How to Write Better Prose

In this post, I’ll be specifically talking about how to improve the flow and variety of your language. In other words, the more concrete answer to the question of how to write better, instead of the larger (and significantly harder) question of how to write better novels. The question of how to write better novels is in essence what I address in all my other posts, so if that’s what you’re looking for stick around for a while.

Anyway, flow is all about comprehension. The number one thing that causes someone to stop halfway through a sentence is making that sentence so complex that the meaning is lost entirely. I want you to keep that in mind as I talk about the rest of this, because if you don’t get your meaning across the rest of this advice won’t help.

Another major factor is your toolkit. Do you know how to properly use commas? Can you utilize semi-colons and ellipses? The more options you have in your toolkit, the more precise your use of language can become. You don’t necessarily have to be a Strunk & White scholar, but you should at least know who they are. More importantly, you should at least read up a little on the advice they give. Without the proper tools, depth of language becomes exponentially harder to achieve.

Vocabulary is another tool worth mentioning. It’s paradoxical in some ways, because you’ll spend a lot of time building it up as a writer (at least, hopefully), but half the time you’ll avoid using the tastiest words because they don’t match the narrator’s voice. That being said, it’s still worth investing time in learning the right words, so that when you need to you can utilize them to great effect. When it comes to vocabulary, you can write beneath but not above. It’s nearly impossible to feign a well-equipped vocabulary without producing stilted dialogue or narration.

There’s also a good deal to be said in defense of simplicity. Simple sentences get a lot of hate from authors, myself included, but they’re also the fastest way to get a message across. ‘He ran’ is easier to digest than ‘he frolicked through an amber field.’ The second option may achieve more depth of meaning, but sometimes all you need to impart is the simple concept. Just as every sentence shouldn’t be a simple one, every sentence shouldn’t be needlessly complex. If a few words will do, then by all means use a few words.

Writing is best when it offers both variety and subtlety in getting a message across. Using the same structure is boring, and so adding as many tools to your kit as possible—whether they’re in the form of vocabulary, grammar, or simple structure—is the best way to improve your writing. Learn about the tools you’ll be using, and then make sure to use them whenever you can.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to Write Dialogue

Dialogue is extremely difficult to write well. It’s probably one of the first skills authors pick up, but it takes years to refine and develop in a way that doesn’t leave every character sounding the exact same.

In reality, dialogue is a coming-together of several different elements. There’s diction and voice for each character, dialogue tags to denote who’s speaking, action tags to explain what’s going on while they talk, and sometimes internal thoughts running parallel to the dialogue itself.

One of the first aspects to figure out in refining individuals’ voice is whether there’s an overall theme running through the novel. Think of the movie Fargo, in which the accent was so iconic that just about everyone who’s seen the movie will lapse into the accent to repeat one of the lines. If your novel has a culture or group with different speech patterns, you’ll want this to be consistent throughout the novel. This should be considered a part of world-building; you should have it figured out before you even start writing.

On top of the group voice, each unique character should get a voice that matches their personality. A terse character should speak in short, clipped sentences, while a scholar might exhibit fewer traits of the group voice and speak in long, flowing sentences. Structure and style in dialogue provide just as much characterization as action, and in many cases a few sentences can be enough to make a character memorable for the rest of the book. One trick that you can try is to give someone a ‘crutch word’ that they use more than any other, perhaps to the point where readers begin to associate it with that character. Little things like crutch words help to humanize and distinguish a character, like Jesse in Breaking Bad.

Dialogue tags are best used sparingly and simply. While it’s true that you should avoid ‘he said… she said’ every line, you can’t solve the problem by breaking out a thesaurus. I swear, reading that someone ‘pronounced’ a line makes me laugh unless it’s a mortician pronouncing someone as dead. What you should do is stick with ‘said’ unless there’s a very (double underline, bold, heavy font VERY) good reason to use something else, and then rely on your reader to remember who was talking to whom. For the most part, readers are good at keeping track of who’s talking, especially if you’ve done a good job on distinguishing characters through their voice.

Note: A big limitation to this is conversations involving more than two people.  Conversations with three people or more are best handled by breaking them down into smaller parts, with two people talking for several lines and then someone joining in to add a comment or two. A well-written conversation with several people is sort of like the triple axel of dialogue; difficult to execute, but fantastic if you can do it.

Action tags are about more than just telling the reader that the two conversation participants are walking, or that they stopped by the drinking fountain. They’re also a subtler way to indicate who spoke, as there’s an unwritten rule that the speak of a line will also be the subject of any narration on that same line. Consider this:

“He jumped off the bridge, I guess.” Jeremy sighed heavily.

As opposed to this:

“He jumped off a bridge, I guess.”

Jeremy sighed heavily.

In the first example, it’s clear that Jeremy was the one speaking. In the second example, he was reacting to something another person said. Line breaks are very important when it comes to action tags; utilizing them properly can help you avoid that ‘he said… she said’ problem I mentioned before.

The final dialogue element I wanted to talk about is internal thinking. My advice when it comes to this is relatively simple: the narrator’s thought process should enhance and serve the dialogue rather than interrupting it. The last thing you want to do is pause the conversation for several lines while giving a detailed description of the narrator arriving at their eventual response (unless you’re making a point based on that). Where you can, eliminate any thoughts that don’t directly serve the dialogue or highlight some internal struggle within the narrator that the reader wouldn’t know about otherwise.

As I said at the start, dialogue is a simple skill to pick up but a hard one to master. So many different elements go into well-crafted dialogue, and you should be aware of them in order to use them to their best effect. In many ways, the best dialogue is that which interrupts conversation the least, providing action, thoughts, or tags only where completely necessary.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to Write Hot Kissing Scenes

In a romance, it’s pretty much a given that someone is going to kiss. Whether it’s at the end, halfway through, or sort of awkwardly jammed in at the start, there will definitely be at least one. Sometimes it’s the final scene of the novel, used to cue the reader that happily ever after is around the corner.

These types of kisses—the kind that come at the end of the story—aren’t really good fodder for a hot kissing scene. They’re more of the time for a sweet peck and then the story ends. As in real life, a good kiss is all about the timing; it needs to come in a moment where emotions are running high and the characters and reader have nothing to do but fall into the kiss.

Perhaps the hardest part about it is the actual description. How can you go into detail about an act that essentially involves pressing your face against someone else’s? Well, as in any low action moment, you can focus on how it feels. You don’t need to describe every tongue motion—and you shouldn’t—but you can say something like ‘I wanted to move into him as much as it felt like he was moving into me.’ Or you can describe the heat of the moment as literal warmth emanating from the other person’s body (‘His touch seemed to ignite me, sending tiny echoes through my body’).

That brings me to another point, specifically one of the big differences between a hot kissing scene and a normal kissing scene. ‘Hot’ kissing is meant to arouse the reader, if only in a minor way. The language should change in order to serve this end. Words with a slight erotic undertone are perfect to use here: body, longing, lingering. However, you should still avoid overtly erotic words, unless you’re attempting to transition beyond a kissing scene.

A good kiss—or rather, a good description of a kiss—is sort of a love scene of its own. You have the initial shy contact, the passionate connection, and then one person or the other breaking away. If you want, you can even have them pull away for a single moment to give you an opportunity to describe the hungry look in their eyes.

Also, the more ‘present’ the reader can feel in a scene, the hotter it will be. They should be able to picture the details around them, but ideally described in a way that maintains focus on the kiss. ‘I fell back onto soft grass, pulling him with me’ is perfectly fine, but ‘there was grass all around us’ isn’t. The implication of random exploring is that the kiss must not be very good; while you should describe more of the scene than normal, it should always be in the context of the kiss.

The narrator inhales after the kiss and gets a surprising whiff of cologne, or throws a hand back to steady herself against the wall behind her. Every grain of wood stands out, highlighted by her heightened awareness of the kiss. Mentioning the details is great, but always in the right context.

In general, a hot kiss is quick. It shouldn’t last more than a page or two, but it should always leave the reader wanting more. It should let the reader really dig into the narrator’s mind and feel how they feel, see what they see. Allow them to be present in that moment.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!