Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Novelist: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Writer—Part 2: Language

Are you just starting to write? Or better yet, nervously thinking of sending your cherished tome out? You may wish to do one more round of edits and apply these five things that I guarantee will improve your story:

1. Voice: This is the feel and tone that applies to the overall book (narrative voice) and to each character. The overall voice is dictated by your audience, who you’re writing for: youth, adults, etc. It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not. In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the “fictive dream”. Consistency is very important for readers. They will abandon a story whose writing is not consistent. So, my advice to this writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it. Voice includes what a character says. It incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, gafaw, belly-laugh? Do any of your characters have conflicts with one another? Either through differences in opinions, agendas, fears, ambitions… etc. One learns so much from the kind of interaction a character has with his/her surroundings (whether it’s another character or a scene).

2. Point of View (POV): Many beginner’s novels are often told through no particular POV. Many first manuscripts often start in the omniscient POV (that of the narrator) and ever so often may lapse into one of the character’s POV briefly. This makes for very “telling vs showing” type of writing (not to mention being inconsistent again). 90% of writers do not write this way because it tends to be off-putting, it distances the reader from the characters, and is very difficult to achieve and be consistent with. Most writers prefer to use limited third person POV (told from one or a few key characters; that is, you get into the head and thoughts of only a few people: all the observations are told through their observations, what they see, feel and think). This bonds the reader to your characters and makes for much more compelling reading. I would highly suggest you adopt this style. That’s not to say that you can’t use several POVs… just not at the same time; it is the norm to use chapter or section breaks to change a POV.

3. Passive vs. Active Verbs: beginners often use a lot of passive verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Some use too may modifiers. Try to find more active verbs. Many writers fall into the pattern of using verbs that are weak and passive (and then adding a modifier to strengthen it…it doesn’t). Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is a key to good writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. For instance, which version is more compelling: ‘she walked quickly into the room’ or ‘she stormed into the room’?

4. Show, don’t tell: this is partly a function of POV and use of active verbs. Once you change to 3rd person, much of this will naturally resolve itself. An example of telling vs. showing is this: [He was in a rage and felt betrayed. “You lied, Clara,” he said angrily, grabbing her hand.] instead, you could show it: [His face smoldered. “You lied, Clara,” he roared, lunging for her.] Telling also includes large sections of exposition, either in dialogue or in narrative. This happens a lot in beginning writer’s stories. It takes courage and confidence to say less and let the reader figure it out. Exposition needs to be broken up and appear in the right place as part of the story. Story is paramount. “Telling” is one of the things beginning writers do most and editors will know you for one right away. Think of the story as a journey for both writer and reader. The writer makes a promise to the reader that s/he will provide a rip-roaring story and the reader comes on side, all excited. This is done through a confident tease in the beginning and slow revelation throughout the story to keep it compelling. Exposition needs to be very sparingly used, dealt out in small portions.

5. Unclutter your writing: There is a Mennonite adage that applies to writing: “less is more”. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”). Cut down the words in your paragraphs (often in the intro chapters) by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, believe me, and you will add others later in your second round of edits.
This article is an excerpt of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate) to be released in 2009 and available at, Barnes & Noble and Chapters. 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Anonymous said...

I agree with lots of this only because I experienced a break through by using first person narration in one short story.

If you think about it, the first person narrator is part of the strongest stories in literature. Anyone remember Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, or that Doctor Watson who faithfully transribed the doings of his young, intelligent friend, oh...what was HIS name?

My story's narrator was a girl not yet 20 years old who hadn't experienced sex any deeper than the party makeout phase. So everything she said was consistent with stuff that she didn't know, which made me get all caught up in the story intstead of the reverse.

Now I am a big believer in first person narrative stories!

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, I've heard of other writers having their story totally change on them--usually revitalized--by changing the POV from third person to first person, or vice versa... Very neat! Cool about your story.

Nina Munteanu said...

p.s. Yes, first person narrative--apart from its own limiting nature (everything is described by the one main protagonist, hence limited to THEIR take on things) the first person is an incredibly compelling and endearing AND revealing perspective. But it only works in certain stories...

Greg said...

Great points- this is inspiration for me. It's so motivating to read articles such as yours and get hyped for the work ahead. I wish the same level of motivation could remain a constant when I'm sitting down!

I particularly relate to your thoughts about Exposition. It's so tempting to flesh out the things I know about what lies ahead, as one of the characters, particularly in the more action-oriented sequences. Not to mention my tendency to over-explain.

I'll probably be looking at this a few times as I prepare this week's post. Thanks!

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, it's so tempting to say inform the reader. I really think that's the hardest part: to trust that the reader will figure it out, through metaphor and allusion and suggestion. The best way to think of it is to see it as one big tease... :) Essentially, as storyteller you are a "trickster magician", stringing them along.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

More excellent tips!

I can feel the Great Novel coming!

Nina Munteanu said...

Ah, yes.... the great novel... LOL! I certainly hope so, Jean-luc! Thanks. And welcome back from your holiday! How was it?