When we are in school, we are taught how to write reports and business letters, what words to avoid to keep emotion out of our work, and how to make what we want to say as clear as possible in the shortest sentences we can. When it comes to fiction writing, almost all of these tips and tricks that work to make us better business writers work against us instead. Unfortunately, once we get into the habit of formal writing, it’s hard to pick out what exactly we’re doing to make our writing seem so stiff. Here are a few of the biggest things I’ve found, both in the works I’ve edited and in my own writing.
Words that are great in formal writing — first, second, last, then, next — really kill fiction. Stories should not be presented in a first, second, last format. Even when not using flashbacks or moving back and forth or jumping through time, even when you do tell the story linearly, don’t present it as though you’re saying, “this happened, then this, then this.” Instead, let the writing flow as though you’re telling the story to a friend.
Avoid Summarizing the Backstory
Many of the writers I’ve worked with have had the same bad habit; they took the first few paragraphs (or even the first chapter in a longer work) to tell us everything that already happened and give us all the information that we will need to know to make the story make sense. While this might sound like a good idea — after all, you don’t want your readers to be confused because they’re missing some vital detail — but it really just ends up overloading the reader. Make sure you add the details a little bit at a time throughout the story, and use multiple methods to tell us backstory, such as narrative summary, dialogue, and flashbacks.
Trade Technical for Emotional, Complex for Simple
Colloquial language is something that we’re scolded against constantly while writing formal papers. However, when writing fiction or creative non-fiction, slang and informal voices are more than just good, they’re necessary, especially in dialogue. You’re not going to see a fifteen year old saying “my mother has determined that I was not to be allowed to accompany you to the cinema until I had tidied my bedroom.” More likely, he’d say something like, “mom said I can’t go to the movies with you guys until I clean up my room”, and so should your fifteen year old protagonist.
There are a lot of words that seem harmless but, once used in great enough numbers in one work, take the entire tone from interesting to textbook. A full list of them would require a dozen pages at least, so here are some of the most common:
Don’t Use → Use Instead
Utilize → Use
Close Proximity → Near
Facilitate → Help
Allow → Let
Hasten → Hurry, Speed up, Rush
Pharmaceuticals → Medication (or even “meds”)
Due to → Because
Was a factor in → Helped, caused
Don’t Be Scared to be Wordy
A skill of formal writing is being as concise as possible. The fewer words you need to use to explain something, the better. However, that is not so in fiction. Formal writing focuses on making sure your readers understand enough to be able to get it and move on, whereas in fiction, we want the readers to be able to picture the world, scene, object, or people for themselves. You don’t have to write out every single detail — in fact, I strongly advise against it — but you should give enough for your reader to be able to fill in the blanks and get a picture in their head.
Remember, just because you know what the thing looks like, that doesn’t mean your reader does! They can’t automatically see what you’re picturing as you write it, so you want to give enough details that they can figure it out for themselves.
Emma’s bedroom was approximately ten by nine with brick walls and grey carpet. There was a mattress in the furthest corner near the picture window. Beside the bed was a potted fern, while the wooden desk held a laptop, a mouse cage, and a stack of books, whereas the floor was sporadically dotted with dirty clothing, notebooks, and odds and ends. The closet doors were bifold, white, and closed, and posters of various sizes were taped on the walls.
With that, we can get enough info about the room to know what it looks like. But let’s see what we get when we get a bit more creative with description.
Emma’s room was small, an untidy box filled with odds and ends that spilled out from shelves and drawers. Her bed, shoved into one corner, was just a mattress lain flat on the ground, perhaps in an effort to keep things from being lost below. Between posters of indie bands and video game references, red brick showed through the old white paint, while the carpet was a soft grey, thin enough to feel the cement floors below with each step you took. Aside from Sir Alfred, her mouse, the only other life held within the walls was a potted plant sitting on the floor beside the bed, and that was halfway to death itself in dry dirt. Her laptop was open on the desk, the screen an abstract blue pattern asking for a password. Beside it was a stack of class books: The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, two different additions of Principals of Biostatics, and a copy of The Bedford Reader that was still wrapped in plastic despite the fact that classes were three weeks in.
While the first one gives us enough information that we won’t be hindered when we continue reading, it doesn’t give us much of a feel for the character’s personality or the feel for the room’s tone or ambiance. The second one is twice as long, but that’s not wasted information. All the extra details serve to give us a better picture in our minds, both of the room itself and of the girl who lives there.
Formal voice is something to beware of when writing fiction. We as writers strive to entertain our readers, not bore them. Luckily, as long as you know what you’re looking for and you keep an eye out for any of the signs, it’s hardly the hardest issue to overcome.