Tag Archives: Reading

Storytelling is Linear

Marjorie plummeted from the clifftop toward the surface below. But the surface was an ocean battering the cliffs, so she didn’t die on impact.

She flailed and foundered. She couldn’t swim.

But it wasn’t an ocean of water. It was a lake of fire. Even with her flame-resistant bodysuit, she’d have burned in minutes if not for the vessel that hauled her aboard. Marjorie marveled at the translucent walls, for it was a blood vessel, and a massive one.

Up the bloodstream, Marjorie emerged in an atrium. Not the heart, but a starlit chamber.

She had wings, so she flew.


Well, that was one of my more absurd pieces,  but trust me, I’m going somewhere with it. Today I want to talk  about the limitations — and possibilities — present in the written word, and what it means for us writerly types.

Let’s start with the basics: language is linear. We can say or read exactly one word at a time. It makes the most sense when you contrast a conversation with photography. A picture is worth a thousand words because visual communication is not constrained by linearity. I can say, “The dog… jumped,” but you have to wait until I finish the sentence before you know what the dog’s going to do. By contrast, if you watch a video of the dog barking, you see both the dog and its actions at the same time.

English: Hallway at the Royal York Hotel
Your story is like this hallway, only with more pirates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think of language as a long hallway with many doors on either side. You are trying to walk from one end to the other, but as you go, you have to step over obstacles, occasionally stop, or even back up a few steps to let another person by. Eventually you’ll get to the end, but it will take time, and there is only one way forward.

For writers, this is problematic. You want to tell a good story. You can see the setting, the characters, and the whole plot in your mind’s eye. But what to tell the reader first? Do you describe the setting? Give some dialogue? How much description should you use? How do you organize the plot? Remember, readers can read only one word at a time. You may be omniscient, but your readers can only see straight ahead.

Today’s story illustrates this difficulty. In each sentence, did you find you had to revise your mental image of the action? Storytelling is linear. You can only picture what I’ve already mentioned, and even then only if I’ve written them without ambiguity. Is it a ship or a blood vessel? You can use the context to make an educated guess, but you can’t tell for sure without more information.

Sometimes this phenomenon is useful. I write a lot of flash fiction, and when I want to write a twist ending, sometimes I hold back a piece of crucial information in order to produce an emotional response: laughter, sadness, surprise, horror, warmth, and so on. Good jokes are made of this stuff!

I always feel like this when trying to write good sentences. (Photo credit: Lel4nd)

But linearity can be a huge headache. I’m talking about the problem of wordy prose. Speculative fiction author Cat Rambo wrote some advice on her blog recently on how to write well-crafted, complex sentences, and it really got me thinking. Long sentences are gorgeous when pulled off correctly, but when they’re less than masterful, they’re a train wreck. The hallway gets cluttered, and the reader can’t find her way through. Poorly organized prose forces her to reread several times in order to understand the meaning.

One of Cat’s best observations is how in well-executed dense prose, every  word carries its weight. This idea is at the crux of the oft-repeated advice to Murder The Adverbs when you’re first setting out to write good fiction. Adverbs tend to clutter the hallway and force more reevaluation than a good description would.

So what’s a writer to do? As someone hanging out on the amateur end of the pool, I recommend studying the heck out of the pros. Read, read, read. When you find someone whose style makes you melt into little puddles of happy, take a moment and really look at their sentences. Think about the order in which the information is presented.

And of course, in your own writing, be aware of the constraints of linearity. Try to picture things from the reader’s standpoint, and make it easy for the reader to race down the hallway. It’s hard to get lost in a good book when you keep tripping on confusing details and falling on your face.

Except I forgot to mention: you don’t have a face. You’re a peanut butter monster! Rawr!

If you’ve made it this far, have an excellent weekend! I am positively fried from the first week of school, but gradually finding my feet.

Do you like wordy prose? What do you think of the problem of linearity? What tips or advice can you offer to make wordy prose work?


In Praise of Beta Readers

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writing: I’m sure he had beta readers, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading the Acknowledgements page in the back of a novel. It gives me a sense of the amount of work that went into making the rest of the book feel so effortless. While I’m sure there exist some rare geniuses that can churn out brilliant writing unaided, for the vast majority of writers, it takes a community to bring out the potential in a story.

Beta readers are at the heart of it.

I love beta readers. I love them even more than I love slush readers. Beta readers, the brave souls, volunteer to read your writing when it’s still too embarrassing to show in public. They donate their time and effort to weeding out character inconsistencies and plot holes, grammar errors and formatting problems, usually asking for nothing more than a thank-you and perhaps a beta read in return.

They can be relatives, friends, acquaintances, or even just random people you’ve met on the internet. My loose confederation of beta readers includes all of the above, and each one of them brings unique gifts and perspectives to bear on my writing.

I admire beta readers because giving good criticism is hard, maybe even harder than receiving it. I used to be a bit sensitive to criticism when I first started writing, many years ago. It was compounded by the fact that my first novel was, like most first novels, objectively awful. There was a lot to criticize. And yet, the handful of brave souls who read the whole thing were exceptionally kind to me. Kinder than the novel deserved. And yet I was still afraid of criticism because I was afraid it would compound my worst fears: that I was a hack, and that I shouldn’t be a writer.

Justice League - The Search for Hawkgirl
Beta readers are my own personal heroes.

It all changed when I started beta reading for other people. I realized that for every comment I made, there were ten that I kept in reserve. It is no kindness to nitpick a novel to death, especially when it’s in an early draft and likely to change. Beta reading requires both  courage and humility: courage to point out problems that the author may have overlooked and needs to be aware of, and humility in understanding that it’s not your novel, and you don’t get to decide how it should be written.

Writing is hard work, but you need criticism to improve.

So I started taking constructive criticism in a spirit of joy. When done well, criticism is a rare gift, an opportunity to learn what could make your writing more powerful and beautiful.

But you have to embrace it. You have to let your guard down and tell yourself, “No matter what they tell me, it’s probably something I need to hear.”

I raise my glass to you, friends! (Photo credit: Sergey Melkonov)

So here’s to my beta readers! Without you, I’d still be using way too many italics, writing Mary Sues, merrily using all the adverbs, and forgetting to include small details like “setting” and “description”. Everything I write would be 20% longer while covering the same amount of plot. Most importantly, without you, I wouldn’t grow as a writer.

To Jason and my Dad, Jan and Wendy, Cyndyl and Caitlin, Joy, Lauren, Becky, Zig, and the many others who have helped over the years: thank you. Thank you for the gift of your time, honesty, encouragement, and wisdom. When I succeed, my small victories are yours as well. When you succeed, I celebrate your achievements. And if the day comes when I write my own Acknowledgements page, I’ll be proud to list your names in my own novel, right where they belong.

Writers, do you have beta readers in your life? What sorts of things have they brought to your attention that you’d never have noticed on your own?