As 2015 draws to a close, what better way to round off the year than with something that every writer should keep close at hand as a reminder for their writing?
The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist is a list of useful prompts and reminders that even experienced writers sometimes forget. That’s because we become so wrapped up with our writing that we are all capable of forgetting the simplest things from time to time.
This list covers those essential elements that sometimes slip through the net. It will help you when you come to revise your drafts and edit your work, and hopefully make everyone better writers.
In Part 1 we’ll kick off the list and Part 2 will appear in January 2016.
Begin to/Decide to/Going to
Here’s one of those peculiar instances in fiction of what seems right, but isn’t. Don’t have characters ‘begin to’ do things. In real life, we don’t actually begin to do anything, we just do it. Fiction is no different, so have your characters take direct action. For example:
They began to speak, she began to run, he began to dig…
We’re all guilty of this at times, so go through your story and take them out. Ensure the characters take direct action, for instance:
They spoke, she ran, he dug…
The same principle applies when characters ‘decide to’. Don’t have people ‘decide to’ do things. Whist people in real life do decide things; in fiction we can’t really show this process. We can tell the reader that a character is thinking or contemplating what to do, but where action is concerned, characters don’t decide to do anything. For example:
After the meeting, he decided to leave for home.
Deciding to do something stalls the active part of the narrative. Just have them do it, for instance:
After the meeting he left for home.
Yet another of the ‘begin to/decide to’ constructions is ‘going to’. While this is not exactly incorrect, many writers still use it, especially when showing character’s thoughts, or in dialogue, for example:
She was going to be angry.
‘He is going to be upset,’ he said.
Always aim to make sentence constructions better, so instead of ‘going to’, it is better to use ‘will’, for instance:
She will be angry.
‘He will be upset,’ he said.
Always aim for dialogue that flows naturally and relates to the story. Don’t prattle and don’t have characters talk about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. Vary the dialogue, but try to keep it brief, and don’t overuse character names, for example:
‘Listen, Jane, I’m glad you’re here. I really need your help. I need all the files on this case; I need you to help me go through them with a fine tooth comb. I know it’s a pain in the backside, Jane, what with all the overtime you’ve put in, and I know how much you’re saving for that holiday in Bali, but you know how important this is to me, right, Jane?’
Dialogue like this can be much better by keeping it brief and to the point and removing the repetition of Jane, for instance:
‘Jane, I need all the files on this case; we need to go through all of them. It’s important.’
The second example is straight to the point and cuts out the waffle. Less prattle here means more description and narrative elsewhere.
Gerunds are the nouns that end with ‘ing’. For example: smoke = smoking, run = running, read = reading. They are fine when used in the right context, but in narrative they have a tendency to creep in when the sentence structures are ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, for instance:
He grabbed the rope, pulling it as hard as he could, heaving the dead weight up and over the edge, relying on his upper body strength to do it…
Every writer does this – it’s natural to do it, however, sentences are stronger without them. That’s not to say that they aren’t useful, because they are, in the right places, but in a sentence like the example above, they tend to weaken the writing. It’s better written like this:
He grabbed the rope, pulled it as hard as he could and heaved the dead weight up and over the edge. He relied on his upper body strength to do it…
Not one gerund appears in this second example, because the sentence structure makes it hard to fall into the habit of using them.
One way to make writing better and tighter is to avoid overuse of participial phrases. They have their uses in the right places within narrative, but it is often much better without them. Writers have a really bad habit of using these; especially beginners, for example:
Lifting the heavy bags of shopping, she made her way to the front door.
Running for the elevator, he caught Jane’s attention.
Both these examples would be much better if reconstructed without the participle, for instance:
She lifted the heavy bags and made her way to the front door.
He ran for the elevator and caught Jane’s attention.
Intensifiers & Qualifiers
These are words that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to intensify or create an effect, for instance, ‘She was really tired’. Here, ‘really’ is the intensifier, when ‘she’s tired’ is sufficient. The sentence doesn’t need anything else.
Watch out for other intensifiers such as very, so, quite, extremely and absolutely.Removing them almost always improves the sentence, so don’t rely on them.
Qualifiers are similar to intensifiers – they are words or phrases that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to attribute a quality to another word, for example:
He was somewhat busy.
She was slightly wary.
While they might look okay, they’re unnecessary. The narrative is much better without them, for example:
He was busy.
She was wary.
Intensifiers and Qualifiers enhance or limit the meaning of words, and not always for the best effect. Find them and rid your narrative of these.
Overuse of this word will lead to ‘telling’ rather than showing, which is just fine if you want to write like an 8 year old. If you’re more concerned about the quality of your writing, avoid too much use of ‘was’, for instance:
She was sitting on the park bench on the hill. It was a cold day and moisture was in the air.
Recognise this kind of writing? Three instances of ‘was’ render the narrative as ‘telling’. Without them, the sentence becomes stronger and ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’.
She sat on the park bench on the hill. She felt the cold against her skin and moisture on her tongue…
‘Was’ is necessary in the correct places within the narrative, but when it comes to descriptions, try to avoid overusing it.
We’re all guilty of this at some point. Remove superfluous details. This keeps the narrative tight and concise. Overwriting isn’t to be confused with flowery writing or purple prose.
If you want a character to get in his car to drive away, don’t have him insert the key into the lock, twist it, then lift the door handle, open the door, get in the car, then start the car.
Just have the character start the car and drive away!
Many writers accidentally use passive verbs. They have their place – they occur in essay and academic writing – but for creative fiction, they shouldn’t appear, so if you spot passive verbs within your writing, get rid of them. They weaken the narrative and tend to slow it down, for example:
The carrots were sliced by the chef.
The plant was watered by John.
Always keep verbs active, which keeps the narrative strong, for instance:
The chef sliced the carrots.
John watered the plant.
It’s that easy. Look at your sentence structures, check for passive verbs and create more active sentences.
Repetition occurs naturally when we’re in the throes of writing. We don’t notice repeated words until we read through and edit the work. Repetition can be words, sentences or phrases, for example:
She was shocked by his reaction. She thought he would be okay with her staying out with her friends a little longer than usual, but she felt shocked when he raised his voice.
Here, ‘shocked’ is repeated twice. In this case, it’s a matter of finding a synonym to replace one of them, such as ‘shaken’ or ‘stunned’.
Repetition can be used deliberately – to create the right effect – but readers will spot when it’s an effect and when the writer has simply not paid attention.
This is another of the words that creep into our writing without us noticing, simply because it looks right and doesn’t appear out of place, for example:
The boat seemed to roll and roil in the water.
While it doesn’t appear too awkward, the construction is weakened and the aim for any writer is to make the writing strong and tight, for instance:
The boat rolled and roiled in the water.
Writers have a habit of using the wrong speaker attributions in the attempt to affect action within the narrative, but it almost always it leads the use of gerunds, the ‘ing’ or the use of adverb constructions, for example:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said, pushing him aside.
‘You’re pretty when you’re angry,’ John said, laughing.
‘Go to hell,’ she said angrily.
For a stronger, clearer narrative, use as few attributions as possible, for instance:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said. She pushed him aside.
John laughed. ‘You’re pretty when you’re angry.’
Her voice became tense. ‘Go to hell.’
Here the rewritten examples don’t have any gerunds or adverbs and it shows who is speaking, through character action. This avoids too many he said/she said attributions.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 1:
1. Don’t have characters begin to/decide to/going to
2. Create tight dialogue
3. Cut out gerunds and participial phrases.
4. Cut out Intensifiers & Qualifiers
5. Cut down on the use of ‘Was’.
6. Don’t over overwrite.
7. Remove any passive writing
8. Cut down on repetition
9. Avoid the use of ‘seemed’ or ‘seem to’.
10. Use correct speaker attributions