by Sacha Black
There are very few strict rights and wrongs in storytelling. Sure, some might argue that grammar has rules that should be followed. But you only have to read Mike McCormack’s award-winning Solar Bones to know that even the full stop isn’t sacred. The book—all 272 pages of it—is one single sentence.
But if you want to keep your prose polished, there are some common things you should avoid.
Mistake 1 – Filtering
Filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character, for example:
• I heard
• I saw
• I felt
• I thought
Ideally, you want the reader to see your story through the eyes of your protagonist. That way they witness the action first hand as if they actually are the protagonist. But when you filter, the reader looks at the protagonist observing the scene, for example:
I heard an owl hooting in the trees and a moment later I saw the canopy leaves rustle as if replying.
Readers don’t need to read the word “heard” or “saw” because the action of hearing and seeing is implied in the description of the sound.
An owl hooted in the trees and a moment later the canopy leaves rustled as if replying.
Of course, you don’t have to remove every instance of filtering, especially if removing it will impact the meaning of your sentence.
Mistake 2 – Repetition
Crutch words are words you unintentionally repeat in your manuscript. For example, just, but, so, that, look, hand, eye, glance, walk. Most writers recognise this type of repetition. But there are other, more insidious forms of repetition that go unnoticed.
For example, sly repetition in the opening and closing of your scenes and chapters. Have a look at the opening and closing lines of all your scenes. Tally up the types of openings and closings. Are they dialogue, description, action, thought? Do you open four scenes in a row with a description of the time of day? Have you closed several scenes in a row with a question?
There are other forms of repetition to look out for too:
- Unintentionally using different words to describe the same thing, for example, describing heat with warm, hot, molten, lava, or sweaty.
- Multiple characters with similar traits or personalities
- Multiple characters performing the same function, such as two mentors
- Multiple paragraphs, scenes, or chapters establishing the same plot point
- Characters with similar names or similar sounding names for example, Natalie and Nancy or Sarah and Sacha.
- Repeated words used in a different context. For example, the hum of a bee or the hum of a car’s engine.
Mistake 3 – Forgetting the Impact
Whenever you describe something, be it a new character, the atmosphere or a new location your character’s walked into, most writers describe the obvious—what their protagonist sees.
While the ‘what’ of what a protagonist interacts with is important for creating imagery, it doesn’t create the connection that hooks a reader through the rest of your story.
What makes a reader connect is the emotion in the story. But how can you convey emotion when the protagonist is describing a building, meeting a new character, or buying a coffee? The quickest way to create emotion even in these interactions is to describe the impact the interaction has on your protagonist.
Does the smell of coffee throw your protagonist back to a childhood memory? Is that memory painful or comforting?
What about the way shadows fall over the building your protagonist’s about to walk in? Do they make her stomach churn or does she feel like she’s coming home?
Rather than the colour or shape of a building, it’s these insights into the emotional impact it has that create depth to your characters.
Mistake 4 – Forgetting the Senses
While sight is the basis for description in most stories, too often, we writers forget to include the other senses. Or, when we do use them, they’re used in isolation or used in their expected form, i.e. the scent of burnt toast wafted into the living room.
I like to compare using the senses to creating a painting. A pencil sketch outline of your painting is the equivalent of normal sentences without the senses. Nothing wrong with them, I adore pencil pictures. But when you pour the senses into your prose, it’s like turning a pencil drawing into a mixed-media full color piece of art. It breathes life into your masterpiece.
With the senses, think outside the box rather than using them in their most obvious guise. For example, with the sense of touch, don’t forget it includes temperature and vibrations as well as texture. Consider describing things like buildings, the weather and air, the ground, skin, weapons, clothes, nature and even emotions. You might not think of emotions as having a texture, but they do! Think about the hot, throb of rage, or the cold, prickle of fear.
Likewise with taste, how often have you tasted rage or perhaps the tang of jealousy? Or what about tasting the weather? I’m sure you can all imagine the cold crisp breath of wintery air.
With smells, I always ask myself a set of questions:
- How does the smell make your character feel?
- Does your character recall a memory connected to the smell?
- How is this smell important to the plot?
- Do they like or loathe the smell?
- Have you used a single word to describe the smell or have you layered it with more than one description and a consequence?
- Have you used any other prose techniques combined with smell like a simile or metaphor?
So I hope these tips help you avoid making mistakes with your prose. If you’d like to learn more about how to improve your sentence level craft, you can in my new book, The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences, and you can put them into practice using the companion book: The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences Workbook
Sacha Black is an author, rebel podcaster and speaker. She has five obsessions; words, expensive shoes, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and breaking the rules. Sacha writes books about people with magical powers and other books about the art of writing. When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loud, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her wife and genius, giant of a son.
Thank you! Very insightful for a beginner like me.
Wow 🤩… thank you. You’ve explained it well and I love that you gave examples.
Thank you so much for your kind comments