Fight, Seduction, Negotiation

In last week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, playwright Pete Peterson suggested that every scene of a play should be either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. That sounds like the kind of oversimplification/generalization that couldn’t possibly stand up to scrutiny; indeed, I might add jockeying for position and forming an alliance to the list of available speech acts in dramatic or fictional dialogue. But I do think this rule of thumb is exceedingly helpful for any writer, for at least three reasons:

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When to be clear and direct…and when not to be

In my fiction workshop last week, I received a story in which a character speaks with directness, clarity, and precision, comparing his mother’s parenting style to his wife’s parenting style, much to the chagrin of his wife. It’s a key moment in the story. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least believable. The problem is the directness, the clarity, and the precision.

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Spending Our Days, Spending Our Lives

I’ve been reading through Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and I just got to that oft-quoted chestnut, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that hour, is what we are doing.”

I have had ample opportunity to reflect on these ideas these last three weeks. I’ve been the “Writer in Residence” at Furman University (my alma mater), teaching a creative writing course three hours a day and staying alone in an apartment near campus. The demands on my time are probably less than usual, but they are different demands, and I am just now settling into a routine that feels steadily productive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not settling into a steady routine so much as producing from a sense of urgency; now that my days as Writer in Residence are almost done, I need to do more writing and less residing.

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Congratulations Ensued: On Nominalization

Here’s a quick tip that can improve your writing almost immediately: for every sentence you write, make sure you can say where the real action is. What are the actions and who are the actors. Who is doing what? Then, make it your default to express the actions as verbs and the actors as the subjects of those verbs.

If this advice seems self-evident, it’s not. True, we all learn that verbs are action words, but the subject-verb nexus is only one of many ways that the English language allows us to communicate action. (Consider the fact that the word action is not a verb but a noun). I am not insisting that you always express actions as verbs and actors and subjects, only that you make it your habit to compose your sentences that way unless you have a reason not to.

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Liars, Con-Men, and Writers: On Specificity and Believability

There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 in which Falstaff explains why he and three of his fellows ran away from a fight. They were ambushed, he tells Prince Hal, by a hundred armed men. His account is harrowing:

                 I am eight times thrust through the
doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut
through and through; my sword hacked like a
hand-saw…

Notice the specificity of the detail he offers. Falstaff invites his listener into the scene, makes his story believable by providing these details that add texture. Eight sword-thrusts through his doublet and four through his hose! Those telling details speak not only of the violence of the encounter, but also the nearness of the danger.

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Seeing What You See: On Imagery

You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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The Draft and the Marathon: Hierarchies and Territories

Last weekend was probably the busiest ever in my town of Nashville. The picture above shows what Broadway looked like on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The two biggest events of the weekend were the NFL draft (200,000+ people per day) and the Nashville Marathon and Half-Marathon (19,005 runners, plus at least that many spectators). Both events were highly competitive, and both involved athletes who had worked very hard for the big day. But two different kinds of competitive spirit prevailed at the NFL draft and the Nashville Marathon, and the difference is relevant to the writing life. 

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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