This post contains a surprisingly simple concept that is so important, writing coaches like myself, don’t actually want to share it with you. Even if you don’t know of it, for most of you, it is the reason your favorite authors are your favorite authors. It is why you get bored on page two of your friend’s short story, but can read 150 pages of classic literature in one sitting. This post is about variation. If you remember no other concept on this blog, remember this.
Note: Variation has much more to do with the style of your writing than things like story points or character development. Indeed the concept of “varying your character” can lead people grievous mistakes in character psychology. When applied correctly, however, variation can take your style from a D to an A. It will excite people. More importantly, it will make people want to read more.
After a while, our brains are programmed to ignore repetition. It is the reason you aren’t constantly listening to your heartbeat or your breath, and why a ticking clock, however annoying, eventually fades into the background. In psychology, this is known as sensory adaptation.
When you are reading a book, subconsciously, your mind registers everything. Most readers don’t know why they stop reading, but more often than not, it is the feeling of boredom that comes from sensory adaptation. Here’s an example.
“She ran. She kept running. She couldn’t stop. He got closer. She saw him. He was too fast. He caught her. He killed her.”
The variation issues here are significantly exaggerated to allow your conscious mind to pick up on what is happening. As a training exercise, try to find the two main problems with the sentences above. I’ll give you a second… If you read them carefully, you should have noticed two issues: every sentence begins with a pronoun, and none are longer than four words. Another minor issue is the lack of complex verbs or nouns.
Think of your writing like music, or like the tide of the ocean. Your prose has a certain flow. Occasionally, it is rough and jarring (ideally when the events you’re writing are rough and jarring). At other times, it is calm and tranquil. Allow your words to take form and carry your readers along in the most exciting way possible.
Keeping an eye out for ways to vary your writing is absolutely vital. It will keep your writing fresh throughout hundreds of pages, and it will make it come alive! Here are the main categories to look out for—
I love Marcel Proust. He’s a fantastic author. Even so, when every sentence is two pages long, it can be very easy to lose focus while reading. When I complete a sentence, I often think, “Should I put my book down now? I won’t get a chance for another five minutes!” When I read Hemingway, I have the opposite problem. Everything is so short and direct, it’s easy to miss the moments Hemingway intended to be passionate. One of his most well-known lines is, “He came to the river. The river was there.” I don’t know about you, but I felt absolutely nothing reading that.
Sentence length is vital in accentuating your power scenes. Watch what happens in your own writing when you place a beautiful, flowing sentence in the midst of sharp succinct ones—
“He saw her sitting there, and he loved her. It was that simple. The humming of everyday life melted in a fury of illusory dreams, windswept hair and faded paint. He knew then that he could never go back home.”
Surprise us, never let us know what to expect.
In the example sentence above, I also naturally varied vocabulary. Notice, no other sentence contained an adjective; that sentence had three! Don’t overload your readers with a veritable cornucopia of vernacular. If every sentence requires intense thought, that’s just another way to miss out on the joy variation can bring to your writing. It is for this reason that many authors have been led into mistakenly thinking that “simple is better.”
“Just use language everyone can understand!” they’ll tell you. Well, they can say what they like, but a good vocabulary, used in the right moments, can literally drive your readers to tears.
For God’s sake, start a sentence with a verb every once in a while! If 90% of our sentences begin with a pronoun, you’re doing something wrong.
“Collapsing on the bed in all their passion, they forgot the storm that brewed outside.”
“Laugh or cry, silly girl, it’s all the same to me.”
“Pierce the air with the sound of your trumpets. We will arrive before the sunlight ends.”
Go through your writing and learn your tendencies. Then, make an effort to vary them.
Let me be incredibly clear. This isn't just some concept you should occasionally throw into your writing. It is something that needs to be present in every paragraph on every page of your book. You need to constantly be shifting your writing to make sure that it keeps the reader along for the ride.
It’s easy to chalk up a reader’s loss of attention to random things. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “Well, no two readers are the same,” or, “I guess sometimes writers and readers don’t mesh!” Both statements are occasionally true, but as writers, we need to be a step beyond that. We need to understand the minds of our readers and how they function, and craft our beautiful worlds in ways that do them justice…
Readers of Tiny Instruments very often ask me how I managed to keep them interested from beginning to end – or how I managed to craft such beautiful sentences. This is it guys. This is everything you need to know.
Write a 500-word short story. It can be about anything. The point is to focus on constantly varying everything in the three main categories: Length, Vocabulary and Style. Send it in and I will help tighten it up and guide your writing as best I can.