Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grouping Words: Selection, Arrangement, Description.

Today I thought I’d start us on a writing journey. I think my entire writing career has been one long journey in which I am continually learning and sometimes the same thing over and over until it sticks.

As a writer my library is full of books that teach how to write. I refer to them often. One of my favorites is Dwight V. Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. If you see it in the book store snap it up. This book is a gold mine full of wonderful details that help strength your writing. I think you might find some of Mr. Swain’s advice as helpful as I have.

For instance, Mr. Swain talks about four things that you need to know to write a good story:

1) how to group words into motivation-reaction units
2) how to group motivation-reaction units into scenes and sequels
3) how to group scenes and sequels into story patterns
4) how to create characters that give your story life.

Today we’re going to work on the first point: how to group words into motivation-reaction units. This can be tricky. Have you ever read a scene, which is beautifully written, punctuation and grammar flawless, yet the ending is flat, the characters boring, and you have no desire to read more? Me, too. Why is that? Swain says it is because of selection, arrangement and description.


Helpful tools in selecting the right words are using the key questions of journalism: who, what, where, when, why and how. Who is the character the reader needs to follow? What is important to that character? When do we watch this character? Where is the character? What is the character doing? And why is he doing it? Now, apply how to the reader is viewing this? Are you writing in first-person or third person? Does the reader see everything through your protagonist’s eyes (first person)? Or through the writer’s eyes (third-person)? You can also view the scene through a bystander’s view, waiting for something to happen to him.


How you arrange what happens is very important. Do you present the scene in linear fashion or in a flashback? Have a good reason for arranging what happens and always remember the rules of cause and effect. The arrangement of words can add emphasis to your scene. Swain has a perfect example: if you show a gun, then a coffin, and then tears the emphasis of the scene is heartbreak. But if you show the coffin, then tears, and then the gun the emphasis shifts to revenge.


The description for a scene makes the scene come to life. Your goal is to paint a vivid picture with words to add texture. When possible use short concise descriptions, but if necessary a long description is the only way to get the job done. Remember vividness is your goal. The more you write the more your instincts will know when short descriptions or long descriptions work best. For example, a high action scene needs short descriptions to keep readers on the edge of their seats; however, a romantic scene may need long descriptions to evoke amorous emotions. Emotion is key and the right words selected, arranged and described are essential.

Next Wednesday we’ll discuss scene and sequels.


  1. Kathi,
    thanks for taking time to write these tips. It was a good reminder for me.

  2. It was a good reminder for me as well. Thanks for stopping by, Christy!



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