3 Literary Techniques, Part three: Narration

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy hump day and welcome to the third part in my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

Today I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned about narration.

Narrative writing is basically writing that tells a story. More strictly speaking, narration is used when you are communicating directly to your reader. It’s everything that is said outside of dialogue. Everything that is said by the author, as opposed to the characters. This includes the “he said” and “she said” between the dialogue lines.

Your Narrative Detail

When you are telling a story, you say when it happened, where it happened, how it happened, and why it happened. This is narration. It’s easy to get carried away though and include too many details. You have to decide which ones are vital to your story and make sure to put emphasis on those.

The most logical way to present details is chronologically, from beginning to end, but don’t be afraid to use other literary devices such as flashbacks and dialogue.

Pacing Is Important

Narrative pace is the rate at which the story moves. You break up your narrative and slow down the pace with specific examples, detailed descriptions, and dialogue. You can speed up the pace by skipping over details that aren’t as important. You want to write fast (pacey) enough to keep the readers interested, but slow enough that you don’t leave them unsatisfied. The important thing is that your narrative is cohesive and your details are organized.

Narrative vs. Plot

We’re often told that there are no new stories, that everything is just a regurgitation of everything else. But if there are so few narratives, how do we keep writing without getting accused of plagiarism?

It’s because of the difference between narrative and plot. Plot is the sum of what happens while narrative is the trajectory that accompanies that plot.

Plot tells you what actually happens and to whom. The plot of the Harry Potter books is a young boy who discovers he’s a famous wizard goes off to boarding school to learn magic and ultimately defeat the evil that is is plaguing that universe. That plot has already been done. But if you want to write about a boy who discovers he’s far from ordinary and has to learn to fight in a battle against a formidable evil, then write away! This is simply a narrative pattern, which is built of symbols and archetypes. You can’t copyright that.

That’s it for this series. Hopefully it was helpful to you and if you have any questions let me know.



3 Literary Techniques, Part Two: Description

Monday, November 19, 2012

Welcome to part two in my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

Last time I talked about exposition. This time, I’d like to talk about using description in storytelling.

Description is an important part of storytelling because it helps you to paint a mental image of the particulars in your story.

A lot of people have a problem with this though. It’s easy to think of dialogue because you can imagine a conversation. But we don’t often make a habit of describing our surroundings or the people we meet, and if we do, it’s very simply, which doesn’t work too well in a novel.

You can’t write a story the same way you would tell a story. When writing description, it helps to remember that the reader isn’t you and has no idea what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling.

Describing Characters

Gifted author Ayn Rand, best known for her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, always described her characters at their first appearance because she wanted the readers to perceive the scene as if he were really there.

In her book, The Art Of FIction, Ms. Rand tells us that she decides how long a description should be by the nature of the buildup beforehand. If there is appropriate buildup, the reader will be willing to read the description without impatience.”

“Never pause on descriptions, whether of characters or locales or anything else, unless you have given the reader a reason to be interested.”

She goes on the say, “When I introduce minor characters, I usually give them a single line naming something that is characteristic of the type, like a “woman who had large diamond earrings” or “a portly man who wore a green muffler.” By implying that one brief characteristic is all that is noteworthy of a person, I establish his unimportance.”

Quality Not Quantity

When it comes to description, more is not necessarily better. The number of details necessary to describe a place or event depends on several things, such as how familiar your readers already are with the place or situation. The more unfamiliar, the more description you’ll need to give.

For example, if you’re writing about an alien race living on a far away planet, you need to describe that planet in great detail. A story about modern life on earth would require less detail because we already know what everything looks like.

Specific Details

Challenge yourself to see how specific you can get. Don’t just say a man is wearing a coat. Tell us he’s wearing a charcoal gray peacoat with black buttons.

Documenting only the most obvious facts is not enough. We want to see the broken zipper on the woman’s dress, the tear in her stockings, and the shocking blue eyeliner that matches her shoes. Tell us what makes this woman different from every other woman around. Don’t try to describe everything though. Instead try and focus on two or three significant things that can define a person, place, or thing.

Use All Your Senses

Using the five senses is another great way to make your story come alive.

People interact with the world through their senses. We notice the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. We grimace at the smell of a dirty diaper. We feel heat and cold. We feel pressure. We hear echos and the humming of a refrigerator. All these little details can help describe a person’s surroundings, letting your reader immerse themselves in the world of your novel.

Do you have anything to add? Hit me up in the comments.

Until Wednesday...



3 Literary Techniques, Part One: Exposition

Monday, November 5, 2012

Welcome to part one of my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

All three are important ingredients in good storytelling. But you need to be able to tell them apart.

About a year ago, I submitted a rough draft of a story to my friend and beta reader and nervously awaited her thoughts and opinion on it. I knew I could trust her to tell me the truth and she knew that I was open to hearing any constructive criticism.

One of the first things she pointed out to me was that I was using too much exposition. At the time, I had no idea what exposition even was.

I do now.

What is exposition?

It’s called exposition when the author provides background information about the plot or characters, the setting or scene. It can be used at the start of a story to explain what happened before the start. and it can also be used during a story, like after a time lapse, where the reader needs to know what happened over the previous year.

The trick is to know when, and how much, exposition to include.

When you use too much exposition, it’s usually referred to as an “information dump” or “info dump.”

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell gave these tips to avoid overusing exposition.

1. Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in motion. Readers won’t demand to know everything up front. You can drop in information as necessary.

2. When you explain, do the iceberg. Don’t tell us everything about the characters past history or current situation. Give us the 10% above the surface that is necessary to understand what is going on. Keep the other 90% a mystery.

3. Set information inside confrontation. Using the character’s thoughts or words, you can drip, drip, drip, crucial information for the reader

Another danger in using exposition is making broad, sweeping generalizations about things. Instead of telling the reader that a child’s parent is abusive, go back to a single moment in time and let your reader be a fly on the wall, so they can see for themselves how abusive the parent is.

The simplest way to place exposition is to just place the information between scenes through an all-seeing, all-knowing, narrator. But there are other ways to do it, such as through dialogue or a character’s thoughts. You could even relay information through newspaper articles, letters, or diary entries. You just have to get creative.

Do you have a handle on your exposition? Let me know in the comments. And come back on Wednesday for part two, where I’ll be talking about the difference between exposition and description.


Part 2: Description

Part 3: Narration


(More) Quotes To Inspire and Guide You

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I've always loved collecting quotes. So ever since I started taking my writing life more seriously, I've amassed quite a collection of quotes on writing. Here are a few more of my favorites:

On The Love Of Writing

"We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to."

-W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965)

"No complaining about how hard it is to write, we are all so, so lucky to write, to sit down, inside, and write words on paper. There is no greater freedom, no greater good, nothing that brings more joy."

-Isabel Allende

"It is impossible to discourage the real writers - they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write.”

-Sinclair Lewis

“I can’t help but to write, I have a inner need for it. If I’m not in the middle of some literary project, I’m utterly lost, unhappy and distressed. As soon as I get started, I calm down.”

- Kaari Utrio

On Work Habits

"You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place—you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter."

-Bernard Malamud

"If you don’t have a writing habit, you aren’t being fair to yourself. You might even be setting yourself up for failure. If you write only when you are ‘in the mood,’ or when you ‘have some time,’ you will never be able to write enough material to see what you are good at, what needs work.

Good writers write whether they are in the mood or not. They practice whether they feel like it or not. It’s the only way. Everyday practice. That’s how you get better.

[Successful] Writers are simply people who have figured out how to spend enough time in the writing room every day in order to create enough work so that some of it is good.

Remember: You will want to avoid writing. All writers struggle with procrastination, writer’s block, distraction, or laziness. All successful writers develop strategies to deal with these issues. Conquering not-writing is probably half the battle."

-Heather Sellers

 "Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write."
-Natalie Goldberg

"The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It’s not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work."
-Augusten Burroughs

"You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then… you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.”

- Dorothy C. Fontan

Qualifications And Requirements

"An absolutely necessary part of a writer's equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out, and the punishment he inflicts upon himself".

-Irwin Shaw

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut."

-Stephen King

"We have to accept ourselves in order to write. Now none of us does that fully: few of us do it even halfway. Don’t wait for one hundred percent acceptance of yourself before you write, or even eight percent acceptance. Just write. The process of writing is an activity that teaches us about acceptance."

-Natalie Goldburg

"Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window."

-William Faulkner

"As a writer, you should have a sticky soul; the act of continually taking things in should be as much a part of you as your hair color."

-Elizabeth Berg

On The Craft Of Writing

"Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors."

-Rhys Alexander

"I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish."
-Isaac Asimov

"Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired. Be confused. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident."

-William Zinsser

"Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it."

-Sarah Waters

For Beginning Writers

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

-Earnest Hemingway

“Either marry your work – take it seriously and do it every day – or date it – write only when you feel like it – but know which you are doing and the repercussions of both.”


“I do not wish to be a famous writer. I wish to be a good one. I’ll get published when I get published.”

- Isabella Caldwell

“It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer. Those who do not do this remain amateurs.”

- Gerald Brenan

“Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice though practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

-P.D. James

"Write. Start writing today. Start writing right now. Don’t write it right, just write it –and then make it right later. Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy the process, because the process of writing is a long one. Be wary of “writing rules” and advice. Do it your way.”

-Tara Moss

"If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right do I have to speak? Who will listen if I do? You’re a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle."

- Richard Rhodes

"Sometimes people say to me, “I want to write, but I have five kids, a full-time job, a wife who beats me, a tremendous debt to my parents,” and so on.

I say to them, “There is no excuse. If you want to write, write. This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don’t wait. Make the time now, even if it is ten minutes once a week.”

-Natalie Goldberg

Do you have any favorite quotes on writing? Let me know in the comments and I'll add them to the list.

Did you miss my first post of writing quotes? Check it out here!



Practicing the art of "Butt in Chair."

Monday, October 29, 2012

I don’t know if the muse is going to show up on any given day, but by golly, I’m going to be at my desk every day from 8 to12 every morning in case she does.
-Flannery O’Conner

One of my favorite books on writing is Page After Page, by Heather Sellers. It’s a great book for beginners because it focuses on finding the courage and commitment to start writing and keep writing.

When asked what her single best piece of advice was for the beginning writer, Miss Sellers said, “Butt in chair.”

“The concept of “butt in chair” is an old one: You have to stay in your chair. You can’t do laundry. You can’t clean things. You can’t take a bath, a shower, a walk. You sit in your chair. Whether or not you are writing”

Miss Sellers asks, “Are you willing to put up with a lot of (seemingly) wasted days, a lot of staring, a lot of being quiet by yourself? That’s what real writers do. That’s what you have to do. Practice the fine art of Butt in Chair.”

Butt in Chair only works though if you actually spend that time writing. That means no checking Facebook, just for a couple of minutes. No tweeting about how you’re sitting down to write, and then spending an hour commiserating with other writers over how hard it is to do just that.

Allot a certain amount of time to writing and then commit to to getting the writing done. Even if it’s just for ten minutes. Use a timer if you need to. Work your way up to fifteen minutes, then thirty. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t do it right away. It’s hard to concentrate for that long, so it will take lots of patience. You are practicing concentration. If you concentrated, call it a job well done. If you didn’t, that’s okay, because you’re just practicing. Practice again tomorrow.

How are you at practicing Butt in Chair? 


Page After Page by Heather Sellers


First Chapters: What To Include

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lately I’ve been learning a lot about how to begin your novel. Personally, I think this is the most important part of the book because it determines whether or not the reader will even give your story a try.

As a reader, how many times have picked up a book only to give up on it after reading the first few pages? When those pages didn’t grab you, you dumped the book and moved on to something else.

As a writer, you have to give your readers a reason to stick around right away.

Set up your story in the first paragraphs

An easy way to remember what to include in your opening paragraphs is the four W’s. Who, what, when, and where?

Who? Who’s story is it? You should introduce your protagonist in the first paragraph, using the right point of view, of course. Readers want to know who the main character is and what that person is like. They need to know who to get emotionally invested in.

What? What’s going on? What is the character doing? You’ll need to add enough details for the reader to visualize everything clearly.

Where? The reader needs to know immediately where the scene is taking place. Even if you don’t specifically say where you are, sensory details can help determine the location.

When? When is this story taking place? Is it sometime in the past or is it present time? What time of year is it? This is especially important if the “when” is essential to the plot.

Opening paragraphs usually include:

Limited backstory. You should always start your book with an actual scene.Too much backstory right away gets boring. Especially when your reader doesn’t even know the characters well enough to appreciate it. All you need is enough to keep the reader from getting confused.

Action. Something significant needs to happen to grab the readers attention. Readers won’t stick with a book when it’s all talk and no action. Show, don’t tell. And use all your senses. Readers want to experience the action, the blood, sweat, and tears, not simply hear about it.

Minimal setting and background description. Too much detail about the setting gets boring fast. You can always explore everything in more detail later, but for the first chapters, the reader only needs enough to know where and what they are looking at.

The story’s mood or genre. You should really set the mood and tone of the story early in beginning. For example, if it’s science fiction, it should feel like one right away.

First chapters must achieve these goals:

Grab your readers attention. No matter what it is, a unique voice, a great bit of dialogue, or a startling action, something must grab your readers attention and hold onto it.

Intrigue the reader. You need to give the them a reason to continue reading. The events, or plot, should give the reader some kind of puzzle to solve, or something to wonder about.

Your first chapters are your chance to impress readers. Have you taken the time to introduce your characters, setting, and stakes in your first chapters?

Tell me all about it in the comments!



Overcoming Self-doubt

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hello everyone! For my first day back I thought I would talk about something that I face on a daily basis. And if you’re a writer you’ve probably faced it too at some point. Self-doubt.

Self-doubt is the one thing that can end a writer’s career before it even starts. Self-doubt chips away at your confidence and suffocates you with feelings of inferiority and disgust.

I’m not good enough.

I have no idea what I’m doing.
This idea sucks.
No one is going to want to read this.

Thoughts like these can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. If you genuinely doubt your abilities as a writer it’s very likely that you will sabotage any efforts you make.

Self-doubt can manifest in different ways, such as...

  • Avoiding writing
  • Freezing when you try to put words on the page
  • You don't push yourself to improve
  • You allow negative thoughts to affect your self confidence.
Self-doubt is usually related to fear. In order to fight it you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone. You’re going to have to do things that are scary and make you anxious. You have to change that “I can’t” to “I can.”

What are some ways you can do that?

Get out of your own way

You know why there are so many quotes out there about being your own worst enemy and blocking your own road to success? Because they are all true. Everyone doubts themselves. Everyone questions their own abilities. It’s when you indulge in those negative thoughts that the real problem starts.

You have to learn to recognize the twisted thinking that holds you back from doing your best and resolve to do whatever you need to do to move past it.

Just Start Writing

One of the easiest ways to fight off self-doubt is to simply start writing. Write anything. Just get those words down on paper. Turn off your inner critic and let the words flow through you. Doing this will jump start your brain and help you get into the right state of mind. You might not use any of it, but once you get in the right head space, it’s easier to slip over into working on your “real” writing.

Revise and rewrite

It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you think what you’re writing isn’t any good. You have to remember though, that you can always go back and rewrite it. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around.

You can wait until the entire project is finished to revise and rewrite, or you can begin your writing day by pulling out yesterdays work and editing it. The more you tinker with your words and make your writing clearer, the more it will improve. And I’ll bet that what you find isn’t half as bad as you thought it was. Either way, revising and rewriting is how you become a better writer and it’s how you learn to love your own work.

The next time you doubt yourself, keep going anyway. Put any fears and doubts you have aside and save them for later, when it’s time to edit and revise.

You don’t want it to go away completely

If a writer told me he never had doubts, I wouldn’t want to read his work.

Having doubts means you care about your writing. It means you care enough to make sure you’re doing it right and that you’re open to improvement.

Having doubts is a good sign. It means you’re on the right path.

What about you? How do you fight off the doubt monster?


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