The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Character Descriptions

Writing vivid character descriptions is a struggle many writers face. If you're tired of your descriptions falling flat this guide will help you become a pro once and for all! Plus, there are free worksheets and cheat sheets to help you write character descriptions the easy way!The first time I tried to describe my characters, it was a total disaster.

I couldn’t understand why because I’m a very descriptive writer. Describing landscapes? I got that. Fantasy creatures no one’s ever seen before? You betcha. Medieval cities? I’m a pro.

But when it came to people, suddenly I couldn’t find any words that worked. No matter what words I used, the descriptions fell flat instead of bringing my characters vividly to life.

I didn’t realize then that I was going about my character descriptions all wrong—I thought I just sucked at describing people. Years later, though, I learned that anyone can write a stellar character description, even if descriptive writing isn’t their strong suit!

Any of this sounding familiar? Describing characters is something a lot of writers struggle with, myself included. Though I’ve come a long way since my first feeble (and horrible) attempts, it’s still something I have to work harder at than other types of description.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why people seem to be so tricky to describe, but I don’t want you to face the same frustrations and struggles that I did. You’re not alone, and I’m here to help, friend!

I’ve written this MONSTER guide to answer all of the most frequently asked questions about describing characters I’ve gotten from writers like you. I’ve also created FREE worksheets and cheat sheets to make describing your characters a whole lot easier, so be sure to grab those below! (No email sign-up required!)

Now, without further ado, let’s get into the why, when, who, what, and how of character description!

What Is the Purpose of Character Description?

I feel like the purpose of character description often gets somewhat muddled in writers’ minds. If I asked you why you want to describe your character in your story, what would your answer be? You would probably say you want to give the reader a clear mental picture of what your character looks like.

That’s a valid reason, but there’s another that is even more important but sometimes gets overlooked.

The main way I use character description in my stories is as a form of characterization. Through descriptive details, I try to reveal the character’s personality so that not only does the reader come away with a mental picture of what the character looks like, but they also get a feel for who the character is.

Before I viewed description as an opportunity to characterize, I was hung up on the description itself. I thought character descriptions had to be beautiful and lush with detail. I felt a lot of pressure to find the right words so my readers would picture my character exactly as I did. I thought because I couldn’t write gorgeous character descriptions, I sucked at them.

But you know what I finally realized? Describing a character is more about characterization than flowery language. Once I realized this, a lot of the pressure I felt toward describing my characters lifted.

When Should I Describe My Character?

Whenever you introduce a new character, you should try to describe her as soon as possible. Why? Because the moment a character steps onto the page, the reader’s imagination will immediately begin to conjure an image.

For example, let’s say I encounter a character named Louise in a story. I immediately begin to picture a brunette woman in a retro dress, bright red lipstick, and fashionable glasses. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the image that springs to mind.

Now, this image may or may not match up to the author’s own personal idea of what she intends Louise to look like. If the author doesn’t give me any details to provide me with a different mental picture ASAP, I’m going to stick with my own version.

If you wait too long to describe your character, the reader will likely reject your description in favor of their own mental image. Let’s say you’re reading a story and you’ve been imagining the heroine as a petite girl with a blonde pixie cut, but halfway through the book you find out she’s actually 6 foot tall with waist-length black hair.

That discovery will be jarring to the reader. Since the read is already familiar with the mental image she had created for the character, she will likely ignore this description and keep imagining her the way she likes. I have done this several times myself as a reader!

To avoid this situation, try to describe a new character as soon as she’s introduced to provide the reader with the mental image you want them to have.

Now, there is one exception to this. If a character is introduced in the middle of an action scene, you do NOT want to bring the action to a screeching halt to describe them. Wait until things have calmed down, and then you can describe them. It’s okay to wait a few pages, I promise.

Which Characters Should I Describe?

You don’t have to give a detailed description of every character in your novel. You should give most of the attention to your main characters, and then add a little detail to your secondary characters.

You don’t need to describe the desk clerk at the hotel, the taxi driver, or the bartender. Some characters are just background extras that don’t have any importance in the story so you don’t want to spend any more time on them than necessary.

If you start describing these types of characters you call attention to them, and you could confuse the reader into thinking they might be important later when really they have no significance other than filler to make your story world feel fleshed out. So let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks on this one, or limit yourself to a brief, simple description like “the burly bartender.”

I also want to point out that there tends to be a difference between how main characters and secondary characters are described. Secondary characters are often more colorful, exaggerated, and quirky. Because they have a small role, they have to burn bright to be memorable. So feel free to get crazy with your secondary characters and have some fun!

How Much Should I Describe?

The amount of character description really depends on the writer and their writing style. Some writers are really good at writing beautiful character descriptions, so they might make their descriptions longer. Other writers have a very to-the-point and less descriptive writing style, so their character descriptions may be very sparse.

I would say a paragraph of character description should be more than enough (with 3-5 sentences being one paragraph). Any more than that might start leaning toward too much, but it’s always a judgment call. A reader can only remember so many details and you don’t want to overwhelm them. Often, less is more.

Funnily enough, I don’t think there’s any danger in describing too little. In fact, some writers intentionally choose not to describe their characters at all. Now, you’re probably thinking, why in the world would any writer want to do this? Good question.

One argument for not describing your characters is to allow the reader full control over how they want to imagine them.

Remember how earlier we talked about readers immediately conjuring mental images for characters? Readers’ imaginations are powerful and very good at filling in the blanks. Some readers prefer to imagine things their own way and not be told how to image them by the author.

Another argument for this tactic is that when a character is left undescribed, the reader will often project their own physical features onto the character.

So if they’re blonde, they’ll likely image the character as blonde. If they’re Asian, they’ll likely imagine the character as Asian. This is why some authors prefer not to describe their heroes—so that the reader can imagine the hero looks like herself, no matter her physical features or race.

It’s a beautiful thought that one character could look so many different ways to so many different readers!

So really, it comes down to personal choice. When you have a specific image in your head of what your character looks like, it can be hard to relinquish control and let the reader imagine them however they want. However, if you want the reader to picture the character a certain way, then by all means provide them with that description!

But keep in mind that no matter how meticulously detailed your description is, your readers won’t recreate your mental image with 100% accuracy (and that’s okay!).

Words aren’t photographs, and that can sometimes be challenging and frustrating. This is why the best advice I can give you is to focus on characterizing with description instead of focusing on writing the most accurate description possible.

What Should I Describe?

Many writers have trouble moving beyond hair and eye color in their descriptions, and I get it. Those two things are the easiest and most obvious to describe. But what else can you say about a character’s physical appearance?

To create an effective character description, it’s all about 1) choosing the right details to convey personality, and 2) choosing the most interesting details. Remember, you don’t need to describe everything. You just need to describe the best things.

For example, depending on which details you choose to focus on, you could convey a wild character (spiked lime-green Mohawk, mermaid tattoo, wearing a live yellow boa constrictor as a scarf), a sloppy character (uncombed hair, wrinkled shirt, crumbs in beard), or a timid character (hunched posture, eyes cast downward, plain/muted clothing).

Notice how I only mentioned a few details but already you probably have a pretty good visual picture of these characters and a feel for who they are. It doesn’t take much! And these types of details tell the reader far more about the character than “he had jet black hair and blue eyes.” Ask yourself what this character is like, and how you can express this visually.

Here are some ideas of what you can describe to get you started:

  • Facial features (face shape, eyes, nose, lips, jaw, chin, brows, ears, cheekbones, facial hair)
  • Hair color, texture, and style
  • Build/body type and height
  • Skin tone
  • Skin texture (weathered, wrinkled, smooth, hairy, etc.)
  • Skin afflictions (acne, eczema, oily, moles, warts, boils, etc.)
  • Distinguishing features (scars, freckles, birthmarks, tattoos, piercings, etc.)
  • Teeth
  • Makeup
  • Clothing, accessories, and personal items
  • Voice/accent
  • Posture
  • Scent
  • Gestures, body language, mannerisms

How Do I Describe My Characters? (Tricks for Better Descriptions)

1. Avoid Creating a Grocery List of Physical Traits

Don’t merely list out your character’s physical traits like you’re checking items you need off a list. It will end up sounding like this:

“He was a young man with brown eyes and black hair. He was tall and wore jeans with a red t-shirt.”

Blah! The problem with this sort of description is that it’s completely forgettable and boring. It doesn’t create a vivid image that brings the character to life. It doesn’t reveal anything unique or interesting about him. This description is far too basic; we need to go deeper to create a character that pops off the page. Read on to find out how!

2. Choose Interesting Details

As I already mentioned earlier, you want to choose interesting details about your character that show his personality. Don’t go overboard here—two or three should be plenty. One carefully chosen detail can say far more about your character’s personality than five or ten general details.

3. Use Similes and Metaphors

Using similes and metaphors help to give a more vivid picture and a stronger emotional impression about a character.

For example, instead of “He was tall” a better description would be: “His towering bulk loomed in front of her like a mountain, immovable and impassable.”

The first is just a stated fact. However, the second gives us the feeling that this character is formidable and might pose a problem or obstacle, and the imagery is much stronger.

4. Consider Perception

The description of a character can change depending on who is describing him. For example, a man’s wife will describe him far differently than his enemy.

Consider how your viewpoint character perceives the character being described, and communicate their impression through word choice and the details they focus on.

5. Get Specific

The more specific you can get with your details, the more vivid and interesting your description will be and the more it will reveal about the character.

For example, instead of “He had blue eyes” try, “His eyes were the same turbulent, depthless blue as the sea he had sailed upon since he was a boy.”

The first tells us nothing, while the second suggests the character is dealing with some sort of internal turmoil and also reveals he’s a sailor.

6. Add Movement

People aren’t still-life portraits. When you put your characters into action, it helps bring the description to life.

What is your character doing? Clutching nervously at her purse on a busy street? Tapping her foot as she waits in line for coffee? Hunching her shoulders and ducking her head as she walks through the school halls? Hot wiring a car? Dancing in the middle of the supermarket?

Actions help to reveal the character’s emotions, hint at what’s going on beneath the surface, and characterize her further.  Try to incorporate body language, posture, mannerisms, and other actions into your descriptions.

Let’s Review

Now that you know the why, when, who, what, and how of describing your characters, it’s time to practice writing some descriptions of your own. It’s okay if your descriptions don’t turn out perfect at first—I promise the more you practice, the better you will become!

To help make things easier, I’ve created a collection of FREE worksheets for you to use. You’ll find cheat sheets that list physical details for easy reference and ideas, in-depth description worksheets to help you uncover the most interesting details about your character, and my 5 step no-fail character description template.

Click below to download + print these resources and get started! (No email required! It’s 100% free. Seriously.)

Key Takeaways:

  • Describing a character is more about characterization than flowery language.
  • When you introduce a new character, describe her as soon as possible before the reader creates and grows accustomed to their own image.
  • You don’t have to give a detailed description of every character in your novel, just the important ones.
  • Secondary characters often have more colorful, quirky descriptions to make them more memorable due to their smaller roles in the story.
  • How much you describe is up to you. Some writers choose not to describe their characters at all so the readers can create their own images.
  • You don’t need to describe everything about your character, you just need to describe the best things.
  • Choose details the most interesting details that convey your character’s personality.
  • Ask yourself “What is this character like?” and then express this visually

Additional Resources:

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Writing 101: Choosing the Best Point of View for Your Story

Are you confused about which point of view would be the best fit for your story? Learn about the techniques involved in each one and which is the best fit for you!Years ago, I remember watching a film called Vantage Point. The plot revolved around an assassination attempt on the U.S. President, and in order to catch the would-be assassin government agents had to piece together clues from witnesses.

Each witness had a different point of view of the assassination attempt from their place in the crowd. Each one saw and experienced the moment differently. From a police officer to a news reporter to an ordinary bystander, each had a different story to tell of the same event.

And that, my friend, is point of view–the “lens” or perspective through which a story is told, and in whose voice. But just who is telling the story? In fiction, different points of view use varying techniques to give the reader a different experience. Let’s look at the options available to you as a writer.

First Person Point of View

You’ve probably come across this one before, as it’s one of the most popular points of view (POV) used in fiction, especially in Young Adult novels. In this point of view, the main character is the one telling the story. The story is written in the character’s voice using the pronouns I/me/my.

The advantage of this POV is that the reader is drawn right into the character’s head. We see the world through their eyes and hear their thoughts. It’s a very intimate perspective. As such, however, the reader is limited to what the main character knows or sees, which can be either an advantage or disadvantage depending on the story you’re trying to tell.

Examples: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Second Person Point of View

Second person point of view is when the author speaks directly to the reader using you/your. This places the reader directly into the story as though they are the main character and has a very engaging effect. Let’s look at an example from Leo Tolstoy’s short story trio, The Sevastopol Sketches:

Yes ! disenchantment certainly awaits you, if you are entering Sevastopol for the first time. In vain will you seek, on even a single countenance, for traces of anxiety, discomposure, or even of enthusiasm, readiness for death, decision, — there is nothing of the sort. You will see the tradespeople quietly engaged in the duties of their callings, so that, possibly, you may reproach yourself for superfluous raptures, you may entertain some doubt as to the justice of the ideas regarding the heroism of the defenders of Sevastopol which you have formed from stories, descriptions, and the sights and sounds on the northern side.

As you can see, second person almost turns the reader into a participant in the story.  It also makes the events more personal; it makes us feel as though we have a stake in the story and forces more internal reflection on our thoughts and feelings about what is happening.

This point of view is rarely used, and when it is, it’s usually found in short stories or parts of a novel. It’s extremely difficult to maintain second person throughout an entire novel and do it well. I would only recommend using second person in short stories or literary fiction, which experiments with the art of writing. For commercial fiction written for entertainment, it’s best to skip it.

Though it isn’t popular, authors can and have used second person successfully. For example, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller uses second person in alternating chapters, and William Faulkner uses it in sections of his novel Absalom, Absalom!. A few brave and talented authors have even written their entire novel in second person, such as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

Find the Right Point of View for Your Story

Third Person Point of View

Another popular point of view which you’re probably familiar with is third person. This is the point of view used most frequently in fiction. In this point of view, the reader becomes an outsider looking in on the story as it’s told from the main character’s perspective using he/she/they.

Although the story is told from the character’s perspective, it’s told in the author’s voice (though there is one exception to this which we’ll get to in a moment!). There are three types of third person: Third Person Omniscient, Third Person Limited, and Deep Point of View.

Third Person Omniscient

“Omciscient” means “all knowing” and that’s exactly what this point of view is.

The story is narrated to the reader in the disembodied voice of an all-knowing, all-seeing god who knows what all of the characters are thinking and feeling at all times. The narrator might even slip into second person occasionally and address the reader (a huge no-no in modern fiction!) or state his own opinions. Omniscient point of view is completely unlimited, and pretty much anything goes.

Here’s a quick example:

“Did you find your keys?” Mary asked, irritated at John’s carelessness. He was always losing everything. Why can’t he be more organized? she thought. He’s always wasting my time. Her jaw clenched in anger.

John ran a hand through his hair. “No. I could have sworn I left them on the kitchen table.” He turned away from her angry face, his own frustration mounting. She thinks I’m an idiot, he thought. Why can’t I remember where they are? Desperation began to creep over him.

Do you see how in omniscient point of view we are in both character’s heads at once? This style of writing was most popular in 19th century literature, but since then reader’s tastes have changes and it’s now less favored in modern-day fiction.

Today, we call this switching back and forth between multiple character’s thoughts within the same scene “head hopping,” and it’s often frowned upon. All of the jumping around can  be disorienting to the reader and leave them confused about whose story this is supposed to be.

But what if you need the perspectives of multiple characters to tell your story? There is another technique for this which is more popular and common modern fiction, which we’ll get to in the last section.

Examples of third person omniscient novels: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Third Person Limited

This is the style of third person that is more popular with modern readers. We remain in one character’s head throughout the story, only seeing things from their perspective. This means we only hear their thoughts, feel what they feel, and know what they know.

Let’s revisit our previous example of Mary and John, for a moment. This time, I’ll limit the point of view to Mary’s perspective only:

“Did you find your keys?” Mary asked, irritated at John’s carelessness. He was always losing everything. Why can’t he be more organized? she thought. He’s always wasting my time. Her jaw clenched in anger.

John ran a hand through his hair. “No. I could have sworn I left them on the kitchen table.” He turned away from her, his lips pressed in a flat line.

Mary sighed. He couldn’t even look her in the eye, he looked like a scolded, cowering dog. Maybe she shouldn’t look so angry. She drew in a deep breath and tried to soften her features. Lord, give me patience.

Do you see the difference? We don’t know what John is thinking or feeling. We experience everything from Mary’s POV and only know what’s going on inside her head. Unlike omniscient POV which is limitless, in this POV we are “limited” to Mary’s perspective.

Examples of limited third person: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin.

Deep Point of View

Deep point of view is a style of writing that is beginning to grow in popularity. It uses third person pronouns he/she/they, but instead of using the author’s voice the story is told in hero’s voice. This brings the reader deep into the hero’s head and allows them to experience the story through the hero, feeling what they feel.

Essentially, it’s like first person except with he/she instead of I. All “evidence” of the author’s hand (phrases like he said, she felt, he wondered, etc.) are also removed to erase the distance between the reader and hero.

Let’s look at this technique in action.

Example 1 (Third Person Limited):

Kali hurried though the village. She wondered if he was already waiting for her. She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She knew she should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on talking about the chickens.

Example 2 (Deep POV):

Kali hurried through the village. Was he already waiting for her? She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on and on about the chickens. Chickens this, and eggs that. Be sure to this, don’t do it like that. Kali’s fidgety impatience had driven the details from her memory. Hopefully they weren’t too important.

Notice the difference between the two examples. The second brings you into Kali’s head by removing “interruptions” by the author like “she wondered” or “she knew.” The second example also uses more of Kali’s voice to reveal her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions–it’s almost as though she is the narrator, yet we stay in third person point of view.

This point of view can be challenging to write and is still emerging in fiction, but it’s quickly gaining popularity in the writing world because of the intimacy it creates between the reader and character.

Multiple Point of View

When you have a story that needs to be told from multiple perspectives, you have two options: you can either use third person omniscient and head hop, or you can use multiple point of view.

Multiple point of view can use third person limited, deep point of view, or first person. It stays in one character’s head at a time per scene or chapter. When the writer needs to switch to a different character’s perspective, they skip a line between scenes or begin a new chapter to signal to the reader that they are changing to a new character. In modern fiction, this technique is the preferred way of telling a story with multiple characters.

Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.

Which POV is Right for Your Story?

Are you confused about which point of view would be the best fit for your story? Learn about the techniques involved in each one and which is the best fit for you!So now that we’ve explored your options, which one should you choose?

If you’re uncertain, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. How many perspectives do I need to tell this story?
  2. Do I want to create distance or intimacy between the reader and the character?
  3. Do I want to tell the story in my own voice, or the character’s?

If you need multiple perspectives to tell your story you might use multiple POV or experiment with third person omniscient.

If you want to create intimacy between your reader and character, first person or deep point of view are the way to go. Or, you could create intimacy between the author and reader with second person.

Need a little more distance? Try third person limited or omniscient point of view.

If you want your character’s voice to really come through in your story, you’ll want to employ first person or deep point of view. Or, if you prefer to use your own voice, third person limited & omniscient and second person will all allow you to do so.

As you can see, it all depends upon the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong” point of view, but for a new writer I would recommend  maybe starting with third person limited or first person as those as the most common and easiest of the bunch to write.

Many times, the point of view a writer chooses depends on personal preference. Some writers find first person too challenging or invasive, while others love it. Personally, I’ve always preferred third person limited (I’m now moving toward deep POV), but I do occasionally use first person. Sometimes the characters “speak” to me in first person, and sometimes I hear their story in third person.

The beauty of point of view is that each method gives the reader a different experience. As the author, it’s up to you to decide how you want your readers to experience your story. Do you want to draw them into the hero’s head? Make them a participant? Show them different perspectives through multiple characters? The power rests in your hands.

What’s your favorite point of view to read and write? Let me know in the comments below!

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Writing 101: Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist

Don't let bad grammar stand between you and writing your novel! Check out these grammar resources and tips to improve your skills!Ah, grammar. The red-headed stepchild of the novel-writing process that we would much rather forget  about. Yet our dangling modifiers and askew apostrophes glare up at us from the page like brilliant eyesores, demanding we admit defeat.

Talk about sucking all the fun out of your creativity.

Writers want to be free to frolic through the fields of their imaginations, not chained down by the stuffy rules your English teacher droned on about. Who cares about past participles or semicolon placement? But our readers expect flawless grammar. And at times, it’s enough to make even the most seasoned of writers want to bash their head against their keyboard and hope for the best.

Please don’t bash your head against the keyboard.

Though a lot of anxieties and frustrations can arise over grammar, I don’t want you to let it stand between you and the novel you want to write. Fear not my grammatically challenged friend–you can learn how to wield grammar just as you can learn how to write a story.

Shall we begin?

Do You Need Good Grammar to Write a Novel?

First, I feel that there is a misconception I must clear up. I’ve had several new writers express their concerns to me about their lack of grammar savvy. They’ll say things along the lines of: “I suck at grammar, I’m worried I won’t be able to get my story published” or, “My grammar is awful, can I still write a book and become an author?”

Sound familiar? Well, I have some good news for you, friend! You don’t have to be a grammar whiz to write–and publish–a novel. I think new writers often tend to confuse good grammar with good writing, but one does not necessarily equal the other!

Good writing is knowing how to choose the most effective words, write descriptively, vividly, and concisely, and create realistic worlds, characters, and dialogue. Sure, correct grammar and spelling help, but they’re not what I use to judge the quality of a story.  Why? Because mistakes like that usually don’t survive to see the published draft.

You see, bad grammar can easily be fixed with editing; bad storytelling, however, can’t. Your skills as a storyteller are far more important than your grammar skills. An agent or publisher may overlook poor grammar if you have a fantastic story–after all, that’s why they have editors.

So my advice is this: Don’t stress yourself out over your grammar. Do the best you can, but put the majority of your efforts into building your storytelling skills.

Now, that being said, of course this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your grammar! Good grammar does help. Agents and publishers like to see well-polished writing because it means less work for them (or rather, their editors). Good grammar also helps make you look more professional, intelligent, and experienced.

So how can you improve your grammar skills? Keep reading for my favorite grammar resources and tips!

1. Have a Grammar Guide for Review and Reference

Buying a book (or two) on grammar to refresh your memory is a great starting point. It also helps to have one on hand for reference for those moments when you get hung up on tricky words or sentences! Here are some fantastic grammar handbooks to consider:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
  3. Merriam Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style
  4. The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar Usage

2. Use a Grammar/Spelling Checker

Most word processing programs have a built-in grammar and spelling checker that does all the work for you–underlining your mistakes and then providing suggestions for corrections which you can then fix in a couple simple clicks.

So make sure these options are turned on and you’re taking advantage of them! To turn on your grammar and spelling checker in Word go to File>Options>Proofreading and check the boxes according to your preferences.

Another grammar and spelling checker worth looking into is Grammarly. This program claims to catch even more errors than Word’s built-in proofreader!

A word of warning, however: these automatic proofreaders are a fantastic help, but they’re not perfect. I’ve noticed that occasionally they make incorrect suggestions, or miss a mistake. It doesn’t happen often but it does still happen, which is why it’s good to know your stuff and proofread your story on your own!

3. Put Your Dictionary to Use

A dictionary is a good resource to have if you find yourself frequently needing to check the spelling, definition, and proper usage of various words. My favorite dictionary resources are:

  1. Dictionary.com
  2. The Dictionary.com app
  3. The Merriam Webster Dictionary

3. Be Aware of Common Mistakes

Everyone has trouble with different words. Know which words you tend to mix up, misspell, and misuse, and be on the lookout for them. Better yet, make yourself a “cheat sheet” of your trouble words for easy reference so you can look up the correct usage quickly. Here are some resources to help you out:

  1. Common Errors in English Usage complied by English professor Paul Brians of Washington State University, and also available in e-book format for Kindle
  2. Commonly Misused Words and Phrases
  3. Commonly Misspelled Words

4. Grammar Girl is Your Friend

Stuck and need a quick answer? Search for your answer on Grammar Girl to get an easy-to-understand, simple yet thorough explanation with examples! This is my go-to resource when I get hung up on confusing things like whether to use who or whom, or where to place a tricky apostrophe or hyphen.

5. Hire an Editor

If you’ve done the best you can and you’re still worried about the grammar in your novel, you may want to consider hiring an editor before submitting it for publication. I would only recommend this if your novel is extremely rough as these services are pricey, and if your novel gets picked up by a publisher their editors will clean it up anyways.

The only exception to this is if you are self-publishing instead of going through a publisher who will provide the editors for you. Then hiring a professional editor is a must. The last thing you want is to publish a book riddled with grammar and spelling errors. Not only will it frustrate readers, but it will make you look sloppy and unprofessional.

6. Read, read, read! Write, write, write!

Finally, keep reading and writing as much as you can! The more you write and put your grammar into practice, the more you will learn. And the more you read, the more you will begin to develop a “feel” for how sentences should be constructed. Eventually, writing grammatically correct will become instinctive.

What do you find most challenging about grammar? Let me know in the comments!

Previous Posts in the Writing 101 Series:

Part 1: The Fundamentals of Story, Part 2: Writing Term Glossary, Part 3: Creating a Successful Hero & Villain, Part 4: Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot, Part 5: Let’s Talk Dialogue, Part 6: Setting and World-building, and Part 7: Creating Effective Description.

Ready for Part 9? Click here to read about Discovering the Perfect Audience for Your Novel!

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Writing 101: Creating Effective Description

Writing description can be overwhelming at first. What do you choose to describe? How do you describe it clearly? How can you make your reader experience your setting? Find the answers with these techniques!The purpose of description is to help readers experience your story both with their senses and emotions. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not there to look pretty or be flowery. Sure some writers can write very beautifully, but pretty prose isn’t necessary to bring your story to life. Sometimes, beautiful writing can even get in the way of or distract from the story itself!

So what tools do writers possess for bringing a setting to life through description? Let’s break down the different techniques.

Sensory Details

First, the senses. You’re probably familiar with them: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. Sight is the easiest to write and the one we think of first when setting up a scene, but you want to get into the habit of putting yourself into a scene and feeling it with all your senses.

What might your character be hearing? Like the whistle of a kettle or a dripping faucet? What about physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun on his skin or the feel of damp sand between his toes?

Readers want to experience what your hero is experiencing. Going beyond sight grounds readers in the story and makes the setting feel rich with detail in their minds—and this in turn makes your fictional world feel more realistic.

Manipulating Mood through Word Choice

Now that we know how to make readers experience a story with their senses, how can we make them experience it emotionally using description? This writer’s magic trick is accomplished through the subtle power of word choice.

That’s right, friend, by being intentional about the words you choose you can make the reader feel whatever you want them too—without them even realizing it! Pretty neat, huh?

But you don’t want to choose any mood for your scene. Whenever you introduce a setting, your hero should have an emotional reaction to it, and this should influence the words you use to describe it. After all, readers want to experience what the hero is experiencing, right? This means his feelings about his surroundings too.

Does the hero find this place scary? Beautiful? Peaceful? Choose words that communicate what the hero is feeling—or even better, ask yourself, “What words would my hero use to describe this?”

Let’s take a look at the power of word choice with this quick example:

The castle loomed atop the cliff, its sharp spires slicing through the clouds. The iron bars of the gate had been wrenched open and now resembled the mangled ribs of a skeleton.

Notice how I didn’t say the castle was scary or creepy, though that’s likely the impression/feeling you got. Instead, I used words like loomed, sharp, slicing, wrenched, mangled, and the comparison to a skeleton’s ribs all help create a creepy, foreboding mood.

This is also an example of showing vs.telling. Instead of telling you the castle was creepy, I showed you through my word choice. Whenever you can, opt for showing over telling when appropriate.

Film Shots

“Wait, why are we talking about film?” you ask. “What does this have to do with writing?”

Allow me to explain.

A story plays out like a film in the mind, yes? Because of this, we can steal a few film tricks and apply them to our descriptions.

When you watch a movie and a new setting is introduced, it will usually be done with an extreme long shot that includes a large amount of the landscape such as a city or farm so the viewer can see where the action will take place. This is also called an establishing shot.

Then, the camera will narrow its focus to a normal long shot, which might show something like a house, kitchen, train station, etc. where the scene will take place.

Narrow the focus again to a full shot, and this allows the viewer to see more details of the character’s costumes and their surroundings.

Narrow the focus yet again to a mid-shot and we see the characters from the waist-up, allowing us to focus on their facial expressions and emotional reactions.

Narrow the focus one more time and we have a close-up of characters facial expressions or important objects.

So how does this translate into writing? We can use this technique to organize our descriptions and help them flow clearly in the reader’s mind. You do this by starting your description with a wide “establishing” shot, and then narrowing your focus.

For example:

The barn was tucked away in a meadow between two oaks, its tin roof rusted and black paint peeling. Sam shoved open the door and glanced over the rows of empty stalls and then upward at the vaulted loft filled with moldy hay. He kicked aside a rotting bucket and a mouse darted into the shadows. Wrinkling his nose, he crouched to examine the droplets of blood soaked into the earth among the spilled grain and mouse droppings.

Notice how I started with an establishing shot and kept narrowing the focus until we had a close-up description of the blood splatters. This not only helps the reader get their bearings in the scene, but it follows the natural way we experience a place—we notice the overall picture before we begin to zero-in on tiny details.

Specific Nouns

Getting as specific as possible with nouns in your description will make your world feel more realistic and create a much sharper image in the reader’s head.

Instead of “red flowers” say “poppies,” and instead of “fancy car” say “Lamborghini.”

Also, this requires you do your research. You should be able to specifically name things in your story no matter the culture or time period, such as the character’s clothing, the food they eat, the weapons used, etc.

If you’re writing a sci-fi story and your hero walks into a room full of “scientific equipment” not only is this a lousy mental image for the reader, but its lazy writing. What sort of equipment are they using? What is it called? What does it look like? It’s your job to find out.

Balance

Finally, one of the important parts of good description is balance, or knowing what to describe and when.

For example, the middle of an intense action scene is not a good time to unload a bunch of description. The reader simply won’t care and it will just get in the way. Save the description for the slower parts of your story where you are setting up a scene or introducing a new setting, character, important object, or what-have-you.

Also, you need to be discerning about what you choose to describe because you can’t (and shouldn’t!) describe everything. You’ll end up overwhelming the reader and weakening the description because they won’t be able to remember it all. So what should you focus on?

Here are 3 things to consider:

1) Choose the most important details, or the details that make the place interesting or different.

2) Choose specific details in order to set a certain mood.

3) Choose the details your character would notice. (For example, a hunter might admire a collection of rifles while a bookworm might admire a bookshelf in the same room. Different people notice different things).

But how much description is too much? This will vary based on your writing style and the type of story you’re telling.

For example, literary fiction can have longer passages of description because readers of that genre will expect and even enjoy it. But in a Young Adult action novel you’re going to want to go light on the description because your audience will have less patience.

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to tell the audience just enough to give them a clear picture and avoid any confusion. How much detail that entails, however, is up to you.

What’s your biggest challenge when writing description? What sorts of details bring a story to life for you? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue), and Part 6 (Setting and Worldbuilding).

Ready for Part 8? Click here to learn about Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist!

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10 Ways to Set a Scene With Sound: A Guest Post by Victoria Fry

Using sound in a scene will make it more vibrant for your readers. Here are 10 ways you can add more sound to your story!The following is a guest post from blogger and writing coach Victoria Fry.

One of our greatest aims as writers is to make our story come alive in the minds of our readers.  One of the best ways to do that is to imbue both its background and foreground with sensory details, though not so much that they take over and distract from the really important stuff, like whether our character will manage to wriggle out of whatever tight spot they’ve found themselves in.

When it comes to sensory description, it sometimes takes a bit of practice to think what to add, and we can fall into a trap of drawing only on cliches.  Push through that, though, and the results are worth it!

Sit back and think for a moment about how vibrant a scene could be if you used the ping of a metal baseball bat hitting a ball as your character has an emotional phone conversation in the park, or the abrupt roar of a lawnmower interrupt a romantic proposal.  It’s just that little bit richer, right?  Read on to discover ten ways (of many!) you can set a scene with sound.

1. Conversation

This is one of the aspects of sound we’re likely most familiar with as writers, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit this powerful tool, especially if you go against the grain.

Think how different a room and situation feels if people are arguing with hushed, clipped voices as opposed to wall-shaking yells, or if they’re flirting with raucous laughter instead of mincing giggles.  Pay attention to the inflections your characters place on certain words and phrases, too, and the rhythm of the conversation.

2. Weather

The emphatic pit-pat of rain on a tin roof, sliding down the flaps of a canvas tent (don’t touch the canvas or you’ll get soaked!), or crashing down in a torrent.  The howl of gale-force winds.  The gentle stillness that comes after a snowstorm, when everyone’s still tucked up at home, peeking out their windows at the thick blanket of icy white crystals.

Weather is conspicuous in both its “pay attention to ME!” and its “sssssh, you won’t even know I’m here” moments.  You don’t have to use it in every scene, but think about how its inclusion could layer into the backdrop for your scene’s setting.

3. Vehicles

I don’t know much about cars, but I know that several noises spark an uh-oh in my mind: a growling engine, a wet plop on the windshield, and a slow hiss.

Even if it’s not an “uh-oh” moment, the sound a vehicle makes is dependent on when it was made, how well it’s maintained, and what make it is (Prius, Vibe, Mazda, to give a few examples).  Some cars purr along the roadway, while others sound like they’re eating it up and spitting it out as they roar down the highway.

And don’t forget about the windshield wipers, the car stereo, the click of the seat belt …

4. Technology

If you don’t think technology has a soundtrack, then you’ve never heard a gamer frantically clicking the mouse button to take down a zombie or an online shopper spamming the refresh button in their browser to catch a flash sale. Different computer keyboards (both external and laptop ones) have different touches, some clunkier than others.

And let’s not forget the classic example of a phone slamming down on the hook, although these days it’s more likely to be a mild snick as you flip your cellphone closed or a “beep” when you hit the “end call” button (not nearly as satisfying).

5. Animals

Ah, the animal kingdom.  A snake’s rattle while walking in the desert; a deep, gruff bark from the next door neighbor’s chihuahua; a high-pitched squeak of a sneeze from a kitten.  The noise an animal makes can make a scene feel cozy and welcoming or foreboding and goosebump-inducing.

Play with the sounds your character’s pet makes when they’re being ignored, when they’re sad, when something scares them or kicks off their protective instincts.

6. The Great Outdoors

Chances are your story takes place at least partially outside (although even a story set on a space station could play on the silence beyond the station’s walls).  With that in mind, play up the natural surroundings.  Maybe it’s the ocean lapping at the shore.  Maybe dry grasses are whispering, poplars shivering in the breeze.  Maybe it’s a stone on the trail, being kicked along the path with a dull “thwok.”

7. Seasonal

If you’ve thought about outdoor and weather-related noises already, seasonal noises are a perfect way to round out a natural trio.  Have a think about where your story takes place and what time of year it is, what the weather’s been like, and then go nuts!

Your character might hear someone crunching through snow outside their window, or go for a walk in the forest amongst the crackling leaves.  Seasonal music might be playing on the radio.  A house next door to a high school will enjoy relative peace for the summer months.

8. Hobbies

Often we know that a character enjoys a particular hobby, but we don’t see them partake in it.  If that’s the case for your story, you could really be missing out.  Imagine a character seething about something as they whir along on a sewing machine, or finding a meditative rhythm in the rasp of a handsaw.  If they’re handy in the kitchen, consider the sound of pans settling in the oven or a knife cutting on a marble cutting board as opposed to a wooden one.

9. Sports

One sport alone can host all manner of sounds.

Take tennis, for example.  There’s the thwack of the ball against the tennis racket, and the way it sounds when it hits the edge of the racket versus the strings.  There’s the hush that descends over the court at professional matches.

Different tennis players make different noises after hitting particularly strenuous shots, too: some grunt, some hoot, some squeak.  Tennis shoes dancing across the court make a particular shff-shff sound.

10. Laughter and Tears

Chances are you’ve sat near that person in the movie theatre who guffaws loudly enough to drown out the sound from the film, or wrung your hands as someone you cared about burst into body-shaking sobs.  Don’t forget the silent criers, either, or the muffled laughter, the sniffly bouts of tears, the wheezing cackle.

These pinnacles of human emotion fall all over the map, and they’re incredibly hard to ignore. Someone who’s laughing or crying, no matter how quietly they go about it, will draw attention.

Observe Sound in Real Life

At the end of the day, the best way to catalog sounds for your stories is to investigate.

Watch a movie or a documentary and close your eyes for part (or all!) of it.  Go outside, sit on a park bench or at a bus stop, and document the sounds you hear.  Join someone in the kitchen when they’re making a meal and (so long as they’re not desperately in need of a sous chef!), write down all the sounds, especially the obscure ones.

Next time you’re writing, try incorporating some of these sounds into your story, and see how it feels when you read it aloud.

What are some of your favorite or most memorable sounds?  I get super nostalgic whenever I hear an ice cream truck dingling down the street!

About the Author

victoriaVictoria Fry is an avid writer and writing coach. She specializes in helping writers (re)discover the joy in their writing process through her blog, one-on-one coaching sessions, and free courses and workshops.

Her latest offering is the Create an Epic Character Foundation workbook, which she created to help writers dig deep and get to know their characters from the ground up!  Feel free to say hello on Twitter; she’s always happy to chat about gaming and knitting, along with all things writing.

Clutter Words to Cut from Your Writing

10+ words you can cut from your writing for leaner, tighter prose. One mark of a good writer is the ability to communicate more with less. Editors like lean prose that’s effective and clear without wasting words. Often, our writing becomes cluttered without us realizing it. Words that seem innocent enough can actually detract from what you’re trying to say and add unneeded “fluff.” So how can you create tight, lean prose? Here are some words to cut from your writing!

NOTE: While these words can often clutter your writing, that’s not always the case. Exceptions can always be made, and it’s up to you to use your judgement to decide when a word can stay and when it needs to go.

1.Of the

“Of the” is almost always unnecessary and can be simplified.

Examples:

The owner of the restaurant.

The restaurant owner.

The wheels of the skateboard.

The skateboard’s wheels.

One of the nails came loose.

A nail came loose.

2. That

This one seems innocent enough, but again it can almost always be cut without any damage. If you have “that” in a sentence remove it, and if what’s left still makes sense then it’s unnecessary.

He said that he was coming.

He said he was coming.

Our teacher promised that there wouldn’t be any homework.

Our teacher promised there wouldn’t be any homework.

3. Adverbs

Most adverbs are either redundant or superfluous. For example:

“I have to go,” she whispered quietly.

Whispering implies being quiet, so “quietly” is redundant and can be cut.

He moved quickly across the lawn.

If we choose a strong verb the adverb becomes unnecessary and the writing becomes tighter and punchier:

He dashed across the lawn.

4. Almost/slightly/somewhat

Words like almost, slightly, somewhat, etc. aim to de-emphasize. This can weaken your writing. Observe:

The weather was somewhat hot.

The weather was balmy.

He backed up slightly.

He took a step back.

Her hair was almost soaked.

Her hair was wet.

Be as clear and direct as possible! Don’t waver in-between.

5. Really/very/quite

These words aim to emphasize, but if we choose our words carefully to begin with, they become unnecessary.

He ran really fast across the parking lot.

He bolted across the parking lot.

They had a very good time.

They had an excellent time.

The mouse was quite large.

The mouse was massive.

6. Adjectives

While not all adjectives are bad, you can usually eliminate or combine them without losing meaning. Watch out for piling on too many adjectives, and try to choose strong nouns that could replace them.

The small, fluffy, white kitten

The white kitten (small and fluffy is implied with kittens)

The large spotted dog

The dalmatian

7. Things/Stuff

Vague words like things, stuff, something, etc. should be avoided whenever possible because they do little to help the reader. Be specific to communicate clearly and give the reader a vivid picture!

She knew they needed to talk about things.

She knew they needed to talk about Max cheating with Em.

The table was littered with random art stuff.

The table was littered with pens, charcoal, paper wads, and brushes whose bristles were gummy with dried paint.

8. Most dialogue tags

Sometimes we need dialogue tags (said, shouted, whispered, etc.) to let us know who’s speaking. But often we can use character actions to communicate the same information in place of dialogue tags, or drop both altogether. For example:

Derek shoved his sweet potatoes around his plate. “I’m not hungry.”

His mother sighed. “Stop being picky.”

“I’m not picky. Potatoes shouldn’t be orange.”

“It’s good for you.”

“I don’t trust orange food.” He shoved his plate away.

There wasn’t a single dialogue tag in that conversation but you probably didn’t have any trouble following who was saying what. When you do find yourself in need of a dialogue tag, it’s usually best to use said over words like intoned, stated, etc.

9. Thought/realized/wondered

Just like with dialogue tags, we can communicate a character’s thoughts without words like realized, wondered, pondered, etc. I have a more detailed article explaining how to communicate a character’s thoughts which you can read here.

10. Then

This is a sneaky clutter word that can often be cut from your writing without changing its meaning.

Sara called a cab and then grabbed her coat.

Sara called a cab and grabbed her coat.

Do you struggle with any of these clutter words? Are there any other words you avoid? Let me know in the comments below!

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How to Accept Your Writing (When You Feel Like the Worst Writer Ever)

How to Accept Your Writing | Feel like the worst writer ever? You're not, though some days it can be hard to remember. Learn how to find acceptance in yourself as a writer.

This past week, I was in a horrible writing rut. It was one those moods where you hate everything you write and you feel like you’re the worst writer in the world.

No fun.

I knew it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t figure out how to break free from the frustration and doubt. I started analyzing why I felt this way and unearthed my darkest writer insecurities. (Boy, we writers are a sensitive lot, aren’t we?)

And you know what I realized? I needed to work on accepting my writing, and who I am as a writer. Since this epiphany I’ve already gained a new perspective on my writing and have a better attitude towards it. I feel like I’ve made such a huge breakthrough! Seriously. I can’t even describe the feeling of peace and oneness (I don’t know how else to describe it okay!) I feel with my writing.

My writing is who I am. And who I am is enough. I am enough as a writer.

I know accepting my writing is something I will have to continue to work at, but I already feel so much more confident and content. So how can you start your journey toward accepting your writing? Here are 8 thoughts to consider.

1. Understand what constitutes good writing–and that these techniques are do-able.

The good news is you don’t have to be a literary genius to have good, clean writing. The techniques used to create good writing are ones that can be learned. And good writing does not equal pretty prose!

I feel like a lot of people get confused over what good writing looks like, and what exactly makes something “well written.” I am talking strictly about prose here, not the execution of plot or development of characters. Good writing:

  • Communicates ideas clearly
  • Uses correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation
  • Uses appropriate punctuation without overuse of dashes, ellipses, or semi-colons
  • Ensures sentences flow together smoothly and their structure is varied
  • Breaks paragraphs into appropriate sizes to control the pacing
  • Is tight without unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs, or scenes
  • Uses appropriate word choice to set the mood and tone
  • Uses appropriate vocabulary for targeted audience
  • Helps the reader visualize the scene with description
  • Avoids an overabundance of description and purple prose
  • Engages the senses
  • Uses natural dialogue
  • Avoids crazy speech tags, mostly using ‘said’
  • Expresses the character’s emotions, feelings, and reactions
  • Avoids too much interior monologue
  • Avoids cliches
  • Uses strong verbs and avoids overusing adverbs
  • Avoids overusing adjectives
  • Uses specific over general nouns (i.e. Border Collie instead of dog)
  • Has a voice, whether it’s the author’s or character’s
  • Avoids info dumps and telling
  • Uses active voice rather than passive
  • Uses poetic devices such as similes and metaphors where appropriate
  • Either moves the story forward or develops the world or characters

Okay, that may seem like a lot and it is. Good writing is possible to achieve, but it isn’t easy! You have to work at it and keep practicing. But I promise eventually you will ingrain these techniques into your brain and begin to do them without thinking.

2. Pretty prose isn’t necessary, so don’t beat yourself up over it.

Beautiful, jaw-dropping prose is something that I feel is more of a talent than something that can be learned. Some writers can do it, and others can’t.

And for those of us who can’t, it can be really frustrating. But you have to remember that the quality of your story will trump your prose every time. Pretty prose isn’t necessary to becoming a successful author.

Look at J.K. Rowling. She wrote a phenomenal series with a great plot and characters, but if we’re being honest her prose isn’t all that great. But do I (or millions of other readers) care about that? Hells no! Readers will forgive poor prose if the story is amazing. But they will not forgive gorgeous prose that tells a crappy story.

So if you can’t write prose like James Joyce don’t sweat it! Work on making your plot and characters outstanding. That’s what readers are opening your book for anyway–not to oogle over pretty words.

3. Know what kind of writer your are.

Are you writing literary or commercial fiction? My guess is the second. It’s the category the majority of writers fall into. But what’s the difference?

Literary fiction–focuses on internal rather than external conflict. The plot moves slowly and goes in depth developing the characters. Also uses beautiful prose and artistic/unconventional techniques. The literary writer may only write one book and usually (though not always) writes for the sake of art rather than making a living/career. (It’s harder to make money in the literary market).

Commercial fiction–focuses more on external conflict and is written mainly as entertainment. The pace is usually faster to hold the reader’s attention. The writing is also clean and simple without being overly poetic so it is easy to understand. The commercial fiction writer usually writes multiple books (often a series) and seeks to make a career/living with their work.

Knowing which market you’re writing for can help keep things in perspective. I’m definitely a commercial fiction writer. I like to read/write for entertainment, and I want to make a career from my writing. So I don’t need to put unnecessary pressure on myself to be obscurely artistic or avant-garde, or have gorgeous prose.

4. You are not Tolstoy, Tolkien, or Hemingway (and that’s okay).

Stop comparing yourself to other authors and holding yourself to these high standards. They will crush you. And you know what? The truth is there will always be a writer who is better than you. You don’t have to be the best, and that’s OKAY!

This isn’t a competition! I know sometimes we can become perfectionists about our work, but don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. Write to the best of your ability. Your best is enough! You might not be able to write like Tolkien but guess what? Someday, you’re going to be someone’s favorite author. So who cares? Throw perfectionism out the window.

5. There will always be writers worse than you.

The funny thing about writers is we always tend to compare ourselves up instead of down. But pause for a moment and think about it. There are writers out there who write worse than you–and some of them are even published!  If they can get published then why not you?

6. Your ideas will never sound as awesome on paper as they did in your head.

This is just a frustrating fact you must accept early on. Words can’t always capture the scenes you see in your head or the emotions you feel. Sometimes they fall short. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea! You just have to do your best in translating your idea into words, even though it may seem like a dull reincarnation.

7. Understand that your first draft will be crap.

And that’s okay. First drafts are meant to be atrocious. But when you’re writing a crappy first draft it can become easy to feel like a crappy writer. You have to fight to keep things in perspective.

Try keeping a piece of your best writing handy. When you start to feel like the worst writer ever, step back and read this piece to remind yourself that’s not true. You’ll turn all this crap into gold in the editing stages!

8. Relax.

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself! You’ll suck all the fun out of writing and put a block on your brain. Accept your writing abilities and write the best story you can! Maybe one day someone out there will wish they could write like you!

Have any more ideas on how to find acceptance in your writing and yourself as a writer? Comment below, I’d love to hear them!

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Showing & Telling: How They Help Control Your Story’s Length

Showing and Telling: How They Help Control Your Story's Length | Learn how to take advantage of showing and telling and use them to manipulate your story's length! #writingtips I don’t know about you, but I’ve always struggled with short stories. I’m definitely a novel kind of girl. But I hated that short stories were getting the better of me–how could I write a 100k word novel no problem but couldn’t manage a 2k word story? It didn’t make sense. Could I figure out how to keep a story short?

Challenge accepted.

Thus began my obsessive study of short stories, which lasted almost a year. And I learned some interesting things not just about short stories, but also about how to control your story’s length in general. I’m about to share with you something it took me months to figure out.

Ready?

Showing helps make your novel long, and telling helps keep your short story short.

Well, duh, you think. It’s so obvious!

It was obvious, and it was something I knew too! Of course it takes more words to show than tell. Yet somehow I had been blind to this fact even though it was staring me right in the face.

The problem was, I was a novelist with a novelist’s mindset. And in novels, telling is usually a big no-no. But the more I studied short stories, the more I was surprised to find that not only is telling acceptable, but it’s one of the necessary elements to  keeping the story short!

Cue metaphorical light bulb.

Now I understood one of the reasons why my short stories ended up being so unwieldy. I was trying to show the reader everything just as I would in a novel, and this was adding length I didn’t want.

How Telling Keeps Things Short

Let’s check out some examples of telling in short stories, shall we?

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant (my favorite short story, give it a read if you have the chance!) opens with several long paragraphs of telling:

She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education. Her tastes were simple because she had never been able to afford any other, but she was as unhappy as though she had married beneath her; for women have no caste or class, their beauty, grace, and charm serving them for birth or family, their natural delicacy, their instinctive elegance, their nimbleness of wit, are their only mark of rank, and put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land.

This is all information that in a novel, we would show. But it would take pages and pages to do so!  Yet it works. But how does it work?

  1. Guy tells the reader information that is necessary to understanding the story.
  2. He presents the information in a way that is entertaining to read.

This can also be applied to your novel. You might have information the reader needs to know, but it’s not important enough to spend pages or chapters showing it. So what do you do? You tell them. But you don’t have to do it in a way that’s boring–use tone, similes, and word choice to make it entertaining!

Let’s look at one more example, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson:

Soon the men began to gather. surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. The women, wearing faded house dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk. They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands.
Here we are “told” what the men and women are talking about, whereas in a novel we would show this with actual dialogue. However, it works because this is all the information we need in the limited space of a short story.

How Showing Adds Length

Now, let’s switch gears. How does showing help add length to your novel?

When you show the reader something, you’re forced to use more words and page space. Telling is like a peek behind the curtain. Showing is like a backstage tour.

You could tell us Erin and Seth went on a date and had a wonderful time. Or you could show us by writing out the whole scene and letting us experience it with them.

You could tell us Erin and Seth fall in love and are crazy about each other. Or you could show us through scenes that reveal this information through their actions and words.

You could tell us Erin was upset when Seth cheated on her. Or you could show us how she found out and let us feel her pain.

Getting the idea? If you’re having a hard time getting your story novel-size, you may be trying to tell the reader too much and not showing enough. Let’s look at a quick example:

Telling: Erin was devastated at Seth’s betrayal.

Showing: Alone at last in her bedroom, Erin lost control. She fell to her knees and clutched at her hair, rocking back and forth. How. How could he do this to her? Her heart throbbed within her chest and her back shuddered with her sobs. Had everything been a lie? Had he ever loved her? Her tears dripped onto the frayed carpet. How could she have been so stupid? She should have known.

Showing gets you up close and personal with the viewpoint character, and reveals more details than telling allows. If you keep this up throughout an entire novel, you’re going to add a considerable amount of length!

Need More Techniques?

So how did I fare with my short story challenge? Not only did I finally manage to write a short story of appropriate length, but I also succeeded in getting it published. Not bad, right?

Even better, I’ve taken everything I learned from my journey and created an epic workbook to help you out! It’s called “The Epic Guide to Growing Your Idea Into a Novel-Sized (Or Short) Story.” 

If you’re wondering how to keep a short story short or how to fill up a novel, this workbook is for you!

I break down the process of taking an idea and turning it into a story, and share the techniques you’ll need to achieve the length you want. Plus, it has accompanying worksheets to help you through the process. This is stuff it took me months of studying and analyzing to figure out!

You can learn more and purchase your workbook here for only $5! (Seriously, I wish I’d had this guide when I first started trying to figure this out!).

I truly feel that the information in this book is worth more than the $5, but I intentionally wanted to keep the price low for all of you new writers uncertain about investing a lot of money in your craft. I feel you, my friend, I’ve been there.

What are your thoughts? Do you use showing and telling to help control the length of your story? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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Are You Making These Point of View Mistakes?

Are You Making These Point of View Mistakes? | Two #POV mistakes you want to avoid in your #story!Point of view is important to your story, and it must be established immediately. Why? Because the reader needs to know whose “head” they’re in, whose story this is. Your hero is the reader’s access point to the story. They will experience the story along with the hero–through his or her point of view.

There are a couple mistakes I’ve seen made frequently with point of view, especially by new writers. I think these come from the writer trying to do too much and trying to show the reader everything.

But that’s the thing about POV–you can’t show the reader everything. To understand what I mean, let’s examine these two POV mistakes.

Mistake #1: Head Hopping

When you’re writing a scene, make sure you only stay in one character’s head at a time. Switching back and forth between characters is known as “head hopping” and it’s jarring to the reader.

So what does this look like? Here’s an example:

Melissa wondered why Tom had asked her to meet him in the middle of the night. She leaned against the tree at the edge of the park, watching him approach.

“Hey,” she said, “Is everything all right?”

Tom took her hands in his. How could he tell her what was happening? He didn’t want to frighten her. “I’m fine. Listen, I need you to leave town for a few days.”

“What do you mean? Why?” What was going on, Melissa wondered.

“I just need you to trust me,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t argue. “Take this.” He pressed the train ticket he had purchased that morning into her hand.

Melissa shook her head. She wasn’t going anywhere until she had answers. Tom saw the look on her face and knew she wasn’t giving up easily.

***

It’s like watching a ping pong match, isn’t it? We keep switching back and forth between Melissa and Tom’s head, and not only is it disorienting, but it’s boring.

But why is it boring?

Because we’re being told everything. There’s no work left for the reader. There are no blanks for us to fill in, nothing for us to guess at or wonder. The writer has unintentionally deprived the reader of one of the joys of reading.

When we’re in one character’s head at a time, we’re constantly trying to interpret and figure out what the other character is thinking and feeling by judging their body language, dialogue, and whatever other clues the writer might provide. There’s something tantalizing about trying to figure out the puzzle of a character.

I think writers fall into this habit of head hopping because they want to let the reader know what each character in a scene is thinking/feeling. But it’s just not good having too many characters sharing the stage at once–after a while we may wonder whose story this even is.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean you can’t use more than one POV in your story. Stories with multiple POVs  are fantastic! The rule is to stay in one character’s POV per scene. If you want to change POV, then you need to switch to a new scene.

Mistake #2: Showing the Same Thing Twice

When you’re writing a story where you’re switching back and forth between multiple POVs, there’s one mistake you’re going to want to avoid: Never show the reader the same thing twice. What do I mean by this?

Let’s say you have a scene in which Sarah wins her swim meet competition. Then we switch to the next scene, which is from her boyfriend Matt’s POV…and it shows him watching her compete. We already know the outcome of the competition–we experienced it from Sarah’s POV–so we’re not going to care what happens here.

Never show the same scene from two different POVs. It’s going to kill your story’s tension and momentum. Yes, each character will see and experience it differently and this may be interesting to you, but it’s going to bore your reader. You’re just going to sound repetitive, and the reader is going to start skimming (harsh, I know). But we read because we want to know what happens next, not what has already happened.

As a writer, you have to choose from whose POV it’s best to show each scene. This isn’t easy, and I know it’s tempting to show both, but don’t. You can’t show the reader everything and you shouldn’t–you need to place trust in her that she can fill in the blanks.

Have you made either of these POV mistakes in your writing?

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How to Write Your Character’s Thoughts

Confused about how to #write your character's thoughts? Learn how to bring readers inside your character's head.At some point in your story, you’re probably going to want to let the reader know what your protagonist is thinking. Sharing your hero’s thoughts helps us get to know him better and brings us closer to him. But when you come to that moment you hesitate.

How are you supposed to convey your character’s thoughts on the page? Do you use italics? Quotation marks? End them with the speech tag ‘he thought’?

No, no, and no.

Quotation marks should be used only for words being spoken aloud. The most common method I’ve seen for setting apart thoughts is the use of italics. “He/she thought” at the end of a thought is also pretty common. These methods are alright.

But there’s a better way.

Using Writer Magic to Convey Thoughts

A truly skilled writer can convey his or her character’s thoughts in a way that draws us right into the character’s head without distracting italics or speech tags. “What is this witchcraft?” you ask. Well, let’s take a look.

Example 1:

Kali hurried though the village. She wondered if he was already waiting for her. She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She knew she should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on talking about the chickens. Sweat trickled down her neck and she wiped it away. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair and wished she had taken the time to fix it before running out the door.

Kali ran past the village outskirts and into the forest. They really needed to find a better meeting place, she thought. When she reached the oak tree and saw Liam standing there her heart fluttered. He’s the only secret I’ve ever had.

Example 2:

Kali hurried through the village. Was he already waiting for her? She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on and on about the chickens. Chickens this, and eggs that. Be sure to this, don’t do it like that. Kali had been fidgety with impatience and couldn’t much remember the details. Hopefully they weren’t too important.

Sweat trickled down her neck and she wiped it away. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair. Saints! Why hadn’t she taken a moment to fix it? Perhaps he wouldn’t notice. Boys usually didn’t notice things like that…did they? Kali ran past the village outskirts and into the forest. They really needed to find a better meeting place, maybe over by–

She reached the oak and saw Liam standing there. Her heart fluttered. He was her only secret. And she planned on keeping him.

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Over exaggerated, yes, but you get the point. Notice the difference between the two examples. The second one is more engaging, and brings you into Kali’s head more than the first one with all the she wondered, thought, etc. But how? It has more of Kali’s voice–it’s almost as though she is the narrator, yet we stay in third person point of view.

In the second example I took out all of the she wondered, thought, knew, and italics. Why? Because these are all interruptions by the author. They reveal that there’s a puppet master pulling the strings. In the second example I shut up and let Kali speak. I stayed invisible. And that brings the reader closer to the character, allowing them to slip right into her mind.

The Problem with Speech Tags and Italics

Speech tags and italics form a barrier between the character and the reader. Don’t try to separate your character’s thoughts from the narrative. Instead, blend them together seamlessly by filtering everything through your character’s voice. How does  she see the world? Allow her thoughts and opinions to shape the narrative.

I think a lot of writers use speech tags and italics because they’re afraid their readers won’t know what is a thought otherwise. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence! Don’t try so hard to make them “get it.” Readers are smart and can figure things out.

Now, some of you might still be clinging to the italics. “Why can’t I use italics? If the character is speaking in first person doesn’t that draw the reader into their head?” you ask.

Well, there’s certainly no rule that says you can’t use italics. But here are my reasons not to. #1: It can be jarring and somewhat disorienting switching back and forth between third and first person. #2: It still separates the reader from the character, letting us only see her thoughts when you want us to. #3: It prevents you from getting into the habit of using a blended narrative, because you will always want to show thoughts in italics. The story will then likely be told in more of your voice than the character’s.

Distance or Proximity?

Now, these aren’t necessarily bad things. It depends on the story you’re writing. You may want to write a story with an omniscient third person point of view that puts more distance between the reader and hero. It’s up to you!

I have used italics in the past, but I decided that the technique of blending the character’s thoughts into the narrative works better for the stories I tell. I want to bring my readers as close to my hero as possible. I want to tear down all the barriers.

How do you convey your character’s thoughts? Do you think you will try to cut out italics and speech tags?

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