In our writing, we all have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are terrific at description. For others, dialogue, or maybe action. Sometimes we can become so good at one thing or another that we end up helping others with it, and placing a heavier emphasis on it in our writing and works in progress.
On the other hand, what areas do you avoid? What kind of scenes do you dread writing because they never turn out right? Do you avoid putting them in your writing whatsoever, just so you can avoid them?
If we want our writing to resonate with readers, it needs to be balanced, and that means even if we’re not good at one kind writing or another, we have to keep working at it. I know description has never been my strongest suit, and it’s something I need to remain keenly aware of, even if it means I flesh out the description during revisions so my reader can understand my world better.
The thing is, focusing on something you’re not good at, or that you’ve somehow decided you’re not good at, can be really exciting and add a new element to your writing. What if you write a scene without dialogue? How do characters communicate? What can still be communicated just with description alone? How can you make a scene with dialogue more lively or intriguing with action and description? The best part of trying to explore things you’re not good at is play. And your writing is always better in play. No, maybe not in the first draft, but overall, since it makes you a more versatile writer, it keeps you learning and exploring, stretching and expanding your talents instead of stagnating with what you’re “good at.”
So, have you found yourself avoiding some types of writing? Some kinds of scenes? First, you identify your strengths and weaknesses. Next, you’re going to work on your weaknesses, and I have a few exercises I hope might help with description, dialogue, and action scenes.
- If your weakness is description (like mine):
Pause, or go back in revisions, and try to experience the scene through your character, using all five senses. Not only what does it look like, consider smell, taste, feel, temperature, sounds. Another suggestion I’ve found is use your character’s eyes like a quick video pan-over, which helps to situate both the character and scene, but also your reader.
- If your weakness is dialogue:
Take a bus ride. Visit the mall. Go somewhere filled with people talking. Your job here is to eavesdrop (politely, of course) on conversations. How do people talk? Not just the patterns of speech (using contractions, incomplete clauses, sentence fragments, speech “twitches”, etc), but how does their body language impact on the conversation and convey meaning? Next, go back to your own writing and read your dialogue aloud. Are you tripping over wordiness? Are you getting bored? Does this seem like a way people would talk? What does it convey about plot, character – that is, what is the purpose of this dialogue? Dialogue can be fantastic, helping to convey character, plot, description, so much, if used well. But it can also be stilted, confusing, and over-used, especially boring conversation which is best left out of the scene.
- If your weakness is action:
Watch a movie or something very exhilarating and tense, like a car chase, a fight, etc. Now try to write out that scene yourself – or a version thereof – and try not to lose any of the excitement. Sentences are often short. Choppy. They let you jump from one action to the next with no break, leaving the reader breathless. In this kind of scene, you’ll need to pull in skill with dialogue and description too. After you’re done, re-read, and decide if you’ve lost some of the excitement. Have someone else read it. If they weren’t as excited, find out what slows it down – sometimes excessive description and dialogue, long wordy sentences.
For much more interesting exercises than my own, I highly recommend checking out:
What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
What if? was one of my first writing books, and is a help in keeping your skills sharp, and making you think about your writing and your style, and hoe you can continue to keep learning and evolving. There are exercises on different story elements, dialogue, characterization, mechanics, etc. It helps to remind you to keep the playful question “what if” in all of your writing. (click on the title for a link to the HarperCollins page and their description.)
Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass
A lot newer than the other, Maass’ book includes sections on Character Development, Plot Development, and General Story Techniques that specifically let you work through troublesome scenes of your novel. As well as suggestions, it likewise includes includes exercises and as mentioned earlier, is a lot like a workshop in a book. (link is to Donald Maass agency page where they talk about the books.)
Well, that’s all for this week. What do you write best? Why do you think so? What do you need to work on? Thanks for reading, and have a great week.