How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.


My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.


I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

Living vs. Still Description in Prose

ethical-lgOne of the most important, and one of the easiest to overlook, aspects of writing is description. Whether this is description of a character, a prop (you can see my theater work starting to come through), a setting, or whatever else how we decide to describe something tells our readers a lot about what is actually important in the story, and helps them to build the imaginary world that any story creates.

There are as many approaches to description as there are authors, but Glenn Cook’s Black Company series and David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin provide two easy outer markers. Cook has always been a no-nonsense writer and in The Black Company (possibly even more in the Dread Empire series) Cook has a habit of leaving the reader wondering what his characters actually look like. Liss on the other hand provides a very detailed description of the waste lagoon of a pig farm in The Ethical Assassin. Both are excellent writers, but the two have very different approaches to writing in general, and to description in particular. Cook likes action, he likes movement, he likes to get on with the story, while Liss likes you to know what every character, item, and location looks, sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes like. Personally, I like to be reminded what color a character’s hair is every now and then (I tend to forget), but I’d rather avoid the two sentence description of what pig excrement tastes like (a little exaggeration here… not as much as you’d think, but a little).

Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano
Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano

In general, there are two forms of description that an author can use to bring his character’s and world to life. The first, and most common, is a still description that simply lists qualities. This can be done poorly: Liam was tall, with long blond hair, red cheeks, a wide mouth, and a pointy nose. Or it can be done well: Liam was a tall man. His long blond hair bounced around his red cheeks, framing his wide, thin-lipped mouth. His most notable, and to some his most cumbersome, quality was his nose however, which stuck out of his face like a spear.

The goal in still description is to give a quick once over of the item being described so that the reader can form a simple picture in his head. The key to a good still description is to provide necessary details in a quick, but interesting fashion. For instance, breaking a still description into multiple sentences and adding a little minor action (like the bouncing hair) can make a still description much more vivid. Adding in visual metaphors can also help, though you need to be careful with this. While some hyperbole is effective in this kind of metaphor, it is fairly easy to go to far, and the wrong metaphor can ruin your scene. Consider, if I’ve just described Liam’s nose as spear-like, and then the first thing he does in the scene is passionately kiss someone, all of my readers are suddenly imaging this poor girl being run-through by his nose.

Screen shot 2012-07-09 at 12.17.44Living description is a little harder to master. A living description involves working your description seamlessly into the action of a scene. For instance: The door to the ballroom slammed open and Liam strode in. His blonde hair seemed to float around his face as he took the stairs two at a time, raising one black-gloved hand to point menacingly at Duke Clairmonte. Liam’s thin lips twisted into a snarl as he yelled, “There! It is the Duke who’s done it!” Duke Clairmonte stumbled back a few steps, gesturing confusedly as Liam thrust his spear-like nose into the Duke’s face and growled, “You killed the king.”

The advantage of a living description is that it both gives your readers a visual image and keeps the action flowing at the same time. However, the disadvantage is that it can sometimes be too much to follow at one time. The living description above is fairly crowded with imagery, and some of it is perhaps a little bit of a stretch, and this is a problem that you will often run into when writing a living description. It can be very difficult to seamlessly fit in the imagery that you want your readers to see.

Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there... right...?
Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there… right…?

Also, remember that description isn’t always a good thing. Something that my writing group tells me fairly often is that I’ve got too much description, and I felt the same way about Liss in The Ethical Assassin. However, this is something that is inevitably up to the relationship between the author and the reader. Some authors thrive on detailed descriptions of everything, and do it very well *cough*Frank Herbert*cough*, while other authors leave most of the details up to the reader’s imagination. As long as your readers aren’t getting board, you don’t have too much description, and as long as they can follow the story, you don’t have too little.

On the other hand, if you spend three pages tediously describing a sand dune *cough*George Lucas*cough*, or your readers aren’t exactly sure if the characters are supposed to be on a grassy plain, in the mountains, or beside a lake… possibly all three… or none of the above… you’ve got some problems and need to work on either cutting your description down, or filling it in respectively.

Sunday Guest Post

As you know, we at The Art of Writing are taking Sundays off. Usually I’d post a picture. However, today we have a guest post by Paul Davis instead. So, enjoy his perspective on the importance of names in writing, and I encourage all of you to go check out his blog as well!

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

I think often on the power of words, but recently I’ve really focused on the power of names. In my story on Hurskfjell almost everyone has a name. There are few characters referred to as “Guard #2,” or “The Bartender.” Often in fantasy and sci fi there are bit part characters that jump on and off screen, and we just don’t care to name them. A friend of mine commented while reading my story it felt I was throwing in names just to throw them in. I suppose in a sense I was. But it does something else when the story is read.

Primarily I have been thinking about it because of Game of Thrones. Everyone has a name. I’ve only gotten through one book so far, but it struck me deep how each character in the world has a name and some degree of a background. Sure you don’t remember even half of them, and a few you suddenly start seeing over and over again and think, this guy might matter in the future.

One instance of naming which really struck me was the girl leading Catelyn to the Eyrie. Her last name was River. I don’t remember her first name, but what struck me as soon as I read her name was she’s a bastard. Catelyn knew it, as she got all rigid and indignant. But Martin didn’t need to tell me this girl was a bastard. In one word, with a last name, Martin told me everything I needed to know about this child. I related her to Jon Snow instantly, another bastard we get to know very well.. There was a tragic story behind this girl that we never discover, and I felt for her solely because of her name. In the end, she leads Catelyn up the path and we don’t see her again for the rest of the book. I hope River doesn’t show up again.

(Photo Credit to Tanyaa)
(Photo Credit to Tanyaa)

There was also an inn keeper. She briefly appears twice, but Catelyn knew the woman since childhood. Despite the inn keeper being unimportant, we learn a great deal about her and her eating habits. Suddenly this otherwise insignificant character is someone we can understand.

This is the power of names and of giving insignificant characters a few important traits. Ever wonder why everyone reads Martin? It’s not just his immensely intricate plots. It’s because every bit character in that story is significant. Every character truly exists beyond being in the presence of main characters. There are no NPCs in the way fantasy and sci fi has portrayed them in the past.

My friend loved Game of Thrones and was making a great deal of headway in Clash of Kings. She read my own writing, and made the comment about me giving names to give names. I asked her to pay attention to what Martin did. She was still in Game of Thrones, but the next time she read it she watched carefully for the treatment of Martin’s characters. Despite not being an English major (why would anyone choose anything other than English), she saw what I was going for.

Try to name your characters, no matter how important. Give them a few unique features. Make them memorable and loved in a paragraph or less. Then do what Martin does and slit their throat, have them fall to their death, or maybe for variety use a baby alligator.

What are your thoughts on the power of names in making characters real, as well as giving them back story?

Writing Across Mediums

See... I know you want to try writing on this. However, I promise, if you're used to a computer, it won't be any fun.
See… I know you want to try writing on this. However, I promise, if you’re used to a computer, it won’t be any fun.

Well, I spent this afternoon responding to discussion board posts which ranged from excellent to unreadable, and it sparked a thought… well, actually it sparked a number of thoughts. Some of them were very interesting and were posted on the discussion boards… some of them didn’t get posted. However, one of those thoughts was about how writing across different mediums generally creates stronger writers. For instance, if a fiction writer learns how to research and write academic papers, this will help him improve his research and character development for fiction. Similarly, if an academic writer learns to write fiction, it will help him improve his ability to connect his arguments and develop a centralized theme and goal, and his word choice in his papers (this I know from experience).  So, simply put, learning to write in a different medium (and I mean learning to do it well) will help you to improve whatever kind of writing that you already do.

There are a lot of ways to improve your writing, and we talk about many of them here. However, many times we don’t think of learning something completely new as a way to improve what we already do. However, every style of writing improves your fundamental use of words and information in a different way. Academic writing is about logic, evidence, proving a point; journalistic writing is about telling someone else’s story, or making someone else’s point; writing historical fiction requires the ability to integrate your own character’s and stories into an existing world and setting; writing fantasy or science fiction requires detailed creative efforts that mirror the real world; any fictional writing requires the ability to build effective plots and multi-dimensional characters. However, fundamentally every style of writing is about the effective use of words to communicate intent. Writing a good research paper is as much an art as writing a good short story, and writing a good short story is as much a science as writing a good research paper. Learning different styles of writing will force you to learn to use and view each of these fundamentals differently, and each of these different uses can be applied to every style of writing.

If you want to learn how to do this as well, go here.
If you want to learn how to do this as well, go here.

Being a martial artist, I naturally want to use martial arts as an illustration. I’ve known many fighters who spent their lives studied a single style, be it Wing Chun Kung Fu, Shorin-Ryu Karate, Hapkido, Muay Thai, etc, and many of them are very good within their style. However, pit them against someone with a fundamentally different fighting style and suddenly they’re lost. It’s very interesting watching someone who’s only ever practiced Wing Chun try to fight someone who’s only ever practiced Brazilian Jujitsu. Neither fighter really knows quite where to begin, and so nothing really happens for while as they feel each other out. However, a fighter who’s studied multiple styles closely can apply principles from each style to his own fighting. A Wing Chun fighter who is also skilled in Shorin-Ryu Karate, Aikido, and Brazilian Jujitsu can be hard when he needs to be hard, be soft when he needs to be soft, fight standing when he needs to fight standing, and fight on the ground when he needs to fight on the ground. Moreover, he can apply principles from each to the others. This will make him a stronger fighter over-all.

So, branch out. Learn something new. Personally, I’m thinking about trying to learn how to write a script.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Because I obviously believe that I have elementary school kids reading this blog :P. Have fun with this challenge!
Because I obviously believe that I have elementary school kids reading this blog :P. Have fun with this challenge!

Last scene challenge of the month! I’m hoping that I’ll have some of those miniatures back from the painters by now. If I do then I promise to put up some pictures in a future post. Can you tell that I’m excited about these? I think it’s pretty obvious personally. So, you probably know the rules, but in case you’re new: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Today you have to write two scenes, both 300 words. In the first you must write a scene off the cue, but you may not use any proper nouns (e.g. John, Peter, the sword, etc) except when a person or thing is first being introduced. Instead you must replace your proper noun with a pronoun (e.g. he, she, it, etc). In the second challenge you must write the same scene, but you may not use any pronouns, but must replace every pronoun with the correct proper noun. After you finish, compare the two scenes. Which one is easier to understand? Which one is clearer? After doing this, consider how you normally use pronouns in your writing, and how you may want to adjust that use. Pronouns have their place, but a lot of the time we over use them. Your cue: ‘Harold slumped down in the chair…’

Writing to the AUDIENCE

About two months ago I began a position working through the Washington Reading Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps.  The goal of Washington Reading Corps is to work with struggling students on their literacy skills, be it vocabulary, reading comprehension, speaking, active listening, etc.  In my specific position, I work with low-income pre-school children (4-5 year olds).  I have one specific classroom I work in, but I also work with the other 60 head-start sites in my area through special literacy events and projects.  Today I was one of about 30 people sorting through 20,000+ books.  That’s right.  Over 20,000 books.  The agency I’m partnered with teamed up with Bazillion Books for Kids, a Portland-based organization whose goal is to give books to over 100,000 kids.  Within my agency, our goal was to give 10 books to around 1,000 kids in our program.  Additionally, we wanted to create a lending library at each of the pre-school sites where parents had access to reading materials.

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day than to gather materials to increase literacy.  In our country, we keep hearing that grades are dropping.  Test scores are lower.  Society on a whole is getting more stupid. Well, to incredibly simplify the problem, it all comes back to literacy.  LITERACY skills are necessary to do anything in life, and the stronger they are, the better.  A huge part of literacy is the capability to read.  And yet, my generation, and the generations coming up behind me, are reading less and less.  Why? Through various discussions, observations, and researches done, here are the top reasons I’ve found.

1) Trouble reading and they get frustrated with trying

2) Lack of interest in material provided

3) Not shown the importance of reading

We have to walk before we can run. As one famous character is known for saying, “Elementary.”

As writers we should have a goal for everything we write.  Whether it is to entertain, to inform, to purge, to mock, or to uplift, every piece we write MUST have a purpose if it is to be anything of value.  However, more than having a purpose for the writing in general, we must also have goal of how that piece is going to reach readers.  If you are writing a book for a wide general audience, but the writing level and style in the book are at an advanced level, then the interest in the book is going to be low.  People will get frustrated and drop it.

And I recognize that people may disagree with me on this, but think about Twilight and Harry Potter.  Huge selling series.  Popular with both kids, teens, and adults.  Why? The reading levels were not complicated, which made the books accessible to general audiences.  However, in today’s culture, many classics with higher vocabulary levels and complicated syntax, such as Faulkner and Dickens, are not generally read.  If we are to increase literacy in our culture, is it going to come about through no reading at all or through the Twilights and Harry Potters?

Yes, it would be wonderfully nice if everyone in society read and understood Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, etc.  But we cannot start there.  Everyone has a reading level, and that’s where we must start.  When I was in school, we were regularly tested (about once every 6 weeks) to see how are reading levels were improving.  The advice given based on research at the time was that we should read 80-90% in our reading level and then 10-20% just above our reading level for optimum improvement.

Now, most natural readers do this automatically.  And yet, since most writers are natural readers we tend to have trouble understanding those who struggle with reading or who refuse to read for whatever reason.  But now, more than ever, it is important to write for AUDIENCES.  What stories will actually be read? What writing styles and genres will be reach the greatest number of people? What vocabulary will be understood?

To end, I want to encourage all of you to think and consider what you are writing.  There is a place for Dickens and Brontes, I cannot deny that.  All of my favorites are classics.  But, I also know that I would not have made it to the Alcotts and Brontes and Mitchells without the Nancy Drews, the Mary Higgins Clarks, the Madelaine L’Engles.

**SIDENOTE: All of this said, I do not and cannot excuse sloppy writing.  There is far too much of that due to poor literacy skills already.  Everybody wants to be a writer, a photographer, a whatever.  But they don’t want to put in the work to perfect their craft.  Sloppy writing does not fulfill a purpose.

Peace. Love. LIBERTY.

***Disclaimer: While this post does discus the duty of benefiting society, it in no way applies or connects this to any form of utilitarianism, socialism, or any other political or philosophical -ism. 😀

****This is the last post I will be making for a while.  I have many new projects in the works with the Washington Reading Corps, and unfortunately, as many of you may have noticed, I haven’t always had the time or energy to  get my posts up on time.  Luckily, Tobias has found someone wonderful to fill in during my hiatus. So, I’ll leave you with my signature “Peace, love, and LIBERTY*****

Memories Alive

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; however, my experience is that most of the words are meaningless adjectives by themselves:  it is only when the thousand words are strung together in coherent sentences that they attempt to explain the picture.   And when these sentences are strung together, they create a memory.  So, it is memory that truly brings life to a picture; it is memory that tells the tale of why that moment in time was captured.

Neptune, Virginia Beach

I am looking down at a picture of my first trip to Virginia.  My dad and I are on the waterfront in Virginia Beach posing by a gigantic statue of King Triton, also known as Poseidon.  In the picture my hair is blowing and I am wearing my letter jacket and two layers of clothes.  These pictures only capture one-second snapshots of my adventure.

By itself  the words I can use to describe it are cold, windy, ocean, statue, but when I recall that day I remember the awe I felt as the birds constantly hovered above me, noisily waiting for me to throw them my last remnants of fries.  The wind was sharp and cutting, blowing salty ocean spray into our uncovered faces.  I remember jumping and laughing as I tried to touch the oncoming waves with just the tips of my fingers, hoping not to get soaked.  I can hear my dad complain about the cold while all I wanted to do was stay at the ocean’s edge staring off into space.

I desperately wanted to see dolphins playing in the horizon.  I wanted my dad to realize that our trip was not a waste of time.   The dolphins, I thought, would help him over his disappointment in driving ten hours for a restaurant that had closed years ago.  However, the dolphins never showed, but King Triton did.  A towering piece of art, the statue both intrigued and enthralled our imagination.  It was absolutely wonderful.  We left both happy and content.

Memory is the key to life; pictures and words are just the tools used to record memories.   Because as time goes by memory fades and is sometimes lost all together, pictures and word stories are vital in preserving memories.  My mother has no memory of a complete 18 month time period.   She can remember childhood friends and stories and songs, but her memory for a year and a half years is completely empty.  Not even a picture can help her remember those days because there is no basis on which to establish a mental connection.

That is how I know that memory is the key to remembrance.  Pictures say nothing, they know nothing.   Capturing the outward façade only they cannot express the joy or sorrow that lies underneath lying eyes.  They cannot tell the tale of the day.  Only memory can.  And through that memory, word stories.

As writers we have a powerful tool that many people do not possess.  We have the ability to capture memories and bring them to life for people.  The best biographies and the best histories are not the ones that clearly convey fact after fact.  No! Rather, the best ones are those that can transport the past moment into the present, evoking all of the sweetness and amazement or all of the tenseness and bitterness that existed at that time.

Scrapbooks are nice.  They are helpful for reminding us of our past.  But, written documentation of those moments is so much more powerful, so much more poignant, and so much more necessary for preserving and sharing memories.  You have within you the words to take a memory and bring it to life.

Aurora shooting victims. This picture belongs to The Hollywood Gossip, and this blog and its writers claim no ownership.

Two weeks ago I referenced a news article on the Aurora shooting.  I had seen pictures of the crime scene and had heard the news reports online and had felt disgusted, but it wasn’t until I read this news article that I truly felt the pain and sadness of the situation.  That’s because words hold memories, and memories hold power.  This memory is not mine.  I had no connection to it in any way.  But, as author Brady Dennis described the emotional turmoil, the confused and hurting thoughts of one of the victims, I was able to connect.

“But then he felt the molten buckshot of a shotgun blast pierce his neck and face. His left arm went limp. He collapsed onto the floor in front of his seat as chaos unfolded around him. As he lay bleeding, Barton heard the sounds of the movie yield to more primal sounds of terror. The screams of the wounded and dying.”

This is a memory.

Basic Form in Writing Fiction Part 1: Dialogue

Just like proper form is important in writing letters and resumes, it is important in writing dialogue.

Well, recently a friend asked me to read through a part of her book and tell her what I thought (and I hope you’re reading this :D).  She had very solid characters that she knew very well, and she also had a coherent plot.  While her story wasn’t necessarily something that would catch my interest, she had clearly put a lot of time, work, and love into it, and this showed.  However, she also obviously had no clear idea of proper form in writing fiction.  When I say ‘form’ I am speaking of several different things including grammar, spelling, sentence structure, paragraph structure, dialogue tags, etc.  While many of us find form boring, tedious, frustrating, annoying… I could go on listing adjectives here… it is not unimportant.  In fact poor form can ruin an excellent story, just like it can ruin an excellent paper.  In the classes I teach, I receive many papers that range from poorly formatted to virtually illegible, and some papers that actually are illegible.  These papers, no matter what the ideas contained within might be, are difficult to read, difficult to understand, and usually receive either a D or an F.  The same is true with your story.  If your form is poor, it doesn’t matter how much love and work you put into the content of your story.  If your readers struggle to understand what is happening, most of them aren’t going to bother reading it.  So, over the next several weeks I’m planning to write a few posts on proper form in fiction, and one of the most different areas of proper form is dialogue.

So, three basic things to remember in dialogue: 1)a new speaker always gets a new paragraph, 2)dialogue markers help readers to remember who is speaking (as long as they are not overused), 3)inserting action into dialogue makes the scene feel more real.

Make sure your readers can tell who is saying what.

1) A new speaker always gets a new paragraph.  The following two sections of dialogue are identical in content, but their form is completely different.  You tell me which one is easier to read and understand:

“Asmai, what are you doing here?” “Playing the flute.” “Or at least I will be later.” “Really, is it a new song?” “What?” “Are you playing a new song tonight?” “Homber won’t let me play anything new.  He only likes Causfeld and Pourly.” “Why?” “I have no idea! Pourly isn’t even good music.  The man had no sense of proper flow!” “What do you mean? I love Pourly!” “Take that back! Now!” “What?!” “Take it back!” “Why?” “Take is back! Pourly is the bane of all reasonable musicians! He’s the worst composer in the history of the world!” “Now you’re just being dramatic. No one is that bad.” “Someone has to be the worst! And it’s Pourly!” “Look, you have you’re opinion, and I have mine.  Clearly we disagree, but I still like Pourly.” “Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”

Ok, now let’s try it in proper form:

“Asmai, what are you doing here?”

“Playing the flute.” “Or at least I will be later.”

“Really, is it a new song?”


“Are you playing a new song tonight?”

“Homber won’t let me play anything new.  He only likes Causfeld and Pourly.”


“I have no idea! Pourly isn’t even good music.  The man had no sense of proper flow!”

“What do you mean? I love Pourly!”

“Take that back! Now!”


“Take it back!”


“Take is back! Pourly is the bane of all reasonable musicians! He’s the worst composer in the history of the world!”

“Now you’re just being dramatic. No one is that bad.”

“Someone has to be the worst! And it’s Pourly!”

“Look, you have you’re opinion, and I have mine.  Clearly we disagree, but I still like Pourly.”

“Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”

Make sure your characters aren’t statues yelling at each other.

Easier to read, right? And also a little easier to follow who is saying what, but not completely.  So, 2)dialogue markers help readers remember who is speaking.  A dialogue marker is a simple sentence like ‘John said’, or ‘Asked Matt’.  They can come before or after a section of dialogue, but they simple ones shouldn’t be used too often because they quickly become repetitive.  So, lets add a few dialogue markers into the conversation:

“Asmai, what are you doing here?”

“Playing the flute.” “Or at least I will be later.”

“Really, is it a new song?” Evans asked excitedly.

“What?” He asked, distractedly.

Evans repeated his question, “Are you playing a new song tonight?”

“Homber won’t let me play anything new.  He only likes Causfeld and Pourly.”


“I have no idea! Pourly isn’t even good music.  The man had no sense of proper flow!” Disdain was thick in Asmai’s voice.

“What do you mean? I love Pourly!”

“Take that back! Now!”


“Take it back!” Asmai shouted again.

Shaken by his friends vehemence, Evans asked, “Why?”

“Take is back! Pourly is the bane of all reasonable musicians! He’s the worst composer in the history of the world!”

“Now you’re just being dramatic. No one is that bad.”

“Someone has to be the worst! And it’s Pourly!”

“Look, you have you’re opinion, and I have mine.  Clearly we disagree, but I still like Pourly.” He said calmly.

“Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”

Bring life, action, and feeling to your dialogue.

Alright, just a few dialogue markers make this conversation even easier to follow, right? However, it still feels somewhat contrived.  There’s no action in the scene, Asmai and Evans are just standing stock still talking to each other.  There is no motion, action, and emotion in their conversation yet.  So, 3)inserting action into dialogue makes the scene feel more real. You have to be careful here.  For instance, inserting a paragraph and a half of action in between lines of dialogue can easily it seem like there is five or six minutes between every line of dialogue.  Needless to say, this doesn’t make for a realistic conversation.  So, let’s try adding some action to the conversation and see how it turns out:

Evans pushed open the door of the Drunken Frog and blinked until his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside.  In one corner sat Asmai, fiddling with some small instrument. “Asmai, what are you doing here?”

“Playing the flute.” Asmai held up the instrument, a long metal flute.  “Or at least I will be later.” Then he went back to his fiddling.

“Really, is it a new song?” Evans asked excitedly.

Asmai looked back up from his flute. “What?” He asked, distractedly.

Evans repeated his question, “Are you playing a new song tonight?”

Sneering, Asmai shook his head and replied, “Homber won’t let me play anything new.  He only likes Causfeld and Pourly.”


“I have no idea! Pourly isn’t even good music.  The man had no sense of proper flow!” Disdain was thick in Asmai’s voice.

Evans reached up to scratch his nose with one hand, asking casually, “What do you mean? I love Pourly!”

Asmai shot out of his seat, his flute almost clattering to the ground, but he caught it at the last minute. “Take that back! Now!”

“What?!” Evans asked, taking an involuntary step back.

“Take it back!” Asmai shouted again.

Shaken by his friends vehemence, Evans asked, “Why?”

Asmai glared at his friend, and then began to pace angrily about that tavern. “Take is back! Pourly is the bane of all reasonable musicians! He’s the worst composer in the history of the world!”

“Now you’re just being dramatic. No one is that bad.” Evans sighed, rubbing his fingers together.  It was a nervous tick of which he had never rid himself.

Asmai threw his hands in the air, again almost losing his grip on his flute. “Someone has to be the worst! And it’s Pourly!”

Evans sighed again. “Look, you have you’re opinion, and I have mine.  Clearly we disagree, but I still like Pourly.” He said calmly.

Asmai stopped in place, fury evident in his eyes, and pointed one hand at the door. “Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”

One of the best delivered lines of dialogue in all of cinema.

Alright, this honestly probably isn’t the best dialogue I’ve ever written :P, but it serves to prove the point.  The last section of dialogue feels much more real that the first.  Evans and Asmai are no longer standing stock still, speaking to one another in monotone voices.  There is movement, obvious anger, feeling, it is completely clear that Asmai is being irrational, and there is a hint that Evans has dealt with this on frequent occasions.  The characters feel more real through this dialogue as well.  So, three basics of dialogue: 1)new speakers always get a new paragraph, 2)dialogue markers help readers to follow the conversation, 3)inserting action makes your conversation feel more real and alive.  Learn them, remember them, use them, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right away.  Everything takes practice.

The Best of Freedomchic Part 1

Well, Cassandra (freedomchic) is leaving us and moving on to better things.  She may be back from time to time with the random post, but she will no longer be a regular contributor to the blog.  I want to express my deepest thanks to her for her contributions, and wish her all the best in her future endeavors! To honor her contributions to the blog I’m going to be reposting some of her best posts over the next few weeks!  So, today: Imagery Through Metaphors – Predator

I’ve talked quite a bit in previous posts about imagery.  This could be because it is one of my favorite literary techniques.  To me imagery, more than any other tool, brings a story to life.  Think of the movie Pleasantville.  You can have a story with an interesting plot, good dialogue, personable characters, etc.  But, without imagery, the story stays in black and white.  Imagery is color – it adds life and vitality.

One of the best ways to add imagery is through metaphors.   While metaphors are common and most commonly associated with poems, they are exceedingly useful in other literary forms.  When writing an expository essay or even a staid research paper, imagery still has a place.   An extended metaphor is especially handy as it keeps the paper on topic.  As you weave a metaphor in and out of a paper, you keep the paper focused and the reader attentive.

Metaphors themselves come in many different forms (don’t expect me to list them all).  Simply put though, there’s the straightforth “She’s a diamond in the rough” to the aforementioned extended metaphor (think Donne’s “No Man is an Island” or Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage”).  Metaphors can be explicit or implicit.  However, the main goal of any metaphor is that, by the end of the metaphor or paper, the metaphor is clear and enhances the point.  One important thing to keep in mind though is that while metaphors should be original (keep away from the cliches as much as possible) they do need to make sense to more than just you.  If in doubt, test it out on a friend, teacher, co-writer, etc.

The following poem uses an extended metaphor with an implicit analogy.  Although the metaphor never comes out and declares itself a specific bird of prey (although the title comes close), throughout the poem, the analogy gets stronger and more developed.


Depression dips its cold, dark wings
Into the nearby souls of those
Who battle with multiple sorrows and foes
And leave this world and all it brings

Its sinister nature leaves no choice
And once its dark depravity sinks
One merely exists, nevermore to think
It takes away all mind and voice

Its victims, now strangers to all
Who once knew such joy and such life
Have now been replaced by wallowing strife
Which drones out the love and peace which calls

Attached to the mind, one it becomes
With sharpened claws it takes a firm hold
Preying on fears and worries, it leaves one cold
A testament to the darkness from which it comes

This bird of night sneaks in despite
All attempts to thwart its roaming
As greasy and oily it slips through the combing
And gathers newborn speed and height

Once it attacks there is no amending
Its progress is inevitable, an imminent binding
For its talons sink deeper and the poison is spreading
It goes for the kill, to keep the soul from living

Fiction Can be Quite a Tease

Hemingway’s story is really quite depressing, if you think about it.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This sentence is often heralded as the shortest story in the English language. Supposedly, someone challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story in 6 words, and this is what he came up with. Whether or not that’s actually true has never been proven, but it’s a popular urban legend just the same. Thanks to an author by the name of Robert Swartwood, short short stories (no, that’s not a typo) are gaining popularity, and more and more people are trying to write them. Swartwood calls these stories “Hint fiction,” so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

First of all, what exactly IS hint fiction? In a nutshell, it’s a story written in 25 words or less.  A great many people, Swartwood among them, seem to think that flash fiction (which is usually 800 words or less) is far too long, and that it really doesn’t take that many words to make a story. Hence, hint fiction, the purpose of which is to give the reader just enough details to get their imaginations going, and then let their minds fill in the rest of the story. It literally “hints” at a story, and that’s all it’s supposed to do. The reader’s creativity does the rest, answering all the (many, many) open questions left by the “story.” It’s brilliant, really, and quite the exercise in imagination for both the reader and the writer.

So, how does one go about writing hint fiction? You can’t just write a random sentence or two and call it hint fiction…it doesn’t

This is the guy responsible for the current outbreak of hint fiction. Seriously, read his blog.

work that way. You should probably start with the title. Swartwood says on his blog that “One of the biggest hints in hint fiction is the title. It’s like the set up to a joke, and the “story” is the punchline. Without the one, the other won’t work.” The title should give the reader an idea of what’s coming (no, the title isn’t included in the word count), and is usually sarcastic or ironic, depending on the story’s contents. Sometimes, it just serves to hint at the reasons for why the actions in the actual story occur. I’ll give an example at the end of this post. When it comes to content, you have to be careful to not give away too much detail. It shouldn’t have a concrete beginning and ending…that’s where the reader’s imagination is supposed to come into play. Don’t say something along the lines of “John met Mary. They married, had three kids. They died five minutes apart.” That’s boring, and doesn’t give the reader much to work with. Something better would be “The doctor pronounced her dead five minutes after her husband. The children mourned.” It’s not perfect, but it gives details, it’s in story form, and it leaves questions for the readers to answer, instead of a just blank statement of facts. Keep it concise and engaging, but make sure it leaves questions with a lot of possible answers.

And that, dear readers, is hint fiction. Short, concise, and leaves a great deal up to the reader’s imagination. Every writer should practice writing hint fiction, I think. It’s a good exercise in word choice, and it helps you get stories done when you’ve hit writer’s block on your larger projects. Feel free to leave some of your attempts in the comments. And, as promised, here’s one of my hint fiction pieces:


He knew she’d be angry. He just hadn’t expected her to put a bullet between his eyes.”

So, have fun working with hint fiction, and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about it. Happy writing, everyone!