This is a long page, and it contains do's and don't's I've found useful for prose writing. Of course rules bend and break; that is their nature. But defining your own aesthetic can help you fill your toolbox and give you comfort in the long, dark nights of the writerly soul.
I've written some tips and tricks for websites that you can find under the "On Writing" heading. And an essay under "Short Bits" has some thoughts about coincidence in fiction and life--"Same Time, Same Place: On Coincidence, Writing, Love, and All the Rest of Life."
Story Aesthetics ... A Few Philosophical Points and General Advice
Nobody is a minor character in his or her own life.
Great stories give the reader an experience, a sense of events unfolding over time and coming to some kind of emotional conclusion (or a hint that a conclusion is in the offing). In some sense, fiction is didactic, too, for in a deeply stirring and sensory way, it shows the reader something significant about life. You may break some rules, but in general it is wise to guard these few precepts in thy memory...
Anyway, these thoughts have helped me--take them for what they're worth to you.
1. Write something important. The word important will pop up again and again in this list. It doesn’t mean you have to write something that will promote world peace or change race relations forever, but it should remind you that even a comedy (if well done) has something to say about the nature of life or the human condition.
2. Fiction is not real life. At first this point may seem obvious, but if you try to write a story about something that actually happened, you’ll need to remind yourself of a few things: Fiction places certain demands on the reader and writer that defy real life. Most of the time, life does not fit into the kind of pattern that makes fiction powerful. You shape fiction; you edit it. In order to tell a story, you will have to be willing to change “what really happened.”
3. Plot is characters plotting, trying to fulfill important desires. Conflict arises when characters’ desires clash (and/or when one character’s desires confront the machinery of the outside world); conflict makes your story interesting to readers and produces the chain of interconnected events called plot. Without conflict, you don’t have a story.
4. Every person in every scene should be trying to get something. Nobody is a minor character in his or her own life. Everybody wants something at every moment of the day--even if, in the case of a character minor to your story, that goal is only to serve a customer well and win a promotion, buy a hamburger and get home fast, etc.
5. Good stories have two conflicts and two plots: a character’s internal (psychological, emotional) development and the external events that shape and are shaped by it. This one is very important: It makes the difference between a flat story about “what happened” and a rich story about “why it mattered.” It is a natural outgrowth of the way desire drives plot. If you think of an external plot about, say, a reporter tracking down a serial killer, you must also think about what the hunt means to her psychologically and emotionally. Fiction demands that she doesn’t just want to write an article and move on--there must be something deep within that’s driving her, or else there is no reason to record her story. What will she learn about herself as she looks for this killer? Was there someone in her past she was unable to save, and does she feel that by finding and incarcerating the killer she will redeem herself? Or does she recognize in her own psyche a dark desire to hurt other people, and is catching the killer a way to cleanse herself of that ugly feeling?
6. If there is no change, there is no story. Fiction demands that a character needs to change significantly; often this means s/he will realize something about her or his life that makes her/him want to live it differently. Of course you don’t want to be heavy-handed and trumpet, “From then on, Gershon vowed to be nicer to people”--but in order for the reader to feel she has had a complete experience, you need to show this process of growth. Change shows that the conflict, plot, and characters are important.
7. Characters who cannot change, or who absolutely prevent change, generally do not make great protagonists. Such characters include God, robots, and the narrow-minded. A robot or a Klansman might make someone for major characters to react to, but because such individuals are incapable of growing themselves, you should not make them a major focus of your story. Think of them as machinery or objects--as, in fact, robots are. In the case of the One God--well, once he turns up, we pretty much know things will work out his way; and in a traditional story of redemption, we can predict what will happen once a character walks into a church. For these reasons, you may not write about robots or God during the first five weeks of the semester.
8. Every scene should be a turning point. If a scene does not show a significant change in internal and/or external plot, it will feel like filler.
9. Show, don’t tell. If you’ve been writing awhile, you’ve probably heard this one before. It means that, rather than describing feelings and events in lengthy passages of exposition, you should write dialogue and action that give us information from which we can derive everything we need to know. Instead of “He got angry,” try something such as “His face turned beet red, and his hands began to shake.” Readers like to make their own analyses of events and speeches; they like to complete the idea an author suggests and feel they are participating in the process of creating meaning. Reading should always be interactive.
10. Sometimes, for the sake of pacing, tell--don’t show. Sometimes “showing” every emotion and nuanced action will slow your story down too much. Canny writers make judgments about what matters--what the audience will want to see--and the relatively minor phenomena that we can hear about in a passing summary. For example, when you’re giving backstory, you will probably choose to tell most of the relevant information; show a life-altering event in a flashback.
11. Cut out the fat. Fiction is more selective than real life. A reader doesn’t need to know every detail of your (character’s) day and may get bored if you present it. Think of what is essential to establishing character, conflict, and plot, then leave out whatever might slow the story down or distract your reader from the main thrust. Sex, drugs, and religion in particular are big attention-grabbers; they can derail a story if they are not an organic part of it. For example, it might be fun for you to write about a couple of yuppies smoking out in their SUV, but unless the drug taking has a significant effect on the plot, you should leave it out.
12. Murder your darlings. This is another famous pronouncement. It means that in order to improve your work, you often (and perhaps paradoxically) have to get rid of some of your favorite parts--maybe even the one scene or character for which you started writing the piece in the first place. I know someone who threw away over two hundred pages of a novel--the core of what she first imagined the novel would be--because they were not actually an organic part of what that novel was. Believe it or not, after an initial period of intense loss and pain, I felt much better. And remember that you are going to keep writing for a long, long time; you may have a chance to revive that darling somewhere else.
13. An ending should show some resolution of the main conflict; it should feel surprising--and inevitable. You don’t need to tie up all the threads in one tidy package, but giving your reader a sense of a complete experience means following change through to the ending and showing (not telling) why that change has been important. Good endings surprise the reader while at the same time making him/her feel that no other ending was possible. It’s a tough line to walk, but the most sophisticated writers pull it off.
14. A character’s suicide is a writer’s cop-out. It is far, far too easy to end a chain of events with a character deciding it’s all too awful and he just doesn’t want to live anymore. The same point holds true for starting a story with a suicide and giving the events leading up to it in flashback. You may structure a piece around other characters’ reactions to a suicide--but in this class you may never end a story with a character killing him- or herself. Sames goes for “It was just a dream” endings.
15. Thoughtful criticism is sometimes more helpful than praise. Do you want to make your work better, or do you want it to stay just as it is? (If you answered, “Just as it is,” you should drop this class now.) Many writers, especially at the early stages of a career, want to defend and protect their stories. In workshops, they sometimes even try to defend each decision that other writers make. You are all here in order to get feedback and make your work better; too much praise will prevent you from getting the distance and perspective you need, and your stories will stay essentially the same. While you will certainly want to point out the strengths in each piece your colleagues write, you will help your fellow-writers more by noticing weak points and suggesting ways to improve them. You will also learn more if you take this active critical role. And as a writer, you need to accept criticisms gracefully and in the manner in which they are intended.
16. Feed your writing every day. Do some writing, read something relevant, write notes about what you want to do, watch a documentary, look at a great painting. Keep thinking about your project, and the ideas will surprise you.
Fiction places certain demands on the reader and writer that defy real life.
Change shows that the conflict, plot, and characters are important.
Good endings surprise the reader while at the same time making him/her feel that no other ending was possible.
Oh yes, writing is a collaborative effort.
Oh yes, writing is a collaborative effort.
Goldfish in my backyard pond.
Oh yes, writing can be a collaborative activity.
You won’t be able to recognize and represent the speech patterns belonging to those categories unless you learn standard written English and then observe the differences carefully.
Some Fateful Misapprehensions
1. People who write should not read. But how else will you maintain an interactive relationship with literature? How else will you know what is being published? How will you develop your sense of written style and the possibilities of language? Read as much and as widely as you can. You can’t write what you don’t read.
2. Writers get inspiration by taking drugs and drinking. This is just silly and harmful. You may feel temporarily inspired when you’re drunk, but look what it did to F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one.
3. You can’t write until inspiration seizes you. While you do need some sense of having something to say, you can train your inspiration to come. Try sitting down to write at the same time every day--for most people, the first thing in the morning works best. You will probably find that if you set your internal clock to “be inspired” at that time, it will happen. At least spend this time editing what you’ve already written.
4. You don’t need to master the rules of grammar and spelling in order to write fiction. Yes, fiction does allow you to break a lot of rules--but you break them for a reason, because a character is foreign, mentally impaired, or uneducated. You won’t be able to recognize and represent the speech patterns belonging to those categories unless you learn standard written English and then observe the differences carefully. The last thing you want is for the writer of your story (you) to look mentally impaired or uneducated; not only is such a reputation embarrassing, it also makes your readers mistrust you. Learn the rules, then learn how to break them artfully.
Of course, from time to time you or your colleagues will make an honest mistake or two. You should help your classmate by correcting a mistake with the same respectful tone you use for critiquing other elements of the manuscript. Not every high school, for example, gives good training in grammar and spelling; sometimes you have to continue the hard work in college and beyond.
5. Writers should use lots of metaphors and other “poetic” language. While figuration and other lyrical devices are important tools for the fiction writer, you should not let them overwhelm your writing. A natural voice is generally best; the lyricism will have more impact if you use it sparingly.
6. Stories should make lots of pronouncements about topics such as the meaning of life. If you do your job well, the reader will be able to derive your overall message without feeling s/he has just read a list of rules about how to live life.
You may feel temporarily inspired when you’re drunk, but look what it did to F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one.
Feed your writing every day. And it will surprise you.
(This is a foundling kitten we rescued at age two weeks; I fed her with a bottle and washed her in the sink. Now she weighs sixteen pounds.)
(And this is my tiny, magical cat Skyggerose, who was found living in a landfill. She flies through the air!)