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Short story writing: style, part 2


Most fiction is written in the simple past tense, (I walked, he walked), and there is rarely anything to be gained by deviating from it. The pluperfect (I had walked, he had walked), is useful now and then for indicating something which happened before the story opened, and for introducing flashbacks, (see Time), but long passages in the pluperfect should be avoided because they take us away from the immediate action. Any change of tense within a story should be handled with care and only done when absolutely necessary.

Some interesting stories have been written using the present tense, (I walk, he walks), but its use makes extra work both for the writer and the reader and in many cases the story would work just as well in the past tense. If you try it, remember that once you have started in the present you must stay in the present, except for flash-backs, right to the end.

If in doubt leave these out

I have already said that words in general, and adjectives in particular should be used sparingly. Adverbs too should be used with discretion. When over-used, especially after lines of dialogue, they become conspicuous and lose their meaning. For example:

"What do you mean?" she asked plaintively.

"You know perfectly well what I mean," he replied sarcastically.

"No I don't," she said impatiently.

"Well you should," he said haughtily.

Good dialogue should convey the tone in which the words are delivered without any need for reinforcement with adverbs.

Exclamation marks and underlining are also to be used sparingly, and preferably not at all. Again the words themselves should carry their own emphasis.

Never use abbreviations such as etc. or i.e. in a story. They do not belong in fiction, especially not in dialogue.

Don't use a story as an opportunity to show off your extensive vocabulary. A reader will not be impressed by the use of long obscure words. He is more likely to think you are being pretentious and abandon the story.

Individuality in style

All these dos and don'ts may seem to be an attempt to eradicate individuality from style, but this is not so at all. The main principle is to 'say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible', and what he has to say, and what is simple and direct will be different for every writer.

Listen to the words

All the points I have made are intended to help you make judgements about your style, and the best way to make these judgements is to 'listen' to what you write. Actually reading work aloud can be helpful, but with experience it should become unnecessary, as you will develop a capacity to listen silently to what you write, and let your ear be the judge of your style.

You are an entertainer

Finally, always remember that it is your job to entertain and intrigue the reader, not to pass on information to him, or to convince him of anything.

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