Make your fiction pleasurable to read
If you’ve read my first blog, you know what you are going to get now. Some insight into how I’ve looked at the stories. Some feedback to the stories themselves in no particular order. Some advice to beginner writers. I say “beginners” only to distinguish them from writers who already know all this stuff and then some.
In my first blog, I’ve discussed my approach to the stories and categories I’ve created for myself. If you haven’t read it, I recommend starting there. It will give you insight into what you’re about to read here.
In this second blog, I’ll write about 3 more categories. In each of these, a story could have gotten 2 points. I’ll discuss emotions, language and dialogue (or equivalent).
Without further ado, let’s dive into emotions.
Emotions of the reader and the characters
We, readers, often seek some emotions when reading fictional stories. We may want to be scared and pick up a thriller or a horror story. Or we want to have our curiosity aroused and reach for a detective story. Or we want to feel romantic and select a love story. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but you get my meaning.
Good fiction triggers our feelings while we read. Great fiction does that even after we finish reading. Amazing fiction stays with us for years. Even if we no longer remember what the story was about, we may still remember how it made us feel. Did we laugh? Cry? Were we scared? Amazed? Or did we “just” enjoy reading and were content with the experience?
We, writers, thrive to make our readers feel at least something. We want them to be amazed, to fall in love with our writing, story and characters. But to make it happen? Not easy. A horror story may make one reader scared, another bored, and a third one may laugh (and shatter our fragile writer’s ego).
A writer has a much better chance to control the emotions of their characters. Sometimes, we want readers to feel what the characters feel, but many times we do not. We can portray a character’s confusion that we want to be funny for the reader.
When it comes to emotions, the favourite “show, don’t tell” becomes more important than ever. If you’ve read any theory about writing, you have likely stumbled across this phrase. Unlike some, I don’t think the meaning of the phrase is obvious to everyone.
So let me help you understand by “showing” instead of “telling”.
His mind refused to cooperate when he first heard the news. Not a single thought made it through the haze that filled his brain. He blinked a few times, shook his head. Even opened his mouth to speak, but no voice came out. The only thought that got through was how ridiculous he must look.
Then something inside him clicked and the news became part of his reality.
He didn’t realize he stopped breathing until his lungs screamed for air. Gasp. And then another, only louder than the one before.
No! He mustn’t show weakness! He bit the insides of his cheeks. His nails dug deep into the palms of his hands until they hurt. The pain was good. The pain kept him in control. He must stay in control He mustn’t show weakness!
If only he could stop his treacherous eyes from glistening.
When he heard the news, he was completely confused. He couldn’t believe it. Once he finally understood what they had told him, he was devasted. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, but he couldn’t help it. His eyes filled with tears.
If you want to practice your “show, don’t tell”, emotions are a great place to start. For example, write a paragraph showing that somebody is happy without using the word “happy” or “smiling”.
Beware, you can overdo it.
It’s not always necessary to “show” everything. Sometimes you want to „tell“ that the character was sad. Especially if you don’t find it particularly important or if it’s a minor character. Striking the right balance between showing and telling is a part of writing mastery. Most new writers could do with far more “showing”.
In the Fantazia Award competition, I assigned points when I’ve noticed at least some attempt to convey emotions. If a story made me laugh or made me feel at least something (boredom doesn’t count), it got more points.
Last time we finished with the number 7, so let’s start with the number 8. Again, in no particular order:
- The eighth story in my blog was set in a post-apocalyptic world and included gargoyles. Very interesting idea! Alas, not interestingly written. It was more like a sketch than a real story, not narrated. Ideas were thrown in one after another without connecting them. There was some attempt to show the emotions of the characters, but it was insufficient. Given the portrayed situation, I would expect a much stronger emotional response. A lot of what happened to the characters was “duly noted”. The dialogues also didn’t work. Language seemed OK. Characters and plot could use a lot more work, these two aspects likely suffered from the lack of “showing”.
- This story was also like a sketch. The story was about… well, I’m not entirely sure. The plot was unclear and the characters didn’t show any development. Something tragic happened and later it was revealed that it was down to humans returning. That was a nice plot twist and I particularly enjoyed that. But it lacked narration. We were thrown right into the middle of an unknown (to me) fantasy world. Fantasy stories are usually long for a good reason. The further a writer sways from the known world, the more they need to explain to readers. Emotions were another weakness of this story. The author “slaughtered” and “butchered” some characters and the emotional reaction was almost none. Yes, a protagonist “mourned” the dead, but that didn’t work on an emotional level. Go deeper!
- The next story was built on an interesting idea. The concept stayed with me and when I opened the story again to refresh my mind, I remembered it well. This is a good sign, but it needs a lot more work. It was about a spaceship disguised as a creature of that world and about becoming someone’s god. A strange combination of interesting, likeable ideas. But it is the combination that I consider to be the weakest point of this story as it seemed forced. There was some attempt to characterise the protagonists, some plot building, some narration, some emotions… just not enough of anything. It’s a decent start. The author bit more than they could chew. Some formatting and language issues also didn’t help, although I wouldn’t say they were the main problem.
- The eleventh story of my blog was about a guy who waited for the spirits of men hanged for their crimes and told them, what they should do next. The story focused on the atmosphere. I call it “painting with words”. It didn’t work in English (Note, it’s kind of strange to write “takeeeee meee” when the “e” in “take” is not pronounced). The story read like an old fairy tale and in fairy tales, nobody cared much about emotions. Although it seemed intentional, it still, naturally, got fewer points in this category. The plot could use some more narration, more “showing”, and characters could use some depth. It also wasn’t meant for an English-speaking audience, as this story doesn’t work without previous knowledge of Slovak lore and history.
- That, not being adjusted for the audience, was the weakest point of the last story mentioned in this category. It was set in Slovakia in the 90ties and relied on the reader to know a thing or two about Slovakia back then. This might have worked differently if the writer used 1st POV. As it was narrated from the 3rd POV, the judgmental attitude of the narrator annoyed me. The story had nice narration, the plot was built with some gradation and suspense, there was an attempt to develop and introduce the characters; which I appreciate. Emotions were addressed at some places, but mostly in the “tell” version. That contrasted with how wordy the story was in other places. So this story for me it’s an example of unbalanced text.
Language is your tool, use it well
Another category was language.
I admit that I have never been one who loved “painting pictures” with words. Or who would admire beautifully crafted prose with a boring or non-existent plot. I know other readers and judges in competitions have this differently. With this caveat, you know that I have not judged language very harshly.
However, if you think that honing your language skills is not important at all, think again.
John Lennon was, undoubtedly, a creative genius, but if he couldn’t sing and play the guitar well, he wouldn’t get anywhere. Those were his tools of the trade. If you’re a writer, words are yours.
The Fantazia Award competition targets mainly Slovak writers. Sometimes the language in the stories was very unnatural. If it didn’t read like a result of Google translation, I paid attention to things I would normally notice in any English writing. Is the word appropriate? Do they overuse adverbs? Do they use cliché phrases? Do they overuse passive? Do they make sentences too long? Do I understand what they want to say?
Basic things, really.
When it comes to language, people often discuss whether grammar is important and how important it is. I think that it helps to know grammar and rules of correct language use. If your story gets a professional editor, they wouldn’t need to waste time correcting basics.
If a story matters to you, make the effort. Ask for help or find paid help online – get a native speaker proofreader. I always do it for stories. If the story doesn’t matter to you, don’t send it to a competition.
I didn’t ask a proofreader to check these blogs. I’m sure I’ve left in a handful of mistakes. (But I barely found time to write them in a way to make them useful to you guys, so I hope you apologize.) Still, I have at least used online tools to make the writing better.
Even without a proofreader, if you write in English, there are many free online tools to perfect your writing. I use Grammarly and Hemingway Editor, but there are many others. Use at least them, but note, they’re far from perfect.
I didn’t give anyone 0 points in the language category. Because no matter how bad the English were, it was still understandable.
- The next story in my blog was about a/the light-bringer but the topic was approached originally. Much appreciated! I bring it into this section as an example of nice English with common language use problems. Many adverbs, long sentences (and paragraphs), and many words were used to convey the same message. As an example, on the first page, there is a 147-words-long paragraph focused solely on the character’s breathing. I think half of it would suffice.
I have the tendency to do the same. That’s why it’s screaming at me in the work of others. Advice, when you finish your first draft, read it with a finger on the Delete key.
There were many other stories with the same issue. I’ve selected this as it included emotions, tried to characterise the protagonist, had some growing suspension for the plot. It had all the ingredients of a nice story. The way it was written undermined all these attempts.
- This story was about wishes that didn’t work out quite as intended. Not the most unique idea, but it was interestingly done. Many of the ingredients of a good story are in there, but… there’s a lot of “buts” in this one.
The main character gets some attention, but the others are so superficially sketched they seem like caricatures. There is some nice plot building, but the way it’s narrated makes it sound like flipping through an old photo album. The dialogues don’t sound forced, but they don’t work well in the places where they are used. The language was nice in one place, but then full of unnecessary adverbs or Slovak phrases. The whole thing wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.
- The fifteenth story was Warhammer (fan)fiction. I don’t think fanfictions or stories using existing worlds should be sent to competitions like this. I’m pointing it out as I feel quite strongly about it. On the other hand, I didn’t have a category of originality, so I assessed the story like any other. I lacked a true narration and a good plot. This felt more like a prelude or introduction. The characters were underdeveloped. Maybe it relied on the reader being familiar with the Warhammer lore? Not sure. Why I bring it up here is to point out how nicely the writer used language to characterise protagonists. Some characters used archaic words and phrases when speaking. Others were intentionally agrammatic as a sort of dialect. That’s the way to do it!
- I liked the next story quite a lot. It was about a witch who was getting married to Not-Mr. Right. I was intrigued from the start, got pulled into the story rather soon. The plot was well built, although I really hated how it cut to the end so abruptly. As if the writer got bored with their own story. Characters could use a lot more depth, but emotions were portrayed well. Dialogues were decent, though not the best. This story was only 5 pages long. It would profit from expanding it to more pages and developing more details. The language was not bad, but there were quite a few mistakes that disturbed me. Why I placed it under this category was that the language use was at times unnatural for a 1st POV. Adjust your language to your story. For example, nobody says “I did not move”, we all use contractions (I didn’t move.)
Speaking of which. Let me give you another piece of advice for Slovaks writing in English. Pay attention to the variety of English (US vs UK and others), formality (formal, neutral, informal) and, if you want to make a real effort, to etymology.
If you decide to use UK English, don’t let Americanism creep in. If you write a period piece, check that your words aren’t modern. If you write from a 1st POV, unless you want to characterise your narrator as being a very formal and uptight person, use neutral/informal language. Not easy to do? Well, if you have a proofreader, ask them to focus on these details for you.
A Slovak reader might not notice, but an English native-speaker will likely see right away what’s wrong with this sentence:
“Blimey! If that ain’t the tallest nigga I’ve met! Nevertheless, I shall make sure we fill find some uniform for him, my lord!”
Curious, any Slovak readers who get what’s wrong there?
Dialogue (or equivalent) is a zoom function
Dialogue is somewhat connected to language and emotions. If a story didn’t have a dialogue but had some equivalent (e.g., monologue in case of 1st POV), that’s what I assessed instead. A story, of course, doesn’t have to have a dialogue to work. But most do and writing good dialogue is part of the craft.
If used well, it can be a great way to do more things at once – give readers necessary information, narrate a story, portrait a character, invoke emotions, describe a situation… Write it in a way that sounds natural, but not too natural. It’s not supposed to be a transcript of a real dialogue. It’s another tool at the writer’s disposal.
Dialogue is like zooming in to what’s going on. If you say everything in a dialogue, it can be as tiresome as leaving everything in the description. Mix it up.
Dialogue is not just what the person says. Dialogue is also what’s happening around them while they are talking and also how they are saying things.
Try an exercise. Make this dialogue sound different without changing what the characters are saying:
“I am hungry.”
“There’s a grilled chicken in the fridge.”
“Chicken? … No, thank you.”
Mary! You stupid cow! Why did you tag me on that stupid photo? I look terrible! Aargh! I need to call her. This simply won’t do.
“I’m hungry,” I stated as my stomach growled. I should get something to eat and then call Mary. Maybe a pizza? Or some pasta?
Oh no, I can’t! The stupid dare to avoid sugar, flour, meat and cheese for a whole week. Why have I agreed to that?
Another picture from that party? Mary, are you nuts?! Why do you keep posting them?
“There’s a grilled chicken in the fridge,” my mum startled me. I didn’t even realize she was in the room with me. How long has she been here? Has she seen the screen of my phone?! Omg! I hope not.
“Chicken? … No, thank you.”
A forced smile from my end, a shrug from my mother’s. Glad she’s not questioning it. She would eventually force me to tell her about the dare. Then I’d have to survive a lecture about being dared to do stupid things. No, thank you.
Can you make it sound like a horror story? Fantasy? Sci-fi? Drama? Romance? In my example I used a teenage girl, can you write it about an old man? A talking dog?
Give it a try!
Now the stories:
- The next story was among the ones I gave more points to. It was about people with an inborn lack of emotions. I truly liked the idea and the beginning was very promising. The main protagonist was nicely characterized, the plot was well built. The language use was sometimes better, sometimes worse. (“Ach” doesn’t work in English). Dialogues were not used well. They were missing in places where they could have shown the emotionlessness of characters. When present, they were either unnatural or pointless. I was also quite confused about the narrator. It sometimes looked like 3rd POV story, at others as 1st POV story. I suggest rewriting it all from 1st POV, losing the mysterious narrator and the dialogues may be easier to write.
- This story was mostly happening in the narrator’s head. It sounded like an LSD trip with a wonderful plot twist in the end. The problem that I have with this story is that the plot and the narration were too chaotic. Less drug-like experience and more narration next time? That would allow also for emotions to appear. (Although, in this case, I’d say the best way for this story to work would be to keep the main protagonist almost emotion-free and focus on the reader’s emotions. Just a thought.) Anyways, dialogues. Not working. At all. They provide no informational value to the reader and are confusing it further. The dialogue tags could use some work.
Note, English doesn’t use dashes/hyphens with dialogues (btw. this is a hyphen: -, this is an en dash: –, this is an em dash: —; all these have different functions in English, look it up)
- The next story was about magical power hidden in books in a monastery. This story is a promising first draft. It needs work. The plot is nicely built, narration was dragging in some places and lacked “showing” in others. Language had some mistakes. Characters definitely need more depth and emotions. The dialogue was, to me, unbelievable and forced. This may be down to underdeveloped characters, but it shows mostly in the dialogue.
- And the last one from this blog was about a unicorn. The story started well and I was pulled right into it. Then it changed to a crazy trip with elves, dwarves or satyrs and other beings. No coherent plot. I got lost halfway through. The language was quite nice; I haven’t noticed any glaring issues. Characters were unimportant to the author and so were their emotions, or so it seems. The dialogues, while quite funny at times, added to the overall confusion. They appeared to be used only to bring in the fun, but not so much for informational value for the reader.
This was a long blog today! But I realized that last time I only described 7 out of 31 stories, so needed to make up for that. Next time I’ll write about the two things that I find most important in any story – plot and characters.