Writing can be so difficult. Who among us hasn't have difficulty creating convincing emotion, setting, and characters for a scene of our own conjuring? I'm hoping these tips will help you create the most engaging and realistic stories possible. (Disclaimer: please don't do these things.)
Tip One: Writing convincing third-person closed emotion
How can you capture the pure rage of someone who has been pushed to the edge in a stressful situation if you have never done it? Or the heartbreak of the love interest in a slow burn romance who's' chance of love is ripped away from them as the fatal flaw of your protagonist means they push away all that is dear?
When writing third-person, we can fall into the poor habit of using and overusing weak descriptors for emotion. When you're in the thick of writing, stopping to think about how an emotional response plays out in a character's body language and facial expression can break your flow. This leads to using basic descriptions like wide eyes, scrunching face, shouting, and tears as a crutch. We might pay little attention to the more nuanced details.
No more! The solution is to get some first-hand experience of these emotions playing out before you. Is there a deadline coming up at work that your boss is worked up about? Get sloppy, miss deadlines, maybe undermine their superiority in a meeting. When they finally crack, pay attention to the details. How has the way they talk changed? Are they as eloquent? What are their hands doing? Are they sitting or standing? How does it make you feel? Does their anger seem to quake through your body or does it bounce right off? All of this is usable!
The sensible advice: Pay attention to which body action or senses you rely on the most. A knee bouncing with anxiety once or twice is great. But if every character does it every time, it loses its impact. Keep narrative perspective as the driving force for your character decisions. In third-person closed, readers have access to your narrating character's emotions. Use visual descriptors mindfully and remember that your narrating characters response to another character's emotions is as powerful a tool. A great resource for writing emotion is Angela Ackerman's 'The Emotions Thesaurus'. Line editing will also prove a useful tool to get a fresh pair of eyes on your language use. Sometimes you don't know what phrases you overuse until you've been told. Chat more about line editing today.
Tip Two: Cultivating setting
Setting can make or break a good manuscript. Reading a story without a strong sense of place can feel like drifting from plot point to plot point with nothing to anchor yourself. Writing believable settings can be difficult when our story takes place in a world or environment very different to our own. We can end up drawing more inspiration than we should from cultural references or simply writing flat scenes in which to place our characters.
To create a scape that our characters can interact with and be shaped by, we have to experience it for ourselves. In this case, it is strongly recommended that you cut ties with all social groups, work responsibilities, and security networks to uproot ourselves (and our families, if need be) to go and live in our target setting.
This is especially important if your manuscript is set in an environment that you don't usually even holiday in. How can you write a convincing nomad society based on an unreachable mountain range if you've never lived like that yourself? What does the air smell like in the morning? How does the weather inform your eating and personal hygiene schedules? What flowers bloom at what times? You simply cannot know until you try.
The sensible advice: We can't uproot our lives for setting based on real environments. And we can't even visit places that are entirely imaginary. But that doesn't mean that accurate (or precise) setting isn't important. As real people our lives, our actions, our emotions are all informed to some degree by our environment. It is the same for our characters. Are your intrepid adventurers are going to have a hard time finding potable water? Do your space dragons avoid ventures out to hunt during solar storms? In your fictional community, does rain carry special significance that is a cause for celebration or do they have a million idioms relating to being grumpy because it is wet outside? These questions will give you a concrete sense of place. Setting is a great source of writing prompts that will feed into your manuscript. Setting shapes culture, culture shapes character, character shapes plot.
Tip Three: Writing outside of what you know
Write what you know is reductive advice. So is all advice that has been condensed into a snappy and memorable sentence. Unpacked, it means when you write be sure to gather a strong understanding of what and who you are writing so that your portrayals are respectful, accurate, and not causing harm. Every action and description should be informed by fact. This avoids you writing things based on stereotypes or assumptions that are boring and overplayed at worst or harmful and incorrect at worst.
The only way around this is to befriend a person from every background, walk of life, or experience with the sole purpose of picking their brain. Don't write a two-dimensional representation of British culture based on that episode of Downton Abbey you watched. Construct a detailed questionnaire about British culture to send to your English friend. When writing a character with a phobia of heights, be sure to interrogate your phobic friends anytime day or night because getting it right is important.
The sensible tip: Obviously, this is a horrible idea (and these are toned down examples). Please don't use your friends like this. Yes, your writing should be informed by real experiences. But relying on the people around you to provide is called emotional labour. When writing outside of your experience, consult a wide range of resources. Pay attention to who wrote the resources. A Jamie Oliver recipe for chicken korma may not lend you the best cultural insight. Look of own voices, things written by the people who experience what you're trying to write. There are also several forums on social media that provide space for your questions to be answered. Remember, it isn't just about not offending. It is about believability. If you (someone who has ridden a horse before, for instance) write a scene where the character finds a wild horse and rides it immediately into battle, someone who breaks in and trains horses is going to be distracted from the narrative. "That's not how any of that works!", they'll exclaim. This would be easily avoided by careful research and perhaps having someone who knows more do an 'authenticity read' of your manuscript to highlight issues. The same rings true to the more sensitive and personal themes.
Bonus Tip: Writing fantasy creatures
Buy an exotic pet that best resembles your fantasy creature to test various theories and scenarios that
your writing may throw up. If they're not available as pets where you live, I've heard some zoos have a good range to poke at.
The sensible advice: this one is straight up ridiculous (and potentially illegal). Wikipedia exists for a reason. Or you could ask your editor to calculate the wing speed of various owls native to the setting to work out which fits your shapeshifter's timeline best. (Yes, this is an actual editing rabbit hole I've been sent on. Contact me for if your story might have the same challenges)
Again, please don't try any of the unethical tips! But hopefully seeing common writing craft issues framed from a ridiculous perspective has helped you develop some tools to put into practice in your manuscript. Ask questions of your work, consult appropriate resources, bring people onto your team to strengthen your story elements. For more tips like this, subscribe to my newsletter using the button below.