Be Clever to Be Riveting

Has anyone ever told you how clever you are? No? Or maybe they said that to you but didn’t mean it in the way you’d wished. Sometimes being told we are clever is an insult, as if we’re being sneaky and deceptive.

However, I think clever is good. I like clever people. One definition of the word in Merriam-Webster is “marked by wit or ingenuity.” And what does ingenuity mean? Aside from “being clever” (don’t you love it when dictionaries give you circular definitions like this?), it means skillful in devising. Inventiveness.

Writers Should Be Clever

So it stands to reason that writers should be clever. We invent stories. We want to be skillful at our craft. Maybe you haven’t thought all that much about being clever, but I hope you’ll consider it. Consider using words, phrases, and ideas in a clever way so you can rivet your readers with fresh writing.

We can’t always be clever, but I’ve noted that many writers don’t even try. I edit and critique something like 100-200 manuscripts (partial or full) each year, and I don’t often see clever. In fact, sometimes I long so much for clever that even one great line will keep me going for chapters.

I would really like to see a lot more clever. And I don’t mean “wise-acre” clever (to borrow an old expression). I mean, I wish more writers would spend much more time on every line, every word. Clever words, phrases, and ideas turn ordinary writing into a fascinating read.

Being Clever Takes Work

I understand how difficult a task writing a novel is. Just getting all the big components of plot and story structure down is challenging work. Learning the writing craft takes thousands of hours, and much of writing is straightforward technique.

But I wonder if many writers stop short of going the extra little bit it takes to infuse a story with cleverness. Again, I don’t mean every word, every line, should be so full of wit, the hyperbole saturates the page like too many saccharine tablets in a small cup of coffee. Wit can be overdone, and can get tedious. We might never tire of a witty character like Sherlock Holmes, and we expect it in his banter. But if every line in every Holmes story was dripping with it—including the narrative and exposition—I think readers would gag.

We can’t wait and hope some witty inspiration strikes. It usually won’t. Being clever is a deliberate act, not something that magically happens. Well, maybe for a few, they just can’t help but be clever. Like it’s some kind of infection. I think about numerous Robin Williams’s comedy sketches as a case in point. I don’t think that man can not be clever. It could possibly be as much of a curse and a bother as a gift. Does he wake up in the middle of the night laughing at some clever thing he said in his dreams? I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Rest of Us Have to Work At It

Clever writing sticks with us. I can remember unique lines and phrases from books I read years ago—lines that stand out due to their cleverness. I’ve been reading numerous NY Times best sellers and have noticed a shift or trend that seems to lean heavily on the cleverness of writing. Many of these books are weak on plot, some almost without much plot at all. But they are selling in the millions. Why? I believe it mostly has to do with the line-by-line cleverness. Here are some examples from one book I love: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

  • “If you can’t imagine it, think clumsy silence. Think bits and pieces of floating despair. And drowning in a train.”
  • “Hans Hubermann wore a face with the shades pulled down.”
  • “She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.”

Zusak stretches his verbs, speaking of how the snow slurps at their feet, how someone clenches his face. You could say the microtension is in the voice and style of the narrative. It’s true—Zusak’s catchy structure is fresh, but what really stands out is this line-by-line cleverness that infuses the writing with microtension.

Take the Time to Add Themes and Motifs

Cleverness can be extended to phrases and ideas. When a writer uses a metaphor or concept in a unique way, we take note.  And to me, the most impacting use of clever writing comes in when a writer takes a phrase, motif, thought, thematic element, and weaves it into a scene, and sometimes even an entire novel. I’ve written a number of posts on motif and theme in the last two years. I’m a huge fan of motifs, and my favorite novels are ones with strong motifs.

It takes time to develop themes and motifs. Yes, it takes time to be clever. Consider printing out your manuscript and throwing the pages in the air and letting them fall to the floor. Then pick up a random page and read a random paragraph. What if you spent ten minutes just focusing on that one paragraph, trying to come up with a better, more clever way of saying what you may have said in a simple (boring) manner. Sure, maybe you just intended to write as concisely and simply as possible for a clean read. That’s all well and good. But if you could tweak one line, or even just a few words, to give it a fresh slant, wouldn’t that elevate your story just a tiny bit? What if you did that on every page? Just one sentence?

Throw Your Pages in the Air

One of the things I like to do in my final draft of a novel before I turn it in or publish it is to read through and find the flat, boring, nothing paragraphs. Yes, there are a lot! They might be sufficient, but I don’t want sufficient. I really want every word to be deliberate, to be exactly the word I need in that moment in the story. We will rush to put that first draft down on the page, but it’s in the finishing stages when we need to take time to infuse some cleverness into our writing. Sadly, way too many authors write way too many nothing sentences. Which turn into nothing scenes. Maybe they have a good idea, and the potential is there for a riveting scene. But without any clever writing, it’s just more of the same old, same old.

So, I hope you will spend some time working on your clever. Your writing will be improved, and your readers will notice. Hopefully they won’t call you a wise-acre but will be so riveted by your writing they will read every book you write.

Photo credit: Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

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  1. This post has me thinking. It seems to me there’s a very fine line, a treacherous line, between clever and affected. Between clever and trying too hard. Between clever and losing your own voice.

    I recently re-read some posts from my previous blog. I was doing the Blogher 30 challenge at the time I wrote them, which required posting every day for thirty days. Because I could’t always come up with something of importance to say, I focused on small ideas enhanced by clever and witty writing instead.(Kind of like Seinfeld, I see in hindsight!)

    When I read through those old posts, the writing seemed a wee bit over the top, a tiny touch forced, and not wholly me.(Although readers commented on their cleverness frequently.)

    So I guess what I’m saying is I’d like to learn to do clever better. Could you expand on this post with a follow-up, Susanne? Perhaps show us some of your before and afters? Or how you’d take a dull paragraph and clever it up?

    Great post. Thank you!

  2. Awesome post! I love this – “Being clever is a deliberate act, not something that magically happens.” I love the Book Thief too, and the witty writing is one of the things that makes it so memorable.

  3. This article covers a vital aspect of writing that can mean the difference between getting published – or not. I also work as an editor and story analyst, and prose that has been lovingly and thoughfully polished by an author is a rare quality in writers with less experience, yet it’s a huge part of what defines writing that stands out, gets attention, and garners fans. All your articles are informative and to the point, Susanne. Excellent advice for writers at all levels.

    1. I think working magic with words is a kind of cleverness, absolutely. That’s what I’m talking about. Using words in a fresh, invigorating way instead of the same old, same old. I spend about 8-10 hours a day professionally reading and editing and critiquing manuscripts, so I probably read a whole lot more words than most people. And not a lot of them have that magic you are talking about. Or cleverness, if you want to make some distinction between the two.

  4. Ms. Lakin,

    The examples you used consist of heavy doses of metaphor; they read like poetry more than book-prose. Not bad in small doses here and there, but this gets dense in a hurry and could slow down the pace of the book.

    There are other ways to be clever. One of my favorites is in the treatment of non-textual elements, the things that don’t show up on the page. For instance, I had a tragic scene in which a likable character is killed. I then segued that scene into one of absurd, slightly raunchy comedy. The reader is jolted into laughter, and doesn’t have to carry the sadness of the tragedy further along with them.

    So, cleverness can be about manipulating the reader’s emotions, their expectations, or their thinking, over long reaches spanning scenes and chapters. Make your cleverness exceed the reader’s immediate attention-span.

    1. There are lots of ways to be clever. The point is–don’t be formulaic and dull. There is too much of that out there and life is short.

  5. How clever should a teacher be? An accountant? A doctor? An electronic engineer?
    How long should a rubber band be?
    Does it matter?

    I suggest that a writer should be up to writing their own work in progress. In most cases they are, since intelligence (a word I prefer, as we may be within striking distance of defining it) is not a constant. Rubber bands extend when stretched.
    Your intelligence extends when stretched.

    And, writing what? ‘Care for your Toyota Corolla at home’? ‘Archery to Intermediate Level’? ‘The Monsters from Saturn’? I agree — don’t be formulaic and dull. But nobody sets out to be these things. They may happen: we become trapped by a formula until dullness enters the soul.

    Then we escape or stop writing.

  6. Good post. Maybe not every page, but strive to have something clever or magical in every chapter. A sentence or paragraph that sticks with you and people will remember and quote after reading the book.

  7. Wonderful post, thank you! I’ve always thought of what you describe here as “having an angle”, for some reason. It’s the foot in the door that I personally need to lever my way into a scene, whether it’s writing one or reading one, but particularly the former. Sometimes it’s a central image that carries through a scene, a chapter, or even a novel; sometimes it’s deliberate echoes of past dialogue suddenly relevant again but in a whole new way. What you say here about theme and motif is really the backbone of some kinds of writing, and can linger long after even the plot is forgotten!

    I understand it’s not to everyone’s taste (I’ve had readers excuse me of being lazy in using the same images and metaphors because they didn’t get that it was a deliberate thematic choice, lol) but I always find I’m more satisfied with my own work when I’ve attempted to infuse this kind of thing along the way. I think I would feel lazy if I simply said “He stood up and went to the door. He opened it. There was no-one there” etc. For me, that kind of prose serves to give readers breathing space between the clever parts, if you see what I mean. But if you do it exclusively, then it *is* pretty boring after a while.

    It’s so refreshing to see somebody address this issue. I’ve had similar discussions with writers who are more in the minimalist school of thought, but I’ve usually given up on them pretty quickly because it was obvious I wasn’t going to change their minds and they weren’t going to change mine. It depends very much on genre, I guess. A techno-thriller can benefit from streamlined prose but something like horror or gothic fiction can thrive on the sort of thing you describe – unexpected words thrown into the mix, a juxtaposition, an alliteration, intentional rhyming, all sorts of strange and beautiful things. It’s the invisible tension between the words, and I love it, and when I find somebody who writes it well they become an instant favourite. 🙂

  8. Great article. I don’t write fiction, but I do write poetry and am working on a natural Health book for the novice. I think that even nonfiction could be elevated with a little cleverness. In small doses, it could add more interest to what could be dry facts. I am going to look over my book and see if I can infuse a little ‘surprise’ here and there! Thank you again!

  9. Many fine points here, but my favorite is on the topic of theme. This is an area that I spend lots of time on when I teach fiction (especially in an intermediate class, once the basics are mastered). Your “scattered pages” suggestion is a good one: I like to spend time going page-by-page and making sure the theme appears and is developed (not staying flat). As one comment above notes, this might appear to lead to affection, but when done well, theme provides structure to a novel or story. That is, it doesn’t sit on top of the plot, it works to develop it.

  10. One way to learn to increase the cleverness of your writing is to read masters of cleverness (or originality which are close companions). My favorite cleverness master is Michael Chabon. Start with Telegraph Avenue–his most recent.

  11. Great article! I personally do not write novels but these are good tips any writer can use in any area. In my opinion being clever comes with experience, writing as well as reading articles or books from different authors.

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