THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:
Help your prose to pack a powerful “punch.”
In my article Build Tension through Structure – Part 1: Introduction, I mentioned several ways in which you can use the structure of your prose to build tension. In this follow-up, I’ll focus on a few of those in greater detail, and provide some practical examples to show you how it’s done.
I’ll focus here on three specific forms of punctuation that help to elevate the tension for the reader. These are effective because of how we learn to read and write as children, and because of how our brains are subsequently wired to process the written word psychologically. Writers grossly overuse one of these forms, in my opinion, while underutilizing the other two.
1) EXCLAMATION POINTS: This would be the grossly overused punctuation. Amateur writers too often act as if they just came from the composition store, where they had a “Buy 2 Get 3 Free” sale on exclamation points. Many writers think they can create momentary tension—a quick punch—by throwing in an exclamation point. And they would be right… if they do so only on rare occasions, when it truly lends some excitement. The trouble starts when a writer thinks every fourth sentence is just that opportunity. It’s not. That’s just sloppy, lazy, melodramatic, in-your-face nonsense. If, on the other hand, you use exclamation points only as often as you should, you’ll get a real bang for your exclamation buck.
A) HINT: Most exclamation points should occur in dialogue, not in the standard narrative.
B) The most effective exclamation points are those that convey not just emotion, and not just volume, but both.
C) Your readers are not dullards and idiots, and you won’t fool them into thinking you’re offering powerful writing just because you lace it with exclamation points. In fact, quite the opposite is true: you’ll convince them that your writing is so weak that you feel it necessary to mask your insecurities with a slew of exclamation points.
D) Treat exclamation points like thumbtacks: one or two to hold your piece of paper to the bulletin board is functional; eight hundred for the same purpose is just plain ridiculous.
E) If excessive exclamation points are bad for serious fiction (and they are), then doubling or tripling them at a single point is evil incarnate. Don’t do it! Ever! One exclamation is always enough (at best), and often too much as it is; two or three is a sure sign that an amateur is at work. The same is true of combining exclamation points with question marks (?!), which is a clear signal that the writer doesn’t know if he’s asking a question or making an exclamation. In his confusion, he does both. Bad. Very bad.
F) Search your document for exclamation points:
i) If you have one for every 250 words or less, you have too many. Period. Self-edit with scalpel in hand.
ii) If you have one for every 250-500 words, you probably—and I mean very likely—have too many.
iii) If you have one for every 500-1,000 words, you’re probably okay.
iv) If you have one for every 1,000 words or more, don’t sweat it.
2) DASHES: First, most editors prefer the Em dash (no spaces before or after). However, the En dash (with spaces before and after) is still in use in some places. Check the publisher’s requirements; if they have none, go with the Em dash. Use a dash for its essential purposes, of course, but also use it occasionally—be careful not to overdo it—to give a little oomph to a sentence, as follows.
A) To offset an abrupt aside: I long to charge across the street to destroy him—no remorse—as if stepping on a cockroach. This tool can provide a nice punch to a sentence.
B) To provide an abrupt interruption, which creates momentary excitement—tension—for the reader. This is a useful tool in both narrative and dialogue. See an example of this in the sample segment at the end of this article.
3) ELLIPSES: Use these in the same way you use a dash as described in 2-B above. The difference here is that, unlike the abrupt interruption of a dash, an ellipsis provides for a more gradual interruption, as your current thread fades away. As with each of the tools we’re discussing here, use ellipses sparingly, and only where they provide an extra punch. See an example of this in the sample segment at the end of this article.
Sentence fragments (incomplete, technically improper sentences) can pack a real punch for your prose, as well, but only if—and this is a big, gigantic, humungous “if”—you use them sparingly. Many modern writers use these so frequently that they not only lose their efficacy as a “punch” tool, they appear just plain sloppy and lazy. One might reasonably ask if the writer simply never learned the rules of grammar and sentence structure. A writer who offers fragments every third or fourth sentence inflicts upon readers a kind of “mental hiccups.” I hate it! Call me old-fashioned, but I believe writers should write. In the following example, I utilize a number of fragments (in bold) to provide some punch to the segment.
Frozen forever in time at the age of thirty-six, Mom was beautiful and warm—she was love itself—and now she was gone. Along with my childhood. What choice did I have? Was I ready?
It hardly mattered.
Law enforcement took rather a cursory glance at me, given both my young age and the circumstances of the event. A state-appointed psychiatrist determined that, for just a moment, and in accordance with strict legal definitions, I was simply insane. Temporary insanity? Sure. Why not?
The psychiatrist thought so, and that was good enough for the judge. They declared me healthy and normal, and sent me home.
Ah yes, home.
Use italicized text for two purposes:
1) Force a reader to emphasize a particular word. I’ve done so a number of times throughout this article, so you have plenty of examples already. The key is this: you want the reader to hear the written words just as he would if you were speaking them aloud. We all do this in everyday conversation: elevate our volume and pitch to emphasize a particular word. You create that effect in writing through italicized text.
2) Show a character’s private thoughts. Just beware of POV issues. You must be in that character’s POV, or an all-seeing, omniscient POV, for the narrator to know the character’s private thoughts.
SAMPLE SEGMENT (Uses each of the tools mentioned in this article; expletives replaced by asterisks)
I floated still, adrift in an endless gray ocean of broken thought, struggling to make sense of the fluid that drenched my hands.
It’s… it’s…. Oh, God, it’s Mom’s blood and brains.
The maddening, driveling voice, like a spear in my gut, stabbed me again. “For Christ’s sake, kid, stop ****ing around and give me a hand, will you!”
Rage burned a red sheath over my eyes.
I stood and walked to the killer, who looked up with drunken eyes that meant nothing to me. They were evil. I focused instead on his neck, called up all that I’d learned in Master Komura’s martial arts classes over the previous seven years, and….
Though strong for a fifteen-year-old, my success rested on the fragile physiology of that small patch of neck. Indeed, to crush his trachea required more precision than strength.
The slobbering murderer collapsed, clutched his ruined throat, and gasped for air that would not come. His eyes blazed in one final, sobering realization. They pleaded for mercy and begged an answer to the simplest question: Why?
It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
Yet I had to make sure he understood. “You rotten ****! Did you think you could murder my mom and get away with it?”
Anger roiled, and I started to shake. I should have been crying for Mom. Why wasn’t I crying? I’d never known such fury. I wanted to pummel him, again and again and again and again, as he lay helpless on the street.
“What do you think now, you murdering **********? Still feel like laughing it up? How about another drink, you miserable—”
His empty eyes stared back at me.
I’d done it. I’d meted out justice—simple, swift, final.
Now I needed to… to…. I shook off the cobwebs as my neighbors gaped in stunned silence. I turned to the right and—
Oh God. Oh God.
My little brother, Alex, knelt at the edge of our driveway with a face painted in tears, confusion and terror. Just seven years old, he wept alone on the worst of all possible days. My feet were as tree stumps sprouting from the bottoms of my legs, as I shuffled over and crouched before him. All the while, his gaze shifted between Mom’s car and me, and he blinked through the tears no dam could contain.
He choked and sputtered, “I… want my… mommy. Where’s Mommy? I… I… I want my mommy!”
His scream clawed at my heart, and I could barely whisper, “Me too. I want her too.”
Tune in soon for more on “Building Tension through Structure,” and on other matters related to effective writing. In the meantime, and as always, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.