Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vivid Fiction

For those of you who don't know me, I'm horror and fantasy author Tim Waggoner. I've published over twenty novels and two short story collections, and my articles on writing have appeared in Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal, among others. I teach creative writing at Sinclair Community College, and I serve as a faculty mentor in Seton Hill University's Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. You can find out more about me at http://www.timwaggoner.com/, friend me on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/3ml5cpb, and follow me on Twitter at @timwaggoner.

I intend to use this blog to pass along writing tips of all kinds, from how to write better to what you need to know about publishing. First up, one of the most common problems I see with beginner's stories: lack of vivid writing.

We live in a culture stepped in video imagery, and even those of us who read a lot still experience stories more often through moves, TV shows, and video games. The problem is that these media only stimulate two senses: sight and hearing. So when beginners sit down to write fiction, they depict action using primarily sight and sound, and they often write with a distant third person point of view, as if they were watching their characters on a screen. If you want to write effective, evocative fiction, you need to do more -- your need to make your fiction come alive for your readers. Here's how:

1. Evoke all five senses. Smell, touch, and taste can have a strong impact on your readers because they're more intimate senses than sight and hearing. Our eyes and ears can gather information at a distance, but we have to get up close and personal to smell, touch, and taste something. This intimacy creates stronger reactions for us in real life, and it can do the same for readers in your fiction if you take advantage of it.

2. Write with a close point of view. Whatever point of view you choose -- first, second, or third -- the more you get into your character's head, the more vivid your story will be. I'm not talking about complete immersion into a character's consciousness, but rather imagining that there's a video camera mounted to your character's shoulder with two wires running into the back of his or her head. This camera can allow readers to experience whatever your character sees and hears, but the first wire running into the character's head can also allow them to experience whatever the character physically senses, including inner bodily sensations such as muscles tensing or nausea roiling in the gut, etc. The second wire allows readers to dip into the character's thoughts, emotions, memories, and psychological comparisons ("Hey, that cloud looks like a bunny!").

3. Blend and alternate 1 and 2. In order to use these techniques effectively, you need to mix them up. We experience life as an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of outer input and inner reaction, and you want to create a similar experience in your fiction. Don't be repetitive, though. Use an action, a thought, a smell, an emotion, a bit of dialogue, a sound, another action, etc. Blend different details the way they blend in real life.

Here's an example from my short story "Blame it on the Moonlight." Bill is a werewolf running from a mysterious pursuer.

Bill ran through the nightwood, branches snagging his clothes, scratching his fur-covered face and hands. Light from the full moon filtered down from the branches, providing more than enough illumination for his lupine eyes to see by. The moonlight healed his cuts almost instantly, but each time he was wounded small amounts of blood were exposed to the air. Not for very long, but long enough. The sharp, coppery tang was strong in his nostrils, and if he could smell it . . .

From somewhere behind him in the woods, Bill's preternatural hearing picked up a rustling, followed by an excited insectine chittering. The sound hit him on a deeply instinctive level, stirring a feeling within him unlike any he had ever known before.

She was coming.

There's more emphasis on physical sensation here because it's an action/suspense scene, and I purposely avoided delving too deeply into Bill's thoughts to keep the identity of who -- or what -- is pursuing him a secret. But otherwise, it's a vivid little scene that demonstrates what I'm talking about. Go forth and do thou likewise.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

My urban fantasy novels featuring zombie private eye extraordinaire Matt Richter -- Nekropolis, Dead Streets, and Dark War -- are all still available. Next month sees the release of Ghost Trackers, the novel I wrote in collaboration with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters fame.