Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lessons from Elements of Style - Part 1

I’ve only taken one creative writing class.  That was years back in junior high when my schedule opened up for one semester and I was able to indulge my creative interests.  My teacher was at that time a published writer (though she used a pen name, so I don’t know what books she published).  And she felt that the most important thing for us as new writers was to read the Elements of Style written by Strunk and White.  We had specific phrases we had to learn and memorize for tests.

I’ve just pulled out the notes that I took for that class.  (Yes, I kept them) and I’ve been reviewing them again.  I’m amazed by how appropriate each phrase is, and I’ve decided to dedicate each Wednesday of the month of October expanding on each one.

Today, we’re going to start with the one that always comes screaming into my head whenever I think of the Elements of Style.

Quote taken from Elements of Style

I can’t tell you how many times we had to repeat this phrase during class.  This was my teacher’s one motto.

Specific to the General

When I think of this part, I think of telling vs showing.  You may have a character that you tell the reader ‘has proven himself to be trustworthy.’  How specific is that?  Does that give the reader a definite idea of who he is?  In what has he proven himself trustworthy?  Get specific.  Take a moment to describe a specific moment when he’d proven this.  Was there a time when he’d been asked to keep a secret and he’d lost his best friend because he’d kept it?  If I tell you one of my characters is naïve, wouldn’t it be easier to believe if she says something in a situation that makes it obvious that she doesn’t understand what’s going on? 

Definite to the Vague

This is the area that I struggle with the most.  I tend to be vague with descriptions, and I’m never quite sure when I need to use more.  It’s something I’ve been working on, and I feel as though I’ve improved quite a bit in the past few months.  It’s not a matter of describing every single little detail within the scene.  It’s a matter of determining which details help move the scene forward or pinpoint the personality of your characters. 

For example.  I had a character stand up.  But that was a bit vague.  Here’s what I ended up writing:

He accepted Brednon’s help, wincing when the joints in his legs resisted. This human form was becoming more cumbersome. If he wasn’t careful, he might lose his ability to remain useful to the king.

With just a short, definite description, I was able to convey that not only is he growing older, he’s also worried about how long he’ll be useful in his position.

Concrete to the Abstract

Along the lines of the ones before, this I believe, has to do with concepts and ideas.  If you’re telling a reader that a character’s afraid, then maybe you should expand on that.  Afraid, angry, uncomfortable, any of these feelings could be considered abstract.  Dig deeper.  Find the why.  Find out what it is about the situation, the person or whatever they’re facing that makes them feel how they do.  Focus on the reactions, the physical actions that show the emotions.  Focus on the concrete, rather than the abstract.

How do you make sure you write with the specific, definite and concrete?  What lessons have you learned while writing?