I’ve been getting a lot of asks lately about how to write characters who are amputees. As a person with four functioning appendages, I decided the best course of action is to pass the microphone to some folks who actually have the disability in question.
Here’s a list of resources from real-life amputees. If you are an amputee, send me an ask with anything you’d like writers to know, and I will add it to this post!
9 Things I Wish I Knew When I Became an Amputee
The Life of an Amputee
“Life is Worth Living:” Lessons I Learned as a Triple Amputee
Your Stories – Amputee Coalition
Inspirational Stories – Amputee Coalition
True Story: My Leg Was Amputated
Things Not to Say to Amputees
Living With Limb Loss: What Amputees Can Expect During the First Six Months Post-Surgery
Amputees on Airplanes
10 Things I Do Differently as a Quadruple Amputee
Morning Routine of an Amputee
Best Selling Books About Women Amputees
Popular Goodreads Books About Amputees
I hope this helps, and happy writing!
I’m often asked for tips on how to respectfully depict Black people, or how to write from their point of view. Because something about my marshmallow complexion evidently screams that I’m a jackpot of insider information on Black culture.
However, I appreciate that my followers want to learn – that’s something we all need to do! So I decided the time has come to compile a masterpost on sources from real Black people, so you can get your information right from the source.
More to come, and happy writing!
25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers
10 Must-Read Books by Iconic Black Authors
12 Unputdownable Books by Black Authors
15 Black Writers We Should All be Reading
Black Enterprise – a website for Black entrepreneurship.
For Harriet – an online community celebrating Black women through history and storytelling.
Tea & Breakfast – a Black-focused website bringing you the latest in news and entertainment.
Ebony – a highly respected resource for Black news, entertainment, and lifestyle content.
Clutch Magazine – a mixture of news and editorial pieces.
7 Things Black People Want Their Well-Meaning White Friends to Know
100 Ways White People Can Make Life Less Frustrating For People of Color
This is What it Feels Like to be Black in White Spaces
Growing Up Black in America
Tips From Followers
I’m inviting all my Black followers to offer tips on authentic, respectful depictions of Black characters and culture. If you have something you’d like non-Black authors to know, please message me and chime in!
I’m mixed race- black and white, and I think its important to mention the cultural closeness; a lot of black mothers are very overprotective, and restricting. Hair is important. A lot of my childhood memories had to do with my mom braiding my hair, or straightening it.
Here’s a bit too much information about me, which I’d very much appreciate if you kept anonymous: I am an Afro Latina, my grandma moved from Honduras to Ny when she was 15 and so my entire dad’s half of the family speaks Spanish (except me and my cousins lol). They’re all dark-medium skin like me, so when they speak Spanish it tends to surprise ppl, but they take pride in that. My dad grew up in Harlem during the crack epidemic and he saw a lot of people die, including his cousin who was shot in the head in front of him when he was about 8. He has a lot of unchecked mental problems bc of this and tends to lash out when he’s frustrated, tired, or guilty. His dad was also a rolling stone and unsupportive, so my dad tries very hard to be a better, more supportive father for better or worse.
My father met my mother when they were in college through a mutual friend. They were together for a year before they had me. They never got married. My mother’s family is what we’d call a bit bougie, so they didn’t take too kindly to this. They never outright disowned her, but a lot of the time they treat her like a black sheep. They’re a very “whisper-behind-your-back, never-confront-until-ur-drunk at-the-family-reunion” family. My mom and dad were together on and off for 23 years. Whenever my dad hurt my mom (never physically but still) and she had the means to, she would take me in the middle of the night and run to a shelter or friend. This happened about 5 times, each time my mother came back after about a half a year.
I have anxiety depression and add but great empathy, so a lot of the time I can understand what people are feeling but not why (basically I have no self awareness). I am an English senior that lives on tumblr. I am also very reserved but I’d like think I’m kind, if a tad childish. I love rpgs, marvel, and making characters but I have perpetual writers block. I also draw all over my notebooks. I’m not good with my hair though (an offense) and I used to be called an Oreo (white on the inside) in school, but I’m really just have always been a huge nerd.
I also have a baby brother who I love and pick on constantly even if I’m at a dorm. I’m very protective over him and we’re nine years apart so I tend to feel equal parts caretaker and big sister. I am very close to my family, especially my mom, who I talk to almost every day. I am always tired, sometimes to the point of not eating at all, even as I write this I am in bed. However, I love shopping and walking to seven different stores around town, even just to window shop, is how I spend some days off. Like my mom’s half, I’m pretty non-confrontational, but I’m quiet and don’t like to gossip, so my friends and family tend to confide in me a lot. But I’m pretty closed off, so I don’t tend to share myself. I am bisexual but I don’t want to talk about that, bc I’m still not sure. I don’t like to touch people or have people touch me unless I’m close to them.
My half sister is also bisexual, as well as a preschool teacher and a single mom with two adorable girls. I don’t get to see them often bc we always lived in different states. She is a very sweet lady but is very no nonsense, and will be the first to step up if someone’s in trouble. I also have a half brother, who is mildly autistic. We live in different states too, but I never see him because my father didn’t treat him right when we were younger, bc he was “soft”. He is currently living with his mom and writing a GOT-esque epic, which he is excited to tell people about.
A Writing Account From a POC
Loving to read is a bit of a double edged sword. I love the stories, the worlds they depict, and most of all, the characters. But sometimes, I find myself disappointed that most of my favorite characters in my favorite novels are not POC (person/people of color). And if they are, they are depicted as stereotypes. And as a POC and a writer, there are ways to change that. Here are a few tips.
POC are FRIENDS, not FOOD
Now I love chocolate. I love coffee. However, if I read someone describing my skin color as the color of a cappuccino, I wouldn’t be to thrilled. Saying, “Her skin was like sweet milk chocolate, the kind you remember begging your mom for through a candy store window.” I imagine would be the equivalent of saying, “Her skin was so milky white, I could imagine dipping an oreo into it.” Ew.
Not all African Americans live in the poorest part of the city
Not all African Americans are poor and underprivileged. Some of us have gone to private schools, have parents with well off jobs, and live pretty comfortably. That being said, that is not the case for all of us. So if you want to depict your character that way, just make sure you do it respectfully, and not in a way that you would cringe reading at it you were in their place.
Don’t take advantage of our history
African American history is filled with hatred and oppression. That does NOT MEAN THAT IT CAN BE EXPLOITED FOR A STORY. By all means, mention how awful it was, but do not use it to make other characters and or readers feel sorry for your character. We may want you to feel sorry, but more than anything we want you to understand that what happened was horrible and that it isn’t okay to use it any way you want.
So, yeah. Just respect POC. Even though you probably can’t imagine being in our position, be sympathetic, the same way you would want to be treated if you were being stereotyped.
If you have any other questions about depicting POC’s and want to ask a writer who is POC, I’m happy to help!
I’ve had a lot of followers asking me how to authentically depict Jewish people. However, I myself am not Jewish, and not qualified to speak as an insider. As such, here’s a masterpost of information directly from the source!
More to come, and happy writing! <3
50 Most Essential Works of Jewish Fiction
Jewish Characters (and What to Avoid)
10 Things I Love About Being Jewish
What It Means to be Jewish in America
Judaism 101: Jewish Holidays
Types of Jewish People
50 Top Jewish Websites
Top 50 Jewish Blogs, Sites, and Newsletters
10 Great Jewish Websites
Tips From My Jewish Followers:
A while back, I asked my Jewish followers for tips on authentic reprisentation, and was fortunate enough to get a huge turnout. Hopefully more Jewish followers will chime in once this is posted!
As a very much reform Jew, I can’t speak much about more conservative Jews. However, I can name a few common traits. We tend to have very close family and community ties, and hold mass gatherings for dinner at the slightest excuse. Jewish mothers, especially grandmothers, tend to gather in packs. The arguing thing IS true; many religious classes are styled as debates among the older men in the community. Older Jews will drop Yiddish phrases often. We tend to joke about ourselves a lot too.
As a religious Jew, I’d like to add a few things. The stereotype about Jews arguing is true, but the interesting thing about the arguments is that they are (almost always) done in the spirit of learning something new, or bringing a ‘chiddush’, addition, to what you are learning. For example, take The House of Shamai and The House of Hillel in halachic decisions; the two houses disagreed on so so much, and yet, the men of Beit Shamai married the women of Beit Hillel, and vice versa.(1/?)
I don’t completely agree with what the reform anon said about the mass gatherings, but that may be because I live far from most of my family (I live with my family in Israel, while the most of my cousins live in the States), and for me, the “mass gatherings” happen on Chagim, the Jewish holidays. I’ll tell you something, anon, there is something incredible with the Chagim, a feeling that is hard to describe, but is probably best described as a feeling of “home”, at least that’s what I feel (2/?)
And now, to finish up, I’ll say that Judaism comes in many different shapes and forms, and good luck with your story! (3/3) - Religious Jew anon
hi! conservative Jew here, I saw your post. Community is a big deal, in my experience even more than faith. In my temple, maybe you meet through the temple or the hebrew school or some such, but the real magic is what happens outside the synagogue walls. There are a lot of different traditions, both for individuals and for congregations, and people respect different levels of faith. I’m more religious than some of my temple for example because I make an effort to keep kosher, (1)
but compared to my orthodox cousins I’m very secular. I’d love to read more things where there were varying levels of observance. A Jewish man wearing a kippah in public, or a married orthodox woman wearing a wig, next to a reform person who’s calling their friends on shabbat on a cell phone. Someone who won’t eat pork because kashrut and that’s okay. There’s a lot of ways to be Jewish and have it not be a big deal. I usually cue people in myself by mentioning a holiday, Chanukkah at this (2)
time of year. Also one major perspective is that you’re meant to question whatever religion tells you. We follow kashrut laws for food, but why do they exist? Food safety, probably, but still. You’re meant to learn and then question and come out stronger for it. “Israel” was what Jacob was renamed and it means “struggle with God”. Israel is a tricky subject because people conflate Judaism and Israel, which isn’t right, but a lot of arguments against israel are anti-semitic in nature so tread (3
carefully. there are some really obvious no’s: judaism and money need to be handled carefully. Jews got pushed into professions involving money (moneylenders and bankers etc) because Christians felt that it was dirty work, and that created the stereotypes of the miserly jew, greedy jew, and “all jews are rich” (avoid avoid avoid). jews thinking israel is always perfect is also wrong. please don’t define your jew as having a strange nose. JAP (jewish-american pricess) is a nasty subtype of (4)
“rich jew”. please don’t model your jewish mothers on Molly Weasley. Both between the overbearing nature and the always millions of kids. She’s every stereotype of a jewish mom except with red hair instead of dark. Jewish ppl will feed you, especially jewish grandparents (bubbe for grandma zadye for grandpa). Sorry for the essay ^^;;; (5/5)
more jewish things: we definitely look for ways around things! The concept of a shabbos goy for example, who comes and turns on temple lights during shabbat, or keeping an oven on low during all of shabbat so you can reheat food without messing with the settings. Also want to emphasize that there are jews all over the world, who look like all kinds of things, and who have all kinds of traditions. From China to Argentina. Also not just Ashkenazi, but also Sepharadic, Mizrahi, and more. Cheers!
I’m part of the Jew Crew too! I’m reform but I’ve spent some time with reconstructionism and i’d like to add a few points: I think this differs in other cultures (probs other sects too) but we’re kind of ambivalent towards jesus. I know we’re stereotyped as hating him but we don’t really, we just don’t think he was the son of g-d & all that. also I went to a reconstructionist camp and there were so many Jew memes & we poked fun at ourselves (but also goyim) a lot. Soo yeah feel free to PM me
I’m Jewish and this isn’t so much about how to write a Jewish character, but something I’ve always wanted to see in the media is a Jewish character who mentions a holiday OTHER than Chanuka. Chankua is great but it isn’t our only holiday.
1. Ask yourself these basic questions:
Brainstorm random questions about your characters, their likes, dislikes, et cetera. Here are examples:
Simple character sheets are a great way to fill in the gaps and get to know your character. Though there are quite a few floating around on my favorite blogs, but here are a few examples:
Of course, the only way to truly get to know your character is to write about them. You never know how they’ll develop until you get going, and once you do, they’ll never cease to surprise you. Characters truly do gain lives of their own, so don’t give up and keep writing.
And in the meantime, I hope this helps! <3
You may have heard that titles don’t matter, and that they won’t make or break your career. Whoever told you that is either grievously uninformed or a filthy liar.
A title must do the following:
Like cover art, your title can determine whether or not anyone will actually read your book. Also like cover art, you probably shouldn’t name it like a twelve-year-old with a DeviantArt account.
But how do you check off such an extensive yet vital list of criteria? Well, being the magnanimous individual that I am, I’ll tell you.
Let’s take a short journey through five of my personal favorite approaches:
1. Use metaphor.
Some of the most memorable and iconic titles are derived from metaphor, allegory, and simile. If you have a metaphor that encapsulates your book’s theme or tone, consider using it for your title.
When done correctly, these will also provoke interest from prospective readers, as they will have to read your book to put the metaphor into context.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
2. Ask a question.
Is there a fundamental question your book is asking? (There probably should be, but that’s a topic for another day.) If so, consider presenting it to the reader from the get-go.
These questions can be existential or personal, metaphorical or literal. But they should make the reader want to know the answer.
Note that you can get creative about this. A question doesn’t have to be one you ask the reader, but one you provoke the reader to ask themselves. Like, “Did this author really spoil the ending with their title? I’ll have to read and find out!” As you’ll see in the titles below.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Bloom
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
John Dies at the End, by David Wong
3. Invoke a character’s voice.
Ask yourself how your protagonist or viewpoint character would choose to title their story.
Ask yourself who this person is. Are they an angsty teen? A plucky optimist? Self-conscious? Ironic? Morose? Sassy?
Your viewpoint character should essentially control the tone of your novel, and the title should be reflective of such.
My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, by Sydney Salter
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
4. Utilize the setting, or a memorable place, object, or event.
Is there a place, object, or event at the heart of your story? Maybe its a restaurant that is to your ensemble what the Central Perk is to the cast of Friends, a stuffed animal or piece of jewelry that serves as the story’s MacGuffin, a book that holds the secrets to the protagonist’s identity.
Or maybe it just, for one reason or another, perfectly encapsulates the tone and philosophy of your story.
I seem to be partial to this one, because it’s how I chose to name three of my novels: An Optimist’s Guide to the Afterlife (named after a book handed out to the recently deceased), General Tso’s Chicken From Outer Space (named after a Chinese food restaurant in a UFO hotspot town), and Diner at the End of the World (named after a diner frequented by Eldritch Horrors.)
‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
5. Introduce the protagonists (but get creative about it.)
In ye olden times, an opulence of great literature popped up that was named after specific characters. Think Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, The Great Gatsby, and Jane Eyre. You can still do this–lots of authors still do, and it works great if you have a particular cool or quirky name–but in an already saturated market, it’s probably a good idea to put a twist on it.
I’ve observed three ways to go about this. First, you can introduce the main character and major conflict/theme of your story.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Emily M. Danforth
Approach number two: introduce the readers to the group of people your story is about.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
The Vacationers, by Emma Straus
Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
And approche trois, name the title of a main character, particularly if it’s memorable and plays a large part in the story.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Martian, by Andy Weir
These are just a few of my favorite methods of naming stories! To my followers, I invite you to add more, and to share your own favorite titles.
How to Come Up With the Perfect Title For Your Novel
How to Choose Your Novel’s Title: Let Me Count 5 Ways
7 Tips to Land the Perfect Title For Your Novel
How to Find Good Titles For Your Novel
How to Name Your First Novel
How to Title Your Novel
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
1. Plotting is your friend.
This is basically a must for all writers (or at least, it makes our job significantly easier/less time consuming/less likely to make us want to rip our hair out by the roots), but visual thinkers tend to be great at plotting. There’s something about a visible outline that can be inexplicably pleasing to us, and there are so many great ways to go about it. Here are a few examples:
If you’re a visual thinker, your scenes are probably at least partially originally construed as movie scenes in your head. This can be a good thing, so long as you can harness a little of that mental cinematography and make your readers visualize the scenes the way you do.
A lot of published authors have a real big problem with giving laundry lists of character traits rather than allowing me to just see for myself. Maybe I’m spoiled by the admittedly copious amounts of fanfiction I indulge in, where the writer blissfully assumes that I know the characters already and let’s the personalities and visuals do the talking. Either way, the pervasive “telling” approach does get tedious.
Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say you wanted to describe a big, tough, scary guy, who your main character is afraid of. The “tell” approach might go something like this:
Tommy was walking along when he was approached by a big, tough, scary guy who looked sort of angry.
“Hey, kid,” said the guy. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to a friend’s house,” Tommy replied.
I know, right? This is Boring with a capital ‘B.’
On the other hand, let’s check out the “show” approach:
The man lumbered towards Tommy, shaved head pink and glistening in the late afternoon sun. His beady eyes glinted predatorily beneath the thick, angry bushes of his brows.
“Hey, kid,” the man grunted, beefy arms folded over his pot belly. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to a friend’s house,” Tommy replied, hoping the man didn’t know that he was ditching school.
See how much better that is? We don’t need to be told the man is big, tough, and scary looking because the narrative shows us, and draws the reader a lot more in the process.
This goes for scene building, too. For example:
Tyrone stepped out onto his balcony. It was a beautiful night.
Tyrone stepped out onto his balcony, looking up at the inky abyss of the night sky, dotted with countless stars and illuminated by the buttery white glow of the full moon.
3. But conversely, know when to tell.
A book without any atmosphere or vivid, transformative descriptors tends to be, by and large, a dry and boring hunk of paper. That said, know when you’re showing the reader a little too much.
Too many descriptors will make your book overflow with purple prose, and likely become a pretentious read that no one wants to bother with.
So when do you “tell” instead of “show?” Well, for starters, when you’re transitioning from one scene to the next.
As the second hand of the clock sluggishly ticked along, the sky ever-so-slowly transitioning from cerulean, to lilac, to peachy sunset. Finally, it became inky black, the moon rising above the horizon and stars appearing by the time Lakisha got home.
These kind of transitions should be generally pretty immemorable, so if yours look like this you may want to revise.
Day turned into evening by the time Lakisha got home.
See? It’s that simple.
Another example is redundant descriptions: if you show the fudge out of a character when he/she/they are first introduced and create an impression that sticks with the reader, you probably don’t have to do it again.
You can emphasize features that stand out about the character (i.e. Milo’s huge, owline eyes illuminated eerily in the dark) but the reader probably doesn’t need a laundry list of the character’s physical attributes every other sentence. Just call the character by name, and for God’s sake, stay away from epithets: the blond man. The taller woman. The angel. Just, no. If the reader is aware of the character’s name, just say it, or rework the sentence.
All that said, it is important to instill a good mental image of your characters right off the bat.
Which brings us to my next point…
4. Master the art of character descriptions.
Visual thinkers tend to have a difficult time with character descriptions, because most of the time, they tend to envision their characters as played their favorite actors, or as looking like characters from their favorite movies or TV shows.
That’s why you’ll occasionally see characters popping up who are described as looking like, say, Chris Evans.
It’s a personal pet peeve of mine, because A) what if the reader has never seen Chris Evans? Granted, they’d probably have to be living on Mars, but you get the picture: you don’t want your readers to have to Google the celebrity you’re thirsting after in order for them to envision your character. B) It’s just plain lazy, and C) virtually everyone will know that the reason you made this character look like Chris Evans is because you want to bang Chris Evans.
Not that that’s bad or anything, but is that really what you want to be remembered for?
Now, I’m not saying don’t envision your characters as famous attractive people – hell, that’s one of the paramount joys of being a writer. But so’s describing people! Describing characters is a lot of fun, draws in the reader, and really brings your character to life.
So what’s the solution? If you want your character to look like Chris Evans, describe Chris Evans.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
The guy got out of the car to make sure Carlos was alright, and holy cow, he looked just like Dean Winchester!
No bueno. Besides the fact that I’m channeling the writing style of 50 Shades of Grey a little here, everyone who reads this is going to process that you’re basically writing Supernatural fanfiction. That, or they’ll have to Google who Dean Winchester is, which, again, is no good.
The guy got out of the car to make sure Carlos was alright, his short, caramel blond hair stirring in the chilly wind and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His eyes were wide with concern, and as he approached, Carlos could see that they were gold-tinged, peridot green in the late afternoon sun.
Also note that I’m keeping the description a little vague here; I’m doing this for two reasons, the first of which being that, in general, you’re not going to want to describe your characters down to the last detail. Trust me. It’s boring, and your readers are much more likely to become enamored with a well-written personality than they are a vacant sex doll. Next, by keeping the description a little vague, I effectively manage to channel a Dean Winchester-esque character without literally writing about Dean Winchester.
Let’s try another example:
Charlotte’s boyfriend looked just like Idris Elba.
Charlotte’s boyfriend was a stunning man, eyes pensive pools of dark brown amber and a smile so perfect that it could make you think he was deliciously prejudiced in your favor. His skin was dark copper, textured black hair gray at the temples, and he filled out a suit like no other.
Okay, that one may have been because I just really wanted to describe Idris Elba, but you get the point: it’s more engaging for the reader to be able to imagine your character instead of mentally inserting some sexy fictional character or actor, however beloved they may be.
So don’t skimp on the descriptions!
5. Don’t be afraid to find inspiration in other media!
A lot of older people recommend ditching TV completely in order to improve creativity and become a better writer. Personally, if you’ll pardon my French, I think this is bombastic horseshit.
TV and cinema are artistic mediums the same way anything else is. Moreover, the sheer amount of fanart and fanfiction – some of which is legitimately better than most published content – is proof to me that you can derive inspiration from these mediums as much as anything else.
The trick is to watch media that inspires you. I’m not going to say “good media” because that, in and of itself, is subjective. I, for example, think Supernatural is a fucking masterpiece of intertextual postmodernism and amazing characterization, whereas someone else might think it’s a hot mess of campy special effects and rambling plotlines. Conversely, one of my best friends loves Twilight, both the movies and the books, which, I’m going to confess, I don’t get at all. But it doesn’t matter that it isn’t good to me so long as it’s good to her.
So watch what inspires you. Consume any whatever movies, books, and shows you’re enthusiastic about, figure out what you love most about them, and apply that to your writing. Chances are, readers will find your enthusiasm infectious.
As a disclaimer, this is not to say you get a free pass from reading: I’ve never met a good writer who didn’t read voraciously. If you’re concerned that you can’t fall in love with books the way you used to (which, sadly, is a common phenomenon) fear not: I grappled with that problem after I started college, and I’ll be posting an article shortly on how to fall back in love reading.
So in the meanwhile, be sure to follow my blog, and stay tuned for future content!
(This one goes out to my friend, beta reader, and fellow writer @megpieeee, who is a tremendous visual thinker and whose books will make amazing movies someday.)
Okay, everyone! I’ve taken some time off from answering questions because I wasn’t feeling well last week, but now I’m back and ready to inflict you all with more of my terrible advice.
Hello there! I’ve just discovered this blog and I’m loving the tips! Do you have any advice for someone who has a horrible habit towards purple prose? I don’t think I’m ‘depthless cerulean orbs’ bad, but I never use two words when I can use half a page, especially when describing characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Great question! I think we’ve all had a phase in which the majority of what we produced was purple prose, and considering there have been hugely successful authors (I’m not naming any names here, but I know you all thought of one) who flourished on the stuff, it’s not the worst thing you can do.
However, since we all care about our craft here, here is my personal advice on how to improve your writing!
1. Remember that simple can be beautiful.
“Translucent water trickled cleanly over dark gray stones and flickering ribbons of underwater plants. The setting sun turned the surrounding field flaxen, dying the clouds a melancholy shade of amber. The wind whispered through the lush fall trees, making them rustle like crisp paper.”
Used very sparingly, a sentence like this is okay, especially if the point of the point of the scene is to introduce the reader to a place that will be important to the plot or represent a mood.
If there’s one every other page, you have a problem.
“But Brooksie,” you, my Hypothetical Counterargument, cry. “If I can’t use that many words to describe the scene every time, how will the audience know how to envision it!?”
Good question, Hypothetical Counterargument! And as it just so happens, your audience is smart. They don’t need the scene to be spoon-fed to them in order to envision the scene.
In fact, the scene will often be a lot richer to them if you leave a little to the imagination.
So next time you want to set a scene like the one above, try something like:
“The stream trickled crisply over gray rocks, and the setting sun dyed the surrounding forest a melancholy shade of amber.”
And you’re done.
Similarly, the same goes for describing a character’s thoughts and feelings. Lets say your protagonist is going through gut-wrenching loss/betrayal/just got dumped.
You may think using dramatic language will better convey what you’re character is feeling, right? Wrong.
When conveying grief and trauma, less is more. Don’t say, “In the days that followed Cassandra was was wracked with agony, every waking second brimming with more pain than she ever thought imaginable.”
Say, “In the days that followed, Cassandra felt hollow.”
Yes, that’s really usually all you need. Cassandra’s actions and words will take care of the rest, so move on with your story.
Which brings me to my next point:
2. When it comes to descriptions, respect your reader’s time.
When a character is going to be of importance to the plot, you probably (i.e. not always) want the reader to get a good sense of what they look.
So within your first chapter, when they’re introduced, you say, “So-And-So had wide, doe-like brown eyes and thick honey-colored curls. Their face was heart-shaped and smattered with multi-colored freckles.”
Great! I like So-And-So already, they sound adorable.
What isn’t great is if you repeat this description fifty different times throughout the novel (yes, even if you’re using different words.)
This may come as a surprise to writers, but the physical appearance of characters alone isn’t what enamors them to readers, and stressing it over and over will not help them make a better impression or make the reader like them more.
I just finished an amazing book called Ocean At the End of the Lane, for example, in which the antagonist (an abusive nanny/secret eldritch horror/long-term resident of Bitch Island named Ursula) is described in great detail: she’s beautiful, she has lovely makeup, she wears nice pleated skirts, et cetera. And in case you can’t tell already, I fucking hated Ursula.
Granted, since she goads the then seven-year-old protagonist’s (adulterous asshat) father into nearly drowning him in the bathtub, I’m pretty sure we’re intended to hate Ursula, but the fact remains that the excessive descriptions of Ursula’s physical beauty did nothing to stop me from hating her guts.
The physical appearance of the unnamed protagonist and narrator, on the other hand, was never described at all. We have no idea what he looks like – just that in his adulthood, he resembles his father (who also isn’t described in detail) and is currently wearing a suit.
Yet the narrator doesn’t fail to create a lasting impression, because his voice, his personality, his character traits were developed and memorable.
So feel free to describe your characters. Just do so sparingly, and focus on developing their personalities more than their physical attributes.
3. Don’t write to impress your audience.
Every writer I know, myself included, wants to impress their audience. There is no greater desire, and no greater feeling, than to leave them in awe, whether it be with your words, your characters, or the story itself.
That said, your primary reason for writing cannot be to impress your audience, or you will, ironically, create shitty writing that very few people can actually enjoy.
In my humble experience, your audience can’t enjoy you’re writing unless they enjoy the journey that you’re taking them on. And they can’t enjoy the journey you’re taking them on unless you’re enjoying it just as much as they are.
(I’m discounting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because he’s a freak of nature whose creation was an unwanted burden thrust upon him by the Gods.)
As the great Stephen King once put it, “When a good writer is having fun, the audience is almost always having fun, too.”
So allow yourself to enjoy what you’re writing. If a part of the book is dragging for you, chances are it will for the reader. So skip it. Rework the plot.
Once you’re done you can always edit, but for now, write like nobody’s watching and enjoy the ride.
4. Use your natural vocabulary.
Big words are beautiful, but the audience will be able to tell if you’re putting on heirs. Whether your writing just wreaks of self-absorption and pomposity, or arguably even worse, when you’re just plain using the words wrong.
When I was younger, for example, I used to use the word “admonished” liberally, thinking it meant “admitted.” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It means “to warn or reprimand.”
But I still love big words!! “Sanctimonious.” “Thrasonical.” “Bombastic.” “Quotidian.” “Apropos.” They’re fun to say, they’re fun to use, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them. Just let them seep into your vocabulary naturally, and they will feel natural to the readers as well.
I expand my vocabulary by reading every day. This wasn’t always the case, and I had to work through a bad case of reader’s block to get back to the point where I eat up books the way I do now. But it’s worth it. Joining sites like goodreads can also help, as it plays up the social aspects of reading and makes it just the right kind of competitive.
Similarly, newsletters like Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day are great for expanding your vocabulary in a fun and natural way.
5. Thesaurus isn’t evil (just use it selectively.)
That said, there are times when Thesaurus can come in handy.
Sometimes, for example, the word your looking for simply isn’t in your conscious mind, and you have to go digging for an alternative. That’s okay!
Just make sure the word in question actually means what you think it means, and don’t make it your go-to tool for writing.
As another example, I used Thesaurus a lot when I was writing from the point of view of a specific main character in my last novel, because he was a snobby, intellectual little shit who was a little too self-aware of how smart he was. He had a tendency to swap “friends” for “casual compatriots,” “thinking out loud” for “verbal pontification,” et cetera, and generally sounded like he was reading off words from Thesaurus because that was the whole point.
Basically, no rules are absolute; just use your best judgement, and don’t be too dependent on tools like Thesaurus to choose your words for you.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
1. Allow the dialogue to show the character’s personality.
If you really think about your conversations, it can be telling exactly how much of someone’s personality can shine through when they speak.
Allow your character’s persona, values, and disposition to spill over when they speak, and it will make for a significantly more interesting read for you and your reader.
For example: let’s take a look at a mundane exchange, and see how it can be spruced up by injecting it with a good dose of personality.
“How was your day, by the way?” asked Oscar, pouring himself a drink.
“Not too bad,” replied Byron. “Cloudy, but warm. Not too many people.”
“How was your day, by the way?” asked Oscar, pouring himself a drink.
“Ugh. Not too bad,” groaned Byron, draping himself on the couch. “Warm, but dreary. Gray clouds as far as the eye could see. Not anyone worth mentioning out this time of year.” A pause. “Well, except me, of course.”
“Hmmph,” said Oscar, glancing over his shoulder. “If it were me, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Isn’t that better? Already, the audience will feel as though they’ve gotten to know these characters.
This works for longer dialogue, too: allow the character’s personal beliefs, life philosophy, and generally disposition to dictate how they talk, and your readers will thank you.
Of course, this example is also good for giving the reader a general sense of what the characters’ relationship is like. Which brings me to my next point:
2. Allow the dialogue to show the character’s relationship.
Everyone is a slightly different person depending on who they’re around. Dynamic is an important thing to master, and when you nail it between two characters, sparks can fly.
Work out which character assumes more of the Straight Man role, and which is quicker to go for lowbrow humor. Think of who’s the more analytical of the two and who’s the more impulse driven. Who would be the “bad cop” if the situation called for it.
Then, allow for this to show in your dialogue, and it will immediately become infinitely more entertaining.
“Alright,” said Fogg, examining the map before him. “Thus far, we’ve worked out how we’re going to get in through the ventilation system, and meet up in the office above the volt. Then, we’re cleared to start drilling.”
Passepartout grinned. “That’s what she said.”
“Oh, for the love of God – REALLY, Jean. Really!? We are PLANNING a goddamn bank robbery!”
Some more questions about dynamic to ask yourself before writing dialogue:
3. Think about what this dialogue can tell the reader.
It’s better to fill the reader in more gradually than to waist your valuable first chapter on needless exposition, and dialogue is a great way to do it.
Think about what your characters are saying, and think about ways in which you can “sneak in” details about their past, their families, and where they came from into the discussion.
For example, you could say:
Tuckerfield was a happy-go-lucky Southern guy with domineering parents,
and bore everyone to death.
Or you could have him say:
“Sheesh. All this sneakin’ around in the woods late at night reminds me of being back in Kansas. Good times, man, good times.” There was a pause, before he added, “‘Course, it wasn’t nearly so fun when I came home late for curfew and had to sleep on the front step, but y’know. Life happens.”
Isn’t that much better than the omnipresent monotone?
Dialogue is also a great way to fill in potential plot holes early on, by having your characters talk them out and explain them.
Moreover, dialogue can also be used to foreshadow, offer relevant hints about the climax, or provide information necessary for the resolution.
So use it wisely!
4. Sprinkle in mini-actions throughout.
Even in actionless dialogue, no one actually does nothing. In my case, for example, I stim a lot. I play with my hair. I play with eating utensils. It’s probably very annoying for those around me, but you get the point.
Less fidget-y folks might not do this as much, but they rarely sit totally still during conversations, either. So occasionally add in these mini-actions, and it will make your characters feel a bit less like disembodied voices or floating heads.
Jo leaned back in her chair rolling her stiff neck from sitting still for so long. “…So the way I see it,” she continued. “Even if Pheris Beuller’s Day Off didn’t take place in Cameron’s imagination, Pheris was clearly a sociopath whose behavior shouldn’t be glamorized.”
“Ha. As if.” Avery paused to sip her root beer. “Pheris,” she began, raising an index finger. “Was clearly emblematic of counterculturist movements such as the Beat Generation, and his disregard for the capitalistic dogmas imposed upon younger generations is something to be admired.”
“For Christ’s sake, will you two lighten up?” scoffed Leo, counting out bills for the pizza. “We were talking about which movie we wanted to watch tonight. Jesus.”
5. Remember how people actually speak.
In real life conversations, people don’t speak in paragraphs. Alright, some people might, and this can actually be interesting as the personality aspect of a certain type of character.
But generally speaking, people don’t speak in paragraphs, or as though they’re writing thought-out prose or letters.
In real conversations, people stutter. They laugh at their own jokes, repeat words or phrases, and lose their train of thought.
Naturally, you don’t have to illustrate in your writing exactly how chaotic and mundane human speech can be, as writing would be pretty boring in general if it was strictly limited to miming reality. But it’s good to keep in mind that your characters are talking, not writing in purple prose.
“When I was a young boy, my mother and I had a most tumultuous relationship,” said Marcus. “She saw me as a hallmark of her past failures, and took every opportunity to remind me as such.”
“My mom, when I was kid, we had what you’d call a sort oftumultuous relationship,” said Marcus. “Nothing I ever did was right for her. She, uh – I think she saw me as sort of a hallmark of her past failures. Took every opportunity to remind me of that.”
Which of these is more organic, more easy to visualize, and more telling of character? Unless the point of this dialogue is to illustrate that Marcus is a gentleman crook of some kind with pristine speaking mannerisms, I’m going to say the latter.
Best of luck, and happy writing! <3
’ve had a lot of asks lately for how to begin a book (or how not to), so here’s a post on my general rules of thumb for story openers and first chapters!
Please note, these are incredibly broad generalizations; if you think an opener is right for you, and your beta readers like it, there’s a good chance it’s A-OK. When it comes to writing, one size does not fit all. (Also note that this is for serious writers who are interested in improving their craft and/or professional publication, so kindly refrain from the obligatory handful of comments saying “umm, screw this, write however you want!!”)
So without further ado, let’s jump into it!
1. Open with a dream.
“Just when Mary Sue was sure she’d disappear down the gullet of the monstrous, winged pig, she woke up bathed in sweat in her own bedroom.”
What? So that entire winged pig confrontation took place in a dream and amounts to nothing? I feel so cheated!
Okay, not too many people open their novels with monstrous swine, but you get the idea: false openings of any kind tend to make the reader feel as though you’ve wasted their time, and don’t usually jump into more meaty action of the story quickly enough. It makes your opening feel lethargic and can leave your audience yawning.
2. Open with a character waking up.
This feels familiar to most of us, but unless your character is waking up to a zombie attack or an alien invasion, it’s generally a pretty easy recipe to get your story to drag.
No one picks a book to hear how your character brushes their teeth in the morning or what they’d like to have for dinner. As a general rule of thumb, we read to explore things we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. And cussing out the alarm clock is not one of them.
Granted, there are exceptions if your writing is exceptionally engaging, but in most cases it just sets a slow pace that will bore you and your reader to death and probably cause you to lose interest in your book within the first ten pages.
3. Bombard with exposition.
Literary characters aren’t DeviantArt OCs. And the best way to convey a character is not, in my experience, to devote the first ten pages to describing their physical appearance, personality, and backstory. Develop your characters, and make sure their fully fleshed out – my tips on how to do so here – but you don’t need to dump all that on the reader before they have any reason to care about them. Let the reader get to know the character gradually, learn about them, and fall in love with them as they would a person: a little bit at a time.
This is iffy when world building is involved, but even then it works best when the delivery feels organic and in tune with the book’s overall tone. Think the opening of the Hobbit or Good Omens.
4. Take yourself too seriously.
Your opener (and your novel in general) doesn’t need to be intellectually pretentious, nor is intellectual pretense the hallmark of good literature. Good literature is, generally speaking, engaging, well-written, and enjoyable. That’s it.
So don’t concern yourself with creating a poetic masterpiece of an opening line/first chapter. Just make one that’s – you guessed it – engaging, well-written, and enjoyable.
5. Be unintentionally hilarious.
Utilizing humor in your opening line is awesome, but check yourself to make sure your readers aren’t laughing for all the wrong reasons (this is another reason why betas are important.)
These examples of the worst opening lines in published literature will show you what I mean – and possibly serve as a pleasant confidence booster as well:
It was like so, but wasn’t.
— Richard Powers
Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our pleasant town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three Gordforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable.
— John Updike
The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: “I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,” then sat pen in hand with no more to record.
Indian Summer is like a woman.
— Grace Metalious
If these can get published, so can you.
1. You know that one really interesting scene you’re itching to write? Start with that.
Momentum is an important thing in storytelling. If you set a fast, infectious beat, you and your reader will be itching to dance along with it.
Similarly, slow, drowsy openers tend to lead to slow, drowsy stories that will put you both to sleep.
I see a lot of posts joking about “that awkward moment when you sit down to write but don’t know how to get to that one scene you actually wanted to write about.” Write that scene! If it’s at all possible, start off with it. If not, there are still ways you can build your story around the scenes you actually want to write.
Keep in mind: if you’re bored, your reader will almost certainly be bored as well. So write what you want to write. Write what makes you excited. Don’t hold off until later, when it “really gets good.” Odds are, the reader will not wait around that long, and you’re way more likely to become disillusioned with your story and quit. If a scene is dragging, cut it out. Burn bridges, find a way around. Live, dammit.
2. Engage the reader.
There are several ways to go about this. You can use wit and levity, you can present a question, and you can immerse the reader into the world you’ve created. Just remember to do so with subtlety, and don’t try too hard; believe me, it shows.
Here are some of my personal favorite examples of engaging opening lines:
“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
– Douglas Adams, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
"It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
– Iain Banks, Crow Road.
“A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of the a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a grand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed.”
– Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games.
See what I’m saying? They pull you in and do not let go.
3. Introduce us to a main character (but do it right.)
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
This is one of my favorite literary openings of all time, because right off the bat we know almost everything we need to know about Shadow’s character (i.e. that he’s rugged, pragmatic, and loving.)
Also note that it doesn’t tell us everything about Shadow: it presents questions that make us want to read more. How did Shadow get into prison? When will he get out? Will he reunite with his wife? There’s also more details about Shadow slowly sprinkled in throughout the book, about his past, personality, and physical appearance. This makes him feel more real and rounded as a character, and doesn’t pull the reader out of the story.
Obviously, I’m not saying you should rip off American Gods. You don’t even need to include a hooker eating a guy with her cooch if you don’t want to.
But this, and other successful openers, will give you just enough information about the main character to get the story started; rarely any good comes from infodumping, and allowing your reader to get to know your character gradually will make them feel more real.
4. Learn from the greats.
My list of my favorite opening lines (and why I love them) is right here.
5. Keep moving.
The toughest part of being a writer is that it’s a rare and glorious occasion when you’re actually satisfied with something you write. And to add another layer of complication, what you like best probably won’t be what your readers will like best.
If you refuse to keep moving until you have the perfect first chapter, you will never write anything beyond your first chapter.
Set a plan, and stick to it: having a daily/weekly word or page goal can be extremely helpful, especially when you’re starting out. Plotting is a lifesaver (some of my favorite posts on how to do so here, here, and here.)
Keep writing, keep moving, and rewrite later. If you stay in one place for too long, you’ll never keep going.
Best of luck, and happy writing. <3
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine is an author and illustrator, currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing.