character action, characterization, creatvive writing, fiction, how to write, imagery, literary, narrative, prose, revising, revision, short stories, short story collection, writer, writer's notebook, writing advice, writing craft, writing process
I recently had to go over my entire collection of short stories. A very painful experience. As I went through the manuscript I began to notice recurring images, gestures and phrases. A fellow writer once told me that we each have our bank of images we readily draw from. The problem is unless we are depositing more, different images, we keep pulling out the same old images. I won’t tell you how many times in my stories where there was a light (especially candlelight) casting a shadow, or fog or some kind of hazy atmosphere. To the point where I’m rolling eyes and highlighting in bright yellow to change it on the next go around. And I don’t think images are the only things we writers bank for easy withdrawal. We have certain gestures banked for ready use. I am too embarrassed to say how many times my characters fought back tears, felt the rush of heat, and patted or stroked another character’s arm (to name a few).
I believe now, when I was first writing these stories, that on some level, I knew something belonged there. I knew that at that moment in the narrative, a meaningful gesture from a character was needed or an image was necessary to align the figurative and the literal. Maybe because of a deadline, or my impatience, I simply couldn’t think of anything better to write, so I inserted whatever I could easily pull out of my bank.
Now I’m not saying using these banked images, gestures or phrases is bad or wrong. On the contrary, I think they are an excellent tool for revision. As excruciating as it was, I recommend anyone with a collection of short fiction to review their stories straight through in a sitting (or two) several times. And as you go through the manuscript, take note or highlight areas with the same or similar images and action. You might find an image shows up only once in a story but as you go through your collection, it shows up again and again across many of your stories. It’s your choice whether or not to keep it, but you may find that in looking at the prose closely, it is in need of a more appropriate image.
Because of the short story form, it’s essential to try and make every sentence pull more than its literal weight. So during revision, while I am figuring out the image or gesture specific to the situation or character, I am also looking for ways that the replacement image or action can do more than one job. For example, when I go over each of these repeated images, I might look for an image which can reveal more about the character and the ground situation or I’ll look at how action can also provide characterization or reveal internal tension. It is also interesting to note that now when I write something new, I’ll catch myself withdrawing an all too familiar image or picture, so I’ll make a conscious effort to write something else.
But what about expanding or depositing to your bank? First of all, writers are witnesses. We are attuned to observing not just the world around us but also of human nature. Ever since my Intention and Design class in grad school, I’ve kept a writer’s notebook. It’s a little different from a diary or journal, although it does contain those qualities at times (I also date my entries from time to time). I’ll scratch out scenes, ideas and reflections on writing. Then again, it also contains to-do and grocery lists. I also carry with me at all times a small spiral notebook that easily fits in my pocket or purse. I knew one writer who always kept one of those pocket moleskin notebooks with teeny tiny lines with her at all times. A former classmate of mine has a 3 notebook system where he transfers observational notes from one to the next as they expand and develop into a story (I honestly don’t know how he keeps track). What I like to do is to take my dog for a walk and go somewhere like a park or a shopping center or a coffee house and jot down what I see, hear, smell, taste, etc. Sometimes I’ll type it up, creating an experiential moment on the page. Often, I’m just going about my day and when I am struck with a particular scene, phrase, image, action, etc., I’ll jot it down as well.
Writers are also readers – most often, avid readers. As we write, we practice our craft, and as we read, we are observing the craft at work by others. We can see and understand an author’s strategies or choices in the narratives. We appreciate a well-crafted sentence and admire when the prose is multi-tasking, so when I come across an action or image that expresses characterization or emotion well, I’ll copy it down in my notebook.
I believe exercising this creative part of your brain on a daily basis helps to expand your bank of images or actions. I also believe whatever method a writer is comfortable with is fine. The trick is to keep on doing it. It’s easy to slack off and talk yourself into thinking that a unique action or image will be there when you need it. But chance are, you’ll just withdraw the same, overused image or gesture, which is fine, but eventually, through revision, you’ll find that it is limited in what it can do for your story, and you’ll have to think up something else anyway. By consciously taking note of what’s around you and how people reveal themselves through their action, rather than pulling out tired imagery or stock actions, you might surprise yourself with something entirely new.