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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at TAMU chapter.

As is obvious, books and short stories are unable to use all the fancy gimmicks that movies and shows get to, which means your action sequence doesn’t have the luxury of a sweeping Gregorian choir behind it to enhance your writing. Unfortunately, novels don’t come with surround sound – the soundtrack is sold separately – so we, as writers, have to compensate with specific tricks. And yes, they are tricks, they are little bits of magic imbued in the page, spells that make a reader see precisely what you do when you write.

I would like to make it clear, though: art is never a single style. If it was, the world would be terribly boring. What I write, what I consider my best work, may be entirely different from yours. These are not hard-and-fast universal rules, merely a suggestion. This is an offering, a demonstration of what I’ve learned after years of wrinkling my nose at my first drafts and trimming the fat of my fiction. This is not an instruction booklet, this is an inspiration board.

Active vs. passive voice

Active and passive voice definitely both have their uses, but, generally, active voice is much more engaging. But first, identifying them. The best clarification I’ve seen of this is adding “by zombies” after your verb. If it feasibly fits, you’re using passive voice. For example:

“The dog barked [by zombies] at the mailman.” This does not make sense.

“The mailman was barked at [by zombies] by the dog.” This does make sense, if a little redundant.

Obviously, this example is crude and simple, but it gets the point across. In a fiction setting, “She was carried” holds less emphasis than “They carried her,” and in real life, “I was hurt” holds less emphasis than saying “You hurt me.” One is passive, denoting no importance to the subject performing the action. The other is active, a verb with a clear subject, and tends to draw attention to whatever that subject may be.

Passive voice does have its moments, though. In a sentence like: “She was wandering, stumbling through the forest with no recollection of where she was supposed to go,” passive voice lends to the dazed sort of feeling the situation intends. Compare that to: “She wandered, meandering aimlessly, eyes turned to the sky instead of watching the path before her,” which has a much more deliberate air to it. This is a small change, just a little grammatical shift that can elevate writing.

Show vs. Tell

This is a classic suggestion, and the words themselves are basically meaningless, especially when you’ve heard them so many times. I hate to sound like a creative writing professor, but it is good advice, albeit vague.

The idea of “showing” something happening rather than “telling” the reader what is happening both adds an in-depth description to a piece and trims away some of the redundancy. If I show “His legs buckled under the strain,” then I don’t need to tell my reader “He was surprised by how heavy it was.” The latter is less interesting, less indicative of this character’s actions, and becomes functionally useless when the former is already doing all of the legwork.

There’s also consideration of setting description here. C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying: “Don’t say it was delightful; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description,” and this is precisely the goal. When you write, you know what it’s supposed to look like, and that can be hard to capture. Sometimes the idea is as simple as “one dark and stormy night,” but that’s a fine start!

I often look at my writing with the eyes of a reader, asking myself if I’d be disappointed reading this in a novel. “A lovely day” is fine, it lets me imagine it myself, but if a new aspect is suddenly added to the scene, I’m a little put off by it. I’m always just a bit annoyed when a new character trait is added several chapters after I’ve already created their image in my head, and all of a sudden I have to change their eye color or hairstyle. This, however, is something I’m about to directly contradict, and this is part of why I first emphasized that these are all suggestions, not rules.

The Magic of Mystery

If I were to read, “The creature was horrifying,” I think I would be a little disappointed with that description. I’d want to see more, to know what is so horrifying. However, in the case of the book Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, this is sort of what he does. The horrifying creature is never intricately described, and I’ve come to recognize this in many forms. For example, we never actually see Batman interrogate someone. He’s supposed to be a brilliant detective, and he is, and yet we never properly see the method by which he gets information. Usually, he menacingly walks towards someone, the screen fades to black, and when we come back from commercials, the bad guy is spilling the beans.

This is because the writers will never be able to trump the reader’s imagination. Simply put, anything you picture will be better than what they write. There is an inherent unsettling quality to the unknown, when we begin to fill in the blanks with someone much more terrifying and potentially awe-inspiring than an author can ever hope to achieve.

I actually found myself very disappointed with a book for shattering that mystery, once. Strange the Dreamer, an absolutely delightful book by Laini Taylor, featured a city that embodied all the wonder and magic that the main character could ever imagine. It was deer with crystal antlers, candy that turned men immortal, floating lanterns, and strings of silk. Most magical of all, its name had been stolen by a god, and replaced with “Weep.” And at the end of the book, we are told its old name.

This was a massive letdown for me. No name, no matter how fantastical in any other scenario, would have lived up to three hundred pages of suspense and anticipation. Even when telling my friends about my aggravation around this, I could not remember the name, because it made no lasting impression on me, despite even being the last word in the book as an intended revelation to end with.

On the other hand, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik gets it right. The fae king, who does not share his name with the protagonist due to names having power, never shares it with the reader, either. Eventually, she does learn his name, but the reader does not. Names have power, so only she is entrusted with it, as not even we are. This small difference maintains that magic of the mystery that was embedded in the whole of these stories, and I still find myself smiling with fond irritation when I think back on Spinning Silver, wondering at that mystery. Such a small thing, and yet it adds such a depth of imagination and enchantment to this novel.

Leaning into your readers

All of this talk of deliberately leaving things up to chance – up to the imagination of your reader – ties into a much broader idea, which is trusting your reader to have some imagination. This can be done by encouraging mystery, like I explained at length above, or by cutting down on your explanations.

Some writers like to hoard words, collect every single one like a little treasure to be caught and kept, and that’s fine, but it’s certainly a niche style. I absolutely despised the one Oscar Wilde book I was forced to read in high school, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it certainly seemed to me that he was one of these word-hoarding writers. Every sentence was cried; every character flung themselves into a chair; there was once a sentence so full of semicolons that it was an entire paragraph, and that paragraph took up a page and a half. I loathed the lot of it. So, in my opinion, taking a little bit off the top can be a very, very good thing.

Yet another hopefully helpful example: “He pointed dismissively, flicking his wrist with contempt at the idea.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with this sentence, but it is a bit heavy-handed when you could also just as well say: “He gestured dismissively at the idea,” which also leaves room for the continuation of the thought. There is less description, to be sure, but your readers are not stupid. If you’ve written a character well, they can gather your implication just fine, and it allows the story to be influenced by their own perception, which often gives them a greater attachment to it.

Apologies to Oscar Wilde Fans

Every person has a different style, and that’s a great thing! Far be it for me to look down on that, considering I’ve read enough books to fill an entire personal library, and found some truly bizarre styles in my search. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, for instance, features chapters written as if told to us, with paragraphs like: “The woman I mentioned, the one whose son is dead. She was not in Yumenes, thankfully, or this would be a very short tale. And you would not exist.”

Even Oscar Wilde – and all his collected, treasured words and semicolons and characters who cry their dialogue – is instrumental in the world of literature. Were we all to look the same, write the same, and cook the same, the world would be bland and featureless, and we would be horribly boring as a species. Going against my suggestions, and my own guidelines for good writing is not a bad thing. I’m simply making you an offer, and it’s your choice whether you take it.

I am an Environmental Crop and Soil Sciences major at Texas A&M. I’ve been inducted as a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success, the American Society of Agronomy, and the Students of Agronomy, Soil, and Environmental Sciences, and I hold an officer position in the Texas A&M Agronomy Society. For much of my life, I've been a creative writer, both in the sense of poetry and short stories. I keep up-to-date on news, both local and abroad, and highly enjoy discussions about it. I joined Her Campus at TAMU in Spring, 2022, and am thrilled to be back!