“I don’t even know how to write in the style of a novel. I’ve only written essays.”
That was what I told my husband when he first encouraged me to write my novel, and it was true. I had mastered the five paragraph essay, that strange beast who seemed to confine himself to academia and any standardized test with a three letter acronym. What came after that? I had no idea.
As an engineer, I was used to cutting things open to see how they worked. So, I applied that to fiction and decided to take it apart.
1. I made photocopies of chapters from my favorite books.
2. As I read, I identified what I was reading (see key below), internal thoughts, description of action, et cetera.
3. I assigned a new color to each new category (see key below), and I underlined the sections in the appropriate colors.
4. I kept inventing new categories until my list seemed complete.
5. I studied the underlined photocopies.
- Internal thoughts: It seemed like everyone was going to lunch except for her. I’m late, she thought.
- Description of action: He tugged on his beard. She picked up the puppy.
- Description of nouns: The apartment was tiny. The fur was soft.
- Dialog: “Stop. What are you doing?” she asked.
- Transitions: These were her thoughts when …
Advantages of this Exercise:
1. You can chose your own teachers. Not everyone has the same taste in fiction, but this method allows you to learn directly from your favorite teachers. You may even learn things that they don’t realize they are doing.
2. It works both ways. You can analyze the writing of people whose work you don’t like and compare it to the work that you prefer. This allows you to better understand why certain constructions work better than others.
3. It is very affordable! For the price of colored pencils and a handful of photocopies you can start to understand how your favorite authors write.
What I learned:
- Inserting small sections of ‘description of action,’ and ‘description of nouns’ in between back and forth sections of dialog allows the reader to visualize the scene.
- The action in between the dialog is best if it reveals something about the characters.
- The action in between the dialog can contradict the dialog itself. This builds tension and makes the reader feel engaged.
- The action in between the dialog provides the context that allows the reader to make his or her own judgements about the characters beyond what they tell us in their dialog.
- Short actions and descriptions can also break up long passages of internal thought and provide jumping off points for new internal thoughts. This grounds the internal thought with a concrete context.
Please let me know in the comments whether you found this exercise helpful. Who are your favorite authors? What do they do to make their fiction more engaging?
I welcome your comments!