Writing advice is not that hard to find, in fact it’s everywhere. Some of it is very good, some of it not so much. The challenge is to sift through it until you separate the chaff from the wheat.
Princeton University’s Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches Creative Writing and is a multi-award winning novelist, does offer us some good general advice:
1. Write your heart out. 2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE. 3. You are writing for your contemporaries – not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity. 4. Keep in mind Oscar Wild: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” 5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice.) 6. Unless you are experimenting with form – gnarled, snarled & obscure – stick to the accepted format. 7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless. 8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader – or any reader. He/she might exist – but is reading someone else. 9. Read, observe, listen intently! – as if your life depended upon it. 10. Write your heart out. (Again).
There you have it. Good advice to guide your writing. Take the time to ponder upon it.
Study the suggestions of accomplished writers to glean good writing advice from their thoughts, statements and works.
Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.
Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:
A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.
In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:
If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.
Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.
The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.
“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”
In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.
Trial and Sentence.
Initially without pity, cynical.
Mistreated, but helped by another con.
Has to face the victims of his crime.
Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.
Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation.
Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.
In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.
Exercise:Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.
One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.
Nailing your story premise from the get-go can save you a lot of frustration later. A great story premise serves as the basis from which to grow your entire tale.
There was a time when I’d get an idea for a story and start writing right away, letting the muse guide me. The Nostalgia of Time Travel was such a muse-inspired story. But since then, running aground at sea made me think again. Sure, I still encourage the muse to ride on the mast and sprinkle her magic down on me, but I no longer set sail without a story map.
That map is the story premise—a compacted form of the tale, containing essential ingredients that act as a checklist for a yet-to-be-written story.
“Inevitably, your story premise improves when it hints at the secrets, wounds and flaws of your hero, the power of his nemesis, and the difficulty of attaining the story goal.”
There are many opinions about what constitutes a great premise. Here’s mine:
Introduce a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming outer challenge.
The pursuit of the challenge must be complicated by the hero’s secret, a wound or a flaw.
The story premise must include a powerful and intriguing nemesis.
It ought to exude a sense of verisimilitude, no matter how fantastical the story.
It should hint at a theme that is both personal and universal.
It must fascinate or intrigue.
Take the sentence: After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster must lead a band of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain.
This gives the reader an idea of the story, but it is colourless and thin. Filtering the idea through the first of our six must-haves we get:
After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster reluctantly steps up to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain, when no one else will.
“If your premise does not grab your attention from the get-go, neither will your fleshed-out story—at least not without many unnecessary rewrites.”
Not there yet? How about:
After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret has to lead a group of teenagers through dangerous terrain to a new place of safety.
Better, but not quite there yet:
After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.
Although this premise, based on my forthcoming novel, The Land Above, must be refined further it is a more effective snapshot of the potential story than the first version. It addresses the main requirements on the list:
It contains a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming challenge.
It tells us that the hero hides a secret, suggestive of a wound, weakness or flaw.
It includes a terrifying and motivated antagonist.
It feels authentic, given the genre.
It contains a theme that is both universal and personal—individual and group survival.
It is intriguing.
Running your story premise through these filters will undoubtably improve the potential of your story.
Exercise: Write down your story premise in a single sentence. Don’t be too critical at first, just capture the thrust of your tale. Then, apply the six filters suggested above. The sixth version of your premise ought to be much improved.
Come up with a single sentence snapshot of your story premise. Improve it by applying the six filters discussed in this article.
Scene transitions in stories, as in life, don’t get the attention they deserve.
Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty.
When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, leapfrogging over the small transitions that got us there in the first place.
Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to life-altering events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.
Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.
1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes.
In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene, which is then answered by a series of different characters in consecutive scenes.
“Memorable scene transitions are links where the connection between narrative beats is foregrounded, pointing to the virtuosity of the overall writing style.”
2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space,
In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools in different stages of human development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant.
In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene, perhaps in medieval times, while someone else completes it in another, hundreds of years hence.
3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it.
Imagine, for example, a scene in which your character, a boxer, George, is trashing his opponent during a pre-fight weigh-in. Cut to the next scene where his opponent lands a thunderous punch to the jaw, knocking George out cold.
Exercise: Think back to a story you’ve written but not yet published. Identify two scenes where the transition seems luck-luster. Create a fitting transition using one of the three techniques mentioned in this article. Let the emotion you want your audience or reader to experience at the moment of transition be your guide.
Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective and memorable scene transitions in your stories.
In my introductory classes on storytelling I often ask budding writers, why do you want to write?
The answers vary – a love for storytelling, a love for reading and movies, the need to make money, the belief that ‘I think I’d be good at it’, and the like.
The next question I ask is: What do you want to write about?
The answer is not as forthcoming, especially for new writers who have not yet found their niche. Some write in certain genres because of their popularity. But strict adherence to genre can often constrain the imagination. A western utilises must-have items such as guns, horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, although such stories can be made more flexible through genre-mixing. For example, Wild, Wild West, blends science-fiction and the western, expanding the canvas.
“Budding writers, on their way to finding their unique style, would do well to identify the themes that they feel passionate about and make them their hallmark.”
There are also writers who prefer to avoid sticking to specific genres, dwelling instead on the ethereal spaces between genres—writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. Their stories tend to distinguish themselves not through the spectacle of explosive events but through a unique style, imaginative language, and an unwavering focus on detail.
Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked that she finds inspiration everywhere—that people make up their own stories about life and the world, according to their taste or chance encounters.
Others use more deliberate methods.
Ransom Riggs collected old photographs as a child because he was fascinated by photography. It wasn’t long before he noticed patterns in these photos. The patterns inspired an idea for a factual book. Prompted by his editor, however, he repurposed the idea as fiction, something he had never written before. The result? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.
For me the answer is to write about the themes I care most about. After all, it is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound. Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?
Before the Light, a science-fiction novella, for example, is a tale about a quantum computer conflicted over revealing what it has learnt about the origins of the universe because it fears the effect this will have on a divided humanity on the brink of war.
The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative resonates with emotions that we recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.
But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and personal discovery.
My advice to emerging writers then is to write about recurring themes as an aid to developing their unique voice.
Budding writers should develop the themes they are most passionate about, even as they seek to develop their own distinctive voice.