Monday, December 2, 2013

How to Spotlight Important Prose

This post, originally published on February 25, 2011, is chock full of advice that will ensure that you are communicating well with your readers. 

As your reader engages with the first of your 100,000 words, she wonders where to look for meaning. She seeks clues that will orient her. And she is counting on you as author to point the way toward the material that is most important.

First let me say this: all your words should be important.

But while all words must serve a function, you’ll want some information or images to linger. Here are some of the tools authors use to throw a spotlight on the most important info, with some links to previous BRP posts that explore these techniques further:

Word count
The more words you devote to a character or situation, the more important the reader will expect it to be. This is as true for a paragraph as it is a whole book.

Whether an anachronism or the only detail offered, one detail made prominent will stick in the memory and define a character or situation.

Dialogue
Quotation marks are like flashing neon: “Pay attention. This is important.” So watch that you only put words in the mouths of important characters, and then only important words.
Keep things simple by only naming characters that will be important to the plot. Supporting characters with no developed arc can sometimes be referred to by the roles they serve.
The reader will pay attention as you add words that will slow the pace and evoke the action in gripping detail. Speed up and he’ll snap to attention.
I sometimes call this using the voice of God. Leave no room for doubt.
The rules of grammar set up certain reader expectations; dropping them shakes things up. So go ahead, start a sentence with a preposition. Use truncated phrases. Or one word sentences. When important details drown within long, fully orchestrated passages, you’ve got to do something. Pluck.

Positioning
Important material will be noticed more if you place it at the end of a sentence, where it can resonate across the space created by a period, section break, or chapter end. As long as you don't let the technique hijack your prose, you can amplify the effect by letting the sentence stand alone as its own paragraph.

Em-dashes, semi-colons, colons, and parentheses
These punctuation marks, less often used, can grab attention in ways a comma or period cannot.

Purposeful repetition
It’s like pounding the gavel twice: those who didn’t get it the first time might pick it up the second: That's when he tripped. Tripped right over the makeshift sound system and fell face down into the wedding cake.
Generally a nonfiction technique, I have seen this used to great effect in fiction as well.
(Please note that I did not mention italics, capital letters, and exclamation points. Why use surface glitter when we can power our stories with real craft?)

The heat generated by a spotlight reminds us it is a powerful tool, so watch out. Use it too often and you’ll burn yourself; use it indiscriminately and you’ll confuse the reader and forfeit his confidence in your ability to tell your tale.

If your readers have sometimes missed important details in your storytelling—or worse, missed the point altogether—see if using these techniques might help you communicate more effectively. And if you have other techniques, please share!


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. 
Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, will be released by Sourcebooks on January 28, 2014. It is now available for pre-order. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the StormConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

27 comments :

  1. We tend to learn and use these kinds of techniques as we "practice" our craft. They're not likely to come with our first attempt or even the second. Which is why we should always think twice about sending out the first draft of our first book. It's rarely as brilliant as we think. (And when I say "we," I mean me.) Thanks for the tips.

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  2. Lol--I love your parenthetical comment, Helen.

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  3. Great post, Kathryn. The links to previous posts were as helpful as the tips.

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  4. Perhaps you covered it under pacing. One way to "spotlight" prose is by controlling sentence length.

    A series of short sentences grabs attention. It really does. Trust me.

    Long sentences that amble along from thought to thought, pausing here and there to let a point sink in, can mesmerize readers just because they refuse to end and insist on keeping on without letting readers stop to catch their breath.

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  5. Thanks for more guidelines to a successful revision.

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  6. Yes MMark, that's what I meant by pacing. But I loved how you exemplified the technique while telling us about it. I threw some of that into my post, as well. Did you pick up on it?

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  7. Thanks Maryann! All authors should learn that re-inventing the wheel is not important in sotrytelling. Same is true of BRP posts--there's a lot of wisdom in these here archives!

    Kay: You're so welcome. So many clients say that people are picking up on all the wrong things in their stories. Even the genre may be misinterpreted: the author might think they wrote a mystery and a reader says it's a fahter-son reunion story. They may be misleading them by highlighting the wrong information!

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  8. Just thought of another highlighting technique, folks: Point of View! You highlight POV characters as important to the tale. We expect them to be the most impacted by it.

    Yes, those of you who read the comments just got extra credit!

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  9. This is a great reminder of what to look for and highlight when you are doing a revision. Thanks, Kathryn!

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  10. Excellent points, Kathryn. Thanks for these nuggets of wisdom. I'm going to send my writer clients to your post today.

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  11. Hi Kathryn, excellent post, and thanks to Jodie for suggesting I visit here. I've learned when she tells me to jump it's in my best interest to ask how high.

    As a writer, I'm pretty comfortable with some of these techniques. Others I struggle with; particularly regarding pacing. I write thrillers, so pacing can make or break the entire book.

    And I agree with Ginger's comment above. I'll take it even farther and say we should NEVER send out a first draft, because it's NEVER as brilliant as we think...

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  12. Thanks, Jodie.

    And Al: You sound like a dream client. When clients appreciate your suggestions and actively start applying them with the faith that their use will be revealed, it always makes my day.

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  13. Interesting list. I'd never thought about quotation marks. Something else to think about during the edits. Thanks.

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  14. This is an important skill to learn. The rules are important. By selectively breaking them we control the reader's perceptions more accurately. I think the 'voice' in the reader's head is their own--not ours. Empty words do not allow free rein to the reader's own imagination, which is every bit equal to our own.

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  15. Sheila: Yet when you think about it, the double quotation mark is like a conductor tapping his baton twice on his stand and lifting his arms--he's signaling everyone to pay attention.

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  16. Loius: I agree with your comment about the way reader's bring their own perceptions and experiences to bear on our work. So true.

    Yet I must say I cringed when you referenced what I wrote here as "rules"—I think you as reader are bringing a perception there that I didn't intend. Note I only used the word once, with respect to grammar, while stating that selectively breaking the rules is a highlighting technique that can work.

    Not one of these is a rule. These are techniques that can help us emphasize aspects of our prose so that important information is more readily absorbed. So when you revisit these, think "a bag of tricks," not rules.

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  17. Sometimes I gloss over important parts in a manuscript, then realize I haven't paid them their due, so I go back and describe what happened more fully.

    I love it when characters in books have anachronisms, and wish I could think up more of them for my own.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  18. I will adding this list to my revision file. Excellent points.

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  19. Great tips. Thanks for the reminder, Kathryn.

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  20. You wrote: "If your readers have sometimes missed important details in your storytelling—or worse, missed the point altogether..."
    Once had an editor write: "I really didn't understand what the book was about."
    To quote Dr. Zachary Smith of TV's Lost in Space: "Oh, the pain, the pain..."

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    1. Oh yes Steve, the pain! Of course larger structural issues can cause an entire book to misfire—this post is mostly for those times when an emotional turning point is somehow missed altogether. Still painful, though, as we are communicators at heart!

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  21. Great list to print out and keep by the computer! Love this one: Purposeful repetition.
    Will keep that in my back pocket and use sparingly. :)

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    1. Donna: Which tip did you like? Which tip did you like? (lol) Thanks for stopping in!

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  22. So much to learn, so much to remember, so important to creating an extraordinary story. These are excellent reminders, Kathryn; they need to find a place in plain sight because I'm writing again — at long last. :-)

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    1. Yay for that, Linda! All techniques don't have to be in use at all times, of course. But it's nice to know they're in your toolbox when you need them.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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