Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

The Rules of Vonnegut / 4

‘Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.’

If it’s not, what is it doing in the book? Cut it. It’s no use just ‘expressing yourself’. You’re writing a novel here. No-one wants to know about your hopes and fears, your likes and dislikes and the changes you want to bring about the world, they want to know what will happen next to your protagonist, and how the mise en scène you started with develops.

Sure, write a (fairly) long description of a beautiful sunny day because that effects the mood of the character or how some action spoils it. Put in a whole political manifesto if you have to, if the detail is really relevant to your story. But don’t just wander off into masses of irrelevant text – however much you admire your own writing (or if you’re in some kind of workshop group, how good your friends and fans say it is.) The section may be good if read out of context, but fitted into the whole it will just stick out like a sore thumb.

You’re writing a whole novel, not just cherry-picked parts of a novel: everything needs to converge towards the end. I know this can be a problem if you don’t yet exactly know what the end is, but even if you’re making it up as you go along (and novelists have been known to do this) trust the very sense of convergence to lead you to it.

The same thing with ‘foreshadowing’. If an idea jumps in to surprise you by coming before you’ve consciously thought of the actual shadow, don’t ignore it – just in case it it’s your deep unfathomable unconscious telling you something. Don’t delete, just move it to the end of your text for further reflection. A bit of foreshadowing never goes amiss so long as you see it through.

Look especially hard at any dialogue scene which begins with a hello and ends up with a goodbye, and you haven’t put any reported speech in the middle to break things up, so everything happens in real time. Read that scene aloud. Two pages will take you less than a minute. But in real life it’s a rare thing for the time between saying hello and saying goodbye to be less than a minute.

Look for solutions. ‘Sipping his wine’, unless you give a history of the wine and it’s vintage and cost and thus throw light upon character, is mere temporising. ‘After they’d taken the dog for a walk’ gives more opportunity for time to pass. And do remember that you can can cut into the middle of scenes so that the passage of time is unspecified: ‘Only after the dog had been fed and watered and they had settled down into their cups of tea and exchanged pleasantries did he say:…’ will save you and your readers ten lines of boring direct speech, every word of which will have increased their doubt as to whether people do actually speak the way you’ve made them speak. Keep dialogue as brief as you can for this reason: dialogue is the writer’s Achilles’ heel, where revealing character and/or advancing action can sound forced and artificial.

Of course you’re going to express yourself one way or another but do it tactfully. Hard sell won’t work, only your art of persuasion. Of course you want your reader to end up thinking and feeling and acting like you do: just don’t let it show.

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