Elements of Writing

Viewing only articles categorized with "Elements of Writing".

Jun
11
To strengthen the bond between two characters whose friendship is one of the most important part of the book, I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

You don't think about this when you meet a new person. You become friends because you have things in common (interests, personality...) before you actually truly know them. When you really get to know them, there will be some things that you'll like and some you won't. If you decide to stay, it'll mean that you've decided that they are worth remaining into your life after all. Why? Because they'll make you laugh, because they understand you, ultimately; they give you something in return.

What does it take to become close friends with someone, apart from time? Some people, I've known for years, most of whom I barely talk to by now. We are just too different, and I believe we always have been. What they offered to me was temporary. We don't share the same values, and I probably wouldn't enjoy seeing them all the time.

Those I kept: I like the way they think, or I love the energy they bring which seems to collide perfectly well with mine. With some of them it's all about our conversations and how they bring something different to the things I observe, be it in my day to day life or my deeper thoughts. They do so each in their own unique way; they are all different. Still, some friendships are a bit more physical. Simply put; I just love spending time with them. They make me laugh, and even though we don't agree on all important things and may very rarely have long and intellectual conversations about the world for that very reason, it may never matter to us at the end of the line. Chances are, we will be too busy enjoying ourselves to think about such things. I believe that in such relationships, despite the fact that we may not be similar in our way of thinking, all similarity and connection found may mainly if not fully reside in the mechanical functioning of our brain. It is a rare thing to find someone with whom it is possible to be understood and communicate without the need of words. Most likely, what you are trying to express, they will be feeling it, too. Perhaps not in the same exact way, but surely close enough.

I've been thinking about two characters I've read about lately whose friendship has moved me beyond words. In the end I believe it was those both types of friendships - intellectual and physical - in one. It started as an intellectual friendship, and as the two grew into one-another, turned into a physical one as well without their noticing. The result was that they were rarely apart, reason being that they understood each other like they rarely, if ever, had with others, but also that together they brought an energy to every moment that passed that, surely, made everything better. It is a simple word but a large one: better in the sense that everything became more tolerable; easier and more enjoyable; filled with possibilities which, as time together must have proven, had ways of becoming stories that they might ultimately never forget, and share with others even after years will have passed.

To add to it, I believe it has also to do with what they brought in each other in terms of character. The way that they influenced each other was commendable, and if one of the two may not have noticed, it was shown many times that the other had. This led him, I believe, to become even more dependant on his friend than he may have been in the past, even when their appreciation of each other was already high. It is an interesting thing to observe. This side of him that has matured, he owes it to his friend. It is something that he regards highly of him. This influence, which is in part owed to the great kindness of his friend, sometimes feels, in the book, as though he is aware of it the way we are aware of warm covers on cold nights, or like a coat in a snow storm. Every time it showed, he seemed to be reminded of his friend and the way that he looks up to him for it.

I began writing this in hopes of discovering something new and different about strong friendships that I might have missed before, something almost mythical, like an old romance novel, but perhaps it can also be said that in every ordinary thing may reside something magical and rare. It could be that we are only too used to it to notice, or are not paying enough attention. In the end, it is true that strong friendships can only be built with time; to realize that we love the person in question and the things they bring to us, but also time to reflect what they mean to us and how far we are willing to go to keep them. I realize now that I may have been looking for a magical answer to bypass this element of time to create a bond between my two main characters, so powerful, that it would be strong right away like a platonic love at first sight. But there is nothing boring about time, if done correctly. We do not form such strong connections with every stranger we meet, it simply cannot be forced. Why do we find such delight in platonic romances such as Sherlock and Watson, Harry and Ron, Marty and Doc (each different in their own way, but relatable in their strength and sacrifices)? It could be for the very same reason that the romance genre has been dominating the movie industry for decades. It enviable because it is rare. We all have, or at least for the greater part of us, formed a romantic connection with someone, and there is not a person on earth that has never had a friend, but the connection that we find in movies, powerful as what made the Titanic such a historical sensation in its industry, same as Good Will Hunting, Forrest Gump or the Dead Poet society, are rare things indeed. We may never live to experience these ourselves, but it is quite nice to feel it through some other's eyes, for an hour and a half or more.

This may look like complete gibberish. I don't truly expect anyone to read it, but it has helped putting a lot of things into perspective. Also english isn't my first language.....
Aug
09
Why are characters so important?
One of the most important aspects of fiction is the characters. Stories are all about people (and creatures or things which, to all intents and purposes, act like people). No matter how good your plot is, or how realistic your setting, if the characters don’t work your reader won’t enjoy the story.

Readers need to feel that they understand your characters. This means that their motives need to be clear, their actions need to make sense, and the reader needs to be able to empathise with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they like them, just that they can get inside the characters’ heads and understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why.

The problem of empathy in autism
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. People with autism and aspergers often struggle with cognitive empathy, which makes it harder for us to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they know and do not know. Often we have to work this out logically from knowledge we already have or patterns we have observed previously, rather than doing it spontaneously or naturally through our interactions with people. Sometimes our understanding of other people takes more time, and we realise things about people after the interaction has already finished.

How does this problem of empathy apply in writing?
A character is not a real person. Even if it is based on a real person, the character itself is not real. However, empathy still applies when writing a story. When you are writing a story, there are two perspectives influencing what gets written down: the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the character.

Writing the story from the perspective of the author is a problem because the author already knows everything about the story. He/she also knows everything about all the other characters. So if the author’s own perspective ‘bleeds’ into those of the characters, it distorts the characters’ points of view. The character will appear to know things that they should not know; or they might think, feel, say and do things which do not make sense in the context of the story (for example if these thoughts, feelings, words and actions are those of the author).

So in order to correctly portray your character, you have to take their perspective. You have to put yourself into their mind and think not about what you are thinking and feeling, not what you know or would do in their situation, but about them. In other words, you have to empathise with your character in just the same way as you would with a real person.

Lets look at an example to illustrate this point. Our main character is a little boy called Simon. Simon’s parents are arguing behind a closed door. Simon can’t open the door, or his parents will know he is listening. However, he can’t hear his parents’ whispers well through the door, so only hears fragments. Later, Simon is telling his sister what he heard. In order to know what he knows, the writer has to empathise with Simon. What can he reasonably know in this situation? And which parts of the argument (which you, the author, already know) represent knowledge he cannot have? This is crucially important, because it will affect the realism of the character and of how he chooses to act on his knowledge. If he acts on information he shouldn’t know, his actions will appear unrealistic.

A further complication: ‘double’ empathy
Your characters are interacting with other characters. That means they also have to empathise. So you have to take the perspective of one character and then consider what he/she knows about other characters. So we have to get inside Simon’s head and work out what he knows about his parents’ argument. Now we have to think about how Simon will understand what his sister is thinking and feeling, and what she already knows or does not know, during his interaction with her. For example, when he tells her that he heard the word ‘divorce’ through the door, his sister will react. But what does this reaction mean? That depends. Does she understand what the word ‘divorce’ means? If so, she might be shocked. If not, she might be confused. Could she already have known that her parents were talking about divorce? And how does Simon know that she knows this?

As you can see empathising with characters is not simple. It’s easy to get tied up in knots thinking not only about what your character is thinking and feeling and what he/she knows, but also about what they know of the perspectives of other characters and how this interplay of perspectives affects their communication and interaction.

Strategies for writing characters
So empathy, which is a fundamental difficulty in autism, is central to writing realistic and consistent characters. But all is not lost. There are things you can do to make this easier, and they mirror the strategies you might use when trying to empathise with people in real life.

Ensure your body is regulated
Unmet sensory needs will affect your information processing. Empathy is a cognitive process, so sensory dysregulation will impair your ability to take your characters’ perspectives effectively. Before you start writing, or even thinking about writing, do what you need to do to regulate your body. That might mean moving around, fidgeting, or making some noise if you are a sensory seeker, or adjusting the environment (e.g. lighting, background noise, resonance in the room etc) if you are hyper-sensitive to any of these things. Take regular breaks while you are working to check you are still regulated, as sometimes bodily and sensory dysregulation can creep in and affect thinking without you realising it—especially if you are very focused on what you are doing.

Slow down
This is easier when writing than when interacting with a real person. Sometimes it takes time to process information about others’ perspectives, and this is true when writing fiction as well. When you are writing, you have the luxury of slowing down and taking the time you need to work out your character’s perspective.

Work backwards
It can be hard to start from a character’s current position, take their perspective, and work out their actions from that point. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what you want the character to do next. Then, consider what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it. Then you can fill in the gaps in the detail of the character’s perspective linking one action to another, while keeping their actions consistent with their state of mind.

Go back and forth between inner monologue and actions
When you’re re-reading, keep going back and forth between your descriptions of your characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the things they do as a result of them. Ask yourself if it makes sense that they would say or do what they did in light of their internal state.

Ask someone to check your characters’ actions
If you’re not sure, check with someone else whether your character’s actions make sense in light of what you have told the reader about them (i.e. what they think, feel and know). If they don’t, then it’s possible that you have misjudged or miscommunicated something about your character’s mindset.

Base characters on people you know
Because they’re not real, characters have the potential to do anything. That leaves a lot of scope for them to behave in ways which a real person might not. If you base your characters, even loosely, on people you know well, then it can be easier to take their perspective. This is because you can draw on past experience of interactions with that person when determining the actions they take as a result of their situation.

Include characters with autism
If your main character is autistic, you can be explicit about the fact that they don’t know certain things. This takes some of the burden of empathy away. This is probably a short-term fix, however. The reason for this is that in order for the plot to progress, they will need to learn things that they didn’t know before, which means you need to know those things and find ways for your character to learn them; you also need to be conscious of the things your character doesn’t know, which in itself requires empathy. However, it may be easier to empathise with an autistic character if their mindset more closely reflects your own.

Make detailed character sheets
This will help to consolidate your characters’...
Aug
07
Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.

What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.

In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.

The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.

That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.

For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.

How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.

Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.

Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.

Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!

Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and...
Jul
24
There are some fundamental differences between actual, spoken conversation and the dialog we expect to see in fiction. This means that dialog is one of the most difficult things to make "realistic" in writing, because the idea that we need to make is "realistic" at all is a misapprehension. I'm going to run down a few highlights.

1. People say "um" and "uh." Characters do not.

It's not that characters are that much more intelligent than the average person, but rather that the reader hasn't got time to filter out a lot of "Er... Um. Hm," every time your protagonist needs to order a sandwich. These interjections are one of a set of several things that we add to dialog only as seasoning: a dab here, a pinch there, and you're done. You can throw in one of these to demonstrate that a character is taken aback by something or confused by some strange circumstance. Use too many, however, and what you're signaling is not that something weird is going on, but rather that your character is stupid, apt to be confused by the most mundane things.

I don't bring this up because it's a thing people commonly get wrong--writers rightly see the "hmmmm" in their stream of consciousness as their own grasping for what comes next rather than the character's--but because this concept of "spice" or "seasoning" is a good one to carry forward.

2. People work blue. Characters are PG-13.

If I had to guess how often I used the word "fuck" throughout my college years, I would be too ashamed to actually give you a number. It's dropped off a little since then, believe it or not. This is a thing that real people do: put them in a blue collar situation and they will swear a blue streak up and down the road. Characters don't have this luxury.

"But Tom Clancy's characters swear nonstop!"

You're right; his works are a prominent exception when I think about this topic. But how would his characters express an extreme sentiment in a trying time? Like, what if someone were to drop a bomb on their garage? Well, they'd have pretty much the same reaction to that as they would to sour milk on their Cap'n Crunch. "God dammit to hell, stupid expiration date..."

By all means, let your characters swear, but use some restraint so that profanity doesn't lose its impact. Do that, and it's also possible to portray a character as being "foul-mouthed," a thing that becomes far more difficult to pull off if everyone in your cast is screeching four letter words nonstop.

3. People make small talk. Characters make points.

I've had two people ask me how I'm doing today and a third talk to me about their dog. None of that has a damn thing to do with anything I'm trying to accomplish. It's called small talk, and it's something humans engage in when stuck together on an elevator, or when waiting for a taxi after someone has dropped a bomb on their garage. I assume. Anyway, the point is that your characters should not do this. They should not have time to do this. That's not to say that every line of dialog has to relate directly to your plot. Not every spoken word relates to the Death Star: some of them are about wampas, or nonsensical euphemisms for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like "Toshi station" and "power converters."

Dialog is one of your most powerful tools. It's highlighted with a pair of quotation marks, it is often offset with whitespace, and it tends to take up less room on the page than your exposition, which means that readers almost always read dialog. (Fun fact: they will skim pretty much everything else!) This makes dialog prime real estate for anything important that you want to say to the reader. Keep your blathering to a minimum. If a little bit of color commentary is important to a character or to the setting, sure, go for it! ...But don't waste my time with a grocery list unless those groceries are about to get MacGuyvered into a miraculous escape or a bomb for someone's garage.

None of this is realistic in the least.

Spend a little time watching Bob Ross on YouTube. He has not once painted a tree, or a rock, or a bush, or a lake, or a mountain, or a cloud, or a sky, or anything at all. He just bangs the brush on the canvas with the right technique, and your brain will tell you that you are looking at all of those things because you've seen them before, and the illusion works. Your objective in writing is very similar: you want to give your reader the illusion of realism (we call it "verisimilitude" when we have extra $64 dollar words lying around). but your writing needs to be better than real.
Feb
13
I've been participating in writers' groups for a very long time. More often than not these days, I'm the one answering the questions, and I'll be very forthcoming about why people like listening to my answers. It's not because my answers are the best, it's because my answers are unique.

Because I've been around so many writers' groups, workshops, classes, labs, and forums over the last ten years, I've been able to collect a lot of data. And what does that data show? It shows that people have been giving the same lame answers to writing-related questions for at least ten years. My goal is to buck that trend, because I know that hearing “you should read more” for the ten-thousandth time is not going to help you write.

The writing community is still asking the same basic questions, and that tells me that the answers they're getting are garbage. Plain and simple. As writers helping writers, we owe it to our contemporaries to not waste their time by regurgitating the same cookie-cutter advice that has been floating around for decades. The writing community needs new answers, smarter solutions to the problems that plague us all.

Toward that end, I'm going to answer the most commonly-asked question I've ever come across:

Where do you get ideas?”

This is not a simple question, yet so many people give it a simple answer. “Read more fiction” is a simple answer, but it's also a crappy one. Yet, so many writers say it, repeat it, and swear by it. Why? Because we all enjoy reading and, heck, it sounds like a decent way to get ideas, right? Not so much. It's more likely to set you up to steal ideas, and you won't even be doing it intentionally.

You know darn well that many new writers produce work that reads exactly like someone else's story. That's because knuckleheads keep telling them to read more, and then these new writers take the advice and read their 900th R.A. Salvatore book. Then they're surprised when their own work continues to read like a bad R.A. Salvatore fan fiction. What do you expect?

Now, I've seen even worse answers to the “where do you get ideas?” question. Some folks will talk about sitting on their porch, taking walks, or playing with their kids, offering these up as advice to “get ideas.” These are also crappy answers. They are ephemeral, personal exercises that aren't universally actionable. At best, they're distractions. They can play a part in the innovation process by freeing up your subconscious mind, but that's still not an answer to the underlying question.

Why am I so obsessed with getting down to the hard answer? What's wrong with telling another writer to sit on their porch when they need a creative boost?

Look, when someone is asking how to come up with ideas, it's like they're asking for help finding food. They're starving for a creative spark. If a hungry person were asking how they can eat and not die in front of you, you wouldn't tell them to go for a walk. “Go play with your kids and maybe you'll think of a way to get food!” No.

You also wouldn't tell them to watch you eat until their stomach is no longer cramping from hunger. Watching someone else succeed at eating won't sate their hunger! We all know this, yet so many writers are quick to apply that stupid logic to writing. “Go see how another writer created a novel and you'll get creative ideas!” Nope. It doesn't work that way.

Let's go all “parable” on this; If someone needed to feed themselves, the best course of action is to teach them to fish. In doing so, you're showing them where the food comes from (the river) and how to get it (hand grenades. Or a fishing pole. Whatever.)

Likewise, the best answer to “where do you get your ideas” is to explain where ideas come from and how to catch them.

The problem, right off the bat, is that most people have no clue where ideas come from. That's why I'm here. I'm going to tell you.

Ideas are produced by a largely-subconscious synthesizing process. The human mind is incredibly good at taking multiple concepts and combining them into new ones. It takes A, adds it to B, and creates C. Every new thought in your head is a product of that math, although you don't see it happening.

It's like this: At some point in history, someone looked at a potato, then looked at a hammer, and mashed potatoes were born. The idea of mashed potatoes didn't just fly into someone's head while they were playing with their kids. The idea was a synthesis of two existing concepts within the creator's mind; In this case, it may have been “I can smash things with a hammer” and “potatoes taste good.”

The point of that barely-adequate illustration? If said person had no idea what a potato was, they couldn't have come up with mashed potatoes. A+B=C. They would have lacked the required conceptual raw materials to assemble the idea.

The more concepts you have in your mind, the more creative you can be. Think of knowledge as a pile of Lego bricks. The more of them you have, the more things you can build. Therefore, the first step to becoming a never-ending wellspring of creativity is to stockpile your mind with conceptual raw material. Yes, this means learning about the world and experiencing its many facets for yourself.

Now, go back to the Lego analogy. You may have a pile of blocks as high as your waist . . . but what if they're all blue 4x4 blocks? You can only build so many things when you have a pile of the same block, because your creative options are so severely limited. You get the same outcome when you learn about, read, or experience the same things over and over again. You'll have tons of “stuff” in your head, but it's all variations on a theme. Thus, the second step to unlocking your creative mind is to diversify your conceptual raw material. Reading nothing but science fiction novels will fill your brain with all the same blocks. Where's the fun in that?

I never run out of ideas. When other writers are stuck with their own stories, I can usually come up with a solution in seconds. Why? Because I have a huge, diverse stockpile of raw concepts. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I haven't read a fantasy novel in two years. I read naval history books, magazines about celebrities, National Geographic, biographies, and non-fiction books about photography. And guess what? I've gotten more original ideas for fantasy fiction from reading photography textbooks than I ever did from reading fantasy. The reason is obvious: if you're getting ideas for your fantasy story by reading fantasy novels, you're going to have a hell of a time being original.

When it comes to raw innovation in storytelling, you can forget “The Hero's Journey.” Forget outlining and all of the technical methods. It's the assortment of knowledge, the raw materials, in your brain that matter. Star Wars exists because George Lucas watched Flash Gordon and old samurai movies. His creative mind combined elements from what he knew to assemble what he created. He didn't just pull the ideas from the air . . . nor did Lucas ever claim to. He'll openly tell you where his ideas came from, and if he'd never learned about a variety of genres, Star Wars would not exist. That's that.

Ideas do not come from some other dimension. They are not magical or bestowed by the muses. They are the product of intelligence. They are the product of diverse knowledge. There's a good reason why most successful writers are bright-minded folks. If great ideas magically appeared from space, everyone would have them. There would be no bias leaning towards intelligence, but there is. If you want better ideas, focus on learning more about the world.

Don't take offense to that previous remark. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that average people don't aspire to write. (These days, statistically-average people don't even read.) If you desire to be a storyteller, you're already ahead of the curve on the whole “smart” thing. The next challenge is to feed your brain with a diverse spread of knowledge. Reading fiction is easy, but reading to learn can be a challenge. And that's where most aspiring writers cut their own throats. They read novel after novel, usually in their preferred genre, thinking that it will have some impact on their own ideas. Reading non-fiction, especially if it has nothing to do with what you're planning to write, will give you a far greater creative advantage. I promise.

As a writer, it's your job to constantly learn. Broaden your horizons, and do not have a “wheelhouse.” You don't want to specialize, because specialization will kill your creative mind. Learn about psychology, history, dancing, agriculture, textiles, stock markets, auto repair, avionics, biology, and everything else. It's what you don't already know that will be assembled into your next great idea.
Mar
05
Getting story ideas – Thinking inside the box

When designing a story to really grab a reader's attention, the phrases, “writing what you know” and “using your imagination” can sometimes be misleading and unhelpful. I find that they're often far more useful with guidance.

If someone asked me to write a story right now, I would, naturally, be imaginative while also relying on what I know to inform the text. Unfortunately, with such free reign, my idea would be in danger of bending towards an idea that already exists.

Who else has been reluctant to test read the epic historical fantasy novel with multiple narratives, a rich back-story, bloody violence and steamy/twisted romance plots from a talented fellow writer who just happened to be a massive Game Of Thrones fan? Who else was reluctant to read the abstract prose from a friend who fancied themselves as the next William S Burroughs? These writer's imaginations were filled with the imaginations of other writers. What they knew was other people's work.

I probably sound quite cynical here but I'm mostly talking from bitter personal experience. You may be able to fill your story with rich characters and have a beautiful writing style but you may still stumble at the final hurdle: the psychic, cynical part of every reader's brain that pounds: “I can see right through this. If I know better than the author, why should I care?”

There is a trick to bypass this part of the reader's brain. Here's a method that I find helpful:

Make your idea more original by giving it some strict guidelines.

Let me illustrate an example. I've always wanted to write a cyberpunk story. I've got the genre (the floor). Now I just need a roof. I don't have much time right now so I'll think of something at random.

Okay... the main character has to be a pig.

I've got some guidelines. Ridiculous guidelines, sure, but they're there. Now, I have to think: what is the best possible idea I can think of that involves cyber-punk and pigs? Do I make it a comedy? Should it be a children's book style parody of Blade Runner where the characters are talking farm yard animals (with the potential title: “Do Electric Pigs dream of Android Sheep?”?) Should I make it a dark reflection of our own world; perhaps a look at the theoretical implications of future technology impacting the meat and farming industry? Should it be from the Pig's point of view? What kind of language would a Pig use? How will I balance the tone? Already my idea is starting to germinate. You're creativity can sometimes create better ideas inside a set of specific guidelines over being given total freedom.

(Another exercise that I like to do is to walk into the section of a DVD store, pick a random DVD off the shelf, look at the cover, the title of the film and the tag line. I imagine what the story of the film would be based only on those scraps of information and then I read the back. If you like the idea you come up with and it turns out to be completely different from the film's actual plot, you have one idea totally free of charge!)
Nov
22
Fiction writing is great, many of us are here to create fantastical worlds with colorful characters in hopes others will get lost in them just as we do when we read our favorite books.

However, sometimes, it's hard to start or know what to say or not say or when to say. We create imaginative worlds with complex magic systems, Victorian-esque customs, philosophical government ideals, or any number of things that require explanation.

In this month alone, I read countless new threads of new and experienced writers wondering "Where do I start my story?" or "Is my beginning good?" and even "How do I let readers know how my magic/government system works?". If you've ever asked yourself any of these questions and still struggle with it, I have two pieces of advice.

I - Start as close to the inciting (What sets off the intrigue or action) incident. 8 times out of 10, this is the best place to begin a story as a reader will not need a lengthy explanation of their day, how they got there, or anything of the sort. Get the ball rolling, so to speak.

II - Exposition is plain and simply not the optimum way to start your story. Your reader just picked up their book, most likely for entertainment purposes, and suddenly they're learning about the geography, monarchic history of the kingdom, and a bunch of wars that already ended. That's not what a reader is looking for at the very first sentence.

This all ties in to the question YOU ask yourself when you pick up a book:

"What is this about?"

Sounds familiar right? How many times have you picked up a book and asked yourself that as you open up to the first page and see if this book interests you? Probably every time.

There is a simple rule of thumb that's used in multiple disciplines, including in writing:

Who is in this scene?
What is happening?
Where is this happening
Why is this happening?
When is this happening?

Also known as the 5 Ws, this is key information that a reader needs to formulate the imagery necessary to get hooked into your story. No, you do not need to reveal everything in paragraph one but if in two pages most of these questions are not answered, your reader might not be able to sink himself into the book.

Keeping this in mind; as a reader and not a writer, if you open a book and are bombarded with exposition information that means zip to you, will it answer "What is this about?" or will it just leave just as many if not more questions?

So this is what it comes down to: if you ever wonder how to start, where to start, or what to reveal, think of the five W's and whether the questions "What is this about" is answered.