Writer Anon sent in this plea from the heart: I belong to an online writing group and one of the other writers in the group read the opening of my novel and said it was a load of cliché-ridden tripe with emotionless cardboard cut-out characters, rubbish dialogue and unrealistic settings. He said I should give up because I’m never going to make it as a writer. I’m scared he might be right. Would you read my opening chapters and tell me if I should quit?
No, I’m afraid I don’t have the time to read and comment on your writing, but even if I did have time, I would never advise anyone to give up on their dreams. What I can do is give you some pointers on the aspects your writing group peer has highlighted.
Firstly, the problem with clichés is that all too often they sum up exactly what we want to say, which is how they became clichés. When any currently well-known phrase was first written it wasn’t a cliché. A writer sat down and thought of an original way to express something – and it worked so well that others used it until it became a cliché. Your job as a writer is to find new phrases to express your thoughts and emotions, rather than using the words of others.
Moving on to the characters, unless you know and believe in your characters as real people, they will come across as one-dimensional and cardboard to your readers. You need to know everything about them – what’s their background? What drives them? What do they want? What do they fear? You have to know them so well that you instinctively know how they would react both physically and emotionally in any given situation.
Show their emotions through their actions and dialogue. Don’t tell your readers the characters are upset, angry, happy, sad or any other emotion, show them! Let the characters throw things, pace up and down, punch someone, yell, scatter flowers at a lover’s feet – in other words, have them react on the page.
Put yourself firmly in a character’s head. Become that person while writing – how would the character feel? In each scene and plot twist, what would he or she do and say? If you know the character as well as you should, the responses will enhance the characterisation.
The character’s personality should shine through in the dialogue; this will bring a character to life far more than any amount of description. So how do you get the dialogue to flow? One easy way is to imagine each scene in your mind and then become the character. Act it out in your head. Write the dialogue you can ‘hear’ your characters speaking. Afterwards, read it out loud. Does it sound credible? Does it sound like people talking, or is it stilted?
Whatever your character says should fit his or her background and education level. Use dialect to show where the character comes from, but don’t overdo it. If a reader has to stop every five minutes to try to figure out what someone is saying, they’ll soon lose interest.
One thing to be wary of is using dialogue to tell your readers things that the characters themselves would already know. This is known as ‘As You Know, George’ dialogue. Where the dialogue sounds false, you need to find another way of imparting information to the reader.
So, now that we’ve covered clichés, characters and dialogue, that only leaves settings. The three Ss are your friend here. Sight, sound and smell. If you can introduce these three aspects into your writing the setting will come to life for the reader. You have to become the eyes, ears and nose of your readers, but this (in my opinion) is one of those areas where less is more. Don’t overdo the descriptive passages. Often small touches bring settings to life – in a ghost story, for example, the whisper of a chill breeze blowing out a candle in a windowless room, with the scent of hot wax hanging in the air, sets the scene for fear much better than saying the house was haunted.
I hope the above helps with the issues raised by person in your writing group. Please don’t give up, because clearly you care enough about being a writer to have written to me and no one has the right to take away another’s dreams.
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