Putting Some Punch in Your Prose

I’ve had the unmitigated pleasure of taking an on-line class from New York Times Bestselling author Angela Knight, creator of the Mageverse series, The Time Hunter series, and many other action packed books.

One of the participants, Jane Xie, was very brave, and offered up her 'work in progress' for Angela to rip apart. As I read what Angela had to say, I had the proverbial ‘aha’ moment, and immediately wanted to share how a paragraph went from good, to better, to WOW.

Both Angela and Jane have agreed to let me use their work. Thank you. Here is the original paragraph followed by Angela's comments:
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A low growl came from the darkness. Lana turned back only to see a giant arm reaching out to take a swing at them. Jake was struck in the back with enough impact to send them both to the ground. Jake shifted to the side before landing to avoid her taking his whole weight from the fall but she was still stunned from the force of blow.

Here we have the dreaded passive voice everybody tells you to avoid. "Jack was struck in the back" is passive voice. What that means is ~ you sliced the ACTOR right out of the sentence, like that old government standby, "Mistakes were made." Which is to say, "I'm not saying I made them, but mistakes were made."

Here's how we can recast this paragraph:

A low growl came from the darkness. (Nice frightening detail, BTW) Lana turned as a giant arm swung at them, striking Jack so hard, the impact knocked them both to the ground. Jake twisted to take the brunt of the fall, but she was still stunned.

OK, my version cuts 24 words out of your paragraph, most of it from the sentence that really needed work. "Jake shifted to the side before landing to avoid her taking his whole weight from the fall but she was still stunned from the force of blow." Ummm, baby, no. I know what you're trying to say - he's trying to keep his full weight from hitting her. That's a nice hero thing to do. Which is good. But that sentence is really clunky. Like me rolling down the hall in front of Dorothy's apartment, it goes on way too long.

But really, I don't like my version all that much either. It's shorter, but it's got all the punch of a handful of soggy toilet paper. Eeew. Let's fix it.

A growl rumbled out of the dark, low, vicious, sending a chill running down Lana's spine. She spun. A massive hand smashed out of the shadows, hitting Jack so hard he slammed into her. She saw stars as they hit the ground together, Jake wrapping his body around hers to take the impact.

Better. Note I swapped out some of those low-impact words -- "swung" becomes "smashed," as I replace low-power verbs with stronger ones. But "a chill running down Lana's spine," is SUCH a cliché. So is "she saw stars." But then, the first thing that pops into your mind is always going to be a cliché anyhow. Fixing those is half the rewrite process.

How about:

A growl rumbled from the dark, loud and deep enough to make Lana's bones reverberate. She spun. A massive hand smashed into Jake, catapulting him into her with stunning force. He wrapped his body around hers as they fell, taking the impact on one muscled shoulder.

Nah. Let's kick it up a notch.

A growl rumbled from the dark, deep enough to make Lana’s skull reverberate. She spun. A massive hand smashed into Jake, slamming him against her like a cat batting a pair of mice. As they flew toward the rear wall, he curled protectively around her, taking the impact on one muscled shoulder. The back of her head still rapped the plaster so hard, starbursts blinded her. Stunned, breathless, they hit the floor in a bruised pile.

This is actually LONGER than your version, but that's because it actually adds another impact -- they hit the back wall before they hit the floor, so they actually went airborne. Why? Why NOT? These are supernatural beasties, not some drunk you're fighting in a bar. Make 'em scary. Make it MORE. Give us more detail, ramp it up. We want the action to be that much more vivid. Work in sensory details as you make repeated passes over the sentence to cut some phrases and add sensory impressions.
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That was awesome. Two things, check out Angela's books on her website and watch for author Jane Xie - this book sounds like it's smokin' hot!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Madison! And thanks to Angela Knight and Jane Xie for lending their work from this class. It's nice to see some real physical examples, step by step, to get a better understanding.

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  2. OH my god I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing!!!!

    (new follower!)

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  3. Thanks. All credit goes to Angela and Jane (brave souls)\

    Madison

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  4. I took a class from Angela in January and it was fantastic! And you can all see why. Thanks for posting Madison, and nice blog!

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