Chrysalis: Emerging Women Writers

April 8, 2009

Writing That Jumps off the Page

Of course, we’ve all heard “Show don’t tell” so many times our eyes have begun to goggle. So we use “devices.”

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.I wish I could tell you that I've use all these devices with ultimate skill, Which of the following devices do you love to use in your writing to keep your reader riveted?

I’ve probably messed up every one of these techniques at some point in a manuscript. When I’ve overdone the mood,   some honest person in the critique group will write a note in the margin: This seems a bit melodramatic.

They write: Needs more punch”, when I’ve  marginalized the device. Thank heavens for good critique groups. Hopefully, you can learn something from my mistakes.

Thrusters.  I believe that most readers try to figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.  These tiny bits of the puzzle lure them to the next page to collect more information. JK Rowling’s books are riddled with them:

“Harry looked up and saw his own shock reflected in Ron’s and Hermione’s faces. The scars on the back of his right hand seemed to be tingling again.”

Perfect. We need to keep reading to discover the evil that’s making Harry’s hand give an alarm. But I tend to tell the reader a bit too much–just to make myself clear, you know? Often, if I go to the end of one of my chapters and lop off a couple of paragraphs, I’ll find I have a great thruster.

And then there are  Cliffhangers. This device makes me crazy. The last time I used it, I had a guy running across a field naked in sub-zero weather. I went to another scene…and another…and another. The next time the readers saw the naked guy, he was clothed, sitting in a bar, having a beer. I assumed that the reader would intuit that the guy didn’t freeze his begonias off since he was now languishing in a bar.  Oh, they figured it out all right, and they were irritated that I didn’t show them. NOPE. I learned that if you start something that causes tension, you better finish it in front of the reader.

I’ve laid Traps and botched them because everyone knew. I’ve learned it works so much better if the reader knows about a possible trip-up, but the protagonist is about to blindly stumble into it. I wanted to show how cleaver my hero was at avoiding traps; but I got double bang for my words by showing how the protagonist was clever at getting OUT of traps (Think about it. If James Bond never fell for any tricks, he’d just be drinking martinis and using corny lines on women.)

I love the Ticking Clock technique. (Never mind that I once wrote a scene where the hero had to battle a group of savages before he could save a boy hanging from a cliff. I got so carried away with the fight scene that no one believed the kid could have held on that long. ) (P.S. It was a good fight scene…okay….it was too long). I think of it as the Jack Bauer Syndrome: Jack saves the entire world every hour…it seems impossible.

Perhaps you’re a fan of Imagery to make your writing leap off the page. I went through several stages in learning this technique.

  • Color: She sipped green tea from a pink china cup while curled up on blue fluffy comforter. (Thank goodness that phase didn’t last past the first edit.)
  • Metaphors or similes: Done well, these are artforms. Done poorly, they make the reader cringe. “It rained hard, like BBs dropping from the sky.  (GAAK…take cover from the BBs and the poor comparison.)

That’s the great thing about critique groups. We don’t have to make every mistake. We can learn from others, and hopefully save ourselves some edits. I’ve learned other things, but…now it’s your turn.

What’s your favorite technique to make words jump off the page?

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5 Comments »

  1. Comic-book expressions are fun. “Angrily, she flumpfed down into the overstuffed chair.”

    And I like to bring up the often ignored sense of smell. “The incense of campfires still clung to his wool shirt.”

    I love your essays! And WHERE do you find those awesome photos?

    Comment by Roxie — April 11, 2009 @ 6:04 am

  2. Ooooh, I love the hints that a good writer gives a reader about something to come later in the story. The funny thing about this trick is that it makes the reader feel smart and clever to have a guess about where the plot might go…when actually it is the writer who was so all-fired brillant to put it in there in the first place!

    Comment by Pat — April 12, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  3. I love this. I think every writer at some point has fallen into one or all of these. In finding our creative rhythm we float into and out of these where we think we are so clever but the reader can see right through us. But when we find the place where we make the reader feel clever for figuring it out is awesome. Also Right on point about Critique Groups. I love mine. I have become such a better writer since I joined mine. My current success as a writer is largely because of them. Not just for the technical support they provide but the constant encouragement, love and support.

    Comment by Laura Marshall — April 17, 2009 @ 6:05 am

  4. One of the traps an author gets caught in is trying to be too clever and pushing the metaphors and thrusters, etc. too far and ending up with camp. As you say, that’s where a critique group can keep us reined in.

    And yes, the photo of the octopus and ship was deja vu all over again. Roxie, cover art?

    Comment by Bethie — April 17, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  5. Hi Laura,
    Welcome. I saw your ad for Starving Writers in the WW conference brochure. Looks great. And it looks like you have some fun contests.

    Comment by Barb — April 23, 2009 @ 10:43 pm


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