When it comes to writing, there are some things would-be writers know right away—these are obvious things: storyline, plot, characters and maybe location/setting. Then there are those things writers have to think about, but may miss in the story. These things I refer to as the “Intangibles of Writing” (IoW).
Here’s an example: “The paramedics placed Kevin on the stretcher and pulled him inside the ambulance.” Nothing seems wrong with the sentence—except it contains an “IoW.” The intangible is the word “stretcher.” Believe it or not, the stretcher used by paramedics has a specific name—gurney.
Intangible #1: The names of things
Believe it or not, just about everything has a name, and if you want to be a serious writer, you should find out the names of things. Imagine this sentence: “Sarah approached the garden. She had never seen such beautiful blue, pink and yellow flowers.” Sounds okay, except, the line would read much better if you were more specific about the flowers Sarah saw.
“Sarah approached the flower garden (or English garden). She had never seen such beautiful hydrangeas, tiger lilies and daffodils in one place.” Knowing the names of things create specific visuals in the minds of the readers. “Flowers” is a vague term, but daffodils, tiger lilies and hydrangeas are more specific. Using exact names helps to cut down long-winded explanations/sentences. It’s much easier to say ‘the birds were kept in an aviary,’ than to say “The birds were kept in a parabola-shaped structure made of wires.” Knowing the names of things is also important if it’s the character’s profession to do so. A botanist or horticulturalist would not describe a flower as “yellow flower.” She’d likely be specific.
Intangible #2: Anachronisms
An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency. Often these are difficult to catch. The most frequent kinds are location, technology, social customs and language.
Example: story setting: July 1952. “John picked up the telephone and dialed 9-1-1, to call the cops.” To the untrained mind, this sentence is fine. However, this story takes place in 1952. In 1952, a person spun the dial on the rotary phone to reach a (human) operator. The operator connected the person to the police station nearest them. You didn’t dial the police directly in 1952.
Another “technical” anachronism with this sentence is that 9-1-1 did not exist as the emergency number in North America until the mid-1970s, with many provinces and states not using it until well into the late 1980s. ‘Story location’ matters as much as era. As 9-1-1 is unique to the U.S.A and Canada, with other countries using different emergency numbers.
Focusing on anachronism is not pedantry, but rather good practice for good authors, since, to some extent, writing requires research. Avoiding anachronisms gives the author credibility about the topic or subject of his work, since it shows he has done thorough research beforehand. Since anachronisms can be distracting, taking away focus from the topic or the story, cleaning them up further helps to keep the reader’s mind where it should remain–on your story.
Intangible #3: Slang and Colloquialism
In my April post on “naming conventions,” I showed how names can be anachronisms. This is also true of colloquial talk. Can you imagine someone in 2015 saying, “We went to Paris and had a gay ol’ time” or “that’s pretty swell.” This talk might work for the 1920s-1940s but not 2015. Likewise, beware of slang. In 2015, many people might know what “bae” means (I think) but readers might not know the meaning of the same slang in 2040. Unless you’re writing about a specific time period—the year 2015 for example—then avoid slang/colloquial talk that can date your story or come across as inauthentic.
Slang and colloquial talk are not the same as “voice,” whereas a character has a specific tone, attitude or vernacular (e.g. Huckleberry Finn); rather, slang/colloquialism is often a poorly executed attempt to make a character sound “cool.” Therefore, it can be distracting, annoying or inappropriate for the story.
There are more intangibles of writing that I can mention, such as dangling modifiers, but I think you get the point. If you have any intangibles share them in the comments below.
1. Ngrams: Books.google.com/ngrams (a chronological timeline of words/phrases. E.G. you want to know when the term “kindergarten”replaced “nursery school” in popularity)
2. Alpha Dictionary: Alphadictionary.com (historical dictionary)
3. Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html (historical written collections)–along with old newspapers, this is a good place to get a sense of ‘era-appropriate’ slang or speech.