Monday, November 4, 2013

L is for Language

When drafting your piece, be it short fiction or long, it's important to remember that the words you choose carry weight and that consistency of voice will add depth to your characters just as much as the actions and thoughts and feelings that those words convey.

When I'm writing a first draft, basically I'm grabbing at whatever words will do to get my point across. They're like place holders. The first draft is a marathon and LANGUAGE doesn't matter as much as getting the ideas down on paper.

When I'm editing, word choice becomes much more significant. The language I choose to describe a scene will greatly enhance the experience of the reader. Words hold powerful influence over how we perceive a character or setting.

Consider the following three examples taken from the first pages of three incredible books. (By the by, I'm moving in a few weeks, so all my Harry Potter books are already packed. These three books were chosen from what has not been packed yet.)

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his hoe; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman's days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of r. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of hear, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

The Book of Flying - Keith Miller
I am dreaming. I'm dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos of spices. In this city a thousand doves live in the hundred towers of a hundred bells and in the mornings when the bell ringers toll a summons to the sun the doves scatter like blown ash across the tile roofs and light under eaves whispering lulling words to sleepers, bidding them stay in bed a little longer. And on the silver sky other wings rise.

In each case above, the language employed by the author paints a distinct picture. The narrative voice and the setting are solidified through the words chosen to describe the action. Imagine the picture you would get if the opening passage of the Hunger Games was written in the style that Keith Miller uses for the Book of Flying. You might not feel Katniss's discontent or sense of urgency at all. Miller is painting us a picture of a beautiful land of enchantment. We couldn't imagine otherwise after reading those opening words.

Jane Austen's prose, far from being just a portrait of the times in which she lived, is calculated to give you an idyllic impression of the situation of the social class she is writing about, just before she smashes it all to pieces (ever so subtly and wittily, of course).

When they say a picture paints a thousand words... remember that a word, that LANGUAGE paints pictures as well. Choose your images with care.

Friday, November 1, 2013

K is for Kinesics

When you're writing, every pen stroke/keystroke/pencil scribble should exist to support the characters and/or the plot. Every stroke has meaning, down to the painstakingly selected word so imbued with context and flavor that you could not possibly avoid using it to describe your MC's eye color.

Which is why you really have to be a student of kinesics for your active prose to come alive. defines kenesics as:
  • "the study of the way in which certain body movements and gestures serve as a form of nonverbal communication."

As with any and all literary concepts, the key here is balance. The art of kenesics is to find a way to convey meaning with a movement. But you can't just show us your characters' movements. You also have to give us meaningful context for the movements. Here's an example from (who else?) J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
   "I'm going to wash," Harry told Bill, looking down at his hands still covered in mud and Dobby's blood. "Then I'll need to see them, straightaway."
   He walked into the little kitchen, to the basin beneath a window overlooking the sea. Dawn was breaking over the horizon, shell pink and faintly gold, as he washed, again following the train of thought that had come to him in the dark garden...
   Dobby would never be able to tell them who had sent him to the cellar, but Harry knew what he had seen. A piercing blue eye had looked out of the mirror fragment, and then help had come. Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.
   Harry dried his hands, impervious to the beauty of the scene outside the window and the murmuring of the others in the sitting room. He looked out over the ocean and felt closer, this dawn, than ever before, closer to the heart of it all.
   And still his scar prickled and he knew that Voldemort was getting there too. Harry understood and yet did not understand. His instinct was telling him one thing, his brain quite another. The Dumbledore in Harry's head smiled, surveying Harry over the tips of his fingers, pressed together as if in prayer.
The actions in this scene are relatively few, but they are powerful in their simplicity. Harry washing his hands after just burying his loyal friend... this is a symbolic act of sorrow as well as resolve. By the time Harry clears the dirt away he has a better picture of what he needs to do next in his quest to defeat Voldemort. There is no need for excess here... no mention of turning on or turning off the faucet, or rubbing his hands together, or wiping his face. Those actions would convey a different emotion than Rowling wants for Harry here. The quiet, contemplative act leaves you with a sense of Harry's resolve.

Here's another moment from earlier in the book, between Ron and Harry:
   The sword clanged as Ron dropped it. He had sunk to his knees, his head in his arms. He was shaking, but not, Harry realized, from the cold. Harry crammed the broken locket into his pocket, knelt down beside Ron, and placed a hand cautiously on his shoulder. He took it as a good sign that Ron did not throw it off.
   "After you left," he said in a low voice, grateful for the fact that Ron's face was hidden, "she cried for a week. Probably longer, only she didn't want me to see. There were loads of nights when we never even spoke to each other. With you gone..."
   He could not finish; it was only now that Ron was here again that Harry fully realized how much his absence had cost them.
   "She's like my sister," he went on. "I love her like a sister and I reckon she feels the same way about me. It's always been like that. I thought you knew."
   Ron did not respond, but turned his face away from Harry and wiped his nose noisily on his sleeve. Harry got to his feet again and walked to where Ron's enormous rucksack lay yards away, discarded as Ron had run toward the pool to save Harry from drowning. He hoisted it onto his own back and walked back to Ron, who clambered to his feet as Harry approached, eyes bloodshot but otherwise composed.

Kinesics is a practice closely related to beats in dialogue, in that they both contain character action. The point is to understand which actions will be the most effective in gathering up the emotional context of the scene and delivering it to your readers.