Missed Part 6? Read it here:
“The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling”
Okay, so we’ve spent six parts talking about writing in general terms, about keeping it fun but not reckless, accessible but not a smorgasbord of ideas. Sure, that’s great, but how do we synthesize it all into the elements needed to craft a proper story?
Throughout the years I’ve been studying how to write well, I’ve learned plenty of essential rules for maintaining reader interest. Some of these rules include:
- Don’t overwrite. Set the scene as quickly as you can so you can get right to the action. Nobody cares how many props are sitting on the counter beside your hero. Readers want you to get to the point.
- Don’t over explain. Trust your reader’s intuition. Just because the world is full of people who need their hands held for everything doesn’t mean your readers are among that population. They’re readers, after all. Not mouth breathers. They’re inherently seekers of knowledge and wisdom, and admire any writer who trusts them to think for themselves.
- Show, don’t tell. Fiction in particular is a medium for the imagination, but nobody wants to imagine so much that they inevitably tell the story themselves. They still want the writer’s viewpoint and voice to shine through. Leaving out too many actions in order to explain concepts or history lessons puts more work on the reader’s mind than he or she deserves, and a good story, while allowing room for some imagination, will ultimately lead the reader down a path of understanding that is uniquely funneled through the vision of the writer.
- Make sure somebody changes. Usually you want the hero to go through a change, or character arc, as I’ve mentioned above, before the story ends, but even if the change is delegated to others on the actions of the hero, then that seems to work, too. Writing a story where nothing changes means writing a story that isn’t worth telling, or reading.
- Make sure it has a satisfying ending. This is a complicated piece that deserves its own blog, chapter, or entire book to flesh out, but the basic premise is ingrained in our cores. We want the ending to make sense and leave a satisfying finish to the gripping tale we’ve just spent eight hours or so reading. To give readers anything less, including a cliffhanger that does more to frustrate readers than to entice them to read the next installment, or an ending where a character, who should’ve died based on the events of the story, lives because it would be “too sad” otherwise, is damaging to us and our readership, and should be avoided.
- Write a story that people want to read, or for nonfiction writers, a topic that people care about. This means understanding what makes a story worth telling. This means addressing complications and developing a path that leads to a solution. In a way, this applies to both fiction and nonfiction. But that also means that the problem should in fact be a problem. Trying to save a marriage in spite of one partner cheating is a problem laced with a difficult solution and no clear answer to success, and thus a topic or story worth exploring. Trying to make breakfast when the toaster is on the fritz is less of a crisis and doesn’t demand a whole book to solve. (Pro tip: Use the stove or the microwave to make breakfast, or go to McDonald’s. No book needed. That advice is free.)
- Obey your own rules. If you establish natural rules or laws in your story, make sure your characters follow those laws. If you bend natural rules early on to establish a new paradigm for your characters, make sure everything involved in your story stays true to that. The moment you violate your own rules, you create anarchy within your story, and the reader will be quick to check out, as he or she would rather live in a world that adheres to order. Plus, you know, suspension of disbelief has limits….
- Keep it accessible. Writers like David Mamet and Cameron Crowe can get away with a certain writing style as it translates to their characters because that’s what audiences pay to listen to or read. Readers and audiences know that their characters will speak a higher English than average to capture the poetry of the situation, almost like a modern-day Shakespeare. But it takes a certain talent, and reason, to pull this off well. Most readers, however, prefer more accessible characters with more accessible speaking styles than these high art characters, and to write them unnaturally can complicate the reader’s reception of them.
- Be consistent. Going along with obeying your own rules, you want to also obey your style. Nothing spells eyesore worse than moving from elevated language to lowbrow and back, or switching between omniscient and first person points of view, or even swapping verb tense.
- Be grammatically correct. This also follows along with consistency, in that readers want professionalism to show up in anything they read. As soon as they see a sentence that has no ending, or a word that’s misused, or a proper noun that isn’t capitalized, they feel cheated, and no writer should want to cheat his reader.
- Always revise until there’s nothing left to fix. This one’s a trick, as there will always be something left to fix. Always. But, you can adjust the story and fix the mistakes until it resembles a competent work. Then you can decide if you want to keep fixing it. However, the key here is that revisions are necessary, no matter which stage of writing the draft is in, and the earlier you are in the process, the more time you’ll need to put into fixing it.
And so on. This list is pretty standard in writing, and anyone who’s spent enough time writing anything will confirm how important these points are to follow. But this list should be merely a launching point for anyone who wants to study the craft of writing (whether for fun or for business), and not the final word, as there will always be experts who have more words to add and more wisdom to dispense than what you will find in any one place.
For example, I’ve taken a number of classes on how to write, but none of them really focused on the business of writing, and none of them had the time to devote to the structure of writing. Most, if not all, focused on the microscopic elements of writing—characters, settings, etc.—and not on foundations like the three-act structure, plot points, opening hooks, and so on. None of them spent time examining genre works, or the conventions of those genres. And, as I’ve studied my craft independently in my post-collegiate years, I’ve learned more and more about the storytelling necessities that I didn’t learn earning my degree, and, more importantly, how important it is to keep studying my craft no matter how much I think I already know. There’s always something new to learn, even if my early history shows that I already knew a lot intuitively.
So, my challenge to aspiring writers is to write for fun, but learn to write for fun within the confines of the rules required for your particular type of work. I don’t spend much time writing nonfiction, but my advice still stands. Learn what readers of nonfiction want before you start writing for that audience you’ve never met but want to teach. Writers of fiction should take as much time as possible learning the rules of fiction before tossing anything and everything they write out to an audience that may not like the type of worm they’re putting on the hook.
Writing doesn’t have to become the leading cause of baldness or drunkenness in our society. We can still leave those things to genetics. We just have to know why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and understand that sometimes writing isn’t fun, but it still needs to get done, because if we care a lick about sharing our perspectives of the world to other people who may or may not empathize with us, then the only way we’re gonna do that is to sit down and do it, whether we think it’s fun or not.
Next Week: “The Importance of Finding Useful Education and Resources”