Good writing is a dance party

Your story’s tension is like the mood of a dance party.

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Maybe you are one too: one of the many undergrads, grad students, staff and profs who are secretly, or not so secretly, working on a poem, a short story, a personal essay, novel or screenplay. If so, you need to know that Wilfrid Laurier University has a writer-in-residence and know what that person does.

I am Laurier’s third Edna Staebler Writer In Residence — and my job is to serve you. Well, part of my job is residing on campus and writing my poems, the other part is meeting with students and other members of the Laurier community to consult with them on their work and answer any questions they have about the writing life.

My office is on the fifth floor of the DAWB. There I meet those brave souls who decide they want to show their writing — often for the first time — to a “real writer” (meaning to a creative writer, as opposed to handing in academic essays to profs). Most people are surprised to learn they’re better creative writers than they thought. Many also discover they can trust their own instincts: if they suspect something isn’t working, they’re usually right.

What novice writers often don’t know is why their writing isn’t working. As I finish up my term, I thought I would share with you a few things you can count on good writing to do. When writing falls flat, it’s not because it’s wrong, but rather it’s not delivering what a reader needs to stay in the dream the writer means to create. Once you know some of the ways good writing draws us in, stirs our emotions and keeps our eyes glued to the page, you can much more easily look at your own work and figure out where it needs tweaking.

Grammar is your friend.

It is the servant of your fabulous imagination. Grammar isn’t just some set of arbitrary rules meant to separate highbrow writing from the casual and hip. Good grammar, punctuation and spelling help unfold the story or argument so smoothly that it enters the mind of the reader as though they thought it up themselves. Consider the difference between, “Let’s eat grandpa” and “Let’s eat, grandpa!” If you futz up grammar, you may say things you don’t mean, or your reader will have to stop and reread your sentence. The dream is then broken.

The movie you’re creating in someone’s mind needs a backdrop.

Remember that classic cartoon, Duck Amuck, where Daffy is parrying with his sword, shouting “on guard” and suddenly the scenery behind him disappears (If not, Google it)? That’s what happens in beginning writing, when the action of what you’ve written is so compelling, you forget to remind us where we are. You might think because you describe a place at the beginning of your scene or your essay that you don’t need to tell us again. But your characters need to interact with their physical world all the way through the story, not just at the beginning.

Your story’s tension is like the mood of a dance party.

This is where you speed up or slow down the pace of the action or risk, and through that play, you speed up or slow down the heart of the reader. It’s okay to take a page to describe a room, if you want to be slow. It’s okay to take one paragraph to describe the battle history of your imaginary tribe on an imaginary planet, if you want to “skim” that part and not get the reader too involved in it. Beginning writers often want to know “how much” description, or dialogue or action is the right amount. There’s no right answer. If you take a paragraph to describe a light bulb for no apparent reason, that’s going to drag. But if you take a paragraph to describe a light bulb seconds before your character decides to smash it and use the shattered glass to stab someone, you might have created delicious tension. If you understand that a good story plays with tension and release, not-knowing and finding out, you start to understand why your freedom to play with pace is as important as a DJ’s choice of which vibes she’ll mix into an entire evening’s worth of entertainment.

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