Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Three Tips for Creating Evocative Prose

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When you think about it, writing is a pretty amazing thing. Ten writers can use the same ten words and create completely different sentences. They can use them to evoke a myriad of emotions from joyous to terrified, and bring a reader to tears as well as laughter.

What words we choose matter. A single edit can change how a reader interprets our work, and knowing that, we can put them in the right mindset for the story.

1. Be Suggestive

There have been a slew of movies, TV shows, and Vegas acts that have the hero--usually some type of con man--setting up a "mark" (the victim) to think or respond a certain way. They use subliminal clues to suggest what they want the mark to think or say. Drop enough clues with the numbers 3 and 6 in front of someone, then ask them to pick a number between ten and forty, and you'll get a lot of 36s.

This works in fiction.

If you want the reader to get an idea in their head but don't want to bash them over the head with it, plant a few suggestive clues. Nothing explained, don't draw attention to any of them, but if you want them to think "blue means bad," then put in something blue whenever something bad happens. Associate blue with bad, so by the time your protagonist reaches why blue is bad, the reader will already feel apprehensive.

(Here's more on foreshadowing)

2. Clue in the Context

Sometimes we want readers to start thinking a certain way so they'll accept the more fantastical or coincidental aspects of our stories. It's hard to throw in a ghost or time traveler if there's nothing to prepare the reader for it. It can feel out of place and jar them right out of the story. Plots that relay on a huge coincidence are also likely to give the reader pause.

A few well-placed words or images can get the reader thinking about what you need them to think about, so by the time something happens--be it that ghost or chance meeting--readers will be prepared and accept it more readily.

If characters talk about ghosts, or mention the new time travel movie they saw over the weekend, or has someone suggest to them that great sushi place everyone is talking about over on fourth, then when the ghost appears, the time portal opens up, or the heroine bumps into an old flame at the restaurant, it'll feel inevitable.

(Here's more on how a single word can change the context)

3. Add Some Mood Lighting

Horror movies know how to set a scene and take advantage of tension, and writers can benefit from similar techniques. If we want our readers feeling nervous, choosing words that evoke peace and tranquility won't exactly put them on the edges of their seats. But use words commonly associated with nervousness? Now we're creating the right mood.

We can even use words or images that typically make people nervous, such as someone tipping back in their chairs, children running close to a street, bugs or other classic animals people are often afraid of. Whatever works to achieve the emotion we're looking for.

(Here's more on how details can change the mood or tone of a scene)

Every book is made up of the same twenty-six letters. How we arrange those letters makes the difference between a romantic comedy and police thriller.

Writing Exercise Time!

It's been a while since I've done any writing exercises, so for fun, write a snippet using all of the following words that evokes a feeling or thought. What you evoke is totally up to you.


If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Thanks for posting this Janice, it is definitely food for thought. Stephen King is of course the master of foreshadowing -- he can write three pages about some guy reading the morning paper, and by the time you reach the bottom of the third page you are TERRIFIED!
    Setting up the expectations of the reader is what it's about. Setting the mood, giving subliminal hints ("blue is bad!"), really directing the reader's attention, can make a difference in how successfully you get the reader to join you on "the journey."
    Wonderful post!

    1. He is indeed. A good author to study for some tips there. Thanks!