Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writing Workshop - Part 3 - Emphasis


A Writing Workshop on a Topic Everyone Hates--Revision


To be consistent, I need to start this part of my workshop with a quote.  So, here it is:

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Elmore Leonard

This quote always makes me smile.  Which brings me to EMPHASIS.  I’ve been putting my quotes in a different color and font style to draw your attention to them.  If you skim my blog, I’ll bet you stop and look at the things that stand out such as font style and color. EMPHASIS is making something stand out.

EMPHASIS is calling attention to something.

An EMPHASIS rule is that the most important point should be a the beginning or end of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter.  Less important points should be in subordinate positions.  More on this later.

Sadly, when we look at our writing during the revision process, we often forget to look at EMPHASIS.  We sometimes haven’t really decided what we want to call attention to, so we don’t do it effectively.

When revising, we have to look at our use of EMPHASIS.  Using EMPHASIS effectively is to know what needs to be emphasized.  In the big picture, we’re talking about how well we’ve plotted our story.  If we plot well, we already know what’s important.  We can then look at how well we did the job of EMPHASIZING those important points.

Readers pay attention to something that sticks out or is different in appearance or location.

Think of your book as a woman’s face.  The makeup she applies is the EMPHASIS.  Blush on cheeks to emphasize bone structure, eye-shadow to play up the color of the eyes, eye-liner to EMPHASIZE the shape of the eye, and mascara to turn colorless lashes into dark, bold ones.

And as with makeup...EMPHASIS is sadly often overdone.

As makeup is an EMPHASIS device of women, so there are devices of EMPHASIS for novels.  

What are they?  We have internal and external devices.

External first!
1.  Punctuation and font style
(I freely confess to the overuse of italics, so I specifically look for that when I’m revising.)

When we speak, we are used to modulating our voices for EMPHASIS, but in writing, we can’t hear the anger in a person’s voice . . . or the quiver of fear.

Make sure the words your characters say and the actions they perform have enough punch to not need those font styles !!!!
Sprinkle the external devices in, don’t lard them on.
That said, sometimes font styles are necessary.

Consider this sentence: 
I never said that.
I never said that.
I never said that.
I never said that.

You get it. 

2.  Sentence length
When revising examine sentence length.

Short choppy sentences are devices of action scenes, fear and confusion.  Horror writers really know how to use their white space.  Short sentences are strong sentences.

Long sentences and paragraphs can be used to deliberately lull your reader into complacency before a big action scene.  Or, if over done, long sentences can lull your reader to sleep...or cause them to skim.

Think of yourself as the coach on a team.  You can’t keep calling the same play.  Mix it up.
Look through your manuscript . . . is it filled with big blocks of narrative and introspection?  Is it all short one-liners of dialogue?

White space on a page speeds a reader up; blocks of print slow them down.  For action scenes shorten your sentences and paragraphs.  For heavy emotion, you might want to do the opposite. 

Think of movies.  Think of how action makes the viewer sit up and take notice.  Think of how color and music call attention to what is important in a scene.  Do the same with your words, sentences, and paragraphing.

Internal devices of EMPHASIS
1.  Time spent on a particular scene or character
Remember from Part 1 - UNITY when I paraphrased Anton Chekhov . . . if you have a gun in your story, it better go off before the end of your book.

How much of your book you “spend” on a character or event tells the reader how important it is.  I sometimes get carried away with secondary characters.  When I revise I have the painful task of chopping out their parts.  I told you about eliminating a sub-plot in my book LORD OF SWORDS.  That elimination also took out a character, a character that stole the EMPHASIS from my hero and heroine.

2.  Repetition
It is said that a reader needs to see something three times to remember it.

But be careful of repetition.  Your readers are not stupid.  Repeat to EMPHASIZE not beat your reader over the head.

Look for the same word a the beginnings of sentences, or the overuse of a vocabulary word or phrase.  I’m guilty of falling in love with a word.  The word I found myself overusing in LORD OF SWORDS was plucked.  I had to pluck about twenty of them from my book.  

3. Position
Position is another internal device of EMPHASIS.  
Put important information at the beginnings or ends of scenes, paragraphs, and chapters.

The physical arrangement of your words really matters.  The most attended to words are those first said and last said.  Put your punch there.

Position is also hooks.  Every scene and chapter should begin and end with a hook.  Look through your work and decide if you ended each scene or chapter with words that make the reader turn the page or place a bookmark and turn out the light.  If the reader can wait for tomorrow to turn the page, the EMPHASIS needs beefing up.

The same goes for the openings of the chapters, especially the first chapter.  The first chapter is the one where we grab the reader, establish empathy, and cause the reader to buy the book.  The last few words of the book are also important.  They make the reader hunt for your back list.

Think of the anticipation before opening the curtain on a play and the sigh at end when the curtains close.

Some EMPHASIS errors:
--Overuse of superlatives such as very and best.
--The over use of --ly words.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Stephen King

When you are tempted to use that --ly word, decide if the actions of the characters are strong enough that you don’t need it.  Sometimes the --ly word is vague.
Joe ran quickly.
Joe dashed across the road.
Joe stumbled across the road

Joe’s actions in the second and third sentences are far more descriptive than what is stated in the first sentence.

So, let’s end EMPHASIS with my favorite quote:

“Write your first draft with your heart.  Re-write with your head.”
From the movie Finding Forrester

Visit my blog next Wednesday, September 25th, for the last part of my workshop on revision . . . HARMONY.

Read LORD OF SWORDS, coming October 1.

Check out my books at

1 comment:

  1. More great advice. I found the point about positioning extremely useful. No more burying the focal point of the paragraph in the middle. Thanks!