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Someone told me that the way I write is almost like I'm writing from a template, how do I break away from this?
I always end up with this: Saying what the person is doing in the present tense, mentioning something about surroundings, explore their past or the object/place's past.
All I'm trying to do is set up a scene, how can I do this differently?

Example of my writing:

Gabrielle wakes up to the sound of her phone’s loud beeping alarm. Yawning, she rolls onto her back and sits up, rubbing the crust out of her eyes. She begrudgingly pats down her nightstand until she finds her phone, quickly unlocking it and silencing the alarm. The clock says six thirty in the morning, she has to wake up early from now on, the job demands it.

Another one where I found the same problem:

Gabrielle walks out of her apartment and feels the coldness of the outside hit her, she shivers and walks down the path to the driveway, gets into her white car and drives up to Crayla Town. It used to be something else before 2023, just a bunch of industrial, process and packaging plants and warehouses, but the flooding and proceeding mudslide irreparably damaged all of it, so they built a town over it. She can’t believe she got a job at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the entire Pacific Northwest, one of the doctors that works there, Dr. Gage is the one that hired her, he is always finding new cures to all kinds of diseases, and finds new remedies for mutations of diseases that could no longer be treated by antibiotics

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    One thing that might help shape answers (although you've received a number of good ones already), is if you could maybe tell us what your intended market is. Are you writing adult fiction or YA? – Thomo Sep 6 '17 at 22:37
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    Holy run-on sentences, Batman! – barrycarter Sep 9 '17 at 2:36
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The first issue I see here is not that the writing is repetitive but that the details are banal. That is, they are bits of everyday life that happen to everyone. They are repetitive or everyday life without telling us anything specific or vivid about your character of your story.

Yes, sometimes your characters live banal lives and do banal things, but detailing them just makes the writing tedious. This is the time to tell rather than show. If you cannot skip the banal parts of their life altogether, state them as briefly as possible and get on to the parts of the story that are vivid and distinct.

The details you want in a story are the "telling details", the details that tell a story for themselves, the details that bring a hundred other details rushing into the reader's head. Some of the most vivid passages in literature are very brief, but they make excellent use of telling details to highlight the exceptional in a vivid way.

Focus on what is vivid and original in your story, not what is routine and banal and the feeling of repetition is likely to disappear of its own accord.

  • Yes. That first paragraph is one that I'd write in my first draft, then axe from the second. So your second example would begin (if I wrote it) "Gabrielle drives up to Crayla Town." – Ken Mohnkern Sep 5 '17 at 12:57
  • Sometimes less really is more. – Thomo Sep 6 '17 at 22:23
  • +1. If any detail in your story doesn't help the story unfold, you should remove it. If a detail reveals something important about a character, place, event etc. then keep it. Otherwise, bin it. For example, does the fact that G unlocks her phone actually move the story along? Unless the fact that her phone is usually locked is a ploy point later on, it is irrelevant and needs to go. – Kramii Reinstate Monica Sep 7 '17 at 9:06
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  1. Syntax

    Break up your sentences. One sentence, one statement. E.g. "Gabrielle walks out of her appartment and feels the coldness of the outside hit her." Delete filler. E.g. "Gabrielle walks out of her appartment and the cold of the outside hits her." Avoid unconnected lists of events. E.g "As Gabrielle walks out of her appartment the cold of the outside hits her." (Same with "shivers and walks, gets and drives".)

  2. Emotion

    Expand and vivify. E.g. "She shivers and hunches her shoulders, as she walks down the path to the driveway, dreading the long ride in the ice cold car." I'm making up Gabrielle's dread, you'll need to find some fitting reaction of your protagonist to the cold yourself. The important part is that your protagonist must react to what you throw at her. If it is cold, the cold must mean something to the protagonist. Ideally it will foreshadow something about your story (e.g. the cold is a part of what your story is about). If the cold (or anything else) is meaningless to your protagonist and does not bear on the story, do not describe it or your writing will appear bland and unemotional.

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Is it possible that you are writing a novel but your skills and/or interests are better suited to a screenplay? Your descriptions sound more like stage directions than like those in a novel. If your plot, characters and dialog are strong, but not your descriptions, maybe a play or a screenplay would be more your strength.

If you do want to write a novel, you'll need to make your descriptions more rich. Details in a good book usually play double duty --they set mood, convey emotional content, echo or reveal plot details, foreshadow conflicts, and most importantly, place you in the mind or the perspective of the character. Details that are just perfunctorily listed are meaningless and tedious for the reader.

One final note --it's hard to make the present tense sound natural in a narrative. The past tense is typically a much easier voice to write in, because it's how we almost always hear stories told to us in real life. Just recasting in the past tense makes your sample paragraphs automatically sound much better to me: "Gabrielle awoke to the sound of her phone’s loud beeping alarm. Yawning, she rolled onto her back and sat up, rubbing the crust out of her eyes. She begrudgingly patted down her nightstand until she found her phone, quickly unlocking it and silencing the alarm."

  • It's a little late to do that since I'm 5 chapters in... Do I really have to re-write everything to past tense? – AneiDoru Sep 5 '17 at 20:42
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    @AneiDoru after re-wrtiting half a chapter or maybe just one page, you may feel it's worth every minute of your time to re-do the 5 chapters. Better now than when you've written 16 chapters. – storbror Sep 6 '17 at 13:37
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    You don't have to do anything, much less follow advice from an internet resource. But it is one possible answer to the question you asked. And doing a major rewrite of five chapters is not unusual for a serious writer. I'm not sure what advice you hoped to get that wouldn't require rewrites. – Chris Sunami Sep 6 '17 at 13:55
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Read as much as you can in the genre. See how other authors reveal such information. Hold back everything until the last minute and then tell only the smallest details. The reader will be able to fill in the missing parts. Trust the reader.

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I think you are being too visual and too step-by-step; hoping to create an image / screenplay in the reader's head. But even in the movies, every second of film counts: This scene would be three lines in a movie and about two seconds each.

The ALARM; Gabrielle wakes up; grimaces, closes her eyes. Beat. She opens them and vaults out of bed."

CUT TO: She opens the door [dressed for winter and work]. Exhaling with a sigh of frozen breath she surveys the ice on the steps, and pulls her coat closer.

CUT TO: Gabrielle enters the building, removing her coat. The receptionist looks up, friendly and expectant.

DIALOGUE


Call these WAKING, STEPS, ENTRANCE: Even this would be too much if the cold (or Gabrielle's irritation with it) has no effect on the story. ENTRANCE could be removed: After STEPS, Gabrielle is just IN her new office and somebody walks in. The STEPS could be removed: A 2-second WAKING followed by Gabrielle IN-OFFICE and somebody walks in. ALL OF IT can be removed:

GABRIELLE: "That sounds perfect." / BOSS: "Excellent, see you tomorrow. Seven sharp." / GABRIELLE smiles and nods, hiding giddiness. / FADE OUT, FADE IN. / GABRIELLE is seated in her new office, an over-sized digital clock on her cubicle wall reads 7:02. BOSS walks in, irritated. "Shit, seven oh two. Sorry I'm late, it was unavoidable. Let's get started."

Of course in a novel this can be a little bit longer. Gabrielle might be thinking that ugly clock is the first thing to go, and then after her boss leaves, regard that clock with a silent exhale and whisper, I guess we're getting married, clock.

Every element you write should serve a purpose that matters later in the story. I added a hint of the Boss's obsessive punctuality; I can use that to pressure Gabrielle (or him) into something later. Or at least it is a character quirk I can use repeatedly to make him unique in the reader's mind.

[As Mark noted] you are including details that do not matter to the story. To get out of your formula; I suggest a different formulaic approach that won't be evident on the page. Prioritize!

At every scene closure, go through all your characters in the story. What is each one of them going to do next? What is the next decision for them, or the next event that happens to them? Is it time for them to accomplish something, or to fail at something? What do they feel? What do they want?

Go through all of them. Then pick which is most immediate, which is most important, which one takes another little step that changes something in the reader's mind. That is your next scene. In the story, time may have passed, so after that scene do it again.

In the hijack of your story above (without much knowledge!) I decided the next important thing after Gabrielle gets the job is discovering her new boss is sincerely irritated with himself for being two minutes late, which has some obvious future implications for her and the job she needs.

If I wanted this to actually be a problem for her; I can go back to earlier scenes and show Gabrielle being casually late, oversleeping, losing track of time, etc. Because then those details would not be banal or meaningless. They are character development that really matters to the plot.

I sometimes use the same priority device for conversations; especially in a group. In my notes, everybody has something to say or ask, and I figure out what it is: The person(s) that speak next are the ones with the most important thing to offer or ask.

I sometimes use the same priority device for describing settings: What is the most important thing about this environment? In Gabrielle's office, the over-sized clock. Not her chair, the lighting, or the hook where she hung her coat. In some other story, it might be a high-capacity shredder in every office, or cameras focused on a screen bolted into position, or two separate phones on a small desk.

Some settings just don't matter: a cubicle is a cubicle, any effect it has on the story line is just because cubicles provide very little privacy (or some are larger than others, or more conveniently located, or higher-ranked, etc, then elements that matter get described).

Other elements can matter, too. Atmosphere can set reader expectations; details can matter without the reader realizing they matter. Settings can reflect emotions, too: Confessing your love on the banks of a crystal river on a clear autumn day is different than confessing your love in a gritty city alleyway, or confessing your love in a spotlessly sterile hospital waiting room.

So when I say things must matter I mean they must have an effect on the plot, on a character's decisions, or on the reader, even if that effect is not consciously recognized by the reader.

One such thing (the reader may not notice) is character details that keep bit part characters from becoming too anonymous. They may not have an effect on the plot, but serve to keep sketched characters distinct in the reader's mind.

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I'll keep this short :)

First drafts often have this prolixity. In later drafts, you can combine and delete sentences with ease. Which details need to stick in the story?

The real trick for advanced writers is not how to condense sentences, but how to recognize that several paragraphs can be deleted without damaging the story itself. When can you delete entire scenes?

Some questions to ask about your example paragraphs: 1)why do we even need a passage about Gabrielle waking up at all? and (for the second paragraph) 2)why do we need this exposition?

Don't get me wrong; you might have worthy reasons for this approach.

By the way, clocks don't say anything! Who cares about clocks!

Try: Waking up at 6:30 turned out to be a real drag. It was the first day at .........

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  1. Set up your POV:

    • Omnipotent: Knows everything already, and isn't constrained by the limits of time and space.

    • First person: Focuses on one person, it tells everything through their eyes and leaves out things they don't know, but it's subjective as heck.

    • Third person: You walk around, following the hero(es), but don't need to be subjective about stuff.

    • Changing: You change POVs at a given structure level. Might or might not qualifies you as a lazy hooligan, especially if you break the flow by saying "John Doe's POV".

  2. How our brains work:

    • We associate stuff with other stuff. This connection might be logical or illogical.

    • Give the information scattered, and bring up stuff when it gets into a character'smind, and is important enough, but being important is enough for third person.

If the world is damn complex, then you can still use child characters, "I got teleported here from our world" characters, and "I have amnesia" characters (that one has the benefits of losing normal memory, but not stuff like muscle-memory), and the Encyclopedia Exposita, a book that was might or might not been written by enraged neckbeards, and contains everything you need to know about the world.

  1. Voice: different writers tend to have different voices, and thus, different "personalities", that might or might not correlate with their real-life ones. For instance:

J.R.R. Tolkien: Feels like if grandpa was telling a tale.

C.S. "Multilaser" Goto: A sadistic chaos spawn, who enjoys torturing Eldars and falls into coma (,) if he can't write down the word: "Multilaser" in the next page of his current "book".

I also have my own: descriptions that are strictly self-contained and allow no room for creativity, offensive jokes are played up to the extreme (funny), attempts (and fails) at following pre-established guidelines, abhors the use of metaphors, as (he thinks) it drops the reader out of the story, if you write: "her legs were noodles", so replaces them with a metric load of verbs.

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