Essays By A Hack: Writing Tales
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Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.





J. R. R. Tolkien


Let's talk about writing tales.

The highest aspiration of any tale author — outside of being a joy to read — is to write with clarity and boldness in a style that is uniquely their own. But what do we mean by 'clarity'? By 'boldness'? Or even 'style'?

Since you're probably not going to read the excellent (and vastly superior) Elements of Style (by White and Strunk), I've written this essay to boil down some of the most relevant bits — and add a few SCP-specific flourishes. We'll start by taking a chunk of prose and editing it in accordance to a few basic principles of style.



Excerpt

The prose we'll be editing is the introduction for a story I've been writing. I've made it bad so we can work together and make it good:

"You our new merlin?" He asked.

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking. He stood at the bottom of the airplane's stairway, cheerily grinning up to the tiny figure of Yara Toma.

She gave him a carefully guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny. She was a petite brown-skinned woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass. She had a face full of iron piercings. Yara drew her thick and heavy coat close around her and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

"Sargeant Matthieu LaPierre, I presume? Yes, I'm your new esoteric specialist — Yara Toma." Please don't be a hugger, please don't be a

He hugged her. "Just call me Yorkie." He had a pleasant scent. She stepped back after he released her, following his enormous arm with her eyes. He swept it out toward the snow-draped mountains that surrounded them. "Welcome to Antarctica, Ms. Toma."

"Thank you, sergeant." Yara's nerve endings throbbed from the contact she did not want. She tightened her grip on her coat and disguised the pain as a shiver. "Could we—"

"Right, right. Chilly as a frost giant's nuts out here. Can't imagine the flight was much better. This way." She was led toward a bright blue trailer.

Let's dig in.


Active vs Passive Voice

When the subject of a sentence is also the noun that's acted upon, the sentence is passive.

She was led toward a bright blue trailer.

Who's leading Yara Toma to the trailer? Is she leading herself? Are wizards leading her? Our subject ('She') is acted upon by our verb ('led'). Therefore, this is the passive voice. To make this the active voice, we must add a subject which is doing the leading.

Yorkie led her toward a bright blue trailer.

Our subject (Yorkie) performs an action (led) upon another noun (her).

The active voice is clear and explicit; the passive voice is subtle and implicit. When you use the active voice, we know who is doing what to who. When you use the passive voice, things simply occur — we aren't told who or what was responsible.

Use the passive voice when you want your prose to sound distant and powerless; things occur and we don't know why. This can be great for SCP articles. Use the active voice when you want your prose to sound clear and bold; we know precisely who's doing what to whom.

When you're unsure which voice you're using, there's a simple trick you can perform: Add 'by zombies' after the verb.

She was led by zombies toward a bright blue trailer.

This works, because it's passive.

Yorkie led by zombies her toward a bright blue trailer.

This doesn't, because it's active.

Be mindful: This trick will not work in all cases. But for most cases, it works just fine.


Positive Statements

Affirmations of what is true are usually stronger than affirmations of what is false.

Yara's nerve endings throbbed from the contact she did not want.

Let's change this to:

Yara's nerve endings throbbed from the unwanted contact.

Shorter and punchier. Our brains don't have to spend extra time inverting the meaning of the word 'want' via the modifier of 'not'. Instead, we immediately know how Yara's nerve endings felt about this contact: It was unwanted.

For this reason, use the word 'not' carefully. Readers prefer being told what something 'is'. Consider:

He is not honest.

He is dishonest.

That is 'not' to say there is no place for 'not'; furthermore, other negative words can carry a substantial punch:

He is never on time.

She never found him useful.

He is never honest.


Concrete over Abstract

Straight from Elements of Style: "Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract."

White and Strunk provide an excellent example of this from Herbert Spencer's Philosophy of Style:

In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of their penal code will be severe.

In proportion as men delight in battles, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack.

Specificity of detail — particularly transforming the abstract into the concrete — is how readers become immersed in your prose. If you want to convince someone that they're lost inside the Bastille, do not merely tell them they are lost inside the Bastille. Begin by describing the smell.

How can we apply this to our prose?

He had a pleasant scent.

Let's expand this by getting specific:

He had a particular scent. Vanilla and licorice, with just a lingering trace of his breakfast. Noodles? Ramen, maybe.

Now, instead of just trying to imagine a 'pleasant scent', the reader is prompted with things that are familiar to them — words which will evoke memories of scents they themselves know. Whether these scents are pleasant are left up to the reader's discretion.


Brevity

Omit everything that is unnecessary. What remains will become stronger for it.

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking. He stood at the bottom of the airplane's stairway, cheerily grinning up to the tiny figure of Yara Toma.

She gave him a carefully guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny. She was a petite brown-skinned woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass. She had a face full of iron piercings. Yara drew her thick and heavy coat close around her and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

By clipping out redundant words and phrases, we increase the force of what's left over:

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking. He stood at the bottom of the airplane's stairway, cheerily grinning up to the tiny figure of Yara Toma.

She gave him a carefully guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny. She was a petite brown-skinned woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass. She had a face full of iron piercings. Yara drew her thick and heavy coat close around her and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

  • 'Cheerily' is out, because it's hard to imagine the speaker's grin as anything but.
  • 'Tiny figure of' is out, because we describe her (Yora's) tininess in the very next paragraph.
  • 'Carefully' is needless adverb-ing, and also implied by 'guarded'.
  • 'Brown-skinned' can be reduced to 'brown'; it's bolder and tells us more about her. She isn't just 'brown-skinned'; she's brown — it's part of who she is.
  • A thick coat is almost certainly 'heavy'.

What's 'necessary' in prose can be a tricky subject: Maybe you think I'm cutting too much. Maybe you think I'm cutting too little. In regards to what to cut (and what to leave in), there are no hard and fast rules; you need to learn to trust your own ear. Just remember that the more you cut, the more punch everything else has.

Also, notice that most of the things I removed are adverbs. Regard any adverb (and, in fact, any word that ends with -ly) with deep suspicion. 'Loudly', 'cheerily', 'happily', 'sadly', 'sorrowfully' — these are all words that modify what you want to say. Whenever possible, write prose that says precisely what you mean. Apply adverbs (heh) 'sparingly'.

If you need a resource to help identify adverbs in your prose, here's a simple one. You might not agree with the style this editor promotes, but it's an excellent way to identify just how much you're relying on adverbs to get your meaning across.

One more thing. While we're discussing redundancy, I want to point out that there are some phrases — particularly in SCP articles — that just need to leave the goddamn room:

Evidence suggests that this effect is temporary.

This effect is likely temporary.

It is currently believed to be impossible.

It is likely impossible.

This effect primarily causes blindness.

This effect causes blindness.

Generally, this effect is negative.

This effect is negative.

Don't be timid and don't be vague. Whenever you can get away with saying what something is — rather than what it may be — then say what it is.


Non-Homogeneous

Elements of Style provides the following example of a 'homogenous' sentence:

The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee, and it is planned to give a similar series annually hereafter.

Thump, and whump. Thump, and whump. Thump, and whump. Each sentence is two or more beats (two clauses connected via conjunctions). The paragraph takes on a banal, predictable rhythm. There are no surprises.

Break these sentences up: Split compound sentences into simple sentences to create something with vigor and variety.

However, if you go too far, you will encounter the same problem — merely inverted:

The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening. A large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist. The Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank. The latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee. It has planned to give a similar series annually hereafter.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Each sentence is simple; each delivers a single data-point. This is just as predictable as the first example. The correct solution, then, is to mix simple sentences with compound sentences — going so far as to even vary your usage between conjunctions, semi-colons, and hyphens:

The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening; a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist — the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee. It has planned to give a similar series annually hereafter.

The content might still be boorish, but at least the pacing is varied and complex. It's livelier and harder to predict, which makes it easier to read.

Note: Do not over-use hyphens and semi-colons. They are the devil's punctuation, and should be applied sparingly.

How can we apply this to our prose? Let's look at the paragraph where Yara is described:

She gave him a guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny. She was a petite brown woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass. She had a face full of iron piercings. Yara drew her thick coat close around her and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Boring, predictable, sing-song. This doesn't sound like prose. It sounds like a list.

Let's break it up:

She gave him a guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny — a petite brown woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass and a face full of iron piercings. She drew her thick coat close and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

Notice all I did was combine three sentences (the second, third, and fourth) with a hyphen and a conjunction ('and'). Just by doing that, it goes from reading like a boring list to an actual chunk of prose.

Note: Don't get too hung up on this. Two or three sentences in a row with a similar structure is fine. It's when you go past 'two or three' that you start getting into trouble. Also, as always, there are exceptions.

Sometimes, repetition is good. Sometimes, you want repetition. Sometimes, repetition is the whole point.

Get it?


Parallel Construction

Elements of Style provides this excellent example of parallel construction:

Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed.

Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.

The first sentence appears timid; the second is stronger. Why? Because the second presents two contrasting ideas in the same framework: "X was done via Y method; now, X is done via Z method". Present similar ideas in similar ways. This allows the reader to better admire their differences.

This is parallel construction. Contrast it with non-homogeneous prose: The flow of your sentences should be lively and unexpected, but the way you present the ideas in those sentences should not distract. The point is to compare the ideas — not the presentation.

Here's another example that's unpredictable, but also unpleasant:

It happens in all four seasons: The spring, summer, the fall, and winter.

That 'the' in front of 'fall' is hard to predict, but not in a good way — it's distracting us. Compare it to the far more satisfying:

It happens in all four seasons: The spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Or, even better:

It happens in all four seasons: Spring, summer, fall, and winter.

How can we apply this to our prose?

(Truth be told, it doesn't really apply. I couldn't find a way to work it in. Sorry!)


Implicit over Explicit

John is hanging for dear life to a length of rope dangling over a pit. The rope is moments from giving. Once it does, John will fall down the pit and die. Which of the following passages conveys this information with greater gravitas1?

John clung to the rope. It snapped; he fell to his death.

John clung to the rope. It snapped.

Readers don't need you to tell them everything. In fact, the more you can convey by not telling them, the more force your prose will carry. Implicit moments — moments that are not explicitly stated, but implicitly conveyed — deliver a wallop.

Here's another example:

John threw the pebble into the pit and waited for a sound. After ten minutes, he stopped waiting.

Rather than say 'he heard nothing after ten minutes', we just tell the reader he stopped waiting after ten minutes. This creates a gap in the reader's understanding — a tiny 'micro-mystery'. Why did he stop waiting? The reader fills the gap, solving the mystery near-instantly: Because he didn't hear it land.

This is more satisfying than the (explicit) alternative:

John threw the pebble into the pit and waited for a sound. After ten minutes, he heard nothing.

No gap, no mystery.

How can we apply this to our prose? How about right here:

"Sargeant Matthieu LaPierre, I presume? Yes, I'm your new esoteric specialist — Yara Toma." Please don't be a hugger, please don't be a—

He hugged her. "Just call me Yorkie."

On one hand, I like the way this reads ('please don't be someone who does x' — 'does x'). On the other hand, it's a great opportunity to show how we can be creativity implicit, implying a hug without saying it:

"Sargeant Matthieu LaPierre, I presume? Yes, I'm your new esoteric specialist — Yara Toma." Please don't be a hugger, please don't be a—

—ngh. Yep. Definitely a hugger. "Just call me Yorkie."

We imply the hug happened, which gives the hug that much force. We also continue Yara's inner monologue, which helps keep the reader in her head.

We feel the hug — and her despair regarding it — rather than merely being told that the hug 'happened'.


Dialogue Tags

This is incorrect:

"You our new merlin?" He asked.

The 'H' should be lower-case. This is because 'He asked' is clearly not a complete sentence, and hence a clause dependent on the opening quote. The question mark should be treated as a comma. In other words, grammatically, this sentence is identical to:

"You're our new merlin," He said.

Which is clearly wrong.

This, however, would be correct:

"You're our new merlin." He smiled.

Because it is clear that in this case, 'He smiled' is the start of a new sentence. Hence the quotation is a self-contained sentence.

Regarding dialogue tags ("he said", "she yelled", "they cried"): Do not be afraid of relying on 'said'. There's nothing wrong with the word. It's become so commonplace that it's nearly invisible to the reader's eye.

However, don't be afraid to avoid using tags at all. When dialogue occurs between two parties, we can follow who's saying what by nature of the alternating quotes. When more are present, the reader can be reminded who is speaking via the content of the words or simple proximity of the speaker's name:

"This won't do." John shook his head and sat up in his chair. "We need to act quickly."

"Why?" Julia frowned.

Jack laughed, shaking his head as he left the room. "Idiots."

Julia pressed on: "Why, John? Why do we need to act?"

"Because we're running out of time."

Notice — none of the dialogue above has been tagged. Nevertheless, you know precisely who said what.

Sidenote: When your characterizations are so strong that we know who's speaking regardless of the prose, you're in a good place. If I can tell who said something merely because I know it's what they'd say, you've succeeded in getting across your character. Aim for this.

How can we apply this to our prose? Right at the opening:

"You our new merlin?" he asked.

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking.

The fact that we call the guy 'speaker' leaves no confusion over who this quote belongs to, so the tag is completely unnecessary:

"You our new merlin?"

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking.


Final Draft

Let's see what we've gone from, and what we have now.

Here's what we started with:

"You our new merlin?" He asked.

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking. He stood at the bottom of the airplane's stairway, cheerily grinning up to the tiny figure of Yara Toma.

She gave him a cautious, guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny. She was a petite brown-skinned woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass. She had a face full of iron piercings. Yara drew her thick and heavy coat close around her and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

"Sargeant Matthieu LaPierre, I presume? Yes, I'm your new esoteric specialist — Yara Toma." Please don't be a hugger, please don't be a

He hugged her. "Just call me Yorkie." He had a pleasant scent. She stepped back after he released her, following his enormous arm with her eyes. He swept it out toward the snow-draped mountains that surrounded them. "Welcome to Antarctica, Ms. Toma."

"Thank you, sergeant." Yara's nerve endings throbbed from the contact she did not want. She tightened her grip on her coat and disguised the pain as a shiver. "Could we—"

"Right, right. Chilly as a frost giant's nuts out here. Can't imagine the flight was much better. This way." She was led toward a bright blue trailer.

After all our corrections and changes, here's what we've got now:

"You our new merlin?"

The speaker resembled a plump, bearded, silver-haired viking. He stood at the bottom of the airplane's stairway, grinning up to Yara Toma.

She gave him a guarded smile. Yara was comparatively tiny — a petite brown woman with a head shaved as smooth as glass and a face full of iron piercings. She drew her thick coat close and descended cautiously. The man looked like a hugger.

"Sargeant Matthieu LaPierre, I presume? Yes, I'm your new esoteric specialist — Yara Toma." Please don't be a hugger, please don't be a

ngh. Yep. Definitely a hugger. "Just call me Yorkie." He had a particular scent. Vanilla and licorice, with just a lingering trace of his breakfast. Noodles? Ramen, maybe. She stepped back after he released her, following his enormous arm with her eyes. He swept it out toward the snow-draped mountains that surrounded them. "Welcome to Antarctica, Ms. Toma."

"Thank you, sergeant." Yara's nerve endings throbbed from the unwanted contact. She tightened her grip on her coat and disguised the pain as a shiver. "Could we—"

"Right, right. Chilly as a frost giant's nuts out here. Can't imagine the flight was much better. This way." Yorkie led her toward a bright blue trailer.

Where the first draft felt stilted and flat, this one bounces. It's got some pep and vinegar; it's got kick. It's got moxie.


And that's it, for now! I hope some of this helps you. The point isn't to enforce a monolithic style; the point is just to get you thinking about how style works so you can make your prose snappy and strong.

Remember, there are no real rules in writing, save one:

king.jpg

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.





Dean Koontz


Never waste the reader's time.

Alright, then — presuming this goes over well, the next essay is where we'll talk about pacing in tales: Sentences, paragraphs, and scenes as units of composition — how to pace a story while controlling a reader's knowledge, interest, and expectations.

See you then!


Resources

  • Elements of Style, by White and Strunk: Keep in mind, this copy is vastly outdated. Check libraries, bookstores, or online to find a more recent edition (with a lot more great information). Also remember: Regardless of the edition, this book is about a century old. Writing has changed a lot, since then.
  • Hemingway Editor. It might not be the style you want to adopt, but the fact that it identifies adverbs and passive voice for you can be super-helpful. I also recommend just plugging your prose in here to get a sense of what's going on; how many adverbs do you use? How complex are your sentences? How often do you use the passive voice? etc.
  • Rules for Comma Useage. A helpful webpage from grammarly which describes appropriate useage of commas.
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