How many times have you read a novel and felt in the action? Great novels spike the reader’s fear, anxiety, anger, laughter–even hormones. It may even keep the reader up until the wee hours, glued to the pages. Stephen King and Nora Roberts make the big bucks for good reason.
Painting a picture with words demonstrates a unique talent. However, writers must study the craft, as with any skill. The story may be clean off the rack, but may still need a nice coat of wax. No worries. These five tips will help “spit-shine” that masterpiece:
1) Show don’t tell
The number one rule. To truly “show” vice “tell,” incorporate the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight). For example:
The boy saw the beautiful girl he wanted to ask to the prom. He was very nervous.
Karen stood in the doorway while laughing with her friend Sheryl. Sam stared, his heart pounding at the sight of her. Everything around Sam faded except for the sound of that angelic voice. Her long dark hair caressed soft cinnamon skin. Green eyes sparkled like rubies.
She could win a Maxim magazine girl-next-door contest. A young woman like her needed real-man quality, though. Sam didn’t qualify.
But today, Sam ate his spinach. He wouldn’t miss his chance.
Sam stood from his seat, hauled in a breath, then walked toward Karen. Karen turned to him and smiled. Roses scented the air. Karen’s favorite perfume. Now Sam’s.
Sam inhaled that familiar scent, then said, “K-K-Karen?”
Okay, this example didn’t include all the senses, but it doesn’t take a high IQ to know Sam is nervous and Karen is a nice-looking girl. No need to “tell” the reader.
2) Use active voice, not passive
With active voice, the subject performs the action. In passive voice, the subject receives the action (in other words, acted upon). Active voice is more crisp and “to the point.” It’s also less confusing. Use little to no passive voice (non-fiction writers can get away with more passive voice than fiction writers). In most cases, perform a little switcheroo to achieve active voice success. For example:
The body was carried by the hitman. (Passive)
The hitman carried the body. (Active)
Active voice hits home quicker and sounds better. In some cases, active voice uses less words than passive voice, and still achieves the same goal (as in the above example).
3) Cut down on adverbs (specifically “ly” and “ing” words)
Adverbs modify words. That doesn’t mean adverbs make other words better. Too often, authors rely on them for safety net support. Beware of this trap. Find a better word to replace the adverb. Action and dialog can kill the need for an adverb, too:
She quickly walked out the bedroom to escape the boiling rage her husband created.
“You bastard! I hate you!” She slapped her husband, then stomped out the bedroom.
Instead of “quickly walked,” “stomped” gives you a better picture. Through her actions and dialog, you can feel her rage. Note: Watch adverbs that modify the word “said” (he said enthusiastically; she said playfully, etc). “Said” alone works fine.
4) Limit “to be” words (is, are, was, were)
“To be” words have their place. I’ve used a few in this article. However, not using these words strengthen your writing, especially in fiction. Be careful when starting a sentence with “there were” or “there was.” Nine times out of ten, you can take these words out:
There was thick smoke in the room. There was a hit man standing by the door holding a gun.
Thick smoke darkened the room. The hit man stood by the door holding a gun.
He was there.
He stood there or he sat there.
Cutting “to be” words give your writing a polished finish. Note: When an action interrupts another action, use a “to be” word:
He was washing dishes when his wife smacked his head with a spatula.
5) Use as little words as possible
In the movie Ocean’s Eleven, Brad Pitt summed it up: “Don’t use seven words when four will do.” That goes for writing. Less is best:
In order to obtain a drivers license issued by the state of California, you must be able to locate the nearest DMV.
To get a California drivers license, find the nearest DMV.
First sentence has twenty-two words; the second ten. They both say the same thing, but the second reaches the period faster. Why take a fifteen-minute drive on the highway when a five-minute shortcut through the back roads will get you home, too?
As you can see, it doesn’t take much to achieve “tight” writing. If you feel your writing is dull, these tips may give it the shine it lacks.