I wrote a long post on subjectivity and craft here for our last Blog and Vlog if you fancy checking it out.
Craft is one of those things that feels like magic when it’s done right, and when it’s not, it feels like you keep shaking that Harry Potter wand you bought at Universal Studios and all it does is frighten your cat.
Find a book you really love and read the first chapter out loud. You’ll hear the rise and fall of words, the cadence of the lines, rhetorical devices you never heard before. (I just used one — asyndeton, which is omitting conjunctions between three or more phrases or list items.)
You might notice alliteration and similes and assonance. (That’s another rhetorical device — polysyndeton, inserting conjunctions between each item in a list.)
Those are elements of craft that, when done seamlessly, will affect you without you stopping to point them out like I just did. 😛
Other elements are dialogue, setting, internalization, tension, emotion, action, and more. Margie Lawson has a nifty color-coded system for training your brain to see those things on paper and how they fit together (and if one is outweighing the others).
I like to think of common usages in three different levels: cliché, trope, and genre convention.
Clichés are done at the sentence level. Margie Lawson says (and I agree) that if a percentage of readers could fill in the missing word in a sentence, you should find a different word. Clichés can also be twisted.
“He looked like a cat that had gotten into the _____.”
I mean, you know I’m going to say cream.
“He might as well have been licking cream from his whiskers.”
That’s a twist on a cliché — we know the cliché itself so well that it evokes the feeling we want while giving a reader something fresh.
One I used in SHRIKE: THE MASKED SONGBIRD was also cat-related and of similar connotation, but I twisted it.
Instead of “he looked like a cat that had gotten the canary” (these clichés often include alliteration, if you notice that), I said “he looked ready to belch canary feathers at any moment.” Or something close to it.
If you must use clichés, try to splash some cold water on them to freshen them up.
Tropes are often done on a chapter or scene level. This could be a damsel-in-distress trope, or a woman in refrigerators trope. The noble savage trope. The “magical Negro” trope. The everyman saves the day trope. There are heaps of them listed at TVTropes, which is a great resource. Tropes are, in many ways, part of consumer expectation. Some tropes have been done so much that they have become clichéd in themselves (I’ve mentioned fridged women as one of them for me). They can be used effectively, but there needs to be an awareness of how they’ve been done before when you want to use them again.
Also, understanding how tropes may portray marginalized people in a stereotypical light is a good thing; there are certainly some tropes out there that do exactly that.
Genre conventions are at book or series level, and they are the underpinning of how books get shelved in one section or another. If you’ve got armies and political machinations in space, you’ll probably be in military science fiction. If you’ve got a second world with magic of some kind and a wide scope, epic fantasy. A love story that focuses on two characters overcoming obstacles to finally be together, romance.
Craft ends up being the overarching tapestry of words (the threads), elements of the story (the colors), genre conventions (the pattern), and voice (how it all fits together). It takes a lot of learning and practice to get those things to all work for you, but again, I say just keep swimming.
Resources I mention in the video below:
I know a lot of people also love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
Today’s vlog is below!