when you edit something you’ve composed, rooting out weeds has a way of reminding you what the editing process is fundamentally about.

This time of year, one of a gardener’s most important tasks is identifying which seedlings will turn into juicy carrots and which will blossom into ragweed and lamb’s quarter. In editing, too, we need to know which are our strongest ideas and themes before we go about our task. Always know what you hope to accomplish with an edit before you begin.

Every seed packet instructs you to pull out the weaker seedlings after a few weeks of growth – but deciding which little plants to pull can be a chore of its own. Writers face a very similar challenge when they need to condense or simplify a passage. All of the ideas in a section may have the potential to bear fruit, but there are times when you’ve got to thin them out if you want to have room to develop the important ones. Knowing when to let go of an idea is a crucial part of savvy editing.

Of course, one of the hallmark similarities between writing and gardening is the amount of elbow grease involved. You don’t need a foam kneepad or a sturdy pair of gloves to yank out an infestation of unnecessary dependent clauses, but you do need the willpower to sit down for several hours and scrutinize something you’ve already written. Acknowledge that editing is hard and often dull work, and manage the time you’ve set out for it accordingly.

As the days get longer and the sun gets hotter, many of us will be looking for an excuse to get under the shade of a veranda or into the cool air of a basement. Editing, though similar in purpose and process to pulling weeds from a garden, is a far more comfortable and less dirty task.

Do Your Characters Really Need Secrets?

Lady orchidOccasionally, writers get it into their heads that secrets between characters are an essential part of good storytelling. While there are some very good stories that hinge on one character keeping a secret until a critical moment, the reality is that many stories suffer, rather than benefit, from the added complication of characters keeping secrets.

When you’re debating whether or not your story ‘needs’ a secret as part of its plot, the first thing to consider is how long you intend the story to be. If you’re writing a short novella of 10,000 to 30,000 words, for example, then you’re already working with very limited space for character development as well as the exposition of your plot. If you choose to complicate that plot by having one character keep a secret until the last minute, you risk confusing and alienating your readers.

However, if you’re alright with your story’s plot being driven entirely by one character’s secret, then you can use this narrative device effectively in a short work. Be sure to let the reader know early on that the character is hiding something – maybe have an unusual action go unexplained, or have an apparently uneducated character possess a wealth of knowledge in a specialized field. As the story goes on, these bits of information can become more frequent and more tantalizing, until the secret is revealed in the climax of the story.

There is always some plot complication – whether it’s secrets between characters, lies that your characters believe, or untold stories from a character’s past – being touted as ‘essential’ to an interesting story. While there are plenty of interesting stories that hinge on some plot complication, you should be careful when using them in shorter works. If your plot does not focus heavily on the surprising element, then it may be a good idea to leave it out entirely.

Beware the Wild Thesaurus!

Primrose clumpNow and then on the internet, I find that some well-meaning soul has put together a helpful list of synonyms for some common word such as ‘said’ or ‘walked.’ The idea behind these lists is that these words have been ‘abused’ and that readers are bored by writing that uses them frequently. While there is some truth to the notion that ‘walked’ or ‘said’ isn’t always quite the right word, it’s a grave mistake to assume that the simplest, most commonly used word should be your last choice.

My main issue with lists of ‘alternatives’ is that they encourage beginning writers to weaken, rather than strengthen, their writing. Using compact words like ‘said’ and ‘walked’ helps you develop an efficient style that can be understood by a wide range of readers. Your job as a writer of prose is not to lead your reader through a winding maze of syllables, but rather to get them to understand whatever series of concepts makes up your story. We understand concepts better when they are presented simply. This is why some of the most vivid, powerful writing is composed mainly of short, simple words.

In addition to leading novice writers down the primrose path of flowery, elaborate prose, the list of alternatives fails to help writers cope with the real problems in your writing. If your readers are bored with your dialogue or your descriptions of action, it’s not because you keep using ‘said.’ It might be because the readers learn nothing from the dialogue; it might be because there’s no cadence to the conversation; it might even be because your characters are speaking in unnaturally florid language. Whatever the diagnosis is behind dull dialogue or action sequences, the issue can rarely be fixed by stuffing the scene with synonyms.

Now, this is not to say that you should never (or even rarely) use synonyms. If you’ve got a character struggling to speak because of illness or emotion, for example, you’d better pick a synonym for “said” or you’ll waste ten words getting that image into your reader’s mind. A rich vocabulary is an essential tool for every writer. However, with a great vocabulary comes a great responsibility to know each word so well that you can spot the moments where you really need it.

Understanding Predicative Phrases

Snail close upSome writers and linguists like to think of English sentences in terms of subject and predicate. The subject is the thing, character, or concept that the sentence describes to the reader, and the predicate is some property or attribute of the subject.

When we think of predicates, we typically think of verbs and verb phrases. The boy might throw the ball, or the woman touches her lover’s cheek. Predicative verb phrases are the heart and soul storytelling. They describe action, which is the most valuable attribute of all in fiction. Even if the action takes places on a somewhat abstract level, you should structure most of your sentences so that a subject does something to an object using a predicative verbal phrase.

I’m using the somewhat pedantic term ‘predicative verbal phrase’ in this discussion because I want to call attention to a different kind of predicative phrase – an insidious one that leads many writers to believe that they are using powerful verbs when they are not. The predicative adverbial phrase (and its sister, the predicative adjectival phrase) technically contain a  verb, but they do not convey an action. Rather, they function as a modifier, using a copula like “is”  to communicate static information about the sentence’s subject.

Now, the predicative adverbial phrase is not necessarily a bad sentence structure. Indeed, you will need it to describe many important details regarding your setting and your characters. Phrases like “Barbara was at home” or “the necklace was made of fine gold” are occasionally necessary to help the reader understand the setting and the story. However, they do not have the same sentence-driving affect as a true predicative verbal phrase, and using them excessively will make your writing weaker rather than stronger.

Although it’s almost impossible to find a predicate that technically lacks a verb, it is important to distinguish the predicative phrases that communicate action from the predicative phrases that simply describe the subject. Good, clear writing relies upon active verbs and verb phrases. Being careful with your predicative phrases will help you make sure your story’s language focuses on doing rather than being.

Carefully Trimming Your Writing

Road after strimmingIf you haven’t edited a long piece before, then tackling the first draft of a novel can look like a nigh impossible task. You’re not just making sure four or five paragraphs flow together coherently – you’re analyzing a lengthy narrative and shaping it into its final form. A critical part of this process will be deleting language that does not work or does not matter to your reader. However, it takes some practice before you develop a sense of when and where to cut language. In the meanwhile, try to ask some or all of these questions about every paragraph you read.

  • Which parts of the story would be hard to understand without this information?
  • How is this information leading the reader through the story?
  • What kind of information are you giving the reader here? Is it plot exposition? Character development? A description of a cake that the heroine is having for dessert?
  • Where else in the narrative can the reader get this information?

If you are not able to answer the first two questions, then you should probably delete the passage you’re asking about. Half the purpose of editing is the removal of unnecessary information which adds nothing to the story.

It’s not so simple to evaluate a passage based on your answer to the last two questions. Sometimes, we need to convey information like the rich chocolate flavor of the cake, even if the handsome stranger already told us about it when he ordered it for her from across the room. The latter two questions are more useful for comparing the importance of two passages than for quickly flagging unneeded language for removal.

Examining all of your paragraphs this closely may seem arduous, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn to scrutinize your writing and spot passages that it doesn’t need. By analyzing your paragraphs’ role in your story and evaluating their importance, you can make great progress on editing even a very lengthy work.

What They Mean when They Say “Clarify This Passage.”

Dcp_0334Clarity is something that every writer strives for. However, directions to “clarify this passage” or “make that passage easier to read” can be anything but clear. Each individual writer has their own particular strengths and weaknesses which can affect the clarity of their writing. Here’s a handy checklist that you can use to see what you need to do when you receive this particular criticism.

  • Go on a hunt for long sentences. As you advance, you’ll be able to wield longer and longer sentences without sacrificing clarity. However, there’s always something to be said for closely examining any sentence over 25 words in length and seeing if you can’t divide it into smaller, clearer sentences.
  • Highlight the noun phrases in your writing. Frequently, in our desire to bring our sentences’ subject to life on the page, we accomplish the opposite by burying the subject in a heap of modifiers. Shorter noun phrases (and shorter verb phrases, and shorter adverbial phrases) will help you clarify your writing.
  • Look for the logical flow. It need not be as simple and stilted as “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal,” but you do need to be building your paragraphs’ ideas in a simple, easy-to-follow format.
  • Look for words you don’t need. Adverbs and adjectives are typically first to the wall when you start editing for clarity. Although clear writing has some descriptors to distinguish the characters and objects it describes, there is rarely a need to use these words for mere decoration.
  • Make a checklist of everything you want the reader to take away from a given passage, and then highlight the areas where you think you’re communicating this information. You’ll often surprise yourself with missing or garbled information when you take this step.

This list should by no means be considered a complete guide to clarifying your writing, but it can certainly provide you with a good start. Whether you’re working on an academic paper or an experimental poem, clarity is essential to strong, powerful writing. Editing for clarity is a career-long task for any writer, and although the challenges are great, the rewards are even moreso.