The Story Polisher is a collection of tips for improving your prose. Most posts highlight common problems that I've seen in ten years of editing stories, and include both bad and fixed examples. Topics cover everything from word choice and punctuation usage to sentence construction and tense errors. If you're new here, I recommend starting with The Purpose of the Polisher and Purple Prose vs. Window Prose.
I do not actively update The Story Polisher anymore; once I ran out of fresh topics to address, I saw little use in dragging things out further. But I hope these tips can be useful to you! For more of my projects, including my stories and Star Wars podcast, visit WriterintheHat.com.
Monday, February 3, 2020
Monday, February 29, 2016
I recently attended Life, The Universe, and Everything, a writing symposium in Provo, Utah that focuses on speculative fiction in particular. I had the privilege of sitting on a few panels there and of giving a presentation on the sorts of things I've covered here on this blog.
My friend Danny Potter, meanwhile, gave a presentation titled "10-ish Things About the Brain Every Writer Should Know." He discussed how the brain works, how it handles information, and how writers can organize their writing to take advantage of the mind's ingrained processes and better communicate with their readers.
Now let me tell you—if you're a writer (which I'd wager you are, since you're reading my blog), then this presentation is solid gold. It is packed with useful information that you should know. And that's not just my bias as Danny's friend speaking; his presentation was so well-attended that they had to turn people away at the door because the room was out of standing space.
Why am I telling you this? Because someone recorded Danny's presentation, and he has now posted it online in its entirety for your edification and enjoyment. Just click on this here link to go watch it. You'll be glad you did.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Finding the most efficient order in which to tell a story can be a tricky process. Sometimes, a perfectly linear narrative storyline will suffice—the story begins, progresses through a series of events, and then comes to an end. More often than not, however, your narrative will have important background information: events that happened before the book itself began that are important for understanding the plot. Some stories have only a little background information to be worked into the narrative; other stories are made up of fifty percent or more backstory.
When the characters learn a backstory that they didn’t know, it is usually easy to work into the narrative—the audience learns it in the same manner as the characters. Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father, he wants to find out how this could be true, he asks Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan tells him (and us) the backstory. Simple as can be. Other times, however, the characters already know their backstories, and your task as an author is to find a smooth way to inform your audience of the information.
The problem that often arises with backstory is one of tense: if your story is already written in past tense, then how do you relate information that is even more past tense?
|Because it's timey-wimey and past tense within past tense! Eh? Eh?|
Past Perfect Tense
The answer lies on our list of the sixteen different tenses in English. Most stories in past tense employ the “Past Simple” tense (Freja picked up the gun and pointed it at the guard). In order to relate events that happened before the current narrative, you simply need to switch to “Past Perfect” tense—it’s the tense that uses the word “had” a whole lot:
Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she had visited every other building on the list, and had found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.
Most of that paragraph is written in past simple tense: “Freja studied,” “There were,” and “This wasn’t.” But that third, highlighted sentence is relating events that happened before the rest of the paragraph, so it uses had to drop into past perfect tense—even further in the past than the rest of the story.
Many writers forget the hads, leaving background events in the same tense as the rest of the narrative, like so:
Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she visited every other building on the list, and found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.
See the problem? Now there’s nothing in that third sentence to indicate that those events happened before the rest of the paragraph—it almost sounds like Freja sat in the pub studying the warehouse, left and visited a bunch of other buildings, and then returned. Readers would probably puzzle out what the writer really meant, but it’s needlessly confusing.
So, you can use “had” in past perfect tense to relate events that happened before the current events of the narrative, but there’s still a problem: all those hads can really clutter up your prose. Past perfect tense can become really tiresome to read and to write if it goes on for more than a paragraph or so. For backstory that would take any longer than that to relate (anything you might call a bona fide flashback), you’ll probably want to use another method to share the information.
Past Perfect Introduction
One method is to use a few passages of hads to introduce your flashback, and then transition back into past simple tense for the rest of the backstory. Then, when you return to the “present” events of the narrative, you mark that transition with the word now or something similar. For example:
Freja approached the warehouse empty-handed and alone. She had learned that weapons and backup would do her no good when she had gone up against the cult at the apartment complex in Copenhagen. She had been armed with an H&K MP5 rifle and her 9mm pistol, and had brought along two AKS squadrons for the raid.
The first squadron went into the complex through the front doors while Freja led the second squadron through the rear. They rammed in the doors, forgoing stealth for speed and surprise.
[More events, etcetera.]
When her backup pistol jammed as well, Freya was forced to withdraw with the rest of the squadron. It had been an unmitigated disaster.
This time, Freya was armed with only her wits and the small book of spells that Emil had given her. But with her new understanding of what the cultists were, she knew she could stop them on her own. She walked up to the warehouse door and pulled it open.
See how it works? A few sentences of past perfect tense at the beginning (and one at the end) let readers know that we’re jumping backwards in time. This can still be a little confusing for readers if you’re not careful with it, but it is far more readable than umpteen paragraphs of hads.
Break and Flashback
An even clearer method of relating a flashback is to simply use a line break or chapter break to show your readers that you are switching gears and to then relate your flashback in the same tense as the rest of the story. This method is used quite often by many authors. You can find some professionally-done examples in several books that I can think of off the top of my head:
The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (Book four of The Wheel of Time)—this is the method by which Mr. Jordan related the history of the Aiel when Rand went to Rhuidean. Note that he used an in-world method of delivering the flashbacks; that is, these were memories being projected into the mind of the protagonist, and we received them as he did.
The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson—the first two books of The Stormlight Archive have both featured entire chapters devoted to the backstory of one of the characters (Kaladin in the first book and Shallan in the second). These chapters are scattered throughout the book, effectively serving as a series of flashbacks.
Holes by Louis Sachar—this book is actually unusually complex compared to most middle-grade stories. The story continually jumps around between the “present day” events of the story to the recent background of individual characters to various historical events that pertain to the narrative. In fact, in this book Mr. Sachar employs every single method of delivering backstory that I’ve outlined in this post. If you want to improve your flashback delivery, go read Holes and pay close attention to his tense usage. In fact, that’s your homework—who doesn’t want to read Holes again, am I right? Go do it.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Last time we discussed the sixteen different tenses of the English language, all of which you’ve probably used before. Of course, some of them get used more often than others. All of those “future in the past” tenses, for example—those are complicated and strange enough that you surely won’t need to use them often, right?
The future-in-the-past or relative tense is used when speaking of an action or event that will be in the future for a particular person whose actions are being related in past tense. It’s a bit of a convoluted notion, and that’s why many people consider it an obscure tense when they first encounter it—I know I did. But think about it; the vast majority of stories are written in the past tense, right? So if a story is written in past tense, and the author needs to discuss actions that the characters plan to undertake later on in the narrative—in their future but not ours—then the author will need to use the relative tense.
|Yes, I am going to use Doctor Who memes for every single post on tense that I ever write. I may even go back to old posts on tense and put pictures of the Doctor in them, because he can go back in time like that.|
As it turns out, authors use the relative tense all the time. Here . . . I will grab the nearest book to me and flip through it; I can almost guarantee that I will find some usage of the relative tense. The book is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (italics added for emphasis):
The two talked of small matters as they worked. And while they moved around a great deal, it was obvious they were reluctant to finish whatever task they were close to completing, as if they both dreaded the moment when the work would end and the silence would fill the room again.
There you go. The story is told in the past tense—“the two talked” and “they moved around”—but the author needed to refer to a moment that was yet to come for the two characters. The moment is in the future for the characters but not for us, the readers, so the proper tense to use is the relative tense.
I often see errors when it comes to future tense in stories, and it’s usually because writers use the future tense where they should have used the future-in-the-past tense. The mistake might look something like this:
Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.
Callie’s shift finishing and her hunting down the nightbeast are events that are in the future for her, but not for us the readers, since the whole story is in past tense. Therefore, those wills should be woulds:
Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift would finish at five o’clock, and then she would go hunt down the nightbeast.
Simple as that. Note, however, that if this had been dialog, the normal future tense would have been required. If the narrator is speaking of future events, then you need to use future-in-the-past tense; but the characters themselves still speak of their future in future tense.
“Callie, you need to take care of this,” Maria insisted.
Callie glanced at the clock. “My shift will finish at five o’clock, and then I will go hunt down the nightbeast.”
The same rule applies to stories told in the present tense:
Callie keeps glancing at the clock as she works. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.
But if you’re writing a story in past tense, keep an eye out for situations where the narrator refers to events that haven’t come yet—these will often require the relative tense.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
A few months ago we discussed tense in stories—how most stories are written in either past or present tense and how authors can accidentally switch between the two. On the surface, tense is very simple, right? There’s past, present, and future, and that’s that.
But not really.
Without getting too technical, English grammar has this thing called aspect which alters tense. There are four different aspects, which can combine with past, present, and future tenses to produce twelve different combinations.
But wait, there’s more!
There’s actually more than past, present, and future tense—English also has what is called a relative tense, or a “future in the past” tense. This tense can combine with the four different aspects just like the others, bringing our total of tense-aspect combinations to sixteen.
I’m going to briefly describe each of these tenses, but before I do, I’d like to give a disclaimer: I don’t expect you to remember all of these tenses. The purpose of this post is not to freak writers out with the hidden complexities of the English language. I’m not saying that every writer should be able to identify each of these sixteen tenses by name at the drop of the hat.
The real purpose of this post is to help English-speaking writers understand their language a little better—trust me, just being aware of the existence of all sixteen tenses will improve your writing. It will help you pick out occasional errors a little more easily. You’ve used all of the tenses before; their use is instinctual to you. So don’t stress out—just read through the tenses below and enjoy the rush of new knowledge.
(Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t memorize all the tenses and how they’re used. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t feel any pressure to do so—it’s not a requirement for being a good writer.)
Present Simple: Juan walks to the store.
Indicates that a person performs an action with some measure of regularity. Can also be used in dialog to describe an action in the moment (there she goes).
Nanette jogs two miles every day.
Present Continuous: Juan is walking to the store.
Indicates that a person is currently in the middle of an unfinished action or that a person hasn’t finished a task yet but periodically returns to the task with an eye to completing it in the future.
“Nanette? I think she is reading right now. Just a second, I’ll check.”
“I’m studying Italian in school.”
Present Perfect: Juan has walked to the store.
Indicates that a person has just completed an action and is now either ready to perform or is currently performing a new action.
“The suspect has approached the target and is initiating dialog.”
Present Perfect Continuous: Juan has been walking to the store.
Indicates that a person has just spent a period of time performing an action which may or may not be finished—often used when the action is now being interrupted. Also used to indicate that a specific action or portions of a task have been occurring regularly for some period of time.
“No, Nanette has been sitting here with me all day. She couldn’t have stolen the jewels.”
“Juan has been studying Italian lately.”
Past Simple: Juan walked to the store.
Indicates that an action of indeterminate length or completeness occurred at some point in the past.
“Nanette jogged twice today.”
Past Continuous: Juan was walking to the store.
Indicates that an action was in the process of occurring (and then was probably interrupted or something else occurred at the same time).
Nanette was jogging when she got the call about Juan.
Past Perfect: Juan had walked to the store.
Indicates that an action was performed and completed before further actions took place.
Juan suggested they go out for dinner, but Nanette had eaten already.
Past Perfect Continuous: Juan had been walking to the store.
Indicates that an action was in the process of being performed when it was interrupted and probably left incomplete.
“The suspect had been working for hours before we apprehended him. We don’t know yet how much he got done.”
Future Simple: Juan will walk to the store.
Indicates that an action of indeterminate duration or completeness will occur at some point in the future.
“Nanette will pick up the ingredients we’re missing.”
Future Continuous: Juan will be walking to the store.
Indicates that an action will be in the process of occurring (and will then probably be interrupted or something else will occur at the same time).
“I guarantee you Nanette will be reading the book when you get home.”
Future Perfect: Juan will have walked to the store.
Indicates that an action will have already been completed at a future point, when something else may then occur.
“Do you think Nanette will have read the book by that point?”
Future Perfect Continuous: Juan will have been walking to the store.
Indicates that an action will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in the future. Statements with this tense will usually focus on the duration of the incomplete task.
“Nanette will have been studying for ten straight hours by the time you get home. She will need a break.”
Relative (Future-in-the-past) Tenses
Here’s where things get fun. Relative or future-in-the-past tense generally refers to an action that will be in the future for a specific individual, but not necessarily for the speaker. This often means that a portion of the sentence (or the surrounding sentences) will be in past tense, but the action referred to in relative tense will be yet to happen at that point in time, although it may have already happened for the speaker.
It gets even more confusing because relative tense takes the same form as conditional sentences, were something will only happen if something else happens first.
… let’s just get to the examples.
|Tenses are concerned with the time of events in your story, so things can get a little . . . wibbly-wobbly.|
Relative Simple: Juan would walk to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past expected to perform an action of indeterminate length or completeness at some point in their future.
Nanette knew that she would buy the book.
Relative Continuous: Juan would be going to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would be, in their future, in the process performing an action (which would then probably be interrupted).
Nanette figured that she would be reading by then.
Relative Perfect: Juan would have gone to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have already been completed at a future point, when something else might then occur. Confused yet?
Nanette realized that she couldn’t read that night, because by then Juan would have already retrieved his book from her place.
Relative Perfect Continuous: Juan would have been going to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in their future.
Nanette knew that on a normal day she would have been jogging for fifteen minutes by this point in the evening.
You made it! That post ended up a lot longer than I’d planned, but I hope it was informative. Next time, we’ll discuss a little more about why all these tenses are so important.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Like every other vocation, writing comes with a plethora of technical terms—everything from past perfect continuous tense to non-defining relative clauses. Unlike many other vocations, however, writing is a task that can be performed with next to no knowledge of its technical aspects. In other words, you don’t need to know what a grammatical article is in order to use one correctly. Most people do this instinctually.
That’s not to say that a knowledge of the technical aspects of writing isn’t useful and important. Generally speaking, the more thorough a person’s knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and all of the technical details of writing, the more precise, legible, and skilled their writing will be. But such detailed expertise is not necessary to write a good story. That’s why I usually refrain from using technical writing terms in my blog posts: it’s not so important that you know what a present participle or a gerund is, it’s just important that you know how to use verbs that end in –ing.
But there is a minimum level of knowledge that every writer should have if they want to write for a living. You don’t need to be able to diagram a sentence, but most editors will expect you to know at least the following terms and what they mean:
Basic Sentence Structure: Subject, Verb, and Direct Object
I’ve gone over the basics of what makes up a sentence before: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object. Every writer should know what each of those terms means and be able to identify them in a sentence.
The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action.
The verb is the action that is being performed.
The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting.
Koharu sipped her sake.
Subject Verb Direct Object
Remember that not all verbs require a direct object.
Subject Verb (no direct object needed)
If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it (usually) isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun, like so:
Koharu was an intelligent woman.
Adjectives can be colors (the blue car), qualities (the adorable baby), materials (a wooden sword), nationalities (a Japanese car), ages (the seven-year-old girl), and more. The limiting factor is that they will always describe a noun.
Adverbs (the use of which is discussed here) are words that modify pretty much everything but nouns. They can modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences. They usually end in –ly, but not always.
Modifying a verb: Haruto spoke quickly.
Koharu visited yesterday.
Modifying an adjective: Haruto thinks that he is extremely clever.
Your overly worried sister doesn’t think so.
Modifying an adverb: Haruto spoke very quickly.
Modifying a phrase: Koharu drove us nearly the whole way. (Modifies the phrase “the whole way.”)
Modifying a sentence: Eventually, we all decided to go together.
Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases
A preposition is a word that describes the location, direction, time, or possessive quality of a noun or action. Some examples:
Location: Your coat is in the closet.
Direction: Haruto drove to the store.
Time: We’ll eat after the lecture.
Possession: We’re going to meet the President of Japan!
A prepositional phrase is simply a preposition and the words it is linking to the rest of the sentence.
My book was on the shelf.
The creatures came from outer space.
I’ll get this done before I clock out.
The Queen of England won’t be there, sadly.
Tense and Perspective
You should know which tense and which form of perspective your story employs and be generally familiar with the most common tenses and perspectives. You can find a handy rundown of tense and perspective here.
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or noun phrase. Examples include I, you, she, this that, these, who, what, whose, mine, his, and so many more. There are a good ten or so categories of pronouns, which I don’t expect everyone to learn—just know what a pronoun is and the basics of how to identify them.
Now, again: I’m not saying that you would not be well-served in studying your grammar and punctuation—all the elements of writing, really—to a greater depth than what I’ve covered here. But at the very least, every writer should know the terms above and how to identify the parts of speech that they refer to. Instinct and experience can make up for a lack of detailed knowledge, but they can’t make up for the basics.
|Remember what Uncle Iroh taught us all: learn the basics, as they are your greatest ally.|
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
This is part two of our discussion on mistakes that crop up when authors write lists; you can find part one here. In part one, we discussed mismatched lists of nouns; today, we’ll discuss lists of actions. For instance:
Before he could go out for the evening, Jeremy had some chores to get done, like walking the dog, cleaning out the car, and run to the store for snacks.
Do you realize how much effort I put into this? I had to research all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.
Can you see the problem with those lists? The items in these lists don’t all match. Let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others”:
walking the dog
cleaning out the car
run to the store for snacks
The first two items in the list begin with “-ing” verbs (we’ve discussed those several times before), but the final item in the list does not (it begins with an imperative verb, if you’re curious). That’s a problem—when you list actions like this, the format of each action needs to match the others. Partly, we do this because symmetry looks and sounds better. But it’s often more than that.
The formatting of each action needs to match up with the portion of the sentence that introduces the list. You should be able to remove all of the actions in the list but one (any one) and still have the sentence make sense. Let’s look at the second example above in this manner:
I had to research all of the information myself.
I had to tracked down the original designers.
I had to convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.
That didn’t work, did it? Those second two items on the list switched to past-tense verbs, even though the introductory text required an infinitive form of the verb (the basic, “unchanged” form of the verb). We can fix the sentence in one of two ways: we can fix the second two entries in the list or we can change the introductory text and first item in the list.
I had to research all of the information myself, track down the original designers, and convince them to help me put together a matching setup.
I researched all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.
It’s that simple: items in a list should match one another in format, especially when it comes to the tense of the verb.