One of the biggest challenges we face as writers is the process of translating our ideas into chunks of text that seem much more bland than the characters, settings, and themes did in our imaginations. Once we’ve filled the page, our next hurdle is to make our words both understandable and inviting to readers.
This second goal can be so arduous that we sometimes avoid sitting down at our desks until inspiration hits. But good writing is rarely effortless. And we mustn’t fear imperfection, which can always be fixed. If we want to consistently excel, we can’t rely on those fleeting moments when our thoughts flow. We need to learn how to be intentional with individual sentences and shave away the extraneous. By following three reliable formulas, we can raise even the lowest quality writing to a higher standard.
1. Put Every Detail to Work—at Least Twice
Prose should be packed with information, but not to the extent that it’s overwhelming or confusing. We’re constantly developing characters, expanding our worldbuilding, and moving the plot forward, and if we treat each aspect separately, readers will have difficulty digesting it all. The solution? Give every detail more than one function.
If an antagonist has blue eyes, mentioning that in passing is fine. But we won’t be tapping the detail’s full potential. First, a scene’s mood can communicate a lot of subtext. Revealing eye color in a sad scene has different connotations than a happy or ambivalent scene. Second, incorporating eye color into the worldbuilding means it’s no longer a throwaway detail used to paint a mental picture. Third, connecting eye color to the character’s backstory increases the detail’s significance. Below is an example of how such a combination might look:
Tanu lifted the chest’s lid, and his hand trembled as he traced the folds of his mother’s wedding dress. The pale blue cloth—the same shade as his eyes—shimmered in the candlelight like the swelling waves that crashed upon his native island. Only Kelor boasted that color. And now it would all burn.
This is far more complex than stating that Tanu’s eyes are blue, yet the paragraph discloses facts about his world, references his past and his mother, and even betrays his attitude—without once becoming an info dump. It leads smoothly into the final line that ties everything to the plot. Readers see Tanu’s blue eyes as integral rather than peripheral, keeping the story focused on itself.
Another way to double down on details is to turn them into foreshadowing. In one of my early (over-ambitious) stories, two characters met for a duel near a forest. One of them, who later became the villain, traveled through that forest to get to his destination. This seemingly inconsequential detail eventually became important because of what lay within the forest. Observant readers enjoy discovering that an event was foreshadowed by a small detail.
2. Balance Dialogue Tags
He said, she said, they said, we all said. Dialogue tags are the bane of writers. Either we’re unsure where to insert and how to punctuate them, or we get overly creative with verbs like “vociferated.” Because dialogue tags are fundamental, we must execute them correctly. If we don’t, we risk annoying readers with conversations that sound stiff or melodramatic instead of immersive.
A. Dialogue tags exist only to establish who is speaking, so don’t go much further afield than said, replied, and asked. Due to their prevalence and simplicity, readers subconsciously gloss over dialogue tags. In a rapid interchange between two characters, tags can even be dropped entirely.
Because dialogue tags are a cosmetic courtesy, adding adverbs only slows readers down. Occasionally more descriptors may be needed for emphasis, but if distinguishing the character’s tone or intent requires a complicated tag, that’s usually a sign the dialogue itself is weak. Vocal exchanges are more compelling when we show the character’s emotions through words and actions instead of resorting to telling.
B. As a general rule, place a dialogue tag after the first phrase or sentence. This prevents readers from getting lost before the character has finished talking (especially if she’s chatty). Like so:
“Well then,” James said, “isn’t that just perfect?”
“Don’t forget the tea,” Mother said. “And whatever you do, look both ways before starting up your transport beam.”
Notice that the former splits a sentence, whereas the latter does not. To a certain degree, this is a matter of preference. I gravitate to the second method because it gives me more control over pacing.
C. To create variance without jolting readers, substitute dialogue tags with action beats. Depending upon our stylistic choices, action beats can be long or short and precede, interrupt, or follow dialogue. Better yet, this technique circles back to the advice in my first section: action beats serve the dual purpose of identifying the speaker and providing a broader view of the scene. The options are endless, but gestures and facial expressions, as demonstrated below, are common.
Alex scooped up his little brother, dangling him upside down. “Dad’s looking for you, bud.”
“I can’t imagine anything more likely.” Cassie smirked. “Or exciting.”
However, don’t attach an action beat to speech the same as a dialogue tag. Otherwise characters will be smirking and sobbing words—which is physically impossible, not to mention a mental hiccup for readers. Action beats should always be formatted as separate sentences.
3. Minimize Thinking, Maximize Doing
For some reason, many writers have an obsession with internal dialogue. While sharing a character’s thoughts isn’t necessarily a bad decision, it often ends up being overused as an alternative for telling. Portraying a character’s reaction to a situation propels the scene forward, whereas introspection causes it to stall. Sometimes we need to allow a character to reflect on what’s happened or wrestle through a problem. But, if we’re not careful, internal dialogue can become a crutch that holds us back from exercising the power of an expressive action, as in this response to blasphemy against a character’s deity:
Tanu frowned. Not a chance in Seleth would he let Ando get away with that. His knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. He could not let heresy survive for long on this island.
“You will live to regret those words, Ando.” He stared the man down.
Though there’s nothing blatantly wrong with this excerpt, per se, it is redundant. Each sentence highlights a different angle but presents no new information. Readers are trapped until the dialogue pushes them forward. If all of a character’s reactions are like this, the narrative will feel bloated. In contrast, see how the brunt of Tanu’s anger can be conveyed with half the words (and no repetition):
Tanu drove the tip of his sword into the sandy soil. “You will live to regret those words, Ando.”
Save internal dialogue for moments where an action can’t communicate what’s brewing inside a character’s head. When we limit the intrusion of a character’s thoughts, our prose stays concise, and the inner conflict we do include carries more weight.
The Finished Product
Let’s admit it: we love writing. Sure, we complain about how hard it is. Sure, we often fail to actually get our butts in a chair and our hands on a keyboard. And sure, we struggle daily with uncertainty, fear, or writer’s block.
But none of that changes the fact that we’re writers, and we work on honing our skills because we believe story craft is a worthy pursuit that impacts people’s lives. With patience and precision, we mold rough ideas into pieces that sit in the marketplace of the imagination. May this article serve as a reminder that we need to lovingly shape our words just as our Maker lovingly shapes each detail of His creation.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.