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.

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.

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.

Keeping Your Dialogue Free of Talking Head Syndrome

Dandelion clock, monotoneIt’s easy to get caught up in the words your characters are exchanging. Writing dialogue can be a chance to have some fun developing your characters, moving their relationships along, and providing important information about the rest of your narrative. However, as in all areas of writing, authors tend to be prone to a few mistakes when crafting dialogue. One common error is frequently described as “talking head syndrome.” It looks a little like this:

“Sorry I’m late,” Andrea said. “Traffic–”

“Sorry I asked you to meet me at 5:30,” John laughed. “I should have remembered rush hour.”

“I didn’t mind too much.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“You always were the considerate one.”

By the end of this brief exchange, it’s hard to picture who’s talking, let alone what expression they might have or where they might be in the room. Talking head syndrome can happen to the best of us, especially when we’re really caught up in crafting a witty and significant section of dialogue.

The solution to this problem is simply careful editing. Go through all of your dialogue scenes and make sure that they don’t have more than a couple of lines in a row of unattributed dialogue. It can be challenging at first to attribute your dialogue to its speakers while still maintaining a good variety of sentence structures. With practice, however, you can strike a pleasant balance between the hum-drum repetition of “he said, she said” and the muddled excess of words like “growled,” “roared,” “shrieked,” and “mused” in every single sentence.

Your dialogue is an important means of getting the reader engaged with your story. However, talking head syndrome can leave your reader feeling confused and distant from the characters. By being sure to attribute your dialogue with both variety and efficiency, you can avoid talking head syndrome and make sure your characters’ interactions are vivid and memorable.

‘He Said, She Said’ – do you need these?

In a nutshell – yes, you do. But in moderation.

Some approaches to teaching creative writing suggest that you should avoid using the word ‘said’ as much as possible. You should use words like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘mentioned,’ ‘shouted,’ ‘yelled.’ Unfortunately, this is particularly drummed into us in school when we first start to learn about creative writing. We have these bad habits from the start.


Your ice-cream is going to melt while you wait for all the ‘He says, she says’ to finish.

Similar to the overuse of adverbs, the unnecessary use of words like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘mentioned,’ et al, clutter up your writing big time. Sticking in one of these overly descriptive ways of speaking every now and then – fine. Every other sentence, or indeed every sentence, and look at what happens:

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she hollered.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he exclaimed.
‘It was on top of the shelf,’ she thundered.
‘Well, it’s melted then,’ he explained.

Starting to miss ‘said?’ Me too.

But that’s not to say replacing all these words with ‘said’ is a good idea either. As mentioned earlier, you need ‘said’ in moderation. Replacing all the above with just ‘said’ appears repetitive and dull:

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she said.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he said.
‘It was on top of the shelf,’ she said.
‘Well, it’s melted then,’ he said.

So, try leaving the s-word out a couple of times. There is no need to keep using it once you’ve established who is speaking. So long as the stretch of dialogue is not too long and your characters are developed enough that their different styles of speaking are obvious, then you can get away with dropping the s-word.

‘I can’t find the ice cream,’ she said.
‘I don’t know where it is,’ he said.
‘It was on top of the shelf…’
‘Well, it’s melted then.’

Of course, when it comes to a question, ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ are acceptable. But don’t do this constantly:

Where’s the ice cream?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied.
‘It was on top of the shelf…’
‘Well, it’s melted then.’
‘How could it melt?’ she asked.
‘Because ice cream goes in the freezer,’ he replied.

See how the dialogue would still be clear without the second set of ‘asked’ and ‘replied?’
‘Said’ is your friend. The more descriptive words, whilst they may seem like good alternatives, appear overdone when they’re all lumped in together.

The final tip is not to focus too much on this in the first place. The most important thing here is your dialogue; that requires the majority of your attention. If it is well crafted enough, how your characters are saying what is being said will come across anyway. Good dialogue should speak for itself, rendering the more descriptive words completely superfluous.

You have to laugh

Bald man wirth shampoo

Jokes don’t need to be politically correct or funny

Well, you do, don’t you? Thing is, for some reason, many authors seem to lose sight of this quirk of human nature when they’re writing dialogue. Guessing at their motivation, it appears they’ve created a rule which decrees that a serious scene must contain earnest interchanges between people who are treating the whole matter with the gravity it deserves.

But people do laugh – all the time – including in such tense situations. That’s part of being human and (frequently) a key part of staying sane. Thus your detectives clearing up the aftermath of their serial killer’s latest rampage will find something to joke about, the rival for your heroine’s affections will use wit to snipe at his counterpart, your family drama will have an in-house jester who makes wisecracks to help themselves and others overcome the more difficult moments … and so on.

Jokes don’t need to be funny. In fact if they’re too funny, they’ll sound false. Real people aren’t professional comedians and they’re prone to goofing up punch-lines – maybe you’ve done so yourself. You might not even want the listener to be amused: they could be irritated, have heard the joke before, find it embarrassing etc. On the other hand, they might roar with laughter or quip back with a joke of their own.

Here’s some homework to leave you with. Listen in to a conversation of significant length that’s taking place around you. How much humor can you spot? What percentage of the overall dialogue do you estimate that to be?

Now put that data to good use when you write your next book. I look forward to reading it!

Tone and flavour

Autumn roses 1Tone and flavour are two words which don’t seem to belong to the world of writing. The first could have been taken equally from the worlds of music or painting, and the second is definitely culinary.

They are, however, very important concepts in writing; in fact they’re sometimes so important that like the ‘elephant in the room’ they’re too big to be seen properly.

Strangely enough, tone and flavour are very close in meaning; in fact one could almost consider them to be synonymous. They stand for the bias in the book’s choice of setting, plot, characters and language which, as a whole, elicits a reaction in the reader, whether it be one of sympathy and attraction, or one of repulsion.

Let me take 2 examples. One novel is set in the back streets of London. The only weather ever described is rain, and the whole environment is bleak and ugly. The characters are miserable and depressed, they don’t enjoy their jobs, and they have unsatisfactory relationships. When they go to a café, the food is unappetising, the cutlery is greasy, and the service is grumpy.

The second novel takes place in a jungle. The author is at great pains to describe the heat, the humidity, the smell of the damp vegetation and of the various types of flowers and fruits. The rain patters on the leaves. Everything is in abundance, even in excess. The characters are full of life and sexual fervour. Their bodies are smooth and tanned. They eat fruit and edible shoots. They are improvident and happy-go-lucky.

Obviously these 2 books represent extremes. But they are each unified in their representation of reality and they will each evoke a response in the reader. The first novel may come over as boring, samey, depressing or, conversely, as realistic, gritty, grass-roots. The second novel may be seen as oppressive, over-exuberant, alien, or alternatively colourful, exotic, dreamy.

Some readers, if questioned, might pick on one aspect of the book as having elicited their response – setting, plot, outcome, for example – but others are likely to be less articulate and say they just ‘liked it’ or ‘didn’t like it’. In many instances they will have been affected by the book’s tone or flavour.

Authors who are wise to this audience reaction may deliberately create a tone or a flavour by means of introducing more restricted but repeated devices such as smells or perfumes (diesel oil, roses), or sounds ( water, traffic). They may stylise the dialogue or the descriptions.

Naturally, some authors aren’t conscious of introducing tone or flavour to their books. Perhaps, in some cases, it goes naturally with the subject matter, or issues from the writers own innate character. But it pays to be aware of the possibilities.