Bored of the old chestnut writing advice like “never use an adverb” and “make sure your main character isn’t a Mary Sue”? Me too.
As a beginner, I felt incredibly frustrated whenever someone tried to correct my writing by trotting out one of the “rules”. They seemed to be a way to tear my writing apart for no good reason, just because some old man once said a thing that was now gospel. The problem with many of those writing tips is that they’ve been repeated so often that they’ve lost all meaning.
The below tips are not that. These are tricks – hacks, if you will – that I picked up over the years from accomplished authors like Cat Hellisen and Nerine Dorman. They all make real sense (with reasoning beyond “because I said so”) and are easy to apply.
Watch out for echoes
Repeated words are my greatest bug bear, but getting rid of them is also the easiest way to improve your writing, for two reasons. Firstly, the way human brains work is we look for patterns. When we see the same word too many times, then all we see is the pattern and the meaning gets lost. Secondly, if you avoid repeating words through most of the story, you can use human pattern-finding to your advantage and intentionally place some patterns in the text to point out foreshadowing or emphasise a character’s journey.
A note of caution: When eliminating repeated words, don’t reach for the thesaurus. As tempting as it is to replace the repeated word with one that’s less common, uncommon words stick out and might jerk the reader out of the story. Or, worse, you might miss some nuance to the word if it isn’t one that’s part of your own vocabulary. Rather, try to find a new way of describing the scene that avoids the word in question. (Also, don’t worry about smaller common words. They become invisible. A general rule of thumb is the stranger the word, the less you can repeat it. Something like “higgledy-piggledy” gets one use in an entire book versus a word like “water” that you can probably use a few times on a page.)
Make it feel real
You’ve heard “show don’t tell” so many times that it’s probably meaningless to you by now. For me, it comes down to this: you want the reader to vividly experience the story as if it was happening to them. It doesn’t mean that you never tell the reader anything. Of course you tell them things, especially when you need to do away with a lot of time in a short paragraph. However, for your important scenes, you want to create a hallucination that the reader is actually there. This is the hardest part of writing. It’s a magic trick. You are a hypnotist. It’s never easy, but these are the best pieces of advice I’ve found to pull it off:
1. Use the senses
When you’re writing, you have a movie playing out in your head and you’re rushing to keep up with it. We often forget to capture all the details on the actual paper. When you’re trying to communicate your mental movie to someone else, they don’t have your brain. They only have what you’ve put down. If you haven’t written it, it’s not there. By all means, write a first draft as fast as possible to get the details down, but then don’t forget to go back and fill in the rest. How does the character feel inside and out? When they’re in a space, don’t just include a list of things they see – remember the other senses too, including emotions. Consider the example below:
She walked into the room. It was made of stone. There was a chair, a desk, a bookshelf and a red carpet. There was sunlight coming through one high window. He was standing in the middle of the room and he turned as she entered and cast a spell at her, but she managed to avoid it.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I was expecting someone else.”
As she entered the room, the temperature dropped. The weak sunlight spilling in from a high window did nothing to warm the stone chamber. The air tasted damp and smelled mossy, as if they were underground. His furniture was as plain and as functional as she would have expected. The only splash of colour in the whole place was a red carpet. He didn’t notice her at first. He stood on the edge of the carpet, his hair swept back behind his ears, his focus on something in his hands. Without warning, he spun, flinging out a hand to cast at her. Green energy sliced from his palm. She ducked aside. Static kissed her shoulder as his magic passed, crackling harmlessly into the bookshelf behind her.
“Oh, sorry.” His voice was as cold as the room. He did not sound sorry. “I was expecting someone else.”
2. Get rid of “filter” words
“She thought”, “she heard”, “she considered”, “she decided”. All of these are telling me the end result and not letting me experience it for myself. In some kinds of writing this is fine. In some places in the writing, it’s fine. But when you’re trying to make someone hallucinate, you need them to be along for the experience. Consider the example below:
She considered her options. She could tell him the truth and risk his wrath, or she could leave now. She heard the door open. Without turning, she knew he was behind her. She heard his voice ask, “Where is my wine?”
What do I do? Confess? Her heart sped up in her chest, the image of his fist slamming onto the table played in her mind. Or I could run. Run away and never look back. The door creaked open. Too late. Her muscles tensed as his stale scent washed over her. “Where is my wine?” His breath against her neck sent shivers down her spine.
3. Stay inside one character
Telling us or assuming what another character is thinking while you’re in someone else’s point of view is known as head-hopping. It breaks the illusion of reality because no one can read minds. Consider the example below:
I sat at the table. Linda placed a plate of food in front of me. She was happy. Tony, however, wasn’t happy at all. He’d heard about the fire in the barn and was quite angry about it.
I sat at the table. Linda hummed a jaunty tune as she placed a plate of food in front of me. Tony, however, stood with is arms crossed, frowning. He must have heard about the fire in the barn. Dread pooled in my gut as I waited for him to start yelling.
Hearing your main character’s interpretation of what other people are thinking or feeling is more interesting than telling us for a fact. It allows us to process the situation through the main character, which gives us insight into their emotions. It also forces you, as the writer, to think of ways to strengthen the hallucination that may have not occurred to you before.
Listen to the music of the sentences
Listen to a piece of music from a musical, opera or ballet. Or even a film or game score. The music tells you so much about the scene without you needing a single word. Your sentences are music. You can create a scene with complete nonsense if you pay attention to the music. A great example of this is the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. The poem is made up mostly of nonsense words, but if you read it out loud it makes perfect sense.
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:”
This music says “all is calm, all is well”
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
This music says “The threat, the threat, is coming towards you, is scary. Action, action, action, action, action.”
Pay attention to your sentences. Match action sentences – short, sharp and clear – with action scenes, match gentle sentences – descriptive, multi-syllable words – with gentle scenes.
Get everything in on the action
This is where that old adverb rule comes into play. An adverb is a word that describes the action. “He said quietly”. “He ran quickly”. “He thought briefly”. This isn’t actually its own rule so much as it’s a part of “show don’t tell”. By using an adverb, you’re telling me how a thing happened when you actually have an opportunity to show me. I personally don’t mind adverbs, but relying on them too much means missing opportunities to intensify the hallucination.
Most writing tips say that you should use a more interesting verb rather than relying on an adverb. Sometimes that works. “He whispered”. “He raced”. Sometimes it doesn’t, because an alternative verb doesn’t give your sentence the right music, or there simply isn’t a better verb. I find it far more effective to consider another way to show with an action. “He said quietly” could be “his breath brushed her ear lobe”. “He ran quickly” could be “his legs pounded beneath him”. “He thought briefly” could be “thoughts darted into his head but he couldn’t grasp any of them”.
Many times, this means giving agency to something that wouldn’t usually have agency. In technical terms, it’s the trick of turning a passive sentence to an active sentence, where you take the object and make it the subject. In simple terms: If he can’t do the thing without an adverb, then the thing might be able to do him without the adverb. In the first example, agency moves from him to the breath. In the second, to his legs. In the third, to the thoughts.
For me, this has the added benefit of making the sentences feel more dynamic as there’s more activity in general.
(However, file this under my personal preference. You do get people who don’t like this because it’s not literal for things to have agency.)
Consider the below example:
They lay together beside the water in the sunshine. She smiled warmly.
They lay together beside the bubbling brook, with the sunlight piercing through the clouds above. Her smile tugged at his heart.
Be careful with dialogue tags
Dialogue is something most people find difficult as is, but that’s nothing compared to how confusing dialogue tags are. And I’m not even talking about the grammar. Said is a non-word. It’s so common that some people believe it’s invisible and you don’t have to worry about repeating it. (I personally don’t believe this). One way to spice up said is with an adverb. “He said loudly”. But you’re not allowed to use adverbs! Okay so then you’re supposed to use a stronger verb, right? “He shouted”. Believe it or not, some editors will tell you both are wrong.
So what’s a writer to do?
The reason both adverbs and stronger verbs than said are frowned upon is because they look equally ridiculous when you use them too much. It also goes back to the show don’t tell rule. You should be able to show with your dialogue and the situation that someone is shouting. However, saying said after a shout or a question doesn’t work either. See this ridiculous exchange for an example of what really, definitely, doesn’t work:
“I’m going home!” Peter said.
“Fine!” Lauren retorted.
“Will you two stop fighting?” Jenny said
“Stay out of it,” Peter griped.
“Yes, it’s none of your business,” Lauren said nastily, eyeing Jenny from across the room.
Jenny started to cry.
“You’re both so mean,” Jenny said, tearfully.
An alternative is to avoid the word said all together and describe your way around it as much as possible. Show, don’t tell.
“I’m going home!” Peter stomped down the stairs.
“Fine!” Lauren stood frozen on the top landing with her hands on her hips.
“Will you two stop fighting?” Jenny came through from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel.
“Stay out of it.” Peter spun towards her.
“Yes, it’s none of your business.” Lauren eyed Jenny from across the room.
Tears welled in Jenny’s eyes. “You’re both so mean.”
That’s better but it doesn’t really work either because, well, listen to the music of those sentences. They’re all formed in the same way which means they have zero emotional impact.
In my view, the best way to handle dialogue tags is to use a mix and try not to put two of the same kind after each other. You can also move the tag to the end of what’s said, or two the middle, or leave them out completely, as long as it doesn’t impact clarity. How about this:
“I’m going home!” Peter stomped down the stairs
“Fine!” Lauren called after him. She stayed on the landing, with her hands on her hips.
Jenny came through from the kitchen. “Will you two stop fighting?” She wiped her hands on a towel.
Peter sneered. “Stay out of it.”
“Yes, it’s none of your business.”
“You’re both so mean.” Jenny’s voice was thick with tears.
Almost there. Now if you applied the other rules about making it feel real, you’d end up with something like this:
“I’m going home!” Peter stomped down the stairs
Lauren’s footsteps didn’t follow him down. Good. He’d had enough of her. He was grabbing for his coat when Jenny poked her head out of the kitchen.
“Will you two stop fighting?” She was wiping her hands on the same towel mom had always used for the dishes, and for some reason this small action made Peter’s stomach hurt. All the grief of the past week bubbled up to the surface. He was so sick of them both.
He sneered at her. “Stay out of it.”
For the first time today Lauren agreed with him. “Yes, it’s none of your business.” Her voice was ice.
Jenny’s lower lip quivered and regret washed through Peter. None of this was her fault.
“You’re both so mean,” Jenny said.
Don’t overdo names
Character names, place names. Names. Anything unfamiliar. You have to feed this to readers in small doses. Give them a little, wait until they’re familiar with it before giving them more. If a character is not important, don’t bother giving them a name for the reader to remember. And when you have to give the reader a bunch to remember at once, make sure to include some details that will help the info stick.
Dan has a scar on his lip that he likes to tell people was from a time someone pulled a knife on him in a bar, but it’s actually from a cat. Sophie has wild red hair that makes her face look like it’s on fire when the sun shines behind her. The city of Emberdawn was the first founded after the great war. A rising phoenix hangs above the gate, representing new hope from the ashes. You get the idea.
Everything is conflict
Conflict isn’t just violence, it’s people rubbing each other up the wrong way, it’s misunderstandings, it’s prejudice.
Any action, any thought, without conflict is at risk of being dull. You’ve heard the rules “never start a story with weather”, “never start a story with a character lost in thought”, “never start a story with a dream”. I don’t believe in these rules at all, and I don’t believe that a story has to start with action either. The important thing is that there is conflict. Compare these two plots for a book called “John’s Day.”
John was dreaming of a meadow but woke up and realised it was a dream. He then got ready for work. He kissed his wife goodbye. It was a sunny day. He went to the office where he did the job he loves. Then he came home and had a pleasant dinner with his wife. They watched TV and then went to bed.
John was having that dream again where he was drowning. He woke up gasping. He was irritable with his wife because he hadn’t slept well. He felt bad about that as he walked to work. The skies opened. He showed up wet to an important board meeting. The HR manager kept looking at him strangely. Only after the meeting did he realise that his white shirt had become see through. Mortified, he went home to change and found his best friend at his house with his wife. Even though they were only in the kitchen, he assumed the worst. He got in his car and drove to the coast, without telling work. He ignored calls from his boss and his wife and sobbed to himself. He remembered his dream of the waves pulling him under and wondered if it was an omen. Then his wife showed up – she knew where to find him – and explained the friend was at their house planning a birthday party for John. John feels awful and his wife is angry at him because he doesn’t trust her. They decide they need to spend more time together to rekindle their relationship. John takes mental health leave from work and they go on a vacation and…
You see. That’s a story.
Don’t be afraid to make things go wrong for your characters. It makes the good things all the sweeter when they do happen!
But use drama sparingly
Exclamation marks, short sentences and swear words all have something in common: they’re dramatic. Everyone loves some good drama, but the problem is that if you use it too often it loses all impact. Think of the prima donna flouncing around. You don’t want your writing to be a prima donna. You want to be taken seriously when there’s really something dramatic going on. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a character who usually swears using a bad word, or with starting the occasional sentence with a conjunction, or with a one-word sentence. But the impact is greater if you only use them once or twice, not all the time.
Get rid of all the weres and wases you can
This is a neat trick! You won’t want to use it all the time because it will affect the music of your sentences, but it’s an incredibly easy way to improve your writing with a simple search.
Sometimes they’re big neon signs saying, “This is passive voice”. You remember in English class, right? “The boy kicked the ball” versus “the ball was kicked by the boy”. There’s your passive voice, there’s your was. Passive voice is bad because it puts distance between the reader and the text, which means it makes it harder for them to hallucinate the text as if it’s real.
Compare the below:
There was a sign over the door.
A sign hung over the door.
There was a pink dress on the bed.
A pink dress lay across the bed.
Another reason to run a search for them is that “was” and “were” are the laziest of the verbs. Often, they exist as “filler” for more interesting verbs which means if you find them, you find opportunities to immerse the reader more.
Compare the below:
The apples were over by the milk jug.
The apples sat by the milk jug.
The tiger was in the shade, difficult to make out unless you know where to look.
The tiger lurked in the shade, difficult to make out unless you knew where to look.
The third crime of the wases is sheltering unnecessary gerunds. Gerunds are verbs ending in ing. Ing is three more letters, a whole extra syllable that you often don’t need at all. You can pick up the pace of a sentence by getting rid of the ings after all of your verbs. Again, this is not something you’ll always want to do. Listen to the music of your sentences and see if it works.
She was sitting in a patch of sunlight.
He found her in a patch of sunlight.
She was flying towards him, arms outstretched.
She flew towards him, arms out stretch.
The door was hanging off its hinges.
The door hung off its hinges.
This is a whole separate topic, but here are a few tips for writing better dialogue:
- Get in, get out. Quick as possible. Like you’re a spy. No one wants to read the boring parts of conversation like the, “hello, how are you” or even long explanations. Paraphrase the boring parts.
I greeted the waitress and ordered a coffee.
“You sure you need more of that, darlin’?” she asked.
“Just get me my caffeine.”
- Don’t write anything in dialogue that your reader already knows unless you’re adding new info. Sometimes an emotional reaction is that more info and that’s fine. But mostly, it’s better to paraphrase.
I told him about what happened at Derek’s house while stuffing my face. Every so often I had to pause and swallow because he couldn’t hear what I was saying around mouthfuls of bacon.
“What do you mean he won’t lend us the money?” he asked, as I downed a soda.
“Did he say why?”
I recalled the way he’d eyed Jeremy. I decided not to disclose that detail. “Nope.”
- Only make characters use words they’d actually use. Think about how they’d phrase something given their background. Take for instance the sentence, “No thank you”. Different characters would say it differently:
“No. I’m good.”
“Thanks, darl, but I’ll give it a miss.”
“No, but thanks for offering.”
“Yea… actually no. I need to watch my weight.”
“No, I’d prefer not to.”
“You’re sure? I guess… no, rather not.”
And if they’re not going to say it in an interesting way, paraphrase!
- Following a conversation is hard work for a reader, so try to keep the dialogue short even if your characters want to talk and talk. Split it up over a few different scenes or encounters.
- Try to mix in conflict or emotion to every dialogue interaction. How do the characters feel about each other? If it’s bland then maybe it should just be paraphrased.
Do you have more tips I should have included? Feel free to add them in the comments!