New writers brim over with fantastic ideas for their stories and novels. The images live powerfully in their heads, and their task is to commit that strength and feeling to the printed page. But there can’t be a writer alive who has had to face the fact that their abstract images often lose something in the translation. The most brilliant ideas can seem flat and lifeless once they’re written down. It takes practice and skill for a writer to be able to give the reader their vision, and the most powerful tool they have at their disposal is language itself.
Whole books have been written on the subject of how to write well, so it’s impossible to impart all that information in a small article. However, I’ll try to address some of the most important points.
A book is a form of virtual reality. Good writing carries the reader off into imaginary realms so cleverly that they forget they’re reading. They’re really there in that other world. The last thing a writer wants is for the reader to be jolted back to mundane reality. But this can happen. Awkward phrases can jar. Unlikely actions, reactions or speech from characters can shatter the suspension of disbelief. When you’re reading a book, you don’t have someone speaking aloud to you in a spooky voice. The words alone have to make you feel nervous or scared. I can remember being terrified by Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ when I first read it. So how does a writer create this effect?
It’s important you don’t worry about syntax, or any other technical problem, until you’ve got your first draft down. Second and subsequent drafts are for grooming. First draft should be pure creativity, whether it’s in good English or apparent Double Dutch.
I believe successful writing is the result of a combination of things, all of which are equally important, but I’ll begin with syntax, or sentence construction. It might seem obvious, but sentences have to make sense. If a reader finds themselves going back to read a sentence again, because they can’t work out what the writer means, they’ll remember they’re only reading. The mood is lost. It’s important to have the words and parts of a sentence in the right order. Again, this might seem obvious, but all too often, when working on novels from new writers, I read sentences along the lines of:
‘Over the lazy dog the quick red fox jumps.’
The images this conjures in the reader’s mind is muddled. Ok, we’ve got a lazy dog, we’ve got a quick red fox, but then the reader has to wait to see what happens.
‘The quick red fox jumps over the lazy dog’ presents the information in the right order. We see the fox, we see him jumping, then we see what he jumps over. We haven’t got the fox at a standstill, next to the dog, waiting to see the jump. The same could be said of the sentence ‘the cow jumped over the moon’, or ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’. ‘Over the moon the cow jumped’ and ‘shepherd’s delight, red sky at night’, don’t convey the information in quite the same precise way.
Following on from syntax is pace, which we can regard as the partner of the former, because neither feels right unless they’re together. The pace of your sentence does much to create a mood. You might use longer, more rambling sentences, with a string of sub-clauses, to describe an initial scene, or action when there’s no particular sense of urgency or danger.
As an example, I’ll quote from my novel ‘Scenting Hallowed Blood’. This is the beginning of the first paragraph of the book:
‘He was little more than a boy, gleaming in the candle-light like an icon, while the night wind cleared its throat in the long, narrow chimneys of stone that threaded down from the cliff-top to the cave. Candles were set at his feet in a ring; rough wax obelisks, ill-formed as if shaped by hasty hands.’
I wanted the words to have a lilting rhythm, almost like poetry, to lull the reader. I didn’t want their hearts beating faster at that point, although I planted narrative clues that something odd is about to happen with how I described the candles ‘ill-formed as if shaped by hasty hands’. This was an urgent ritual. I wanted the reader to ask immediately: ‘why?’
The sentence construction should become snappier, more abrupt, once the action begins to start. Here is a later extract from ‘Scenting’ to illustrate the point:
‘The ground rushed up to meet him, each detail of the rocks below brought into sharp focus. Nano-seconds stretched into eternity. He knew he was falling fast, yet it seemed to take forever to reach the ground. I was tricked! I am dying! The scapegoat. Pushed from the cliff. Panic surged through his body. Then the ground disappeared. He fell into a black abyss. Down. Down. Through time.
Another thing I did here was break a grammatical rule in using little bits of sentences called fragments, as in ‘Down. Down. Through time’ and ‘Pushed from the cliff’.
Fragments can be used for dramatic effect in certain scenes.
Also, the choice of tenses and verb forms adds to the drama. For example, ‘she was sitting on the battlements and she was howling’, has far less drama and impact than the simple ‘she sat on the battlements and howled.’ A horror writer might even be tempted to use the construction of ‘She sat on the battlements. She howled.’
Every word we know has associations connected with it. Even down to simple colours. For example, if someone says the word ‘red’, people might say it made them think of blood or danger. Similarly, blue might invoke the response of sea, sky or sadness. Therefore the words a writer chooses to use are very important. You want to invoke the right response in the reader. Good writing is precise and clear. Compare:
‘It was a noise made by someone who was extremely frightened.’
‘It was a scream.’
Generally, in a piece of horror writing, you’d avoid soft, fluffy words. If you were describing a monster, for example, you might not want to say, ‘It waddled towards me, a huge, pillowy mass…’ The word ‘waddle’ conjures an image of something rather ludicrous and cumbersome, while ‘pillowy’ sounds like marshmallow. The reader might think ‘that’s not very scary. It wouldn’t take much to run away from that’. Therefore, it might be better to say something like ‘It lumbered towards me, a hideous amorphous mass…’ Now a reader might worry about that creature.
Punctuation is also vitally important. It is the tool writers use to guide their reader’s eyes along the text. If the sentences are badly constructed and punctuated, the reader might get confused as to the meaning, and then they’re back in mundane reality with a bump. You’ve lost them.