Thursday, September 11, 2014

Control Your Flow: a wordsmith workshop

This post is Part 2 of a series to augment the Tips for Writing Fiction available for free download. Start with Part 1 here.

This and other writing workshops are gathered in my Workshops Directory for you to explore.

Find my world workshops in the Worldbuilding Directory.

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the storycraft aspects of flow - what flow is, why it should fluctuate, and where to adjust it for best effect. Now, we get down to the nitty gritty of how to use language to control your flow.

First, the basics! Each scene of your tale has its own natural flow, determined by content and the way you tell the story. Action, plot events, excitement, and suspense naturally flow fast, while introspection, description, and other exposition slow down your natural flow. Certain scenes require a slower flow, and provided you've structured your story to build good momentum, you can use action and exposition to regulate your pace.

However, a faster flow is crucial for battles, escapes, and other plot-driven scenes. Too much exposition makes your story clumsy, but no exposition at all confuses readers. This balance is especially delicate in your opening scene, where you want to engage readers with action and excitement. How can you deliver a fast-paced flow without surrendering all your explanations?

The answer is to avoid devoting full sentences to exposition. Instead, parse your descriptions into a few words or key phrase, and attach those words to exciting sentences. Break up exposition into bite-sized chunks that don't impede the natural flow of the action.

Check these Tips for Writing Fiction to see more workshops!

This preserves the momentum of the story, instead of causing your scene to stumble. The following example sentences from my Tales of the Known World saga demonstrate this principle in action:

Example 1: Head and shoulders above the dark-haired crowd, [Haisrir] made a fist to bid again, his handsome features contorting into a crazed smirk when he noticed Larin's scrutiny.
- excerpt from Chapter 1 of Awakening

In this sentence, the important actions are a) Haisrir places another bid, and b) he catches Larin studying him. But by attaching extra words to these events, I sneak in some description without bogging down the scene. With little effort, you absorb that the crowd is dark-haired, and that Haisrir is tall and handsome. You also encounter his crazed smirk, which characterizes him better than a whole sentence about how manic and cruel he seems.

Some descriptions can't be parsed without losing important connotations. You can streamline a lone sentence of exposition by using active verbs instead of descriptive verbs.

Example 2: Polished silver capped the sharp points of his backswept ears, and his pale yellow horsetail shone white in the overcast glare of midmorning.
- excerpt from Chapter 1 of Awakening

There is no event in this whole sentence, but it delivers description in the guise of action. The silver capped his ears, and his hair shone white--both inert objects seem more interesting as the subjects of active verbs. This creates a faster flow than a sentence like, "His pointed ears were capped with silver, and his hair was so blond it looked almost white."

Streamlined sentences bear extra description better than traditional counterparts. Compare Example 2 to a similar description: "He had backswept ears with sharp points, which were capped in polished silver, and his yellow horsetail was so pale it looked almost white in the overcast glare of midmorning." Though it imparts the same details, this construction lacks the punch of Example 2, and impedes the natural flow of the action.

Everyone's wordsmith style is different, but you can start by targeting is/are/was/were sentences in your story. By eliminating these words, you'll weave your exposition in new ways, either by affixing details to action sentences (as in Example 1), or by wording your descriptive sentences with active verbs (as in Example 2). How and when you decide to break from this guideline is a matter of style, but you'll develop your own sense of what scenes require these techniques.

That's it for this series! Check out the latest writing workshops for more.

Download Tips for Writing Fiction here, or start your adventure below.

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