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Short Form Storytelling, Part 3: The Three Types of Compression

compression in storytelling graphic for article by Story Science written by James Gilmore

Finally we have come to part 3 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. If you missed out on the earlier installments, be sure to read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here and Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

Previously we discussed the different ways in which you can compress elements in your story to make it denser and more efficient. Now we are going to discuss the three main categories of compression and how each applies to storytelling.

Compression falls into three basic categories: (1) Structure (2) Character, and (3) Text, with Structure being the most basic of the three and Text the most involved. Within each category are five points, or ways, in which to utilize compression in that category. Before we get into the bread and butter of the discussions, here is a short sweet summary of the 15 points we will address in this article:

STRUCTURE: Events, plot points, story development.

  1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
  2. Aim high, go far.
  3. Get in late, get out early.
  4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
  5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.

CHARACTER: Cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions.

  1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
  2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
  3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
  4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
  5. Use meaningful character names.

TEXT: The action of the story, including descriptions and visuals.

  1. Remove redundant beats and information.
  2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
  3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
  4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
  5. Cut extraneous details.

STRUCTURE COMPRESSION

Involves events, plot points, and story development. The shorter the piece the more compressed it needs to be.

How do you compress structure?

1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
This creates structural compression by giving you the most amount of time to develop the story instead of having the audience wait around for something to happen. The more aggressive your plotting, the more compressed your structure will be and will help you with points 2-5 (below). Inexperience storytellers often take too long to get to the plot rolling or take too long to reach the point of the story.

2. Aim high, go far.
Use an aggressive structure to develop your plot as far as possible during the course of your story, going from point A to point B with minimal chaff between the two. This allows you to get the most out of your plot by granting you the time to explore your theme and its related subthemes and variations to the fullest extent.

3. Get in late, get out early.
Enter the plot as late as possible with as much exposition and introductory story taking place “off screen” before the first actual moment of your story. Doing this creates greater subtext and grabs the audience’s attention right away instead of boring them with a mountain of setups and exposition. “Get in late, get out early” not only applies to your overall plot but your scenes as well.

4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
Take one event and give it multiple uses. Although one of the most basic methods of compression, young storytellers usually fail to do this. Film is a good place to observe this point in practice. For example: Johnny finds the gun under his wife’s pillow, which tells him she is hiding something from him (the gun at the very least), but also provides Johnny with a murder or self defense weapon in the future, but additionally sets up the situation to make him look like he is his wife’s murderer when he actually had nothing to do with it. Instead of giving each of these developments their own separate events with dedicated “screen time” for each, we can simply combine (compress) them into one single event with multiple uses.

5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
No matter how cool or interesting a scene may be, if it does not reveal character (preferably someone in the main cast) or advance the plot then it has no place in your story. Ideally, each element will do both, although this is not always possible.

CHARACTER COMPRESSION

Involves cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions. Prose requires the least character compression while film and the stage demand the most.

How do you compress character(s)?

1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
This is accomplished by moving important action and dialogue from minor characters to major ones, or by combining several characters into one or, more often than not, both (the first leading to the second). Unlike long form storytelling, in short form you do not have the time or space to handle a large cast of characters, although you do have more leeway in prose than in film or poetry. In its adaptation from book to film, The Fellowship of the Ring compresses dozens of minor characters into the main cast, making them fuller and more active in the story. Broadway Musicals are especially adept at this type of character compression, as can be seen when comparing Wicked to its original book form and Spamalot to the film on which it is based.

2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
A completely uncompressed character would have everything about him/her explained right away with nothing held back. Not only is this dull but it is also an exposition-heavy block to dump on an audience at the beginning. Instead, hold back information about the character for as long as possible without depriving the audience of plot necessities. This will keep the audience interested and increase their emotional investment and the impact of revelations when they are finally made.

3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
Essentially, “show, don’t tell” (in and of itself a natural form of compression). Instead of saying Character A is an alcoholic, show him drinking. Instead of having another character comment on how much the protagonist cares for others, illustrate what the protagonist does that is caring to others. Don’t tell us the character is good at something, show us through his actions and decisions.

4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
Developing as much about a relationship as possible without having to overtly express it on the page or screen influences how your characters interact with each other. Such implications add both depth and implied history to your characters, making them seem more relatable and whole to the audience. If you haven’t made a habit out of writing character bios, now might be a good time to start because this is where they will come in handy.

5. Use meaningful character names.
Throwaway names add nothing to your story, but names which enhance the meaning of the character’s personality, background, and/or role in the story are worth more than any number of words of imagery. A name can convey a large amount of information about a character without ever having to spell it out. For example, if you were creating a mystery story, which name would convey the most information: (a) Bob Jones (b) Billy the Kid, or (c) Professor Pathfinder?

TEXT COMPRESSION

Involves the action of the story, including descriptions and visuals. Text compression squashes description, action, and visuals into a smaller space by using more efficient text than the original—e.g., less is more. This is where we get to the real meat and bones of compression.

How do you compress text?

1. Remove redundant beats and information.
Compacting information into efficient beads of story is the most basic form of compression. A beat is a subunit of a scene which represents the playing out of a single tactic by the character driving the scene. It can also be seen as a small interplay between characters about a single thing. By reducing beats that are repetitive or repeat information unnecessarily you can make your story leaner and stronger by making less say more. Master this point of compression and your story will improve tenfold.

2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
Compressing text increases its density while also creating subtext. This becomes really obvious when you compare the text density of short fiction to that of a novel. Certain forms (such as poetry and film) require higher levels of text density than others (novel, tv series, etc.). Text that is compressed into subtext will make the audience read between the lines more often, giving them more to do mentally and thereby creating greater engagement. Give them too little and you are insulting their intelligence. Assume the audience is equally as intelligent as you and you will be surprised at how much they understand.

3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
Although scenes are technically elements, this point refers specifically to elements on a smaller, more specific scale than scenes. Essentially, an element is any construct that artificially influences the story, such as events and plot points (as mentioned previously), characterizations, decisions, a chance encounter with a small character, an object or prop, something from the protagonist’s background, or even relationships (although not limited to this list by any means).

4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
Show, don’t tell. This cannot be said enough. There is a time and a place for summary (or a montage) but for the most part don’t just tell your audience about the world of your story and its inhabitants, show them by example. Unfortunately, this issue plagues the storytelling world of professionals and amateur alike, but it is especially important for newer storytellers to learn how to show—not tell—their story.

5. Cut extraneous details.
Whereas the first point of text compression involved cutting redundant information, this point deals with cutting information that is not pertinent to the story. It may be interesting that the character writes greeting cards for a living but unless it plays into the story somehow that is required for the telling of the story then it only gets in the way and dilutes the plot and/or theme. The shorter the work the more vigilant you have to be in keeping those superfluous details out of your story.

 

In the quest for perfecting your creative work, sometimes storytellers need help. Contact Storysci to put your project back on the right track.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression

storysci.com screenshot image of screenplay about storytelling compression in part 2 of 3-article series

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. You can read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here.

Just because we saved the subject of compression for last does not mean it is less important than the points discussed in Part 1. As a matter of fact, it is so important in short form storytelling that we dedicated several articles to it, because compression is vital to understanding short form.

Compression.

It’s a mysterious word packed full of meaning. So what is it?

Many writers don’t know what “compression” means in terms of storytelling. Does this make them bad storytellers? No more than not knowing how many color rods are in the human eye will make someone a terrible interior designer. But knowing about compression and how to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Compression makes your story denser by compacting more information into less space. Whereas cutting material out altogether may achieve a similar purpose, by compressing you are not only trimming fat to make your story more lean and efficient but making it denser as well. Compression creates text density through subtext by implying information that is not otherwise made explicit. The audience must read between the lines to determine what is being meant by that which is not said. Therefore:

  • Text density is essentially how much information is packed into a segment of text or screen time.
  • Low density text conveys only what is written with little need for deeper thought or examination of subtext: “He moved the chair away from the table.” Genre fiction novels (mystery, western, romance, etc.) tend to have moderate to low text density.
  • High text density implies a lot of information without having to say much at all and may be used to demonstrate deeper, unspoken subtext: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (attributed to Hemingway). Literary fiction probes the human condition through moderate to high text density.
  • Short form is most effective when using moderate to high text density.

To see exactly how compression works, let’s use it in reverse on the six word short story quoted above (the one attributed to Hemingway) to decompress the dense subtext packed into that one tragic sentence. Imagine that sentence as a 10-page short story with moderate compression. Now as a 200+ page novel with low compression. Over the course of story we may get a brisk summary of their wedding day, honeymoon, emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, etc., while spending the last half of the story tracking their emotional desolation over having lost a child.

Now let’s compare:

Compression: (Ultra)
High
Moderate Low
Word
Count:
6 4,000-5,000 75,000-100,000+
Pages: <1 10 200+
Minutes
(film):
3 10 120

After all of that, which version would you say was the most effective? The six-word form uses the least text but packs more emotional impact than a single sentence in any of the other forms. That is the power of compression. Saying more with less makes the audience actively fill in the blank, creating greater audience involvement, more emotional investment and thus a more powerful impact.

So now that we’ve talked about compression, let’s list the five most common ways in which you can use it to tighten your story (in order of importance):

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant beats and information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.
  • Imply deeper characterizations and relationships through illustration, such as using meaningful names and places.

(A more in-depth examination of these points will follow in our next article: Part 3: The Three Types of Compression.)

Three things you should know about compression:

  • Younger storytellers tend to use less compression than mature storytellers.
  • Many writers (especially young ones) dive into writing short form without understanding how it differs from long form, resulting in a bloated short story with low compression like a novel. This approach can work but it seldom results in a piece that is as effective as one with higher compression.

COMPRESSION PRACTICE

It’s easy to put information onto the page or the screen, but it’s another thing entirely to compact that information into less space and have it say twice as much (or more). An excellent way to learn compression is by studying the discipline of screenwriting, where compression reigns supreme. And of course there are also writing exercises, such as the one below, designed to help you flex your compression skills.

  1. Write a one paragraph short story, description or character bio.
  2. Now write a new version of it but condensed down to a single sentence. Try to preserve as much information from the original as possible, implicit or explicit.
  3. And finally, the hard part: Condense your sentence down to seven words or less, preserving as much information as possible from the previous two versions, most of which will now be implied through subtext rather than explicitly stated through text.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our article series on short form storytelling where we will be examining the different methods of implementing compression in much greater detail.

 

Need help with compression? Storysci is here! Contact us to put your creative work back onto the road to success.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 1: One Story, One Idea

Let’s start with the obvious: What is short form storytelling?

Short form is a story condensed into a brief, compressed format.

Storytellers tend to receive the majority of their training in long form techniques so this article is devoted to preparing you for short form storytelling, specifically the short story and short film.

What is considered short form?

Short form includes such familiar formats as television (30 minute sitcoms, one-hour dramas, etc.), short stories, short films and poetry, whereas long form includes the feature-length film, novel, and epic poem. Of course there are also forms which fit somewhere in the middle, like the long story, novelette, and 70-minute film.

Although the numbers vary depending on who you ask, here are some quick and dirty guidelines to give you an idea of lengths for short and long forms:

SHORT FORM LONG FORM
Film: under 70 minutes 70+ minutes
Prose: 7,500 pages or less 7,500 pages or more
Poem: up to 2 pages 2 pages or more

Typically a short film is under 30 minutes long but they can run up to 70 minutes. For more information on word counts in prose, refer to Prose Length and Word Count.

Shorter is simpler, but harder

Short form is deceptively difficult. It’s tempting to believe that shorter means easier, and while it does make the story simpler, it actually makes the piece more difficult to perfect. Most writers are accustomed to long form storytelling because that is the easiest way to fully express their ideas. In short form you do not have the luxury to explore every nook and cranny of your idea, so you can only include that which is absolutely relevant and necessary for your story.

In fact, short form is so challenging that many famous literary authors of the 20th century believed that the short story was not only the hardest type of story to write, but also the finest mark of a writer’s ability. Many an author has spent his/her career attempting to perfect the short story. (Short film and poetry have similar stories.)

Short Form is About One Idea

The key to short form is to concentrate on one clearly defined idea and bring it to fruition. The nature of short form does not allow you to cram more than one main idea into a short story without diluting its impact and creating an ambiguous mess. You also do not have the luxury of spending long periods developing characters or fleshing out your B- and C-plots. The longer your story becomes the greater its complexity will be, making it more difficult a story to tell. So keep your story compressed and strong by staying simple and always focused on your main idea.

Only that which is necessary and relevant

Short form is a compressed storytelling format where every ingredient has to carry its own weight. Prose, visuals, events and characters must count absolutely and definitively with no room for extraneous details or events. We call this necessary action. Necessary action means that only material directly relevant to the story should be included. Each element should be lean and efficient. Where possible, make each element count for multiple uses in regards to character, plot and theme.

Why Short Form is Worth the Effort

Although the market for short form storytelling is very select, it can be one of the best ways to improve your craft and learn invaluable skills such as compression (the subject of Part 2 of this article).

A few things you will learn while using short form:

  • How to tell stories efficiently.
  • How to say more with less (by means of compression).
  • How the story creation process works from beginning to end because it takes less time to complete short formats than long ones.

In the end, you may discover a new found joy in working with short form. Not only is short form liberating in its brevity, it requires a smaller commitment than long form and will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of your craft.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

 

Want to perfect your short film, script, play or story? Contact StorySci to get professional help right away.

Powerful Rewriting Tools #1: The Laundry List

Rewriting is difficult. It’s daunting. It can be overwhelming.  And every writer has been there.

Rewriting (also called “editing”) is a different skill from writing with its own set of techniques. While the initial writing process utilizes many of your instinctual and emotional creative energies, the rewriting process taps into a separate part of your brain, making use of your logical and analytical acumen. No matter which way you approach rewriting, it is still mentally taxing and a lot of hard work.

rewriting tools the laundry list to rewrite creative fiction story scienceTo help you through this brain intensive process we are going to bring you a series of powerful rewriting tools, the first of which is called the Laundry List. The Laundry List is a “to-do” list of items that need work in your current draft, allowing you to organize and address each issue with surgical precision and without becoming lost or sidetracked.

Here’s the short version:

  1. Read the piece all the way through.
  2. Reread the piece again, this time making notes in the form of a to-do list.
  3. Rewrite your piece based on only one item at a time.
  4. Address all items on list.

Now let’s break it down:

Step back, let it sit.
You’ve just finished the colossal task of completing a draft and you are feeling on top of the world. Your head is still awhirl with the details as you enjoy a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Don’t jump into rewriting yet. Leave it alone for a few weeks, possibly a few months (3-6 months at most).

Reread it from beginning to end.
Now you can return to your draft with a fresh set of eyes. Dust off the old manuscript and reread the entire piece from beginning to end without stopping to rewrite. Allow yourself to make a few notes along the way but don’t start the actual rewriting process until you have finished your read-through. This will re-familiarize you with the material as work your way through the next step.

Make a to-do list.
Read the piece again, this time making a to-do list of every item, big or small, that needs addressed. Be sure to designate which issues are major and which of those are minor. How you organize your list is up to you, but here are a few suggestions:

  • OUTLINE: Traditional outline with smaller issues nested beneath larger parent items.
  • COLUMNS: Place issues under major headings such as character, structure, protagonist desire, etc.
  • CHRONOLOGICAL: List items in the order that they occur in your story, using some kind of notation to indicate if major or minor.

Rewrite with purpose.
Each item of your laundry list gives you a clear, reasonable goal to work toward and will keep you from becoming overwhelmed. As you tackle each issue only work on one item at a time, no matter how tempting it is to do more. It’s very easy get sidetracked and lost if you don’t stick to your goal.

Start with the big things, end with the small things.
Address major issues first. The bigger, the better. You can go smaller from there. By fixing the major issues you will probably eliminate some of the smaller points on your laundry list and save the unnecessary stress and hair loss of having to cut minor rewrites that have become irrelevant during subsequent revisions of major points. Things like dialogue polishes and punctuation, vocabulary, etc. should be saved for last.

And voila! You have just completed a thorough rewriting of your piece. It takes some work, but by diligently chipping away at your lump of raw material bit by bit until you have your very own Statue of David left in its place. So the next time you are thinking about jumping into the editorial pool start by making yourself a Laundry List and soon you will be on the road to rewriting your next masterpiece.

Until next time, bon courage and keep writing!

The Turntable Group Writing Exercise

Gather ‘round writers and wordsmiths, it’s time for the Turntable Group Writing Exercise, from Story Science. This is a great exercise for writing groups, classrooms, teams, comedians and friends. Think of it as improvisational writing in a collaborative environment, a group brainstorming session.

Story Science atom logo for the Turntable Writing Exercise blog article.Why: Because two (or more) minds are better than one. Writing is a very solitary activity, requiring the storyteller to isolate himself for many hours at a time in order to tap into the creative energies fluttering about inside his or her brain. Today we are going to be social and write together.

Purpose: To engage in a group improvisational freewrite. Also, it’s fun.

Challenge: Your group is going to write a collaborative story, scene or sketch. Come to an agreement on the exercise terms before you begin, such as length, format, and if any house rules apply. On a piece of paper or using collaborative document software*, every person in the group will take turns writing a sentence, line, or short beat before passing it on to the next person. This repeats until the agreed upon length is reached or someone writes “THE END.” Don’t be surprised if the final result looks like something out of a comedy sketch show or an episode of a daytime soap opera (that’s part of the fun).

RULES:

  • Start with an opening and end with a conclusion.
  • Use a stack of paper or some form of collaborative document software so everyone can read the results.
  • Come to a group consensus on terms before starting, including length, format, and any house rules.
  • Screenplay or stageplay formats work very well for this exercise but prose, rhyme or poetry have their place too if your group is up to the challenge.
  • The action must occur within the same scene/location.
  • Do not hog the table. You are allowed to write more than one sentence, but limit the length to one beat or less. Pass onto the next person.
  • The exercise is over when it has been concluded and someone has written THE END.
  • At the end, assign segments to members in the group and read the entire piece aloud.

VARIATIONS:

  • Anyone can “cut” to a new location or scene.
  • Place a time limit on each person’s turn. When the time is up, control must be passed onto the next person, even if the current writer is mid-word.
  • Every other line must rhyme.
  • Make it a musical: insert song numbers/lyrics like a musical libretto.
  • Make it a piece of prose short fiction with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Add a tag or postscript after THE END.


*See examples here.

The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise

In the promised follow-up to our last article, Turn that Scene on its Head, today we will be discussing an exercise to assist in pepping up your scenes by taking an ordinary situation and making it extraordinary.

Stock photo of two businessmen boxing, a comical metaphor for an outrageous writing exercise.
Why: The golden rule of entertainment in any form is DON’T BE BORING.  Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing “safely” where their characters act and react as would be expected of a normal person under similar circumstances, resulting in the scene being both predictable and dull.  Audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not bored to death.

Purpose: To turn a predictable scene into an interesting one by altering a character’s reaction to changing circumstances.

Challenge: Take an existing scene (or write a new one) in which a character finds himself or herself in a situation that has just changed.  Consider what the normal reaction might be for a character in those circumstances and then flip things around and have him/her react in a way that is diametrically opposite.  The reaction should be outrageous and unexpected.  Next, play out the consequences of this reaction.  You will then need to write a justification for this behavior (which may or may not appear in the same scene).

RULES:

  • For purposes of this exercise, your character’s reaction should be diametrically and outrageously opposite of what is previously written or normally expected. The more outrageous, the better.
  • The exercise works best when the situation is very normal or mundane. This lends more impact to the outrageous behavior which follows. (Need a little inspiration? Notalwaysright.com is a gold mine.)

EXAMPLES:

  • An office worker is called into his boss’s office and sacked.  The former employee doesn’t cry or beg to keep his job, he rejoices.
  • A young woman has just been asked out on a date by the man of her dreams.  Her reaction?  She starts screaming bloody murder.
  • A young man discovers he’s just won the lottery jackpot and this makes him very, very angry.
  • A mother’s oldest child has just moved out to go to college.  Instead of crying her eyes out she breaks out the wine coolers and redecorates the child’s room.
  • A married man comes home to find his wife waiting for him.  She promptly demands a divorce.  The man can barely contain his joy.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

Challenge yourself by making the exercise more difficult:

  • Attempt to justify the character’s unexpected reaction within the scene.
  • Add a double twist by having the character enter the situation expecting one thing but instead receives the opposite.  His unexpected reaction is harder to justify but also very interesting.
  • For an even greater challenge, choose an incident which could go either way, such as a woman just discovering that she has superpowers.  Both positive and negative reactions are expected.  How will you surprise us?

Improve Your Writing with Verbs

If global successes like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have taught us anything, it’s that the clarity of your writing is vital to successful storytelling. Clarity is achieved through solid forward action, vivid imagery free from over-indulgent qualifiers, and in particular the effective management and use of verbs, especially action verbs.

Verbs propel the action of your text forward by communicating how something is observed or achieved. They are simpler, clearer and pack more punch per word than adjectives or adverbs, which are often ambiguous and flimsy by comparison. Understanding how to use verbs can give life to your writing by transforming your dull prose into a crackling thunderbolt.

Here are three ways you can improve your writing with verbs:

(1) Replace “to be” (être) verbs with action verbs.

“To be” verbs are passive and static, serving only to transmit information as statements of fact. On the other hand, action verbs describe things that happen in a way that is both active and dynamic, engaging your audience by pulling them directly into immediacy with the text. Action verbs have the added bonus of making your writing more crisp and efficient by eliciting a very specific impression in the mind of your audience without filling your text with qualifying descriptors.

(2) Replace descriptive padding with effective verbs.

Reduce “descriptive padding” by eliminating purple prose in favor of effective verbs which communicate concrete imagery. Adjectives and adverbs are often ambiguous and overused, especially among young writers. When used as “padding” (to make things seem more interesting) these descriptives and qualifiers actually bog down the pacing of your text while diminishing its clarity, even when you think you are increasing it. Action verbs can accomplish the same task with fewer words and in simpler form. Don’t bloat your pages with hot air; fill them with qualitative prose instead.

(3) Understand how to upgrade your verbs.

Upgrading a verb takes an action and makes it more specific by increasing the amount of emotion and intent behind the action. Every time you upgrade a verb you are upgrading the intensity it communicates. Observe how a simple sentence becomes more vivid as we upgrade the verb “TAKES” to further extremes:

He TAKES the book from her hands.
He PLUCKS the book from her hands.
He SNATCHES the book from her hands.
He WRENCHES the book from her hands.
He RIPS the book from her hands.

Notice how each verb upgrade creates a newer, more intense version of the same action without lengthening the sentence or diminishing its pace.

Understanding how to use verbs—especially action verbs—to improve your writing is important to all specializations of the craft. Nouns, adjectives and adverbs are useful parts of speech but they cannot convey the same level of emotion or action as the appropriate action verb can.

Until next time, this is STORY SCIENCE signing off. We would love to hear about your favorite sentences or phrases made incredible through the use of action verbs. Be sure to post on our facebook page or contact us on twitter and share your favs!

Remember: The power of prose rests with verbs.