Writing Exercise: A Character’s Diary

Olive picker female olderThe first-person mode isn’t for all of us. It can be hard to carry a whole narrative on the shoulders of a character’s personal perspective; you need to pay attention to the character’s voice while still having that character tell us all the information we need to follow a story.

That being said, I still think it can be helpful to write in a first-person perspective now and then. In particular, I think it can be helpful to craft a diary entry for a character – or two, or twenty, if you feel the need. They don’t have to be long, and they don’t have to follow any particular format. Indeed, you might find that one character jots down lists and bullet points, while another prefers more conventional paragraphs. Some characters might keep careful track of the weather, while others might be particularly concerned with another character’s behavior toward them.

You may even find that a diary entry turns into another, and another, and another until you have enough material to fill a book. This is great, but you must be careful to edit your diary entries so that they follow some sort of plot. Make sure that you leave out entries that take us too far away from what is happening in the narrative you’ve created. Cutting out excess wording can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s sometimes necessary to transform this writing exercise into a marketable narrative.

Although I have written longer stories in a diary format, I prefer the third person for the vast majority of my work. Diary entries, for me, are more of a tool I use to get a good feel for a character. It helps me develop their speech patterns, the kind of metaphors they use, and the things they notice about the world I’ve built for them. It seems fitting that for the vast majority of my readers, these diary entries will remain a bit of a secret.

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.

Onomatopoeia Makes Your Writing Go “Bang!”

Vescia fountainThe fine art of making up words is typically not something practiced by serious writers. You do, after all, want the reader to focus on the information you’re conveying without being distracted by the language used to convey it.

However, there are times when you do need to be a little inventive with your vocabulary. Onomatopoeia, a poetic device used to describe a sound, invites writers to use whatever combination of syllables they need to represent a noise that their characters have heard. From the ziziziiiiip of a snapping rope to the ka-rak of a gunshot echoing off a distant cliff, there is plenty of room for improvisation when you’re using onomatopoeia in your prose.

As with all attention-grabbing poetic devices, onomatopoeia should be used very carefully. If you use this device to describe every sound your characters hear, you’ll soon find that your prose resembles a fight scene from the old Batman series with Adam West.

Instead, reserve your onomatopoeia for occasions when its effect is really needed. This device has a way of jerking your readers out of the cadence of your narrative and grabbing their attention. It can make an excellent sudden transition between scenes; an attention-grabbing introduction to a chapter; or a satisfying conclusion to a section of your story. However you use it, the onomatopoeia will draw the reader’s focus, so make sure you’re encouraging the reader to focus on a sound that has some significance to the story.

Although I’m usually hesitant to encourage writers to reach for ornate or unusual words, onomatopoeia gives us an occasion where we’re much better off innovating and coming up with a word that perfectly matches the sound you’re trying to communicate. A well-placed an inventive onomatopoeia draws your readers into the story at exactly the right moment.

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.

Personification and Personality

DCP_0136An important part of developing a characters is showing your readers how they view and interact with their world. Cynical characters are going to think and talk about the world one way, while more optimistic characters are likely to think and talk about it in another. Your characters’ attitude will be reflected in their speech, and it will shape the language of any chapter written from their point of view.

Personification, a poetic device we use frequently in everyday speech, provides us with a window into a character’s outlook on a situation. A frightened heroine of a Gothic novel, for example, might describe a tower with windows that leer at her. In this case, the personification of the setting mirrors the personality of a licentious Gothic villain. This helps the writer establish the theme of the heroine’s struggle against the violence that threatens to shape her destiny.

At its core, personification is the art of giving human traits to something non-human. This gives characters a way of interacting with their world on a symbolic level. In a sense, personifying a concept helps your character understand it. Some characters (Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind) may even use personification as a means of coping with a situation that they are unable to control. When your readers can get a firsthand glimpse at one of the mental processes your character uses to navigate their world, it becomes easier to get engaged with a character and stay interested in their development.

Poets use personification to express their unique viewpoints on the world; you and I use this poetic device as well in our everyday speech. It makes sense for your characters to think about concepts in terms of human traits, and the traits that your characters see in things tell your readers a good deal about their personalities.

Holy Genre, Batman! What Prose Writers Can Learn from Comics

Devil and angel eggsFor those who group literature into ‘serious genres’ and ‘non-serious genres,’ comics (or graphic novels, or manga, or visual novels, etc. etc.) tend to fall into the second category. However, even these literary mavens might find that they have a thing or two to learn from stories that are presented in a more visual format than the typical novel.

The most noticeable lesson we learn from graphic novels is one of dialogue. Writers of comics, like writers of prose, are tasked with developing characters, developing a plot, and building the realism of their story’s world. Unlike prose writers, their ‘finished product’ appears almost entirely as dialogue. The result is that comic books contain some of the strongest, hardest-working exchanges between characters in literature today.

In addition to being a gold mine of excellent dialogue technique, comics provide us with the most literal example of that famous maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” The style and composition of comic book art is typically the work of a visual artist. However, it is the writer’s responsibility to decide which images will illustrate which scene and to communicate these desires with the artist.

This process can be a great exercise for prose writers. You need only find a page from a comic you enjoy and copy down the lines on a page (this works best on a word processor). Annotate the dialogue with your best description of the accompanying image. This might feel awkward and stilted at first, but keep at it; soon enough, you’ll find that you have an easier time crafting elegant, efficient descriptions of narrative scenes.

From the whimsically-illustrated historical scenes of Hark! a Vagrant to the intellectual fantasy adventures of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, comics make a wonderful addition to a number of literary genres. Whether or not you want to develop a comic of your own, practicing writing as a comic writer does can help you tighten your dialogue and use stronger imagery in your prose.

Why Your Fiction Needs Flat Characters

My Pictures0004Good writers are always striving to develop dynamic, memorable main characters in their fiction. A story’s protagonists and antagonists should have clear, compelling motives; they should undergo a clear change as the story progresses; and they should be fleshed out enough to be believable. If your story’s cast is full of one-dimensional characters whose lives remain unchanged throughout the narrative, it will be difficult to keep the reader’s attention.

However, you still shouldn’t assume that all of your characters need to be popping off the page as much as the stars of your story. Many settings require you to include a supporting cast of characters who are necessary to the world of the narrative, but unnecessary to the narrative itself. If you take the time needed to develop every minor character who appears, then your narrative can easily turn into a bloated mess that confuses your readers more than it entertains them.

Many writers don’t like to think of themselves as using flat characters intentionally, but there is no need for a flat character to be a boring character. You can easily bring flat characters to life in the reader’s mind by using one or two unique, memorable traits to describe them. Although you don’t want to denote characters with quirky traits to the point where they all become gimmicky caricatures, you can draw the reader’s interest by describing a few interesting, memorable details. It’s easy to picture the waitress in worn out Chuck Taylors, for example, and we can make some assumptions about what she might be like, but this brief characterization doesn’t draw us away from our heroine’s nervousness as she waits for her date to arrive at the restaurant.

Effective writers make their minor characters flat for the same reason that they make their major characters round and dynamic: to draw the reader’s attention and hold it for the duration of the story. Although using vivid and interesting details can help bring minor characters to life, there is no need for an excess of information about them.

Not Just a Punctuation Mark: Apostrophe in Prose

Raindrop hanging from a roseWhen we hear the word “apostrophe,” most of us think of the punctuation mark denoting possessives and contractions. However, it also refers to a poetic device that can lend strong emotion to your prose.

We use apostrophe when we have our characters addressing dialogue to an absent party. Sometimes, the addressee is another character who is simply not present in the scene; other times, the addressee is a personification of an abstract concept, like love or death. John Donne’s sonnet Death, be Not Proud is frequently cited as a stunning example of this device.

In prose, apostrophic speech is neither so structured nor so lengthy as it tends to be in poetry. A character may address a line or two to an absent lover, a deceased brother-in-arms, or even a rainstorm that won’t leave the neighborhood. In these moments, we see characters expressing their innermost thoughts in their own words. Apostrophic speech in prose tends to be intimate and emotional; it gives us an opportunity to show the character expressing emotion without telling the audience that “Jane wished she could tell Deborah how much she’d meant to her.”

Apostrophes should be used carefully in fiction, because it’s easy to turn a powerful emotional tidbit into an awkward, unrealistic segue from your story. The shorter your apostrophic lines are, the better – especially when you’re first experimenting with the device. As you develop a feel for apostrophe, you’ll be able to use longer lines without breaking the flow of your story.

Although dialogue between characters should make up the vast majority of the speech in your prose, there are some things that a character can’t or won’t say to another character’s face. These things can be conveyed efficiently and powerfully by briefly using apostrophe. Although it can be a difficult device to master, it can help you develop your characters through showing, rather than telling, what’s on their minds.

Using Sublime Elements to Craft a Powerful Setting

Piano grande showing CastelluccioFrom Lord Byron to Charlotte Dacre, the Romantic authors are known for taking the use of setting to new heights – literally. Imagery of high mountains and deep chasms can be found throughout romantic literature, frequently in connection with a drastic change in a character. This taste for lofty settings can be traced back to an essay written by Edmund Burke which explores the concepts of the beautiful and sublime as they are used in art and literature.

Although Burke’s discussion of the beautiful is better remembered for the political outrage it incited than for its influence on writers, his discussion of the sublime is still important to students of writing and literature. Burke explains the sublime as that which astonishes the senses, inspiring awe, terror, and reverence in the viewer. Vast, tall, powerful, and unknowable, the sublime’s sheer magnitude has the power to change the viewer’s perspective. Burke’s essay implies that the viewer is bettered by the experience of the sublime. Inspired by Burke’s discussion of mountaintops and chasms as examples of the sublime, Romantic authors chose these settings as both a backdrop and an inspiration for their characters’ drastic personal changes.

Burke’s reflections on the aesthetic value of the beautiful and the sublime continue to resonate with authors today. Emphasizing a setting’s sublime elements and your characters’ reactions to them can bring power to a setting and depth to a story. A work set in the vast, windy expanses of the Great Plains, for example, can use the profound vastness of that space to make the high society heroine realize she’s not that far removed from the humble ranch hand. Or, perhaps losing their way in the impenetrable blackness of the Scottish Moors at night makes our characters realize that their arranged marriage could be so much more. Typically, a character’s experience with the sublime brings about a sense of insignificance; whether this sense of insignificance frees or destroys the character is entirely up to the writer.

Ad nauseam…

What does it mean?

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Ad nauseam is a fairly negative term. It is used to refer to something that has continued for a long time, to the point of making everybody feel slightly sick. It may or may not have been unpleasant in the beginning.

Etymology

‘Ad nauseam’ is a Latin term which literally translates in English as ‘to sickness.’ It’s first recorded use was in 1647. A form of the phrase used previous to this was ‘usque ad nauseam’ which means ‘all the way to sickness.’ The ‘usque’ was later dropped.

Improper use

It is commonly misspelt ‘ad nauseum’ due to the way it sounds aloud. If there’s a linguist in your life who you really want to irritate, this is a very good way to do it.

Proper Use

 

It is used to express being really fed up with something that has gone on for a long time or been overdone. Examples of use in a sentence:

‘He’s told the same story over and over ad nauseam.’
‘They’ve argued about the same thing for days ad nauseam.’
‘She talked about her new car ad nauseam.’