lesson 6: writing: speed and punctuation
Like movies and comics… in text you also want to control speed. It is just another tool to give more drama and dimension to your stories. Something that you’ll want to understand before moving on and because I put in a nice bridge in the last post . First of all let us start with the small stuff and the pure technical side:
While reading everybody has his or her own speed of processing information. For the programmers among you; every word has to be processed and the more you read, the more words you know the easier and quicker this process gets. When you are reading a text with long words you don’t always understand a text is quickly filed under “boring” and you will be exhausted once you have finished it. This is absolutely something to avoid. See also the next lesson about tailoring your text to your audience.
But luckily we can influence the speed in which people are reading in other ways then using almost impossible words.
So we all know what to do with the marvellous point, comma and paragraph, when to use them and how to structure them. But what if we throw all that overboard and look at them again only this time not from the pure technical point of view but as tools to make our reader go slower or quicker. What if these punctuation markers become a style aspect?
The point states the end of a sentence and since about 1970-1980 in my country the usage of the point has changed. I don’t know how it is in English, so enlighten me I do know that since that time the sentences don’t have to have the subject and predicate. The sentence was redefined as starting with a capital and ending with a point. Nothing else.
That makes even the last sentence “Nothing else.” a valid sentence even if it has no subject. (the actual subject is referred to and is in the previous or next sentence) In the old time this was an error and should be written like “The sentence was redefined as starting with a capital and ending with a point, nothing else.”
If we compare the two then we see that because of the extra capital and point the first nothing else packs a punch while the second far less so. Maybe you find the difference very subtle, but this works on a unconscious level. But now I used the point to make a point (pun intended) And I was talking about speed. You can speed up a text by using more small sentences and therefore more points. Because a short sentence reads quicker than a long one. Additionally it gives a kind of staccato (musical term meaning with rhythm) which can be compared to running steps or an action sequence in a movie. Thus giving the text a sense of falling towards a conclusion.
The same is true for less and longer sentences which will slow a text down considerably.
Next up the comma: The comma is the little brother of the point and when used by dozens you’ll automatically end up with an almost impossible long sentence and very confused readers. With the comma it is therefore the other way around. the more comma’s you use the longer it takes to get to the next sentence and therefore the end of the text. Comma’s have some rules to apply to them and since I don’t know how your education on the comma was (mine was terrible to non existent) I will quickly glance over the possibility’s and restrictions.
The commas most important feature is to provide a micro pause. You put a comma whenever you want to your audience to take a breath, and move on. I will immediately address the issue of using and, and a comma directly behind each other. Some people have learned that they are the same and cannot be used in that way. I am a fervent supporter of the usage of both a comma and the word and. Because the sentence gets a different feeling.
If I write: “Take a breath and move on.” it sounds like one continuing action and if a monotonous voice tells you something.
If I put the comma in it is different: “take a breath, and move on” Now the sentence has life and more importantly describes two different actions.
Further more you can make a sub sentence within a sentence using comma’s to explain something. Then you use commas where you could use brackets: My friend, We call her Mari, has a wedding.
We also use a comma to break a sentence in two: “I said to her whatever and gave her the finger, but then she took my hand licked my finger. It was gross!” (don’t ask why I write this… I have absolutely no clue why I have this kind of stuff in my head )
And you have to use a comma when giving a list: eggs, milk (low fat), flower, butter, raisins. (mind that when making a list you have to use brackets to give more info about something. you cannot make a list using commas and use the commas to make a sub sentence at the same time).
Before going onto paragraphs first something quick: ?! this is something else than !?. An exclamation mark is used to boost the sentence it closes. Therefore ?! could be written as “WHAT??”. It basically is a boosted question. While !? is a enhancement of the sentence with and added question and could be written like “huh?” One more example “Everybody get the difference?!” is more aggressive and “know-it-all” while “Everybody get the difference!?” is most importantly more loud and not that different from “Everybody get the difference?”.
Paragraphs. I just read an article claiming that people in the Netherlands use more paragraphs then is customary in English. I think that is true, seeing that I use more than usual on cgtalk for instance, but I also think that it makes a text more easily readable and pleasing for the eye. Actually in my language there is a name for the white in between the paragraphs. I couldn’t find a English term on short notice and it wasn’t in my dictionary, so I will be referring to those as a “white line”(literally translated) Note that this is something different than a “hard return” (from computer terminology) because you end up with a empty line in between the paragraphs and not just start on a new line.
These “white lines” are very important to keeping your text easy to read and organized exactly the way you like it. But it is also an important tool to slow down your readers. The eye does travel across a white line and mostly this is seen as being the end of a point you have made. It doesn’t have to be an end… you can simply create a “white line” after any sentence you want your reader to think about.
If the comma is the little brother and the micro break then the “white line” is the big brother of the point and can be seen as a normal break. There are two steps beyond this one: the double white line and the page turn. Which are both a bigger time delay and should be treated as such.
Bottom line: use a new paragraph and a white line more often than not. Keep your text organized and easy to read. If you have a white line between two actions or characters they are more apart then when you only have a “hard return”.
All this was mostly text specific however you can easily make the conversion from white line (text) to blackout (movie), point (text) to cut(movie) and comma (text) to focus change (movie).
Now we are entering the realm of storytelling once again and I start by defining slow and fast.
Here is the film resemblance already. when watching film your seeing 25-32 images a second and they seem to move. Now if you want something to go quicker on film… what do you do?
Right you cut some images out and suddenly the object seems to go quicker. For slower you do the opposite… you need more images per second to make something go slower.
So the same applies to a story… If you want something to go quick use less words, but also less description, less action, less everything. Just put down what happens. Lets get right into this with an example;
First the normal version:
Maria was walking up the stairs of her house with the fruit basket. When suddenly the pineapple, that was on top of the fruit, tumbled from the fruit basket. Thinking about her tapestry, Maria panicked and tried to catch it with one hand but had to let go of the basket to do so. Then the basket was unstable and began to wobble. While trying to keep hold of the basket, her hand shot out and caught the pineapple mid-air. But then it happened, she couldn’t hold the basket and all the fruit bounced down the steps.
Then the fast version:
Maria was walking up the stairs with the fruit basket. Suddenly the pineapple,tumbled from the top . Maria thought about her tapestry and panicked. Her hand shot out and caught the pineapple mid-air. However she couldn’t hold the basket in one hand and all the fruit fell onto the stairs.
And the slow version:
Maria was walking up the stairs of her house with the fruit basket. When suddenly the pineapple began to rock back and forth. And as the normal reaction is in this case, Maria tried to compensate. She tilted the basket but overshot her goal. the pineapple now had so much velocity that it would go over no matter what. Maria saw it happening. She heard the dull smash as the pineapple landed and saw the rich juice stair her carpet. That was something she should prevent at all costs. Without thinking further her hand let go of the side of the basket and reached out. As all of this took Maria only nanoseconds the pineapple was still falling. She was almost there, she could feel the shell of the pineapple But now something else was happening. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the fruit basket tilt and felt she couldn’t hold it much longer. her hand worked on autopilot the fingers closed and came up trying to bring rescue to its counterpart trying to keep the fruit basket upright. Maria had all her attention now on the basket… she had temporarily forgotten about the pineapple. Only remembering when the pineapple hit the fruit basket tipping it over without any hope of rescue. The oranges where the first to go, then the grapes followed by the mandarins and the lonely pear. Underneath there where two apples who also joined in the leap to freedom. Making thuds and smashes, and one of the mandarin even seemed to splash a little, the fruit landed on the stairs and bounced gently down all the eleven steps to finally come to rest on the wooden floor below.
Note that in these texts I not only tried to show you the rule just mentioned but I have also put the techniques of the first part to use.
The first thing you must know about actually doing this is how fast your writing style is. Since like everything in life this is also relative. If you write fast the whole story through nobody is going to notice that you meant it to be fast… because they have no reference. so when you use fast and slow remember to work with contrast. If you go from slow to fast; fast looks faster. And the same thing works the other way around as well.
Now problems: If you are writing something that is action packed and fast a lot of details get lost in the mix. This is because you simply don’t have time to show them in (read: tell about them) This is kind of crippling because if you go to fast people might lose track or interest because everything just happens.
The problem with going slow is the extra information. It has to come from somewhere and it is hard to think of useful stuff to tell. The over expanding rule is don’t show/write/tell the things that don’t matter. The extra fluff to create the illusion of slow time has to deepen the plot, deepen the characters or strengthen the bond between the story and the audience.
And this is why this lesson is now and not later: These problems don’t only occur now but during the whole writing process. A good build-up is a slow one… a good climax goes rather quick. The beginning differs and the end is usually normal speed or slow. This means that if you practise to get from a to b (falling pineapple t catch) while going through d, c, g and z thrown in and occasionally mention m, o and j then you know you can probably write a good story because then you have thought about all the things that happen around what is actually happening.
Most people, I know I do, write rather fast when they jot something down. Our layout was done that way for example. But when you are writing full fledged stories people want to be swept away and know feelings and fears, sounds and smells. So you have to train yourself in slowing down when you are writing.
The kind of corny thing here is to use the text as your brush and the imagination of your readers as your canvas, but it is actually true. And if you can create memorable images within the imagination of your audience you are good to go and have fans in no time.
So remember to slow down, notice things others don’t, mention thoughts and feelings and fears characters might have. And try to make an image that is memorable or stirs up maternal feelings within your audience.
I hope you enjoyed this lesson and I will be back during the weekend with the next lesson: Tailoring to your audience.
I just finished planning everything up to writing the start of my story which will be 4 lessons away from now unless something comes up that I must address first. I hope you will still be with me then.
I wish you all some good days ahead filled with the things you find fascinating about life!!