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Creative Writing Tip: Know and Love the Words

  • Creative Writing Tip: Know and Love the Words

    "Love the Words"

    Love the words! Turn them over and over in your mind and on your tongue. Look them up in the dictionary, and learn their origins and more obscure uses. Words in English come from many different backgrounds. Some have Latin roots, some Greek, some Germanic, and Saxon. Get to know the history of words.

    Listen to the way people speak. Some spit out words like they have a bad taste. Others form them so carefully you'd think they were rare gems. Still others murmur them close mouthed, as if they hope to communicate without letting a single word escape their mouths. Listen to the accents and dialects around you. Listen to other people's use of vocabulary. How a person speaks, the words he or she uses, speaks volumes about one's background, education, economic status. What can you learn about someone by the words they use? When you talk to others, what are you telling them by the way you speak?

    Become attuned to metaphor. We will discuss writing metaphors in detail later, but for now, listen for metaphoric language around you. Metaphor is describing something by stating that it is something else. "Love is a rose," for instance, or "I'm at the end of my rope," are examples of metaphor. You will be amazed at how much everyday speech is figurative. When someone says, "Give me something I can sink my teeth into," or "Somebody let the cat out of the bag," they are using metaphor, describing something that happened in terms of something that didn't. You will find that without figurative language, speech would be lifeless, dull. As we will discuss more, the ability to express the world using fresh figurative language is something that many successful writers share.

    Show, Don't Tell

    This is one of the most common bits of advice experienced writers give to new writers. Showing your reader something, rather than telling him, is the cornerstone of creative writing. It is the difference between a dry news account, and a dramatic work of fiction.

    What is "showing," and how do you do it? Let's start by describing telling. When you write that "John and Sara went to the store. Sara said something mean about their Dad. John got mad. He couldn't understand why Sara was antagonizing Dad. On the way home, he picked a fight with her."

    This narration, like a newspaper story, gives us a list of what took place, and even tells how one character felt. But it is not creative writing, because there is nothing to draw the reader into the story. He will read at arm's length, bored, and wondering when something interesting will happen.

    To "show" is to use action and dialog to make your story come alive. To show is to create a picture of the characters, actions, and settings that readers can see, hear, feel, experience within their minds. Although the creative writer is often referred to as a "storyteller," in reality, the best of us are "story-showers." Instead of telling what the characters said, we have them say it. Instead of telling what happened, we show it.

    How might the narration above look different if it were shown instead of told? It would be quite a bit longer, for one thing. Showing takes more words, but it is the heart of writing creatively. Consider the following.

    It was the first really hot day of summer. The thermometer was reading 87 in the shade, and the last thing John was up for was a walk to the Open Pantry for a gallon of milk. He looked at his sister Sara, walking next to him. Her eyes were slits against the sun, her face turned down to the sidewalk. A bead of sweat was already trickling down her forehead, though they had only walked two of the six blocks to the store.

    "They're fighting again," John said, thinking of the dark look on his mother's face as she had handed Sara the 10-dollar bill and pushed them out the door.

    "No, duh," Sara said with a sneer. Mom and Dad had been fighting a lot lately. John and Sara had been finding themselves taking a lot of walks to the store.

    The air was filled with the sounds of gas-powered lawnmowers and the smell of newly cut grass. Mr. Pierce was on his giant of a John Deere, making tight circles on a lawn that really didn't seem big enough for a riding mower. His shirt was off, and the white hair on his chest glistened with sweat. He waved as they passed, and John gave a half-hearted wave back.

    "If Dad would get his butt off the couch and mow the lawn today, maybe Mom wouldn't be so pissed at him," Sara said.

    "Hey, you can't say that word," John said. "I'm telling."

    "What word, ‘Butt?'"

    "No, the other one."


    "There, you said it again."

    "Hah, go ahead and tell. How are you going to do it without using the word?" She gave a barking laugh. "You'll get your own self in trouble, while you're trying to get me in trouble."

    John was silent for a minute. It wasn't fair that big sisters could always outsmart you. She was older, and she always would be. He'd never get a chance to tell her off.

    "Why are you taking Mom's side?" he asked.

    "Who said I was?"

    "You said he should get his butt off the couch."

    "Well, he should."

    "But he's not feeling well."

    "That's what he always says. Mom says that's a load of crap."

    "Hey you said--"

    "Oh, come off it."

    "Dad's depressed."

    "What does that mean?"

    "I don't know. I heard him say it to Mom when she told him to get the hell off the couch." Hell. He had never said the word out loud before. But Sara was swearing. Why shouldn't he get to swear too?

    "You've been eavesdropping on them?"

    "Accidentally," John said.

    "Now I'm telling."

    "Go ahead," he said, though he hoped she wouldn't.

    "Tell me what else you heard."

    This is a story being shown through action and dialogue. It doesn't cover as much as the passage where we simply told the sequence of events, and it takes many more words just to cover the beginning of the walk. But showing tells us far more than telling does. Through John and Sara's exchange, we get a sense of their personalities and their relationship to one another. Through the description of the hot day and the neighbor on his mower, we get a sense of place where these characters are. Through their disagreement over their parents' relationship, we get an idea of the conflicts that are going on at home.

    Often, showing can simply mean having a character say something instead of having the narrator tell it. "'I don't understand why you take Mom's side,' John said," is better than "John didn't understand why Sara took Mom's side."

    You'll notice that the scene above is not strictly action, description, and dialogue. There is some telling as well. "Lately, John and Sarah had been finding themselves taking a lot of walks to the store," for instance, is a bit of telling. Telling can get information to the reader more efficiently than showing. If John and Sara had to have a dialogue about how many trips to the store they had taken, and then move on to the dialogue written above, the story would bog down. Besides, the two characters would be telling each other something they already knew, solely for the reader's benefit. This kind of dialogue can sound contrived.

    A mixture of telling and showing, with emphasis on showing, wherever possible, should be a creative writer's goal for a given piece of writing. Let's change the rule from, "Show, don't tell," to "Show a lot, and tell a little."

    Be Specific

    The effective writer draws her reader into a story by making it rich with specific detail. Consider the two following passages.

    A red car pulled right onto the front lawn, crushing Mark's tricycle. A big man got out. He was wearing a gray suit and dark wrap-around sunglasses. He flexed his meaty hands and looked at Julie. "You're coming with me, honey," he said.

    A red Monte Carlo that looked like it had just been driven off the lot tore up the street, then turned and drove right onto the lawn, crushing Mark's new Big Wheel under one whitewall tire. A burly man with thinning dark hair and a scar down the left side of his neck got out and slammed the door. His charcoal suit looked expensive and tailored over a black silk shirt, and no tie. Wrap-around Ray-Bans hid his eyes and made him look like a well-dressed beetle. He flexed his meaty hands and looked at Julie. "You're coming with me, honey," he said.

    Besides giving more and richer details about the man and his car, the second passage references specific brand names like "Monte Carlo" and "Big Wheel." Specific details like these give the reader a clear picture of the scene the writer wishes to show him. Include this detail whenever possible, but don't let it get out of hand. You don't need to tell the brand name of every object in the scene, lest your story sound like a commercial. Also, restrict the information you give to items the characters themselves would know. In the second example above, Julie might not have any way of knowing that the man's sunglasses were Ray-Bans. It would probably be better to take this detail out in the re-write, and simply say he wore wrap-around sunglasses.

    Detail also helps you transmit your opinion of a character or setting, without coming right out and saying what you think. The scar on the man's face, along with his other features, implies that he's a gangster or a thug, without the narrator coming out and saying, "A guy who looked like thug got out of the car." This is the creative writer's ongoing goal: to show a reader enough detail that the reader sees what the writer sees (or something close to it). Whatever genre or form you decide to write in, specific detail will serve you well.
    Want to learn more? Take an online course in Creative Writing.
    Writing, and Punctuating, Dialogue
    When we write dialogue, there is a specific way that we need to punctuate what is said. Many writers have trouble with this, it seems to be one of the first things we forget when we leave school.
    This is simply a section that will brush up on those rules. If you'd like a more in-depth review, a great book that can help is Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella
    Back to our review:
    To set off quoted material, you'll use a comma. This sets the quoted bits off from the main body of the sentence, in sentences that contain quotes. If the main body of work precedes the quote, your comma will appear between the end of the main body and the beginning of the quote. Sound confusing? It's really not. Here's an example:
    Michelle said, "Hand me that book."
    The boy thought, "Why doesn't anyone understand what I'm trying to say?"
    For those two examples, when you are setting the quoted material--what is said or thought, off from the speaker, the comma is outside the quotation marks. But if the main body follows the quote, the comma (or other punctuation) goes inside the quotation marks.
    For example:
    "I am so happy!" she screamed.
    "I think you are going to win," Jim told Alexis.
    The comma is there (or the other end punctuation) to show that this is still part of the same sentence. If it were not, then you would put a period to end the sentence.
    For example:

    "I think you are going to win." John then turned to Alexis and shook her hand.
    Now, if the spoken words are broken up, here is how you would punctuate the sentence:
    "Well," she said, "there goes the ball game."
    The main body, above, comes between the first piece of what is said and the second. Note that your punctuation is inside the quotation marks on both sides.

    Exercise: Write a three-to-five sentence narration like the one in which John and Sara go to the store. Include two characters who are in conflict with one another in some way. When you are finished, try re-writing this narration as we did above, expressing it through scene, action, and dialogue. Show us the conflict through what the characters say and do. Set their actions in a place, and give your reader enough specific detail to see what you see, as it happens.
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