A Writer's compendium
April 30th, 2022 1:27 PM
Very early on in my newest work-in-progress, there is a chapter in which our narrator muses about what he plans to call his retelling of the stories. Here is a pertinent excerpt:
In recent days I’ve taken to the idea of calling this telling of the Frances girls’ story by a name that may confuse those who read—or otherwise know—of it. I want to call the sum of these tomes the Ether Mists Compendium. Those who know of compendiums will doubtless scoff, saying that nothing is brief about these stories. Yet, I would argue that a compendium is not objectively brief—instead, I posit that a compendium merely takes a large field of study and condenses it as well as its author is able. In that spirit, I will assert that these tales—large as they may be—are a compendium, for the sheer breadth and depth of detail that I could go into by examining every fiber of the Ether Mists would stagger even the most patient and interested of scholars. Thus, what is presented here is short and brief only when compared to the much larger realm of all possible details.
What follows is my own compendium of sorts, and I call it that with a bit of pomp, because the truth is that there isn’t really a way to helpfully or meaningfully condense all the nuances of writing and style into anything that might resemble a compendium. There’s too much discussion, too many variables, too vast a divide between this opinion and that one. So, what we’ve got below is my attempt to take the excruciatingly, impressively large field of writing and distill it into something that’s helpful. Yes, I could trim away a lot of what’s below (just as many authors could theoretically trim away everything aside from the major plot points of their stories), but my goal is to offer as much information as possible. Indeed, I hope that every sentence below—every word—offers some value to you as a writer.
I’m going to attempt to lay out and organize the various pieces of writing advice that I’ve given and either received or otherwise learned. I’ll try to distill all of it (well, nearly all of it; I’m sure I’ll forget a few things).
Why? First, I’d like to have a snapshot of my views as a writer at this time in my life. Ten years from now, hopefully I’ll have grown immensely, and I’ll be able to look back at this post and measure such growth. In this way, this post will function something like a notch on my living room’s threshold, and, years from now, I’ll again stand with my back to the doorway to see how much taller I’ve become.
Second, I’d like to offer something truly valuable to my readership and hopefully attract newer readership by producing something large, detailed, illuminating, and practical. Up until now, I’ve offered tidbits of wisdom and advice (all of it informed by my experience, which I’ll lay out a bit below, as gathering experience is, indeed, a crucial piece of becoming a successful writer), but I’ve not yet poured the whole of my knowledge into any one article. I’ve offered feedback to numerous writers, and those instances have shown me that I’ve amassed more information about the subject of writing than I know what to do with. I feel it’s important to arrange it, to review it, and to reflect on it.
Here is where you will find out about passive and active voice, showing and telling, story structure, sentence structure, perspectives, tenses, plots, characters, settings, themes, motifs, and more.
First, let’s mention a bit about writing advice in general. When it comes to writing advice, you’ll find no shortage of it out there. People of varying levels of success will share it. You’ll see people who haven’t finished two chapters giving advice. You’ll see people, like me, who’ve self-published their own books giving advice. You’ll see veterans of the traditional publishing industry giving advice. There is an entire discussion about what constitutes success in writing, and so it’s probably not as simple as looking at writing like a hierarchy where people who’ve hardly written anything sit at the bottom of the credibility tower and people who’ve sold millions of books worldwide reign supreme. Certainly, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, N. K. Jeminsin, or Robin Hobb, with their millions of sales, have plenty of valuable things to say on the subject of writing, and they’ve all had writing-related experiences that very few of us have been fortunate enough to have. They’ve attained that coveted thing that most writers often put pen to paper to achieve.
But I’d also argue that the person who’s self-published their novel and made only a few hundred sales (yes, I’m talking about myself now!) could write a tale every bit as gripping as King, Rowling, Jeminsin, or Hobb. Authors from every walk of life have crafted tales that have inspired in their readers deep reflection, change, and growth. Some talented souls have managed to bestir such monumental things in the hearts of their readers while also pulling their readers through page after page of an engrossing story.
Art is the opposite of science, right? It’s rarely about fact or anything easily quantifiable, measurable, or empirical. When you read something that moves you or you view a painting that awakens something deep and forgotten inside of you, you don’t need to be swayed by knowing about the author or painter’s credentials. These things often matter when an author wants to persuade others to read her writing in the first place, but the inherent ability of the creative work itself to resonate with others isn’t based on its creator’s credentials. I would argue, definitely, that any creative work’s value shouldn’t be based on its creator’s credentials.
I believe this wholeheartedly, and, whether they’ve bothered to articulate it or not, I also believe that many other creative souls have come to believe this. This is probably why a person who’s hardly written anything might still feel compelled to offer writing advice, because they’ve managed to move themselves or somebody else by following their own advice.
So, proceed and accept that which makes sense and reject that which seems like drivel to you. Challenge me on areas where I’m plainly wrong (so that I, and others, can learn), and celebrate anything that brightens the light within you. Offer up any additional wisdom you don’t see here, as (in most cases, at least) it could only help other writers.
I’m twenty-eight years old. I’m married with four kids. I’ve been working since I was sixteen. I’ve traveled to many other states in America but have never left my country. I have a four-year degree in business administration. I grew up in a trailer park. Some of my family has struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction and mental illness. Between non-fiction and fiction books, I’ve read hundreds of titles (and I’m working on getting closer to those folks who’ve read thousands, but my reading habit isn’t quite as strong as I want it to be yet). I'm working on diversifying me reading habits so that I gain exposure to different perspectives; for far too much of my life, I only read material written by white men. That's all changing now, thankfully. I’ve watched probably fifty different television shows in their entirety; I’ve completed a handful of manga and conquered every challenge in a handful of video games. I’ve been in a post-hardcore band that produced a studio-quality EP and won contests enabling us to perform alongside national artists in packed venues around the Northwest corner of America. I’ve gone into crowds of people and handed out fliers, sold CDs, and networked tirelessly. Recently, I was invited to my first live event as an author, and that event reignited my love for creative connection with the public. In short, I’ve engaged with lots of stories and lots of writing in various forms, and I’ve experienced the hard work and priceless rewards of packaging, branding, and promoting my creative endeavors for consumption.
I published a novel last year, and I did it without the help of a traditional publishing house. I broke down the costs and revenues on a recent blog post, and, to make it simple here, I’ve lost money so far, and it was largely due to my vision getting in the way of sound business decisions.
Maybe you’re frowning now. Maybe you’ve decided I’m not somebody to take advice from. Maybe the writing up until that last paragraph had you excited and eager, and now you’re rolling your eyes (or maybe your eyes were rolling when you read the paragraph before that, where I proudly displayed my consumption of other mediums aside from literature). Or maybe you have some respect for me because I managed to finish and release a novel, and maybe you, like a few others, have already visited my website and thought, Well, it doesn’t look too amateur; maybe I’ll hear this person out a little longer.
Whatever you’re thinking, it’s fine. I know that the things I listed above are irrefutable experience, and I know that every achievement and failure above has taught me an abundance about the writing craft. How do I know? Because I sought out the lessons. I extracted knowledge, like ore from a mine, from every achievement, interaction, and failure. I wrought the lesson free from the stone that encased it, and I’ve always used these victories and defeats to shape my storytelling abilities.
When we consume, we are given one part of the fuel to create, but we must synthesize that fuel by mixing this part with another element: analysis. This synthesis is not a passive process. When you watch or read or otherwise engage with something that moves you, it is your job not only to be moved but to also analyze the piece, to determine what it was about that piece that moved, inspired, or awed. Did you read one of Chuck Palahniuk’s books and wonder how his uniquely authentic blend of cynicism, wit, humor, and allegory left you thinking about both his novel and our entire society for days? What did he do to achieve those things? Did you watch The Office and laugh often and cry at all the right times? Why did all the jokes land, and what was so poignant about those scenes that brought tears to your eyes? Did you watch Breaking Bad, floored with Walter White’s demented descent into villainy? What amazed you about it? Did you complete Final Fantasy IX and feel like you’d just gone on a harrowing journey of your own? How did the game impact you so much?
All these mediums have at least one element in common, despite their myriad differences. At the heart of each, there’s a story, and each story is comprised of a variety of elements. If you not only consume but also note and analyze those elements, you can synthesize the fuel to create your own stories. Many writers do this subconsciously; but often they erroneously treat this as a passive process. They watch Breaking Bad or read A Song of Ice and Fire or read some Stephen King book and think, “Hey, I can do this.”
The results are often disastrous.
They often end up over on a subreddit called r/writingcirclejerk. Very rare is the person who can merely view something before constructing a new creation equally as poignant and engrossing as the inspiration. Why? Because there are tools, fundamentals, and elements at play, and all these things coalesce. It is the complex welding together of these elements that makes the completed product so powerful. So, if one attempts to mimic style or poignancy or a great character arc without understanding the tools the screenwriters or authors or game developers used, then one will struggle to articulate a vision nearly as captivating. It’s sort of like passing a gorgeous home and then trying to build a second gorgeous home without knowing which tools to use or even, often, how to use them. You simply wouldn’t do that.
My experience comes not only from engaging with so many stories but also from picking them apart and analyzing their prose, their characters, their plots, their settings, their pacing, and nearly everything else about them. It comes from looking at every medium with a story (including the many, many stories I’ve happened upon by simply talking with people in my life). I mention this because when we treat every medium with a story like a masterclass in storytelling—when we are constantly acting as students—we better position ourselves for success in creating our own stories.
And we must also strive to have initiative in our learning. This is probably the biggest thing that separates successful, knowledgeable writers from those who never feel they’ve attained any level of mastery with the craft.
As an example, I remember reading The Elements of Style and thinking, Yes, this is it! I’ve purchased the book…. I’m reading the book…. I’m going to be a killer writer after this! It has all the answers! Everybody says so! And, when I read it, guess what? I felt like a worse writer. I didn’t know then what active voice and passive voice were. I didn’t know half of what Strunk and White were talking about. But I identified the things I wasn’t clear on, and I did a ton of research to finally obtain the clarity I lacked, and that is why I know everything you’re about to read. Clarity—true understanding—is the key to better writing, and when you fully, intimately understand something, you can more effortlessly elucidate your readers about it.
Remember this: possessing knowledge is infinitely better than pretending to possess it.
Let’s get into the practical stuff by answering a few of the most common questions I see so frequently in writing circles. Beginning writers often ask if they’re allowed to do things. “Can I make a character who is a hero at first but eventually becomes a villain?” Yes. You can. You can do anything you want with writing because there is no Board of Writers who govern what is allowed and what is not allowed. Assuming, perhaps presumptuously, that you are in a place in our world where you have the freedom of speech, you are then free to write whatever you want. Keep in mind that there are consequences to every choice, but remember that creative writing has few “rules” outside of grammatical constructs (and authors sometimes manage to ignore or abandon even these to great effect). This question, because of its phrasing, comes off as a request for permission, but I think, in quite a few cases, that the beginning writer is actually trying to ask something a little more nuanced than “Can I…?” I think they’re often trying to ask “How do I…?” or “Will it resonate with readers if I…?” or “Will I offend readers if I…?” or “Can you share some examples of books or stories that have effectively done what I want to do?” Beginning writers sometimes have loads of work to do in the discipline of clarifying, so I think some of them often don’t know how else to ask what they’re really trying to ask.
Beyond that sort of question, perhaps the second most common question is often some form of “How do I…?” and this question is often met with a variety of responses. The best answer to this question is always to locate a few books—or other media—by successful authors that have already done what you’re looking to do (because, trust me, you’re not trying to do something that hasn’t, in one form or another, ever been done before), analyze them, and determine what the author or authors of those stories did to successfully achieve what you hope to achieve. “How do I make a character death memorable?” How did F. Scott Fitzgerald do it? Truly analyze this. Ask yourself, “Why did I care when Fitzgerald decided to kill off his character? Why did I like the character? What about the character did I like? Why was I rooting for the character? Why did I think this character wouldn’t die? And why did it shake me so much when this character did?” You might ask, “How do I make a morally grey character?” Use a similar line of questioning to the one above. How did George R. R. Martin famously do it? Watch Game of Thrones or read A Song of Ice and Fire and ask yourself, “Why has this series resonated so much with people? Why do these characters seem so real? Why do they feel multi-dimensional? Why do I sometimes dislike the characters and sometimes like them? Is it their choices, their convictions, their clothes, their words…? Is it the sum of all those things and/or more?”
Another popular question for fledgling writers to ask is whether or not a sample of their writing is good. Often, these sample chapters come from unfinished manuscripts. I don’t advocate for folks to share their work while it’s in progress, because soliciting feedback is a form of editing while drafting (a mortal sin—kind of). Editing while drafting is, in my opinion, the ultimate enemy to completing a novel or larger project. A writer should edit the majority of her writing after she’s drafted it, because time spent polishing any piece of an unfinished project is time that could have been spent finishing the project (plus, if the writer never does complete her project, then all that polishing was virtually for naught). I liken this, too, to building a home. You start with the frame for the whole house; you don’t build the frame for the kitchen and then put in the tile and appliances and then build the rest of the house. Recognize that these early qualms are requests for validation (which can be motivating—and also fatally demotivating, depending on reader response). Acknowledge, too, that re-reading words you’ve already written feels much easier than picking out new words. One caveat to this is that sharing early samples can have the benefit of alerting the writer of certain issues that she wouldn’t want to carry forward throughout an entire manuscript.
As a writer, try to take this education into your own hands. These questions you have will spawn more questions, but you’ll eventually come to a point where you can wield the written word effectively. You’ll always be a student, but try to be a student who can find answers without waiting for others to give them to you. Don’t ask and wait for answers to come; go and find answers. This is what I meant when I said to take initiative with your learning. If your entire process consists of asking questions and waiting for answers… you’ll never get anywhere. Many writers often continue to conjure up such questions, but the truth is that nobody gave any of the successful authors you’ve read and enjoyed permission, and I’d be willing to bet that a big determiner of those authors’ success was their ability to learn from other writers (instead of being told by other writers). Instead of waiting for somebody else to tell them how to make believable characters come to life on the page, your favorite authors forged ahead after reading their own favorite authors, and they tried (and probably failed often) to do that which their heroes had already done.
And so we arrive at the worst piece of advice in the writing universe: “Just write.” Infuriating and useless and unactionable, this piece of advice is so often spewed, and perhaps the only truth in the depths of those two words is that there are certain questions of form and function and syntax and structure that you may need to ask (certainly try to find the answers to those by yourself first), but questions about what you’re “allowed” to do and questions about “how to” effectively execute things have already been answered ad infinitum, and you’re only harming yourself by waiting around for those answers when you could be proactively learning from the authors who have already gone before you. Don’t just aimlessly write and pray you’ll improve; develop your craft by tunneling into the works of those who’ve already started digging and then learning how to hold a shovel of your own.
Let’s break up the giant discussion by offering some simple definitions to finally dispel any confusion about what tools you’re handling. Here, we’ll talk first about parts of speech, then narrative modes, then perspectives, then tense, then elements of a story, then elements of prose, and, finally, we’ll have a brief discussion about sentence structure and sentence length. Keep in mind, too, that a majority of what comes ahead is possibly exclusive to English as a language. I am, unfortunately, not multilingual, so I can’t speak to any of the nuances of other languages. I am an English-speaking writer trying to educate folks on what I know about English. Note, too, that much of what follows pertains not necessarily to writing in general but rather to writing fiction, specifically novels and short stories. If you’re interested in writing nonfiction or articles for a news site or instruction manuals for a manufacturing firm, you’ll undoubtedly find some useful information below, but some of what follows will not be pertinent to those types of writing.
This is grade school stuff, right? Right! Many of us were taught (or, in active voice, as you’ll soon read about, “Our teachers taught many of us”) a vast amount about the English language in school. Perhaps it’s no small wonder that many of us feel capable of wielding this language to craft stories. But when we start to get into the style guides, we’re often met with a shocking realization: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Many of us have used written communication to a large degree, but few of us have had to uphold the rigorous standards of grammar. Sure, a lot of us spent most of our teenage years texting, but I know, for many people, grammar flies out the window when they’re (“or is it ‘there’ or ‘their?’” you might be wondering) sending some offhand message to their friends with their thumbs. Over time, we forget which part of a sentence is the noun; we forget what “plural” really means; we forget about subject-verb agreements and about the differences between homophones.
Most of the style/writing books I’ve read omit the often-needed refresher on the basic functions of English grammar. Speaking to the most popular of them, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White goes on with the assumption that its readers know intimately the terminology and many, many nuances of English grammar. On Writing by Stephen King outright tells its reader that it will not offer any sort of refreshment on the basics, though King does offer other resources for refreshing oneself about them. Still other style guides seem to prefer to get right to the point of espousing their author’s views on what is preferred and what is a hindrance without offering any level of refresher.
So, allow me to refresh you as best as I can.
In English, there are 26 letters. Each letter may be either uppercase (capital) or lowercase. Letters make up words. Words make up sentences, and the former may belong to any number of important classes (called “parts of speech,” which we’ll discuss below). Sentences make up paragraphs. Paragraphs make up articles and books. Every sentence begins with a capital letter, and every sentence ends with punctuation. There are only four sentence structures, but there are endless variations once you learn to play well with those (you’ll learn about verbals below).
The most common parts of speech are nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, prepositions, interjections.
Nouns: A person, place, or thing. Proper nouns—nouns that specify a specific entity as opposed to a class of entities—are always capitalized, regardless of their placement within a sentence. Common nouns are only capitalized if at the beginning of a sentence.
A noun may also show up as a noun phrase. For example, “The money that Susan gave me burned in the pit.” What is the noun that is performing the action of this sentence? “The money that Susan gave me.” It’s an entire noun phrase used to identify the subject of the sentence for the reader. It is what’s burning in the pit.
Pronouns: These take the place of a known noun. Typically, these are inconspicuous words that do not become tedious to read over and over. Rather than write, “John jumped. John gripped the ledge and hauled himself up. When John stood and surveilled the top of the mountain, John gasped,” you can instead write, “John jumped. He gripped the ledge and hauled himself up. When he stood and surveilled the top of the mountain, he gasped.” Every pronoun usually needs to come after an established antecedent, which is the noun/noun phrase that will help orient the reader (in the example above, John is the antecedent, for after he’s been established, the reader understands that the following pronouns are referring to John). If the reader does not know what a pronoun is taking the place of, confusion will occur. The writer must take an abundance of caution with pronouns, as confusion can arise from poor management of them. See here:
Samantha and Alyssa argued for hours, but she won in the end.
Who won? Who is “she” referring to? Alyssa or Samantha? Strive for more clarity with pronouns. Sometimes this means removing the pronoun or re-structuring the sentence, like so:
Samantha and Alyssa argued for hours until Samantha won (removing pronoun).
Samantha won the argument with Alyssa, but they’d had to fight for hours (restructuring the sentence).
Context plays an especially important role in managing pronouns. Check out this passage from Terry Pratchett’s Mort, in which there are an abundance of pronouns (and epithets, which are very similar to pronouns—epithets are adjectives or phrases used to describe a noun):
“The woman turned a tear-stained face towards her, fighting every instinct that told her the princess didn’t exist.”
Alone, this sentence might be difficult to read/interpret, but the context of the scene and the perspective of the novel (third person omniscient, which is discussed below) lend themselves to the reader’s understanding.
Verbs: These are English’s most versatile words, in my opinion. Broadly speaking, verbs may be action verbs, linking verbs, or helping/auxiliary verbs.
Action verbs are used to give nouns action. Without verbs, no person, place, or thing could… well… do anything at all. For example: “John jumped.” Without the verb, I could only write John’s name, and my poor reader would be wondering what John is up to. The verb is what changes when your tense changes. As discussed in my section about tenses, the way you change the verb (there are essentially twelve iterations of any given verb) tells the reader when the noun performed the action. Thus, you may write (though these examples are not exhaustive), “John jumps,” “John jumped,” “John has jumped,” “John will have jumped,” or “John was jumping.” Note here that none of those examples were passive voice, despite using the verb “was.”
Linking verbs connect a subject (noun, noun phrase, or pronoun) to a predicate adjective or predicate noun. Example: “She is an accountant.” You’ve linked the pronoun (subject) “she” with the more specific noun “accountant.” The verb here, “is,” is a linking verb. Now, many linking verbs can appear as action verbs, too, depending on their usage. Put another way, whether you would classify them as a linking verb or action verb depends on their function. “First, there is only a black voice. In a flash of light, she appears, breathing—alive. Somehow, she is.” In this capacity, the word “is” is not being used to link the pronoun to anything; the verb is indicating the action of being.
Helping/Auxiliary verbs modify other verbs. For example, “was” is a verb, and you can use this one in three capacities. “He was.” This is an action verb. In this sentence, the pronoun “he” is performing the action of existing (in the past). “He was tall.” This is a linking verb. We have connected the pronoun “he” with an adjective (“tall”). Finally, you might use the word to modify your verb to change your tense: “He was jumping.” Now, this is not to say that the pronoun “he” existed in the past as the act of jumping itself; it’s saying that “he” was continuously jumping. In this capacity, “was” is a helping/auxiliary verb enabling the writer to employ past continuous tense (which is described later). You can look up lists of action, linking, and helping verbs. Identify them, and, more importantly, see how writers use them.
I was reading The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett while working on this document, and so I found a few examples from Pratchett’s writing that highlight what we’re talking about here.
“Rincewind looked at his fingers, and then at the lid. It looked heavy and was bound with brass bands. It was quite still now.”
First, note the usage of the word “looked.” It appears twice in proximity to itself, which is typically something to avoid. Using the same word very close to where you originally used the first word is something you want to be wary of. However, here, Pratchett uses the word in two distinct ways. The first time he uses it as an action verb. That is, the subject (Rincewind) is performing the action of looking at something. The second time Pratchett uses the word is as a linking verb, to tell us that the lid (the subject is “It,” a pronoun whose antecedent is “the lid” from the prior sentence) looks heavy. Remember, linking verbs connect nouns to adjectives or other nouns. Tom became angry (a noun to an adjective). Betty is an accountant (a noun to another noun).
Another point of note about this passage is that last sentence. “It was quite still now.” “Was” tends to be a rather weak linking verb, and many people employ it often offhandedly or absentmindedly, especially in creative writing. Thus, we have authors who consistency tell us what things are instead of what things are doing. A simple trick to introduce variety into your writing is to scrutinize some of these passages that contain “was” as a linking verb and to employ personification and action verbs instead. Note, please, that this is not a passive construction just because the word “was” is here and we’re scrutinizing it. The subject (again, “It,” a pronoun whose antecedent is “the lid” from two sentences prior), is performing the verb “was,” and, again, the verb is being used as a linking verb to tell us that the lid was “quite still,” (an admittedly weak adjectival phrase that could have been written as a single adjective, “motionless”). If we personified the subject, the inanimate lid, we could then give it action. “It lay, motionless.” “It didn’t shift a second time.” These are both action verbs. “Lay” and “shift,” and they give a sense of action to the story. However, it is also important to note here that what we’re trying to tell the reader is about the absence of any action, so it’s probably not so important to employ this technique here. As a guide, writers should try to avoid telling the reader about that which is not happening, and instead focus on the affirmative—what is happening. That’s a guide and not a hard rule; it’s acceptable to tell the reader what is not happening whenever it suits the story, but it is good to lean into that which is happening. However, given the context of this passage, I think Pratchett handled the focus well enough. The reader understands, and that is, perhaps, the cardinal rule of all writing. Does the reader understand as quickly and painlessly as possible?
Moving on, there are two important properties of verbs that I think we should look at here: valency and voice.
Voice is a function of the verb, not a function of the sentence. But I imagine you’ve often heard writing pundits say, "This sentence is in passive voice." No, the verb is either passive or active, and so you can actually have both passive and active verbs in a single sentence. Behold: "Seth picked up his glass, which had been chipped earlier that day by Amanda." The first verb, "picked up," has an active voice because the subject performing the action is directly before the verb. Seth (subject) picked up (verb) the glass (object). Another example: Isaiah (subject) clicked (verb) the mouse's left button (object). Spike (subject) barked (verb). The bottle (subject) fell (verb). But the second verb in our example sentence, "had been chipped," appears before the noun (Amanda) who performed the action. Thus, the reader is left wondering for a split second who chipped the glass because Amanda's name appears after the verb. Likewise, if Amanda's name had not appeared at all, the verb would have also had a passive voice. See this: "Seth picked up his glass, which had been chipped earlier that day." Passive verbs cause the reader to ask this question: “Who completed the action?”
Simply, if you reach the verb and you have to wonder who or what performed the verb (either because the noun or pronoun is after the verb or it is absent from the sentence), you've got a passive construction on your hands. This part does happen on a sentence level, though. You may know that Amanda chipped the glass because you read about the incident in a previous chapter or sentence, but, because the sentence in which the verb “had been chipped” appears doesn’t specifically show the noun/pronoun prior to the verb, it’s a passive construction. Also, to be clear, using pronouns instead of nouns doesn't change things here. Just because somebody writes, "They jumped," and you're left asking, "Who jumped?" doesn't mean it's a passive construction; the pronoun "They" is the pronoun performing the action, and the pronoun appears before the verb. To this point, I’d add that finding passive voice isn’t a matter of knowing identity; it’s about syntactical order and presentation.
One way to think of passive voice is how you might approach a conversation if you’re trying to be diplomatic or avoid ascribing blame to somebody. You take away agency, like so (passive example): “The reports were not cleaned up last period. Several exceptions were left on the report.”
Who didn’t clean the reports? Who left the exceptions on the report? See how the sentences took away agency?
If you were trying to be more direct and show who actively made the mistakes (hence, active voice for the verbs), you would highlight blame by including the noun (the person) who made the mistakes, like so (active example):
“You did not clean up the reports. You left several exceptions on them. Thanks a lot, James. You’ve ruined the company.”
See how adding agency seems so much more direct and, in this case, critical?
Again, the voice attaches to the verb; every verb with an object either has a passive voice or an active voice, and how you use that verb in conjunction with the noun that/who performs it is what gives the verb its voice. Just because you might be able to answer those questions (“Who didn’t clean up the reports?” and “Who left the exceptions on the report?”) doesn’t mean that those examples are employing active voice.
Again, you look at the verb usage, because that’s where the voice sits. So, if you look at those verbs in the passive versus active examples, please note that we had to tack a form of “to be” onto them. We don’t write “Exceptions left on the reports.” We write, “Exceptions were left on the reports.” So, we change the verb from “left” to “were left,” and the action, which Karen performed, sounds as though it’s coming from the exceptions (the object—the thing that the actions really were performed on). Who performed the action? Karen. You can perform another passive construction by including the subject after the verb.
So, one last time, to really cement this for you, you either get passive construction by excluding the subject pronoun/noun (the one who/that actually performed the action; the doer) or by adding that subject pronoun/noun as an afterthought. Exceptions were left on the report by James. In this latter construction, you’ve answered the question “Who left the exceptions on the report?” and you’ve done it in the very same sentence as the one where this verb exists, but it’s still passive because of the order of things, because of the interplay between the verb, which holds the voice, and the noun/pronoun that/who performed it.
Active: John left the ball at home.
Passive: The ball was left at home (I omitted John, the subject).
Passive: The ball was left at home by John (I added John, the subject, after the verb—he was an afterthought).
You’ll hear people say it this way often, and its exactly correct: “Passive voice is when the object of the sentence becomes the subject.” When the thing (noun, noun phrase, or pronoun) that is receiving action (from another noun) is the first word in your sentence or clause, you’re probably using a verb with a passive voice.
A form of “to be” is a modifier (in the context I’m referring to now, it’s a helping/auxiliary verb) that can let you know that something’s up and you might be using passive voice. You will often hear people mistakenly say that any form of “to be” means you’re using passive voice. Wrong. People think it’s an easy way to automatically identify passive voice. It usually can help, but sometimes the verb “to be” in its various iterations has absolutely nothing to do with passive voice. Nothing.
“Jack was throwing his marbles all over the room.” Is that passive? No. Jack is performing the action, and because the noun (Jack) comes before the verb, the verb has an active voice. In the past, he was performing the action. Continuously. When you see the “was” in this sentence, it’s because I’m modifying the verb for the purposes of tense, not voice. I’m letting the reader know that, in the past, Jack was continuously throwing marbles. It’s past continuous tense, like I mention in my section on tenses.
“Max was jumping” is active, and it’s quite different than “Max was jumped,” which would be passive. If Max says to us readers, “I was jumped,” we may know that a rival gang member and his friends jumped Max because we read about the attack in a previous chapter, but that doesn’t mean Max is using that verb with an active voice. To do so, Max would need to ascribe agency to the verb, and not as an afterthought (that’s why “I was jumped by a gang” is still passive, even though it does show the noun/pronoun that performed the action; Max is making himself the subject of the sentence when, really, he was the recipient/object of the action and not the performer of it). To reiterate, it’s not about identity. John doesn’t have to know the names of the people who jumped him (“A bunch of guys jumped me” is active, even though John isn’t being specific or identifying anybody, because the noun phrase “A bunch of guys” is the noun performing the action and it comes before the verb).
Max just has to phrase things in the right order.
Subject > verb > object = active construction.
Object > “to be” modifier + verb = passive construction.
Object > “to be” modifier + verb > subject = passive construction.
Subjects are doers. Objects are receivers.
Now, there are many times when authors skillfully and appropriately use passive voice. Here are some good times to use it:
First, when the viewpoint character/narrator genuinely doesn’t know who performed the action, and/or this knowledge is not important whatsoever. Example: “These temples, haunting and vine-covered today, were built centuries ago.” At that moment, it might not be pertinent to reveal who built the temples. Written with an active voice, you’d have to ascribe agency: “Centuries ago, wizened architects built these haunting and vine-covered temples.”
Second, when the author wishes to place emphasis upon the object as a deliberate stylistic choice. Example: “The victims were killed in the middle of the day.” The emphasis is put on the victims because they appear first. The reader will envision them as the subject of the sentence, even though they’re really the objects—the recipients of action.
Why avoid passive? Why is active preferred?
The prevailing reason is merely that putting the subject at the forefront of the sentence lends immediacy to a sentence and often results in the removal of unnecessarily wordy sentences. You'll notice that active verbs never need helping/auxiliary verbs to function.
"John threw the cup."
"The cup was thrown by John."
Using the passive voice with that verb necessitates the addition of the helping verb "was" to make the sentence make sense.... Thus, it's wordier. It also muddles the focus (although, as I mentioned above, this is one of the ways authors can use passive voice effectively: to put the reader's focus on something aside from the subject). Being wordy and muddling focus are two ways to turn readers off and make them less engaged. If that’s what you want, make passive voice your default. Otherwise, use active voice frequently, and be knowledgeable and deliberate about your use of passive voice.
Here is a gorgeous passage from Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic in which an active and passive verb both appear in the same sentence and to great effect:
“Sunbeams from the myriad entrances around the walls crisscrossed the dusty gloom like amber rods in which a million golden insects had been preserved.”
Let’s unpack this. There are two verbs here: crisscrossed and preserved. The noun phrase that’s performing the first verb is “Sunbeams from the myriad entrances around the walls.” What do these sunbeams do? Crisscross. This is an active construction, so the verb has an active voice. The second verb is passive, because the agent who performs the preserving of the golden insects is absent from the sentence. Filtered through Liessa’s perspective, this sentence doesn’t attribute anybody in particular to the preserving of the bugs, and, in this instance, the absence of an agent to perform that verb makes it passive, but it also lends an air of mystery/vagueness to the sentence, and the imagery is exceptionally striking because of it.
Voice is something a lot of people get wrong. Valency is probably equally as important. At the most basic level, a verb’s valency describes the verb’s relationship with other words in a sentence. There are a few different valency patterns (there are actually more complex patterns than what I’ll describe here; if you’re interested in those, search for “complex transitive” and “copular transitive” verb patterns):
Intransitive: an intransitive verb only has a subject. Example: “He died.” If you pair an object with these sorts of verbs, the sentence will often not make sense. If one wrote, “He died Marley,” the reader might wonder if the writer meant to imply that the subject killed Marley… and the reader would promptly close the book for fear that she would encounter more ridiculous constructions.
Monotransitive: a monotransitive (written, too, as merely “transitive”) verb has a subject and direct object. In fact, they fail to make sense without an object. Example: “He brought the money.” If one merely wrote, “He brought,” the reader would be left wondering what the subject brought.
Some verbs can be both: “She sang,” shows the verb “sang” as an intransitive verb in the past tense. It is also possible for a person to sing something (an object). “She sang Katy Perry’s song, Fireworks, with such abandon that I couldn’t help but smile, despite her being persistently sharp.” The noun phrase that is the object of this sentence is “Katy Perry’s song, Fireworks.” Essentially, you just need to ask if you can merely perform the verb without doing it to something. You can’t fall something (but you can fell it, oddly enough). You can swing something, but you can also merely swing. “He swung the bat,” or, simply, “He swung.”
Ditransitive: a ditransitive verb has a subject, direct object, and an indirect object. Example: “He brought the money to Marley.” The subject, “He,” is performing the ditransitive action verb “brought” in the past tense to “the money.” However, “Marley” is also affected by the bringing of the money; Marley is the indirect object. An indirect object is a noun or noun phrase who/that is affected by the action of a transitive verb, usually because they/it is a recipient. Note that the indirect object doesn’t always come last; the construction can vary. “She afforded me the opportunity to learn a lot about elephants.”
Ditransitive verb: “Afforded.”
Direct object: “The opportunity to learn a lot about elephants.”
Indirect object: “Me.”
Another set of important pieces to our vernacular here are called verbals. There are three kinds: gerunds, participles, and infinitives. You can check out these three Perdue Owl articles here, here, and here.
The gist is that a gerund is any verb ending in “-ing” that is used as a noun, a participle is a verb (often, though not always, ending in “-ing” or “-ed”) that is used as an adjective, and an infinitive is a verb—in its simplest form—paired with the word “to” and used as a noun, adjective, or adverb.
Gerunds: Here’s an example of a gerund: “Understanding gerunds is important.” What’s the subject of this sentence? “Understanding gerunds.” The noun phrase—the gerund—“Understanding gerunds” is performing the verb “is,” (which is being used as a linking verb to tell the reader that the subject is important).
Another example: “Winning makes me feel bad for the person who lost.” “Winning” is the gerund, and it’s being used as a noun here because it’s performing the action of “making” me feel bad.
Participles: Here’s an example of a participle: Sighing, he closed the door. Note that writers must use caution with participles, lest they create what’s called a dangling modifier. This occurs when the participle appears to modify something it shouldn’t be modifying. I catch myself creating these sometimes. Here’s an example: “Made to live a terrible life, everybody sympathized with the orphaned girl.” The participle (“Made to live a terrible life”) is supposed to be modifying the orphaned girl, but instead it appears the modify the noun that comes directly after it (everybody), so it seems to say that everybody is made to live a terrible life, and they are also sympathizing with the orphan girl.
There are generally two kinds of participle phrases that show up. Past participle phrases and present participle phrases. As their names suggest, past participle phrases describe subjects with past tense verbs, whereas present participle phrases use present tense verbs, which tell the reader that the verb is happening simultaneously with the action the subject performs.
Past Participle Phrase: Bruised and bloodied, Kara knelt before her queen.
Present Participle Phrase: Bleeding, Kara knelt before her queen.
Infinitives: Here’s an example of an infinitive as an adverb (also called an adverbial infinitive): He shoots to kill (usage as an adverb, modifying the verb “shoots”). How does he shoot? To kill.
Here’s an example of an infinitive as a noun (called a nominal infinitive): To err (usage as a noun) is human.
Finally, here’s an example of an infinitive as an adjective (you guessed it: an adjectival infinitive): Maggie is the one to ask (usage as an adjective, modifying the noun “one”) to about this.
Adjectives: Adjectives, quite simply, describe nouns. For example: “The quiet man watched.” In that sentence, “quiet” is the adjective describing the man.
Adverbs: Adverbs describe the way that somebody or something performed a verb. How did she slide down the slide? Loudly? Quietly? With her hands in the air like she just didn’t care? You’ll often hear the awful advice to avoid adverbs, and you’ll also often hear the awful guidance that adverbs are simply words ending in “ly.” Many adverbs do end in “ly,” but those letters do not mark an adverb or adverbial phrase unequivocally. Yes, just like many other parts of speech, this function may appear as either a word or a phrase, meaning you might need to look out for more than just sole words. “She screamed at me, without consideration of those around us.” How did she scream? At me, without consideration of those around us. The advice to avoid adverbs often comes from the desire to find the absolute best verbs we can, and we do this in service of the great ideal of being as concise as we can. Getting rid of needless words helps make our writing clearer, which means readers have a better, less confusing time and everybody’s happy.
Articles: In English, we have the definite article and the indefinite article. The definite one is “the;” the indefinite one is “a” or “an.”
Conjunctions: Words that connect other words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. There’s an acronym to remember the coordinating conjunctions For, As, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So, and that acronym is FANBOYS.
Prepositions: These words typically indicate spatial or temporal relationships between words. They tell us when and where things are happening. Writers usually use them before nouns and pronouns. Some examples are: To, In, On, By, Before, Since, After.
Interjections: These words express emotion. They’re often totally isolated. “Hey! Ouch! Gross! Jerk!”
What are the five narrative modes? You might know them. You’ve certainly read them before. They are: action, exposition, description, dialogue, and thought (internal monologue). Effectively, these modes are the methods through which an author of prose shares her character’s external and internal worlds. These modes are the building blocks of prose. Cate Hogan has an excellent article about this concept. Read it here.
Action: Any prose that is meant to evoke imagery of subjects performing action verbs. Examples: Tom stared at her. John lunged. Howling and flinging drool, the werewolf sprinted toward me.
Exposition: Any prose that offers knowledge or backstory/history to the reader. Example: The palace guard consisted of four hundred soldiers. A sole warrior, who, according to local stories, had earned her role by besting combatants in a bloody tournament, headed the squadron. Few knew her name, but many knew her face, and all who knew her face shuddered at the thought of crossing her and her blade.
Note: You’ll notice my example contains plenty of action verbs. The purpose of the writing is not to progress the story, however. The focal point of those sentences above is solely to inform the reader, and it is information that the viewpoint character already knew about prior to that point in the story. The viewpoint character who’s distilling that exposition had already witnessed the palace guard, had already seen (or had at least heard of) the sole warrior who headed the squadron, had already heard the local stories about the bloody tournament.
An alternative to exposition is to use dialogue to disseminate information. Rather than tell the reader about the information above, the writer could just as well have a scene in which our protagonist is talking with another character about the palace guard and its leader.
Description: Any prose that describes something. The purpose of descriptive writing is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Example: The Christmas tree—a seven-and-a-half-foot tall behemoth complete with pre-lit lights—seemed to occupy half of the two walls that met behind it to form the room’s corner. Glinting with white stars and blue orbs, it lent to the room a warmth and serenity fit only for this, the most wonderful time of year. On one limb jutting from the back of the tree, Thomas had hung an inconspicuous picture of his baby brother, James. When James, who was now thirty-two, noticed it at the family’s Christmas feast, he would deliver unto Thomas a tirade, for the picture showed James walking naked in the blueberry patch that belonged to their great-grandparents.
First note: Sensory details that a readily available should be used in descriptive writing, but the writer should be wary of using descriptive writing to communicate significant ideas or virtues, lest the writer wander into the territory of telling. Let me elaborate. Pretend you’re a forty-five-year-old businessperson. You walk into a room and see a person you’ve known since kindergarten. You see her glasses, her dangling earrings. You see gray roots in her hair, and you can also see she’s recently colored her hair—perhaps, you guess, in an attempt to conceal her age. You see her manicured fingernails. You smell the subtle hint of her perfume—an expensive scent, you know, because she talked to you a few months ago for three hours about how much she spent on the bottle. Her voice is high, her sentences short. All of this is description. It’s surface-level. These details say many things about the character, but they cannot hope to intricately illustrate who she is. And they shouldn’t. Thus, the writer should never use description to venture beyond the surface level. The writer, after all that description, shouldn’t go on to say, “She was a go-getter; she had big dreams of becoming the next CEO of our company.” The writer could do this; many writers often do, but these details are so much more poignantly delivered when the writer shows the reader the character’s aspirations through dialogue and a character’s actions. Consider these two examples and compare them.
One: Laura cared a lot about the work; our boss made sure of it.
Two: “No, I don’t think we can turn it in like this, Marcus,” said Laura. “The formatting’s all wrong. The color scheme looks like crap. Come on, we’re better than this.” She kept eyeing the doorway, as if waiting for Doug, our boss, to walk in. She went on, “Remember Doug’s feedback last time we turned in a project with colors like this?”
Second note: Descriptions should be considerate of the reader’s liberties. Think of it like a balancing act. The more specific the writer, the less freedom a reader has for interpretation. With certain things, this might be preferable, but it is rarely so in fiction writing. Thus, a writer may write that a character is wearing a red bandanna or a crimson bandanna. The first adjective (red) enables the reader to conjure up any shade of red that he or she chooses, while the latter adjective (crimson) limits the reader in its specificity. Part of the beauty of writing is in its ambiguity, but you may recall from earlier that clarity is exceptionally important in writing, too. Thus, it’s best to offer enough description so that a reader can be reasonably sure of the setting or the character but not so much description that the reader can take absolutely no liberties in how he or she imagines those elements of the story.
Dialogue: Spoken words in a story. These are direct quotes from characters. Example: “This writing guide is too thick,” said Marjorie. “Couldn’t this guy have summarized this a bit better?”
Some notes: First, formatting dialogue is important. Your sentences will always be surrounded by a pair of double quotation marks. If a speaker quotes somebody else within their dialogue, you use a pair of single quotation marks to denote the quoted phrase within the character’s dialogue. An interesting note is that in British English, you use a pair of single quotation marks for standard dialogue but you use double quotation marks for quoted material within spoken dialogue. A new speaker always gets a new paragraph. The first verb, whether it’s “said” or “bellowed” or “screamed” or “called” after your quote does not get capitalized, even if you ended your quote with a question mark or an exclamation point or anything besides a comma (which, next to the period, is one of the most common pieces of punctuation writers use to end a piece of dialogue). Note that if the quoted words would have ended with a period, you’ll typically want to use a comma if there has not yet been a dialogue tag. Look at line two of the example below (and there are countless examples in probably any novel on your bookshelf):
“What time is it?” asked James.
“I’m not sure,” said Amelia. “One second.” She brought out her phone and entered her code, the six clicks it produced inconspicuous amongst all the noise of the gas station. “Almost five.”
The bell above the gas station’s front door jingled. “What’s up, Amelia? Of all the places you could’ve been right now!” David strolled into the gas station, neglecting to hold the door for the man behind him.
Oh, great, thought Amelia. Here we go again.
“Hey, David,” said Amelia, affecting a smile that didn’t light her eyes. “Fancy meeting you here." She hated using cliches, but she’d said it anyway. Oh well, she didn’t owe her best to David. “What brings you all the way out to Cincinnati?”
I followed every rule for formatting I mentioned above in this example. You can see that, even when the speaker had perhaps three separate quotes, it’s permissible to keep those quotes in the same paragraph, so long as they’re separated by beats, tags, or internal monologue. The key is to change paragraphs when a new speaker is speaking aloud. This signals to the reader that somebody else is speaking. Note, too, that dialogue tags and beats aren’t always necessary when only two speakers are involved. After the cadence is established with the first exchange of words (in our example, we had no context to work with, so I used a tag for James’s quote and tags and beats for Amelia’s quote.
There is lively debate in the writing community about whether writers should use dialogue tags or beats, or whether they should use dialogue tags aside from the word “said,” or whether they should ever employ adverbs with dialogue tags.
A dialogue tag is just a verb used with a quote to indicate who spoke the quote. The most common tag is the word “said.” The second most common is probably “asked.” Whether “said” (or any other tag) comes before the quote or after the quote is up to the author, and whether “said” comes before or after the speaker’s name is also up to the author. One may grammatically write any of the following (and they may interchange between any of these methods with any single work; a writer doesn’t have to pick one and stick to it):
Said John, “I’m exhausted!” This is perhaps the most archaic of constructions, however.
John said, “I’m exhausted!”
“I’m exhausted!” said John.
“I’m exhausted!” John said.
There’s a whole camp of folks who say that writers should only use “said.” I’ll say this later, but it’s good to say it often, so I’ll say it here, too: any advice that prohibits you fully from doing something or encourages you to always do something is bad advice. Never write off an entire set of words at the well-meaning advice of some writer in a group. Never hinder yourself by telling yourself you can’t use the word “bellowed” on a dialogue tag if you so choose. Myself, I use “said” an awful lot, but I also employ words like “shouted,” “screamed,” “bellowed,” “hollered,” “whined,” “croaked,” and more. I occasionally use adverbs with my dialogue tags, too, but only when I don’t have the perfect verb.
A beat is just prose in between quotes, usually a bit of action, though it could be any of the other narrative modes (save for other dialogue, of course). Beats are the alternatives to using tags. For example: “What is that?” Sarah’s eyes were focused on something high in the sky. She pointed. “See that, there? Looks like a star, but…” She trailed off. The star pulsed, moved, and changed color, alarming them all. “That’s it,” said Sarah. “We have to go. Look! It’s moving.”
Above, beats appear between quotes one and two, and two and three, though a tag is used between quotes three and four.
Dialogue is the place to get very expressive, so I would encourage folks to be thoughtful about placing emphasis and about adhering too carefully to more formal writing. Be informal. This is people talking, you know? Speaking of emphasis in dialogue, I personally hate using all capitals—and especially a string of several capitals—to denote screaming or emphasis, but I have seen very commercially successful authors do it. I always use italics for emphasis. To me, the all-capitals thing looks like an eyesore. Compare these three examples:
“Liana, no! You cannot do this!”
“Liana, NO! YOU CANNOT DO THIS!”
“Liana, NOOOOO! YOU CANNOT DOOOO THIISSS!”
To summarize, use a healthy blend of tags and beats. It’s okay to let the dialogue stand alone without either if the order of speaking between two speakers has been established (though you might not want to do so for too many successive lines, lest you inflict dreaded confusion). “Said” is the most common and “asked” is second, but you go right on ahead and use “Screamed” if you want to, and if it’s appropriate and needed. And finally, you go right on ahead and use that damn adverb if you want, but only if you really need it. Ask yourself whether the verb you’re using as a tag is good enough. Also ask yourself whether the context of the scene implies the tone of the dialogue already. If you’ve got two characters who are fighting with each other, you probably don’t need to write the word “angrily” at all. It’s quite possibly evident that the speaker angrily said the words—in fact, the content of the quote itself has the capacity to indicate that well enough.
Thought: The thoughts of a character. These can be delivered as direct thoughts (verbatim thoughts, which are usually italicized, and which usually follow the exact same formatting rules as dialogue, save for the inclusion of quotation marks), or through the narrative voice, depending on the writer’s chosen perspective.
Direct thoughts: I really hate when she eats these chips, thought Amber. Yeah, they taste great, but they smell like death.
Thoughts through the narrative voice: The bag crinkled as Jamie removed it from the cupboard. No, not the chips, thought Amber. She loathed the smell of these things. Odd as it was, they tasted great, but she likened sitting near somebody else who was eating them to being tortured by a human-sized tub of rancid sour cream. Disgusting. She would protest…. No, too late. Jamie’s already opened the bag. The whole house would be infested with the smell by now. Amber could always sleep in the car.
Note about internal thought: Writers, especially some of the more talented/comfortable ones, tend to allow this mode to get out of hand. I have done it myself, and I have seen other writers do it. Letting your novel have too much internal monologue can stall the flow of the story. Remember that while your character is in her head, the world around her is doing things, too, and if your character starts ruminating about things, it could be several paragraphs before we get back to the action of the story. My favorite analogy is to think of the opening of some movie in which the angsty narrator is speaking to you while B-roll plays on repeat. The camera is flying over fields and forests, interlaced with brief flashes of a couple kissing. The narrator is rambling on, “Love is like fire: if you don’t respect it, both you and everyone around you might get hurt.” Now imagine if this just kept happening for minutes and minutes of precious screen time. The narrator just keeps on narrating; the B-roll just keeps on rolling. What are you, the audience member, doing? You’re sitting there saying to yourself—or possibly somebody else—“When the heck is this movie going to start?” This same thing could happen at any point during the movie. For a brief stint of narration and B-roll, you’re fine, but if it were to go on, you’d be saying, “When the heck is this movie going to resume?” This is why we need action, dialogue, description, and exposition, too.
For my piece, I’d say that balancing the five narrative modes is something to learn about. In Hogan’s article, she advocates for a fluid sort of weaving together of these modes. In other words, based on the situation, one must use the appropriate narrative mode. This indicates that an author must cultivate some system—or at least an intuition—for using certain narrative modes in certain circumstances, the latter of which are infinitely varying. If you’ve got information you want to disseminate to the reader, do you use exposition, or can you more organically deliver that information through dialogue? Or will it be inorganic dialogue? There’s the other method, which is much more rigid and probably too much of a science. The other idea would be to adhere to somewhat established formulas, as in, every three or four paragraphs, sprinkle in some dialogue. It sometimes feels as if certain authors do this. Some perhaps even use a cyclical process: description, dialogue, action, dialogue, action, thought, dialogue, description.
I particularly like Hogan’s idea of developing a sort of intuition for when to use the narrative modes. Do this by paying attention to and classifying them in the books you love to read. When does your favorite author use dialogue or description or action? As I mentioned in my note about internal thought, I would caution against “tipping the scale” too much in favor of any one mode. That is, you might intuitively settle into a ton of internal monologue, or you might naturally use a ton of dialogue. Don’t forget about your other narrative modes. Blending all five of them—and blending them well—is your best hope of engaging a reader. If you’ve ever read long sections of a book that were nothing more than one narrative mode, then you know how disheartening and painful that can be for a reader.
The four most prominent perspective choices are: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
With first person, the author is telling the story as though it happened to her. Thus, she’ll use language to reference herself; she is the one telling the story about herself. “My metallic headphones drank up the white light of the overcast sky as it spilled in through my bedroom window. I cleared my throat and bellowed into the microphone the same lines I’d already recorded dozens of times. Three succinct taps sounded beneath me, and my mother called up, ‘Will you shut up? I’m trying to watch Springer!’”
With second person, the author is telling you the story as though it happened to you. This is rarely done because of its awkwardness (readers find it odd to be told about themselves), though it’s sometimes effectively done; Palahniuk has some great examples. Here’s an example of me writing in this perspective: “You step onto the back patio and gaze at the wood you promised your home inspector you’d stain just a month after moving in. You should stain it, he’d said, to protect it from the weather. It’s been six months now, and the rain has had its way with your deck. Shame on you. The paint peels back here and there, and you shake your head at the sight of the yellowed wood beneath. Maybe you’ll get it done in another six months. No, you know you won’t. The wood will only continue to bend, and as it warps into an arch, you will only continue to stare at it and guilt yourself about how lazy you’ve been.”
With third person limited, the author is telling you a story about somebody else (or a group of other people), and the author is only privy to the thoughts and perspectives of one character at a time. Authors may use structural devices (like chapter headings or breaks in the text) to alert the reader about displaying a new character’s perspective. “John’s back itched, but his kids had run off with his back scratcher. Should I do it? he wondered. Should I go for it? He reached behind him and tried—fruitlessly—to get at his itch, but it persisted, high on his back, and his fears materialized when the muscle in his shoulder spasmed and contorted into a knot bigger than his fist.”
With third person omniscient, the author is telling you a story about a third person or group of other people, but the author knows every character’s thoughts and actions. Head-hopping, or arbitrarily moving between character perspectives, is most often an issue here (and sometimes in third person limited). The big difference between head-hopping and third person omniscient is in the way the narrator of the story manifests. If the omniscient narrator drops into the story and becomes any the viewpoint characters, this will feel much more like third person limited, and if the omniscient narrator suddenly becomes another character (without using a break or other device to alert the reader) the author of the story is going to confuse the reader, who will say to themselves, “I thought I was only allowed to see Jane’s thoughts. Why am I now reading about Margo’s thoughts?”
The key here to effectively use this perspective is maintaining distance; the author shouldn’t begin affecting the voices of each of the different characters but should instead stay distant and “float” above the characters. Look at these two brief examples:
“Doug flipped through the pages of the book. Three hundred pages and no pictures? No, thank you. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was looking pretty good right now. Sarah, watching him with his scrunched-up eyebrows and stupid expression, giggled. ‘Aren’t you excited that Mom is making you read it?’ He showed her his tongue and turned away with a roll of his eyes. What a brat, she thought. And, anyway, didn’t the dummy need a book like that?”
This was head-hopping. I first became Doug, and then I became Sarah. I hope you can clearly see why it’s confusing. To do it as an impartial, omniscient narrator, I would need to maintain distance, like so:
“Doug flipped through the pages of the book, but he wasn’t a fan of stories without pictures. Sulking, he turned to Sarah, who giggled at him. ‘Aren’t you excited that Mom is making you read it?’ She put a little acid in her voice, and Doug caught the teasing, so he spit out his tongue at her and rolled his eyes. Sarah thought, What a brat, and she told herself that her brother would only benefit from reading a book without so many pictures.” I held the characters at an arm’s length. I used their pronouns and didn’t get inside their heads except by using direct quotes from their minds. I didn’t begin to narrate as though I were them, as in the first example.
If perspective (often called point-of-view or POV) tells you which person is telling the story, then tense tells you when the story takes place. There are twelve tenses. First understand the three major tenses: past, present, future. If your story happened before and you’re recapping it to the reader, it’s in the past. If you want your reader to feel like the story is happening as they’re reading it, you’ll use present tense. And if you’re telling the reader about a story that will happen in the future, you’ll obviously want to use future tense. Future tense, like second person, is rare in storytelling because of its awkwardness. Just imagine: “Alice will look into the rabbit hole. She will fall into it, screaming and twirling. When she lands, she will meet a rabbit who’s constantly fretting about being late.” I’ve seen it used to good effect in a novel called The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, but even there, I couldn’t help but often think to myself, Why is the author constantly telling me what will happen? Why doesn’t she just show me a scene in which the thing she’s saying will happen actually… happens?” I feel personally that future tense sucks any level of tension out of a story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say to never use it, but I might caution writers to use it sparingly.
Each of these three tenses can be broken into four types: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous. So, in essence, we get twelve verb tenses to work with. As I go through the examples, pay attention to how the meaning changes and how the verb changes (you’ll notice the verb gains helping/auxiliary verbs frequently). The noun performing the verb will not change. Also, as you read, keep in mind that the word “continuous” means that the verb/action goes on repetitively or indefinitely, whereas the word “perfect,” in this context, means that the action was completed (perfected).
Present Simple: John yells.
Present Continuous: John is yelling.
Present Perfect: John has yelled.
Present Perfect Continuous: John has been yelling.
Past Simple: John yelled.
Past Continuous: John was yelling.
Past Perfect: John had yelled.
Past Perfect Continuous: John had been yelling.
Future Simple: John will yell.
Future Continuous: John will be yelling.
Future Perfect: John will have yelled.
Future Perfect Continuous: John will have been yelling.
Generally, you’ll select one tense and one person and this is the arrangement through which you’ll convey your story. It is typically considered a big crime in writing to arbitrarily switch tense, though, like perspective, an author can effectively switch tense by using some structural device to alert the reader of change. For example, an author might use first person in a prologue and use third person for the rest of the book, or she might blend an epistolary novel (diary entries or news articles or “found” footage used to convey a story) with traditional narrative.
Another way to look at these two elements (perspective and tense) is that perspective affects the pronouns you use (whether you’re saying, “I jumped,” “you jumped,” or “he jumped”) and tense affects the helping/auxiliary verbs you use (“She will jump,” “she jumps,” or “she jumped”).
Plot: Plot is the sequence of events in your story, and it’s also the careful consideration of how they’re revealed to the audience. Watch cerebral films or read similarly cerebral books like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Rant by Chuck Palahniuk to get an understanding of the way events might be revealed skillfully to surprise or entrance or move the audience. Thrillers and mysteries also do an excellent job of using revelations (often of past events previously hidden to the reader or viewer) to shock, surprise, or delight audiences. The interplay between the story’s present, future, and past is crucial to consider. Consider the concept of Chekhov’s Gun, which states, basically, that if there’s a gun on the table in act one, then it should go off in act three. Rephrased, the idea is used to imply that nothing should be superfluous in a story; if the detail is there, it should contribute to the whole. The writers of the hit show Futurama famously included in the very first episode the shadow of a certain creature who would later (much later) go onto reveal that he’d been there from the beginning. As an inverse of Chekov’s Gun, it’s also important to consider that a gun shouldn’t appear out of thin air and surprise readers, lest they feel cheated. Any major turn in act three should be feasible, its evidence sitting there on the table, in plain view, in act one. Twisting plots are exceptionally popular today. Sometimes, however, stories might suffer for including twists of the plot that don’t actually service the story. Famously, HBO’s Game of Thrones threw a major curveball at hardcore fans in season 8, and many felt that the show’s twists seemed totally out of character, subsequently ruined the show, and were merely in service of trying to provide shock value.
Please note that, despite the popularity of twisting plots today, there is still plenty of room for linear novels. Many of those are equally as enjoyable.
When building a plot, the author typically can choose to plan, to “pants” (as in, fly by the seat of one’s pants), or employ a hybrid of planning and pantsing. I like to relabel these terms as “planning” and “playing by ear.” Plots may be centered more around events, and these stories are often called plot-focused or plot-driven stories. The alternative is a plot that is centered—or largely driven—by character actions and motivations; these stories are often described as character-focused or character-driven. Now, one might argue that, because characters are in every story and every story has a set of events, it isn’t possible to distinguish whether one or the other really drives the story’s chain of events. I think it’s more about how the author approaches plotting.
For example, with an author who has crafted a really stunning sequence of events, that author may find herself consistently asking, “Would my character do this?” The author must justify the character’s actions within the context of the plot, and if the character wouldn’t conceivably do this, then additional plot is often added to give the character motivation to do that which the author needs the character to do in service of the author’s plot. By contrast, authors who’ve crafted a great set of characters and are merely interested in placing them into a basic premise and letting them “live and breathe” are going to be constantly asking a similar-sounding—albeit substantially different—question: “What would my character do in this situation?” Rather than trying to justify characters actions for the sake of the plot, the author asks the characters what they would do, and the plot unfolds organically as a result.
So, should you plan your story or play it by ear? These two options, in turn, feel undeniably linked, respectively, to either plot-driven or character-driven stories. If you plan out the events of your story first, you’ll craft your characters to fit into those events reasonably well, and you’ll be asking yourself, “Would my character reasonably do this?” Thus, you’ll end up with a plot-driven tale. If you play your story by ear—if you just sit down and start writing—you’ll likely be asking yourself, “What would my character do in this moment?” and you’ll end up with more of a character-driven tale.
Now, there’s a lot of debate about which is better. Stories, at their core, are a tool with which one person can entertain and connect with another person. People see themselves in writing, so strong characterization is incredibly important. Character-driven stories are incredibly magnetic. Look at shows like The Office, which, by all rights, should have been one of the more boring shows on television. However, the characters and their authenticity drew audiences in. That show certainly was not about plot. When people talk about the show, they rarely ask if anybody remembers when this happened or that happened. If they do ask that, it’s almost always within the context of the character and not the event. It’s never “remember when that one guy fell in the koi pond?” It’s always, “I love what Jim did to Michael. That’s such a Jim thing to do. And it’s also such a Michael thing to do.” By contrast, plot-driven stories might reasonably function with any cast of characters. Yes, these sorts of tales often produce memorable iconic characters, but these characters are often shallower than characters who are given every opportunity to show who they are.
Popular novels in any genre hold the same distinctions. Recently, I read the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, and, while its plot was somewhat meandering, I felt that the characterization was so strong and magnetic that I merely wanted to spend more time with the characters. I wanted to experience the genuine relationships between them.
But there is a hybrid option, too, and I advocate for this one the most. Both plan and play your story by ear. This is the method I employed when writing The Gatherers and the Illness of the Isle, and I believe it worked to great effect. I built my world (my setting, its functions, its government, its economy, its culture, its flora and fauna), and then I loosely laid out a plot. From there, and within that framework, I set my characters loose, knowing who they all were. I let them come to life on the page, knowing that they had to complete predetermined actions in service of my grander plot didn’t stop me from asking myself how they might behave in the many pages that occurred between major plot points. I’d say that I leaned more toward plot, and it shows in the comparative shallowness of some of my characters, but I still think I hit close to the center in balancing these two aspects.
Character: The discussion above highlights the importance of character and its relation to plot. Your stories characters are the humanized beings who inhabit it. I say “humanized beings” because there are many stories that don’t solely center on humans (like, say, Watership Down by Richard Adams or The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers). As mentioned above, stories are like a portal, a way for readers or viewers or players to project themselves into a whole new world—or a familiar world but with new people or places or events. Without strong, humanized characters, a story would very likely be boring. It’s not about having humans but about making sure the characters in the story act, have feelings, motivations, dreams, fears, and more.
There are many methods to building characters effectively. Some authors use character sheets from popular role-playing games, while other authors develop lists of highly personal interview questions and then proceed to “interview” their characters. Both are great tools. Myself, I like to look at popular personality measures, things like OCEAN (a character’s openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) or the Myers-Briggs personality test. One such measure—more so of behavior than of personality—is a simple four-by-four gird that asks but two questions:
How does your character assert themselves (by more often asking questions or by more often making statements)?
On which thing does your character primarily focus (on people or tasks)?
I like to use a variety of these different personality tests to build characters—alongside pulling interview questions and other traits from character sheets. Aside from their personalities and behaviors, other traits also matter in crafting believable characters. Other traits influence characters, just as these other traits influence people in real life. Age, religion, race, culture, sex, gender, attraction, and presentation (appearance and how it relates to gender), familial ties, home life, role models, idols, fears, dreams, likes and dislikes. Each character is an entire world that needs to be understood and realized.
The reality is that, much like with people in our everyday lives, your character will not have the opportunity to show all of this, so some of it may not be useful to you as you write. However, I advocate for understanding who your characters are as much as you can, because doing so will enable you to write them more seamlessly.
Setting: I’ve already said my piece on worldbuilding in another article on my site, so I’ll simply link it here. The setting—often known today as the writer’s “world”—is merely the location, or set of locations, in which the story takes place.
Theme: Theme is the point—the central argument that the author is hoping her story will make. I’ve long mused about how themes ought to most effectively show up. If you can bear my meandering, back-and-forth ambivalence on this book analysis, then look there. I’ve said before that it seems many stories are crafted with only a theme in mind, and these end up being thinly veiled attempts at shoving a message down the reader’s/viewer’s throat. When your story is nothing but a message with shallow plot and shallow characters tacked on top of it, I personally view that as something of an annoyance, but that’s just me. And that’s just me now, because I used to very much enjoy stories that focused on theme above all else. Nowadays, I much prefer a story with strong plots and characters, and I prefer to extract themes from these stories as I see them. I think it’s more poignant when a story can illustrate themes with being so “on-the-nose” about them, and without being so emphatic and repetitive about them.
The piece of advice we’re about to discuss comes from the popular quote by Russian novelist Anton Chekhov (the same man who popularized the notion of Chekhov’s Gun, which I discussed above). He said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This maxim has become, over time, “Show, don’t tell,” and it is perhaps the most infuriating piece of advice out there. This piece of advice should be rephrased as the much-less-catchy “Show when it’s appropriate to show and tell when it’s appropriate to tell.” This new iteration raises a new set of questions (doubtless, anybody who’s heard about the first iteration of the maxim already knows many of the differences between “showing” and “telling”).
Let’s first discuss what the differences between showing and telling are. It really is summarized in Chekhov’s quote, but the gist is that passages of “showing” include vivid sensory detail (sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and even tastes) and a certain closeness that enables the reader to put herself in the mind of the viewpoint character, and passages of “telling” are “far away,” impersonal, and not nearly as detailed. If you feel as though your story is more of one giant summary instead of a sequence of “scenes,” then you may have fallen into the trap of telling too much and too often.
The most telling thing is to tell the reader what was, is, or will be.
He was aware of a group of people talking about him.
In many cases, the writer can enhance these sorts of sentences by employing an action verb that replaces the weaker linking verb “was.”
He noticed a group of people talking about him.
However, the reader can take this method a step further into the protagonist’s viewpoint (thus creating more immersion) by eliminating many unnecessary sensory action verbs. The reader knows that anything written is an experience of the character (so long as the writer has established, through one method or another, the perspective of the tale). Compare the following sentence with the one above. Instead of keeping the protagonist as the subject and telling the reader that “he” is noticing something, we change the subject to the thing the protagonist is noticing.
Not far off, and not too inconspicuously, people were chattering about him, their sideways glances all too telling.
She smelled, she realized, she looked, she glanced, she heard, she felt, she thought. Most of these (and many more) can be removed in service of employing this technique. Simply ask what the perspective character saw, smelled, heard, thought about, felt, tasted, became, and so forth. Virtually all linking verbs can be eradicated this way and some unnecessary action verbs can be eradicated this way, too. Look at the following pairs of sentences.
With sensory verb: She smelled the pie’s aroma, which brought visions of apples and cinnamon to her head.
Without: The pie’s aroma wafted its way to her, bringing with it visions of apples and cinnamon.
With sensory verb: She realized that Brandon wouldn’t say something like that about himself, and she wondered whether it had been somebody else on the phone.
Without: Brandon wouldn’t say such a thing about himself. Could it be that it hadn’t been Brandon on the phone?
With sensory verb: She glanced at the golden statue, which had been meticulously carved to look like Tim Allen in the Santa Clause films.
Without: The golden statue, forever frozen in its winking gaze, had been meticulously carved to look like Tim Allen in the Santa Clause films.
By dropping these needless action verbs and instead offering personification/action/agency to the things that our protagonist is interacting with, the writer can avoid the painful pronoun problem (in which the subject of every other sentence is the protagonist or the protagonist’s pronoun). As with all the advice I offer in this article, this isn’t absolute. I know I used phrases like “nearly all” and “most,” but I’m not advocating for those. I’m saying that this method can be applied in many cases, but that doesn’t always mean it should be. It’s perfectly permissible to include sensory verbs (read any commercially successful novel and you’ll see them in abundance). This is but one tool to help if you’ve got an overabundance of them.
I look at showing and telling like an accordion unfolding. Or sometimes I liken it to one of those viewfinders you see in skyscrapers high above a city. Zooming in and zooming out. One—showing—is long and specific and detailed; the other—telling—is shorter and vague.
Telling: “The war lasted 5 years and thousands died.”
Showing: “Isa stood on the field as smoke curled around him. Four days ago, Jane had died, and she’d left him out here amongst the bloodied dirt and mangled fallen. How had he lasted for four more days than her? The smells of iron and dirt stung his nose, and his ears rang in response to the rapid gunfire and occasional explosion…”
How do we know when to show and when to tell? Telling is best suited for moments of transition, either in chapter openings or in between scenes. It’s quick and painless to catch a reader up, but pretty soon after that, you’ll want to settle into showing. Settle into a scene. The reader needs to see characters talking or acting up close. Think of it like a play, for example. An actor may come on the stage and prime the audience about certain events. The actor may tell us that a war raged for 5 years, and now the audience is about to witness scenes five years later. But then the scene starts, and we’re up close, watching the characters talking and acting upon one another. Harry Potter is another easy example: whenever Harry is facing off against a dragon or talking about something important with Ron and Hermione, we’re up-close; it’s showing. The pace is slow. There's dialogue. There's sensory detail. Virtually moment-by-moment, we're getting the details. When we’re in between classes or trying to get to the “good parts,” there’s those few paragraphs of telling in which we hear about how herbology was boring that day except for when Neville got bit by three mandrakes. Or whatever.
Expand the accordion during the chorus, shrink it during the introduction, verses, and ending. Show—get up close—when important things in your story are happening (and this should be pretty frequently, by the way). Tell—stay far away—when you need to cover time or ground quickly, when you don’t need to offer the reader every detail. You wouldn’t need to show the entire, second-by-second car ride from the protagonist’s hotel room to the casino where he’s going to meet the antagonistic drug dealer. Instead, you’d tell: “The cab driver grunted with what might have been gratitude as Henry paid him and exited the vehicle in front of the casino.” By comparison, you could have a scene, in which you show, that takes place in the car ride, if say, another key character gives the protagonist a call to warn him that the antagonist is waiting for him at the casino.
When you hear about “pacing,” this is one facet of it. Really, there are just two facets to pacing; there’s showing and telling and there’s tension and resolution, and the latter two elements are nearly synonymous with the former two. Telling offers the reader a sense of resolution and calm; the reader subconsciously knows that nothing critically important is happening in these passages. These passages allow readers to breathe. Likewise, passages of showing offer tension, signaling to the reader that important things are happening; these are the pieces of the story that you need to pay attention to the most.
Again, it’s not that you can’t tell, it’s that you have to be cognizant of when it is best to tell. Likewise, you don’t have to only show.
Did you know that there are only four sentence structures? That’s right, there’s only four. Using verbals and some other grammatical tricks, you can contrive sentences that seem to step outside of these standard varieties, but really, even those concoctions still fit into one of these four categories below. For the sake of reviewing this, an independent clause is an idea that can stand on its own and make sense, and it must contain, at the least, a noun and verb. A dependent clause is a group of words that contains a noun and a verb but would not make sense if it stood on its own. Here’s an example:
When he was young, Isaiah ran a lot.
The clause “Isaiah ran a lot,” is independent. It could stand on its own and make sense. The first part of the sentence (“When he was young”) would not make sense on its own; it only makes sense when paired with the independent clause in front of it. Similarly, the dependent clause could be rearranged and placed on the end of the sentence, which would necessitate the removal of the comma:
Isaiah ran a lot when he was young.
Before we review the four structures and talk briefly about sentence length, Walden University offers a resource that explains these four sentence structures exceptionally well, and I thought it would be useful to link to it. Check it out here.
Simple: An independent clause with no conjunction or dependent clause.
Example: Samuel was old (independent clause).
Compound: Two independent clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction (or a semicolon or colon).
Example (conjunction): Samuel was old, and he liked reading the newspaper.
Example (semicolon): Samuel was old; he liked reading the newspaper.
Complex: One independent clause combined with one or more dependent clauses. Dependent clauses are connected to independent clauses with subordinating conjunctions.
Example (one dependent clause): Though the blue dress matched her eyes (dependent clause), Clara still hated the thing (independent clause).
Example (two dependent clauses): Though the blue dress matched her eyes (dependent clause), Clara still hated the thing (independent clause), as it reminded her of Aunt Schafer (dependent clause).
Compound-Complex: Multiple independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.
Example (one dependent clause): Ever since our neighbor, Claire, bought me those shoes (dependent clause), I frequently think of her (independent clause), but I’ve never told her (independent clause).
Example (two dependent clauses): Ever since our neighbor, Claire, bought me those shoes (dependent clause), I frequently think of her (independent clause), but I’ve never told her (independent clause), because she’d probably be weirded out (dependent clause).
Vary sentence structure, and vary the way you coordinate and subordinate (connect) them. For example, if you’re in favor of using lots of complex sentences, don’t always put the dependent clause at the beginning of the sentence. Repeating the same sentence structure over and over again reads very poorly, and doing so is the hallmark of the beginner/amateur. See these two examples:
Repetitive sentence structure (all simple): The clock was black and white. Its hands stood still. The sofa needed a dusting. I couldn’t see much. Barry turned to us. He was blinking a lot. He picked up the remote. He clicked a button. The television illuminated brightly. The last, lingering shadows fled from the room. The room had been nearly black.
Varying sentence structure (all four types): The clock was black and white, and its hands stood still. The sofa needed a dusting. I couldn’t see much. While blinking a lot, Barry turned to us, picked up the remote, and clicked a button. The television illuminated brightly, and the last, lingering shadows fled from the room, which had been nearly black.
Sentence length goes hand-in-hand with sentence structure. Naturally, simple sentences are often much shorter than compound-complex sentences. If you’re overusing short sentences or overusing long sentences, that may be a good indicator that you’re using repetitive sentence structures. Be cognizant of both these things as you write.
I wrote an entire blog post about starting, motivating, and finishing a project. In that post, I advocated about the use of vision in goal planning. I think this might be the most imperative thing for a writer who’s trying to complete a task as daunting as finishing a novel. How do you envision what it will be like to hold that novel in your hands? One way to do this is to start putting together the packaging for the novel—even if you don’t intend to be the one who will take care of all that stuff. Writing a cover blurb to flesh out a premise for the novel can really help you understand the full scope of the novel, and it can go a long way toward motivating you, because, once you’ve written the blurb, you’ll be able to easily imagine it printed on the back of your book. Likewise, designing a cover to see what the finished project might look like is a great method for realizing the very real power of vision. These things absolutely hold the power to motivate you, and I highly recommend them.
Another great thing to do is to break any giant goal down into manageable chunks. Writing 100,000 words to complete your fantasy novel? That’s insanely intimidating. But could you re-frame that? Could you look at it differently if you could admit that writing 100,000 words is really the same as writing twenty 5000-word chapters? Could you write one 5000-word chapter? What if it takes you a week to do it? Or a month? If it takes you a week, then you know you can get your novel done in twenty weeks. If it takes you a month, twenty months (less than two years). You break the giant goal down into smaller, attainable goals. To help you with this, I have made available a blank template of the same tracker I use in my own novel planning and management.
Please take advantage of this tool and download the Excel tracker here.
Here is the key to excellent prose and storytelling: there are no keys. No shortcuts. No magic tips that will suddenly make it all click. Any bit of advice that is too enveloping—anything that says “always” or “never” or otherwise forebodes or too abundantly encourages—is advice that seeks to give you an illusion. Like a fad diet, there is advice out there that says you can have your excellent novel and you can get it with ease. As it’s often said, nothing worth doing is easy. To achieve greatness in a field with as many variables as writing, one must seek balance and put in work. Great prose requires careful consideration of all the elements of style and grammar (narrative modes, parts of speech, plot, character, setting, and more). It requires striking the right balance, and this is not a balance that can be struck once and forever applied to all situations, for the earth beneath the writer shifts, and the beams shake, and, with each scenario a writer finds herself in, she, too, must adjust her footing and hang on tightly.
Thanks for reading this and good luck in all your endeavors.