…but which turn out to be true just like everyone said.
Kill Your Darlings
The most important part of learning how to write a story is learning how to re-write. Most of re-writing is taking stuff out. The hardest part of taking stuff out is taking out the bits which are good in and of themselves, maybe amazing, but not essential to your story.
They have to go.
Until you can “kill your darlings” (Ernest Hemingway), the context of those ‘good bits’ will tell anyone who reads them that you don’t know how to write a story. Tip: when I find a good bit I suspect doesn’t belong, I ‘temporarily’ cut and paste it into a file that stores such gems for another day. If my story can’t get by without it, it goes back in. If my story does just fine without it, I soon forget it was ever there. About one in ten such gems goes back where it came from, but three or four will wind up somewhere better.
Make Your Heroes Likable
…and make their dillemas something everyone can relate to. It’s a simple fact that nine out of ten stories require a hero that the reader would like to hang with. However, it is the curse of writers that we are often social misfits. Even when everyone likes us, we tend to feel like outsiders and we make the beginner’s mistake of creating protagonists that are alienated in their lives and angry at the world to the point of alienating the audience.
Human beings feel a universal need to belong, and it’s a need they all relate to. A hero who doesn’t care for the world from start to finish is dull because it’s hard to care about him. However, a hero who wants to belong but can’t (duty, persecution, danger, a million other things) has a nice little conflict going.
Besides, if you hate the world and want to vent your spleen in your writing, I say “Great!”. ALL passion is good. Just put it in the villain, they’re usually more interesting anyhow. Writers tend to be more fond of their villains and rogues than their heroes. The best villains get the most love from readers, too. It wasn’t agent Sterling that made the top thriller series of the last twenty years, it was Hannibal the Cannibal.
Take Out the Adverbs
Most are an admission of defeat on the part of a writer. They say “I’m so scared you won’t understand and/or believe me”. They also say “I just don’t know how to write a story yet”. In dialogue they’re okay, if they suit the patter of the person speaking. Your rough draft will have loads of the little blighters kicking around. My rough drafts always do, and apparently Stephen King has the same issue. He calls them ‘weeds’, I call them ‘wretched little vermin that need to DIE!!!!‘. The way to exterminate them is to think about the sentence and make it say the same thing but without the adverb. Take that sentence a couple of paragraphs back. It used to read:
‘Human beings feel the need to belong very strongly’
Doesn’t suck, but it’s not good. The fact that it contained an adverb suggested I could do better, and ought to try. I changed it to:
‘Human beings feel a universal need to belong’
Bingo. It says the same thing, only better. It uses less words, and no adverbs. That’s good re-writing, and that’s how to write a story.
Show Off Your Strengths
Always work at what you’re bad at, but put what you’re good at up front.
Brief is good
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Repetition is not, I repeat ‘not’, a bad thing. Repeating words or phrases when you didn’t realise you were doing it is usually a bad thing. Falling in love with a word and overusing it, that’s a really bad thing. When you use it by design, repetition can build emphasis and rhythm.
Do the Twist
The bigger the twist, the more the audience must feel that it should have seen it coming. You need to foreshadow such major developments, plant the seeds of them in the minds of your audience. You don’t need to provide clues, not literally. You just need the reader or viewer to feel that this twist was, on reflection, pretty inevitable. The way to get good at this is to re-read and re-watch stories whose twists you’ve loved. Then you take notes about what little touches throughout the story prepared you for feeling that the twist was inevitable when it finally came. You’ll be amazed how little may be required, and just how far a little planning can go. Take The Crying Game.
(Spoiler warning) At the very start, Forrest Whittaker says “She’s not like other girls.” Later we learn ‘she’ is a man and we go “Aha! Now I understand what he meant.”
That Old Cliche
Cliches are tempting because they’re so suitable. But you need to get rid of them. Present your own metaphors. Metaphors are the music of prose and you don’t want your story dancing to anyone else’s tune.
Just then, instead of taking the easy cliche, I should have said ‘metaphors are the music of prose and you want an original score not a remix’.
That little lot is just to get you started. It can’t be all the good advice kicking around. Why not submit your own? Maybe your English teacher said something useful that really stuck with you. Let me know. Teach ME how to write a story!
Benet Simon & Mike Mindel
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