Take Advantage of the Power of Beats in Your Writing

the power of beatsBeats are one of the most awesome tools a writer can possess, and they often get overlooked. But just what the heck is a beat anyway?

The term ‘beat’ comes from acting, and is used in screenplays to indicate where the actor should pause in the dialogue. “But what does a screenplay technique have to do with novels?” you ask.

Well, because beats are also used in story writing. You have them in your novel right now without even realizing it.

Beats are short snippets in a novel that reveal a character’s actions, reactions, thoughts, or emotions within a scene. These little “pauses” from the dialogue of the story help to control the pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, reveal something about the character, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling.

Beats have a lot of power.

In screenplays, beats are usually used in emotional scenes when the writer wants to actor to pause in reaction or consideration to something that has just happened. In your novel, beats work much the same way. Adding in a beat with your dialogue lets your character pause and react to an event, and allows your readers to react along with them.

Of course, I can keep telling you how awesome and powerful beats are in your writing, but it would be better for me to just show you. Let’s look at a couple examples using Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel. I’ll show the same passage, the first without beats and the second with.

Without beats:

“You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie.”

“Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell? What do you think the Devil’s like?”

“Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock and all.”

“There’s no call to be rude.”

Original passage with beats:

Tessa bit into a roll, only to check herself when she saw Jessamine staring.

“You know,” Jessamine said airily, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie,” said Will.

Jessamine ignored him. “Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell?” She leaned closer to Tessa. “What do you think the Devil’s like?”

Tessa set her fork down. “Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock, and all.”

Will let out a whoop of laughter. Jessamine’s eyes narrowed. “There’s no call to be rude.”

The first example goes by quickly, and it leaves the reader blind and on the outside. We might imagine what’s happening, but we can’t really see it because the writer hasn’t shown it to us. We must also assume what the characters are feeling solely from their dialogue (which can be misleading since people often don’t say what they truly think or feel).

In the second example, the beats serve many different functions for the reader. They help identify which character is speaking, reveal their reactions to what is being said, and clue the reader in to the setting. Beats show what the characters are doing which gives us a better picture of the scene and helps us keep track of where they are and who’s doing what.

Additionally, beats help control the pacing and tension. They break up the dialogue, slowing down the reader. If you want a long pause, use a long beat. If you want a short pause, use a short beat. If you want things to move quickly, cut out your beats. And by revealing what the characters are feeling by showing their reactions (and thoughts in the case of your POV character) you will charge the scene with emotional tension that will keep the reader on edge.

Now that you know what beats are and how they can affect your story, harness their power and use them to your advantage!

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How to Use Word Choice to Set the Mood of Your Story

word choiceDo you pay attention to mood in your writing? If not, you should!

It’s a subtle and very powerful tool for writers. And not something you want to overlook! By setting the mood of a scene, you can manipulate how you want the reader to feel. It’s like the Jedi mind trick of writing. Pretty cool, huh?

So just how can a writer take advantage of this awesome power? There are several techniques you can use. Let’s get started!

What is Mood?

When you hear “mood” you might be confused or intimated and think it’s some vague literary term. Maybe your English teach forced you to analyze the mood of different novels in the past and you’re now wary of the word. But don’t panic–it’s really simple. Here’s the definition of mood from Dictionary.com:

A state or quality of feeling at a particular time.

When applied to your story, mood means what a certain scene makes a reader feel. The mood of your story should be directed by the feelings of your characters.

Mood Comes from Character

Before you set the mood for your story, reflect on how your character is feeling. What are his thoughts or feelings about this place or moment? Is he awed, frightened, curious, or sad? Sure you could select any mood at random for your scene, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of creating a mood for a scene is to allow the reader to experience the story as the character does. If the character is frightened then you should work to create fear in the reader.

When you don’t match characters’ feelings with the mood, it can hurt your story. If your character is lost in the wilderness and you’re describing the beauty of nature, it won’t flow as well–imagine trying to jam together two puzzle pieces that don’t fit. Your reader might wonder why the character is admiring the trees and squirrels when he’s lost in the middle of nowhere. This will also keep the reader from fully feeling the character’s panic and fear at being lost.

You should also consider your character’s personality, as different people will experience the same place in different ways. For example, for Character A a circus is exciting, but for Character B it’s terrifying, and for Character C it’s a bore. If you love the circus, don’t describe it in a positive way if your character hates it!

So basically, the reader’s feelings of a scene should be filtered through the POV character so the reader can experience the story as the character does.

Techniques for Setting Mood

There are three basic ways to create the mood for a scene: details, similes, and vocabulary choice. Let me show you a couple examples of these techniques in action.

Example #1:

The pine boughs tickled Snow White’s arms as she wandered through the forest. Robins sang and flitted from branch to branch overhead, and a rabbit scampered past. She paused to admire a Dogwood adorned in white blooms so that it looked as though its branches cradled fluffs of cloud. She plucked a blossom and stroked its petals, which were as soft as a mouse’s fur. A squirrel nestled in one of the branches peered at her from behind its bushy tail.

Example #2:

Bare branches scratched at Snow White’s arms as she stumbled through the forest, and. A raven cawed and swooped over her head, startling her. Twisted tree roots snatched at her feet like the fingers of a corpse emerging from a grave, and dragged her to the ground. The damp earth stained her blue dress like thunderclouds smudging out a summer sky. She swallowed back her tears as a wolf’s wail pierced the cold air.

These examples are pretty overdone and melodramatic, but you get the point. Both convey a specific mood, which reflects what the character is feeling and draws the reader in to share her experience.

  • Details

What does your character notice? Different people will notice different things, so it will depend on her personality. You don’t have to include every detail your character might notice. Choose specific details that will be most helpful for setting the mood you want.

In the first example to make the scene feel warm and fuzzy, I mentioned details like robins, bunnies, squirrels, and a tree in bloom. These are also details an animal-lover like Snow White would probably notice.

In the second example, I chose to describe the details of a raven, wolf, twisted tree roots, and damp dirt. These are all things a frightened Snow White might notice while struggling through a forest.

  • Similes

The second technique you can use to convey mood is similes. Comparing one thing to another can evoke emotion and give the reader a vivid picture of how the character is feeling/perceiving the scene.

In the same way you would consider what details your character might notice, consider what he/she might use as a comparison for something. For example, an art lover might express themselves through art comparisons, or a sports player might make athletic comparisons.

In the first example I compared the spring blossoms to fluffs of cloud, and the petals to a mouse’s fur. In the second, I compared tree roots to a corpse’s fingers, and the dirt staining her dress to thunderclouds blotting out a clear sky. The comparisons in each example reflect the character’s mood.

  • Vocabulary choice

The last tactic you can use is vocabulary choice. Consider what words you will include to create a specific mood and how a reader will react to them emotionally.

Notice how in the first example I used words like tickled, sang, flitted, scampered, admire, adorned, blossom, fluffs, bloom, stroked, soft, nestled, and bushy. Each of these word conveys a feeling of tranquility.

In the second example, I used bare, scratched, stumbled, swooped, startling, twisted, snatched, dragged, damp, wail, pierced, and cold. Notice how these words make you feel…not very pleasant, right?

It takes practice to become aware of and intentional with your word choice but it’s well worth the effort. Words are powerful, and you should take advantage of your word choice to manipulate how you want the reader to feel about a scene.

Do you pay attention to mood in your writing? What techniques do you use to set the mood?

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How to Use Paragraphs to Control Pacing

paragraph pacing 2Many writers may not pay attention to paragraphs, especially when starting out, but they hold a subtle power over your novel.

But don’t underestimate them–paragraphs can invite a reader into your novel or drive them away. And if you learn how to manipulate them, you can use their power to your advantage.

Beware Unwieldy Paragraphs

When you pick up a book at the store and thumb through the pages only to find unbroken blocks of text spanning an entire page or more, how do you feel? I don’t know about you, but when I see back-to-back giant paragraphs, I don’t get the warm and fuzzies.

Giant paragraphs are hard on the eyes. All that text going on and on and on…it’s intimidating to readers and can scare them off.  Your readers might think your book will be a tough read and decide to drift away to something easier. The last thing you want is to make your novel look like a textbook!

White Space is Your Friend

Using paragraph breaks more frequently creates more white space, which invites readers to linger on the page. Readers need white space because it gives the eye a place to rest.  That’s why when you skim through a book, you’re probably drawn right to the dialogue–switching between speakers offers more white space.

When you’re writing, look for subtle shifts in topic where you can break paragraphs. Let me show you what I mean using Edgar Allen Poe’s the Tell-Tale Heart. Here is the original without paragraph breaks:

Example 1

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it –oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly –very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously (for the hinges creaked) –I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights –every night just at midnight –but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.”

That’s a giant paragraph if I ever saw one. Now, here’s the same paragraph again, but with breaks:

Example 2

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.

And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it –oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head.

Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly –very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed.

Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously (for the hinges creaked) –I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.

And this I did for seven long nights –every night just at midnight –but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night.

So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.”

Paragraph Lengths

Which one would you rather read? I’m betting the second example. It’s easier to read and less intimidating. But how exactly does it work its magic?

By controlling the pacing.

Readers hate giant paragraphs because it takes longer to get through them–it can feel like forever. White space allows the eye to move through more quickly. And in our modern times, readers are impatient and like things fast.

But how long is too long? I’d aim for an average paragraph length of 3-4 lines, but don’t go any longer than 7 or 8 lines. And you can never go too short–you can even do single-line paragraphs for dramatic impact.

Controlling Pacing

Now that you understand the subtle effects paragraphs have on readers you can use them to your advantage. Paragraphs are an effective technique for controlling pacing, and one you definitely shouldn’t overlook.

When you want to slow things down in your story, like making a romantic moment linger, lengthen your paragraphs. It will take your reader longer to get through them, and make them feel like the scene is lasting longer.

When you want to speed things up, keep your paragraphs short and punchy. This is perfect for action scenes. More white space and fewer words means your reader will be flying through the pages, and the scene will feel like it’s moving quickly. The shorter you go, the faster things will move–you can even go down to single lines if you want.

Do you take advantage of paragraphs in your writing?

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Confessions of a Grammar Nazi: 10 Grammar Pet Peeves

Confessions of a Grammar NaziHappy National Grammar Day!

Does the slaughter of the English language send you into a passionate rage? You’re not alone.

In celebration of Grammar Day, let’s get into the festive spirit by grumping about irksome grammar no-nos that rankle most any writer.

Here are my top 10 grammar pet peeves that will exasperate your inner grammar Nazi.

#1: Your/You’re

Why is this so baffling to people? Your is possessive. You’re is a contraction for you are. As in, if you continue to run amok with your grammar, you’re going to get a beat down from a grammar Natzi.

#2: They’re/Their/There

They’re going to have to take their atrocious grammar over there. Far, far away. Actually, why don’t we just set up a quarantine.

#3: Then/Than

If you say “I’d rather have Boromir take the ring then Frodo” I will cast you into the fires of Mt. Doom.

Not really. But it might cross my mind.

#4: Its/It’s

It’s an apostrophe, not a government conspiracy. Why must you find this so bewildering? It’s= it is, Its= possessive.

#5: Ending a Sentence with ‘at’

This one really grates on my nerves, and unfortunately I live in the south where this runs rampant.

Where you at? Where’s it at? Where did you put my keys at? I don’t know where she’s at.

*cringe* Is it too much to ask to just leave out the last word? Before I go on a grammar-induced rampage. For the sake of your safety and my sanity, just…don’t.

#6: Text Talk

My eyes…are burning.

If I have to decipher your text code that looks like it comes from an alien planet, I’m just going to assume it was written by a less-intelligent life form.

#7: Couldn’t Care Less/Could Care Less

“I could care less about your grammar shenanigans!”

Well thanks, glad to know you don’t care at all. That would be tragic.

#8: Unnecessary Quotation Marks

Umm, I’m sorry but what exactly are you trying to “say” here?

#9: Oxford Comma

If you don’t use the Oxford comma, we can’t be friends.

Just kidding. But I will judge you o.O

#10: Good/Well

And last but not least, “You did good!” *face palm* No, Mom/Dad, I did well. As in, you taught me well. So now I can correct your grammar 😉

What brings out your inner grammar Nazi?

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Writer Beware: How Adjectives Can Weaken Your Writing

adjectives

Writers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that in order to make their writing vivid and descriptive, they must use a lot of adjectives. But adjectives can wind up doing more harm than good. Use too many and your writing may sound like, well, a

Well said, Professor McGonagall.

Ernest Hemingway was an advocate for a lean descriptive style. He believed that vivid description came from strong verbs and specific nouns, and he avoided adjectives whenever possible. Does this mean he never used adjectives? No. But when he did, he used them wisely.

So what’s so bad about adjectives?

They can detract from your description.

If you have a long string of adjectives, they will work against each other and weaken your image. Not to mention the reader will have difficulty remembering all of them. Consider:

The shaggy, wild, dark-grey wolf loped through the foggy, chilly, dark, damp, overgrown forest.

That’s a mouthful if I ever saw one. The plethora of adjectives makes the sentence long and awkward. There’s too much to take in–it’s a sensory overload. Instead of giving readers a vivid image, it just overwhelms them.

The dark-grey wolf loped through the damp forest.

Ah–much better! The sparse adjectives allow for an uncluttered, specific image. Just keep things simple! A good rule of thumb is to never us more than two adjectives together. This also brings us to our next point…

They can become unnecessary clutter.

The tiny, petite girl rode the immense, gargantuan horse.

Tiny and petite mean the same thing. It’s redundant to use both adjectives and only clutters the writing. The same with immense/gargantuan. Better:

The petite girl rode the gargantuan horse.

If you use two adjectives together, make sure they don’t mean the same thing. For example: The shy, petite girl rose the gargantuan horse.

They can tell rather than show.

Adjectives can signal lazy writing. Let’s take another look at our horse example:

The shy, petite girl rode the gargantuan horse.

Even better:

The shy, petite girl rode the Clydesdale.

“Clydesdale” is a specific noun and gives us a clearer picture than “gargantuan horse” ever could. (Those Budweiser Superbowl commercials are probably already frolicking around in your mind). Keep an eye out for opportunities to replace adjectives with a stronger word!

Finally, adjectives can tempt you to tell rather than show:

The beautiful flowers grew outside my window.

The poppies flourished outside my window, their petals the same flush of red as a girl’s cheeks beneath her sweetheart’s admiring gaze.

Yes, we can tell readers that the flowers are beautiful, as in the first example, but it is far better to let them see and feel that the flowers are beautiful. C.S. Lewis said:

 “It’s no use telling us that something was ‘mysterious’ or ‘loathsome’ or ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘voluptuous.’…By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves…you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim ‘how mysterious!’ or ‘loathsome’ or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have no need to tell me how I should react.”

Wise words!

camilla facceAdvice from the Quills:

Feel free to use as many adjectives as you desire in your first draft. When you edit, massacre all except the most necessary. Less is more!

Do you love or loathe adjectives?

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How to Write an Opening Line that Will Hook Readers (and a Publisher!)

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The first sentence of your story is the most important you will write. It will determine whether the reader (or publisher) decides to keep reading or toss your book aside.

Think of it this way: when you meet someone new you decide from your first impression whether or not you like the person and are interested in continuing a conversation. (Or if that Hitler stache is just too creeptastic and you want to hightail it out of there first chance you get).

The first sentence is your story’s first impression to a reader. So you need to make it brilliant.

The first thing I do when I pick up a book at the store is read the opening line. If it catches my interest, I’ll examine the book further, maybe even buy it. If not, it goes back on the shelf. So how do you keep a reader from putting your book back on the shelf?

Let’s look at some examples of opening lines. On a scrap of paper, jot down which numbers make you want to read the rest of the story.

  1. “I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”
  1. “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.”
  1. “She killed him in the darkest part of the night, before the dew had settled on the grass.”
  1. “Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape.”
  1. “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
  1. “Laurel’s shoes flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood.”
  1. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
  1. “Chauncey was with a farmer’s daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau.”
  1. “After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.”
  1. ““Four-ball, side pocket.” Aislinn pushed the cue forward with a short, quick thrust; the ball dropped into the pocket with a satisfying click.”

Which of these books would you like to read? Which opening lines arouse your curiosity and make you want to know what happens next?

The odd-numbers are examples of excellent opening lines; the even-numbers are examples of weak opening lines. I’m willing to bet the odd-numbered examples were the ones that made you want to read the rest of the story.

And guess which books are on my bookshelf? That’s right–the odd-numbers. They aroused my interest enough to make me want to buy the book, which is exactly what you want as a writer.

So what makes the good lines good?

  • They arouse curiosity: Why is she locked up? Why did she kill him? Why would she kill her true love? Why is she surrounded by wolves? How did she become a slave?
  • They present conflict: Will she escape prison? Will she get away with killing him? Will she really kill her true love? Will she be killed by the wolves? Will she escape slavery?
  • They start near the action—things are happening or about to happen. There is the feeling of forward momentum from the combination of curiosity and conflict. You want to plunge your reader into the heart of the story as quickly as possible—start in the middle of the action.

What makes the weak lines weak?

  • They don’t arouse curiosity or present conflict.
  • #2 tries to be profound but just ends up being confusing.
  • #8 is description, which slows down the story before it even starts.
  • The problem with opening with dialogue as in #10 is it’s somewhat jarring–we haven’t been introduced to the characters yet and we don’t know who’s speaking.

In case you’re curious, here are the books whose opening lines were used in the example: 1. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi 2. Eldest by Christopher Paolini 3. Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson 4. Fallen by Lauren Kate 5. The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater 6. Wings by Aprilynne Pike 7. Shiver by Maggie Steifvater 8. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick 9. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas 10. Wicked Lovely by Marissa Marr

 camilla facce

 Advice from the Quills:

The attention spans of 21st century readers are frighteningly short so you must snag your reader with that first sentence. This is  known as a hook.

The purpose of your opening line is to hook the reader by arousing curiosity and/or presenting conflict and action. Give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! Are you up to the challenge?

Go to a library, bookstore, your own bookshelf, or even amazon.com, and browse through some books examining the first line. Which ones draw in your interest? Which ones don’t? Share below!

Like what you read? Know someone who might enjoy it? Please share it with other writers! Thank you for reading!

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Give Your Writing Punch with Strong Verbs

strong verbsWhat sorts of verbs do you use in your writing? Are they hum-drum? Passive? Bland? Or are they sharp, powerful, and deliver a punch?

Ernest Hemingway felt that strong verbs and specific nouns made prose come alive far more than adjective and adverbs. I have to say that I agree. So what’s the big deal about verbs anyway? I’m gad you asked.

As you know, verbs express motion. They not only describe action, but they also give your prose the feel of movement. Verbs help move your story forward. Strong, evocative verbs will bring your writing to life. But beware: weak verbs will make it fizzle or drag.

So what makes a verb strong? A strong verb is precise in its expression, giving a clear image, and is interesting. Let’s look at some examples.

The boy ran out of the kitchen.

The boy bolted out of the kitchen.

The rabbit ate the carrot.

The rabbit munched on the carrot.

The cat slept in the windowsill.

The cat dozed in the windowsill.

Do you see how the weaker verbs are more general while the stronger verbs are more specific? They give the reader a more vivid image. They also have a certain feel.

Consider the rabbit munching on the carrot– it sounds cute and dainty. But if the rabbit were instead devouring the carrot, it would sound more desperate and eager. Both influence our impression of the rabbit. You can use strong verbs not only to manipulate the image you want the reader to have, but the emotions you want him to feel.

I’ve noticed a lot of beginning writers tend to gravitate towards weaker, more common verbs. Especially looked and walked. Instead of looked, how about: glanced, peered, peeked, glared, gazed, stared, studied or squinted? Instead of walked, how about: hiked, strolled, stepped, wandered, ambled, strode, paced, or sauntered?

Don’t neglect your verbs–take advantage of every opportunity to give your writing more umph. Does this mean you can never use verbs like looked or walked? Certainly not! But use them sparingly. If you can find a better verb, use that one instead.

Now go forth, and seek out the weak verbs in your writing. Kill them off as mercilessly as Lord Voldemort would Avada-Kedavra anyone who made fun of his nose (or rather, lack thereof).

camilla facce

Advice from the Quills:

Keep a thesaurus handy to browse a variety of verb options. If you don’t like flipping through a thesaurus, Thesaurus.com is a quick and simple alternative.

Do you tend to use weak or strong verbs in your writing?

Like what you read? Know someone who might enjoy it? Please share it with other writers! Thank you for reading!

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