Some worked examples showing techniques in action
The right words can make a huge difference
The right choice of words, viewpoint, detail and use of the senses can make an enormous difference to even a short piece.
Take a look at this example from the late great James Herriot. Those who have read his books will recall the scene where he and his notoriously impatient boss, Siegfried Farnon, arrive to do a post-mortem on a cow, but discover that they’ve left behind some vital equipment.
In his first draft this is how the scene started:
When he arrived at the house he found that he had forgotten to take his PM knife and decided that he would have to borrow a carving knife.
In the published version, this is how the scene begins:
We arrived at the farmhouse with a screaming of brakes. Siegfried had left his seat and was rummaging about in the boot before the car had stopped shuddering. ‘Hell!’ he shouted, ‘no post mortem knife! Never mind, I’ll borrow something from the house.’ He slammed down the lid and bustled over to the door.
The first draft is a simple statement of events. The final version has speed, urgency and brings the volatile Siegfried centre stage, setting the scene for him to burst into the farmhouse kitchen demanding a really sharp knife from the terrified woman inside. They have of course arrived at the wrong farm.
Write from one character’s viewpoint
In the following example we have Mike in a sticky situation with one enemy facing him and another creeping up behind him with an axe.
The first version is written from Mike’s point of view.
Mike faced his adversary across the cinder path. He saw real hatred in the man’s eyes, but then a momentary break in concentration, so brief he couldn’t be sure he’d seen it at all – a flash of triumph.
Under the whisper of the breeze he heard the tiny snap of a twig and swung round, catching a glint of steel as he threw himself sideways out of range.
And here is the same situation but not sticking with Mike’s viewpoint:
Mike faced his adversary across the cinder path. He saw real hatred in the man’s eyes. The man watched Mike, then saw his friend creeping up under cover of the breeze. He held his gaze very still, not wanting to alert Mike. Mike was aware of a slight change in the man’s expression, but wasn’t sure what it meant.
The other man crept closer, raising the axe, poised to crash it down on Mike’s head. But he was taken by surprise when Mike suddenly swung round and dodged out of the way.
The second version jumps about. We don’t get to see anyone’s viewpoint clearly because we jump from Mike’s viewpoint to the man he is facing, back to Mike, then to the third man. In the first version, it is easier for the reader to put themselves in Mike’s shoes and feel the drama of the imminent attack.
Keep control of the detail
In the first version, there is a snapshot of description of the landscape.
Kate stared at the steep gradient above her. She’d had no idea their ‘bit of a hack’ might be this demanding. It had sounded like something warm and friendly, not too difficult. Her first view from the top road as she’d unloaded Zingbat and tacked him up, had been of a gently rolling landscape, laced with picture-postcard views. This was going to be tough. With the breeze in her hair and the scent of fresh grass in her nostrils, she gave Zingbat a kick and they began to climb.
And now here is Kate again, describing the same landscape, but this time she seems to have swallowed a textbook.
Kate looked at the route that they were about to tackle. She knew that the dry valleys hereabouts had been created about 18,000 years ago, when the fast-running streams that signalled the end of the ice age carved out these valleys, and because the chalk landscape did not hold water, but allowed it to drain quickly away, the valleys had run dry leaving steep sided hills crisscrossing the landscape. She gave Zingbat a kick and they began to climb.
The first example gives a taste of the landscape without overdoing it. The second is more like listening to a lecture.
In the first there is a sense that Kate is going into the unknown, this is something of a challenge to her. She clearly didn’t know it would be this tough. It makes us start to wonder why that is a problem. Is she out to impress someone? Is this a sponsored ride? Are she and Zingbat in danger of being stranded after dark? All sorts of possibilities open up.
In the second version we are pinned to our seats by the geography lesson and get little sense of any unfolding drama.
Be careful with dialogue
In this example we see two sisters, Jan and Caitlin, at a picnic spot. Their ponies are tethered nearby.
The sun was high in the sky. Even here under the trees the wooden frames of the picnic tables were warm to the touch. Jan sighed as her sister called for water. She didn’t want to get up, she wanted to relax and enjoy the delicious scrunch and squidgy softness of the cheese and onion in her sandwiches.
‘Here, Caitlin, catch!’ she called.
Reaching out, she cupped the water bottle in her hand and tossed it in a high arc. Her heart lurched. She’d mistimed it. Caitlin made a desperate grab but it sailed past her and splattered hard against the wall, throwing out a spray of cold liquid on to the ponies tethered there.
Uh-oh, Jan thought, now we’re in trouble.
And here they are again with more of their exchange spelt out:
The sun was high in the sky. Even here under the trees the wooden frames of the picnic tables were warm to the touch.
‘Jan,’ Caitlin called across. ‘Bring me the water bottle.’
Jan sighed. She didn’t want to get up, she wanted to relax and enjoy the delicious scrunch and squidgy softness of the cheese and onion in her sandwiches. ‘Come and get it yourself,’ she said.
‘I can’t. I’ve taken off one of my boots. Come on, Jan, you’re not doing anything.’
Jan reached out and pulled the bottle towards her. ‘I’m going to throw it, Caitlin,’ she called.
She tossed it in a high arc, but saw at once that she’d mistimed it. It was heading straight for where the ponies were tethered.
‘Oh no,’ squealed Caitlin as she made a grab for it but missed.
The bottle smashed on the wall high above the ponies’ heads, dousing them thoroughly. Uh-oh, Jan thought, now we’re in trouble.
The second version is slower paced than the first. The first has just three words of direct speech (‘Here, Caitlin, catch!’) but it gets across everything that happened. The second takes the reader every step of the way, spelling it all out. It becomes slower, more contrived, a reason has to be invented why Caitlin can’t just come and get the bottle of water for herself. The extra padding dilutes the drama of the accidental dousing of the ponies.
Using the senses and adding drama
If you look back at these examples you will also see use of the senses:-
Mike feels the cinder path under his feet (even if the words don’t fully spell that out), he hears the snap of a twig, Kate feels the breeze in her hair and smells the grass, Jan savours the texture of her sandwiches and feels the heat of the sun.
And you can also catch hints that the characters are facing some kind of problem or drama:-
Mike is very obviously in a sticky situation, Kate faces some kind of challenge that she isn’t sure she’s up to, and Jan and Caitlin have accidentally thrown water over everyone’s ponies.