The pen is mightier than the sword!
Possibly one of the most famous phrases in history, referring to the fact that the written word has more influence over the vast majority of people, than does the sharpened edge of a length of folded steel!
While this line has been repeated ad nausea, it still bears consideration. The written word is only powerful or influential if it captures the reader’s attention. If what is written means something to the reader, if it connects to the reader in some manner.
Not all writing can do this, and yet, all writing is certainly trying to do so. After all, despite what some of us might think – we never write anything for ourselves. Everything that has been written throughout history, has always been written for the consumption – willing or unwilling – of others.
That being the case – what makes good writing? What makes attractive, interesting, fun, fascinating, scary, comedic or educational writing? What makes good writing, good?
When I was in university, I learned two pieces of what I believed to be vital advice to becoming a good writer, and neither of them was more than a line or two in length. They were:
“There’s no such thing as a boring subject. Only boring writers”.
“There’s no such thing as an original story”.
And you know what? They’re both true. Any subject can be made interesting…or boring. All that is needed to tip the balance is the skill…or ineptitude…of the writer telling the story. Likewise, there is no such thing as an original story.
What’s that? You found an original story by some new author at your local bookshop?
No you didn’t. And neither did they write one. An original story does not exist. If you don’t believe me, keep reading and I’ll explain why, later.
Before we go any further down this rabbit-hole of pure imagination, I should probably preface everything that comes hereafter by saying that this is all based on my own experiences, gained from twenty-odd years of being incredibly bored, daydreaming, making crap up, twisting it around in my head, writing about it, and then thinking that other people might be bored enough, like I was, to actually read it.
So, where do we begin?
Why Does This Thing Exist?
It exists because I’m a big fan of roleplaying. For those of you who have never heard of roleplaying, it’s got nothing to do with you and your wife or husband pretending to be sexy farmhands and innocent milkmaids. It’s a pastime undertaken by writers (like me), who enjoy creating their own fictional characters and playing them against other fictional characters in scenarios which both players create. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing pastime which is part fantasy escapism, and part writing exercise, to keep my skills sharp. And it’s a lot of fun when everything goes right.
It’s when it goes wrong, that you realise what a finely balanced craft really good creative writing truly is, and how and why not everybody can do it. So, how do you do it? What makes it good? How do you know if it’s any good?
“What makes YOU qualified to write about good writing?”
I dunno. What makes anybody? There are no ‘official’ certifications about what is, or who can be, or isn’t, a good writer. There’s no magical fantastical scientifical mathematical formula. But, I have two university degrees in writing, and damn near thirty years’ writing experience under my belt. I think most people would consider that to be ‘qualifications’ enough. In case they aren’t – a good writer is determined by the number of people who enjoy reading what they’ve written. And I feel confident enough in saying that I’ve garnered enough of a satisfied audience – here, and elsewhere – to be considered a half-decent writer on my own merit.
Anyway. Enough horn-blowing. Let’s get down to writing about writing…
Good Fiction Writing: You Got It!…Right?
When it comes to writing, especially writing any kind of fiction, or creative work, what makes ‘good writing’ can be highly subjective. There’s no scientific way to say what makes ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’. But there are certain rules and guidelines that you can follow and remember, to improve your chances of producing good writing. But that said, all the rules and guidelines in the world will not help you, if you are not at least a moderately decent communicator. To be a good writer, you should first be a good communicator – because writing of any kind – is communication. And if you don’t have that skill, then you might struggle here.
Some people are amazing, funny, effective or informative communicators. Others…are not. If your ability to write funny, informative, enjoyable or engaging creative works is suffering, then perhaps this post will help you. Read on!
What Makes Good Writing?
A combination of factors. I will be covering each of these in turn throughout this posting. Some are more important than others, but a comprehension, if not a mastery, of all them, is best, if you intend to become a really good creative writer. This relates to everything from ‘voice’, ‘character development’, ‘descriptions’, ‘word-use’, and many other factors. If you really want to stand out as an accomplished or serious writer of fiction, or creative nonfiction of any kind, these are the things that you MUST be familiar with. So, let’s begin.
Show, don’t Tell
This is the most common thing that teachers of creative writing will tell you. ‘Show, don’t tell’.
Show, and don’t tell…what…exactly?
Show, and don’t tell – what is going on!
Nobody wants to be TOLD a story. They want to be SHOWN a story. They want to see, in their imagination, what is going on. Being told stuff isn’t very interesting. You don’t tell somebody a good time, you show them a good time. And you do that by how you write.
To show your story through words, rather than tell it, you need to approach it indirectly, or laterally. Instead of telling someone what happens, you need to describe and illustrate what happens. You do this by use of descriptive words and details. Say your story starts mundanely enough, by having your character going to work. Or school. Boring. Everyone does that.
What are they thinking about while they’re getting ready? What’s the weather like? What’s been going on in their lives up until this point? Details like this make what would otherwise be a mundane and routine task sound interesting. But here, we run into one of the first pitfalls of good writing.
Too Much Detail!
Most people will tell you that loads of detail in creative fiction writing is a good thing. And…I disagree. Certainly, a particular amount of detail, is important. But the trick is knowing how much of that detail to include. Let’s go back to the example mentioned above. We start off with a relatable experience – going to school or work. Everyone’s done it, everyone knows what it’s like. Good. We have started on a level playing field and have connected with our audience. They’re on board and they know what’s going on. To flesh it out and make it more interesting, we add in details.
These details are not there as pointless, decorative fripperies. A good writer should know, and should strive to achieve the goal, that details – all details – serve a purpose. This is where we reach what I like to call ‘necessary details’.
In creative writing, details should accomplish one of two goals. They should either:
1). Improve our understanding, or enjoyment of the piece.
2). They should advance the plot.
If the details you have included accomplish neither of these goals – they’re superfluous, and should be removed AT ONCE.
People think that to be a good fiction writer, you need loads of fat, juicy, jiggling details.
No you don’t.
You need the RIGHT details. The ‘necessary details’. Adding in more than the necessary details – descriptive passages or phrases – pads out the story. It makes it longer, bulkier, more wordy – and boring. Writing with too many unnecessary details in it becomes a bore to read. You might think it’s great because it’s chock-full of details! But your reader will not thank you. This is because they have to trudge through all these details, trying to decide which ones are relevant to the plot, and which ones are not, losing sight of the story in the process.
A lot of people seem to think that the way to fantastic writing is through detail. Loads of detail! To this end, they will pump their stories full of every single descriptor and adjective or adverb that they can think of! But, there is a tipping-point here.
On one side of that tipping point – the writing is engaging, detailed, entertaining and colourful.
On the other side of that tipping point – the writing is overbearing, boring and confusing. Never make the mistake of pumping your story so full of detail and description that it reaches this point. You and your writing will come across as being insecure, insincere, and virginal – like you’ve just started writing, and haven’t found your feet yet. It screams ‘I don’t know how to write, so I’ll just add in more stuff. More stuff is good, right? So more stuff = better writing!‘
No. Don’t do that. Your readers will not thank you. If you do, the result is boring, unattractive, mundane writing.
How Much Detail?
Alright. So what is the right amount of detail?
The right amount of detail in your writing is the amount which tells the story and embellishes it, enriches it, without being repetitive or overbearing. Sometimes, excessive or repetitive detail is good. It emphasizes a point or brings attention to it – which you might want, possibly for comedic effect, among other reasons. And that’s fine. But if you do it all the time, it becomes boring, and ends up being a literary boat-anchor, dragging your writing down with it.
To determine whether or not you have too much detail in your writing, take a sample (say, a page), and read through it.
Now, read through it again, and remove everything which isn’t absolutely necessary for the telling of the story, of improvement of its readability.
Now, read it through a third time, and look at all the stuff you removed. All the things crossed out in red.
All that red-struck stuff is all the excess baggage and clutter that you didn’t need in your writing. It should now read much more clearly and concisely, more to-the-point. Your readers can now follow the story and understand what’s going on. Provided you’ve done a good job with the plot and characters, it’s now a much more enjoyable read.
Character Development: Personality, Voice, etc.
As well as taking into considering how, and how much you write, you also need to consider the creation and interaction of your characters. The best characters, whether they’re humans, anthropomorphic characters, talking clocks or elves, are ones that people can relate to, and understand. If you can’t understand a character, can’t relate to it, can’t ‘see things from its point of view’, then you can’t engage with it throughout the story. Instead of seeing things from the point of view of the character, you become a bored member of an audience at the theatre, watching something detached and bland, happening up there on the stage, without engaging in what’s really going on.
So what do you need to do with your characters?
Building Believable Characters
In any good work of fiction, one part of the winning formula is its characters. The players who make the plot possible!
The most important aspect of any character is – is he, she, or it, believable?
By that, I mean, could we imagine that such a being might exist in real life? Are his or her actions and reactions what we might expect us, or a person like what’s being portrayed, to be like in real life? If various aspects of a character’s mannerisms, mentality, personality or other aspects (such as physical appearance, etc) aren’t believable, then the chances that the readers will be interested in him or her, connect with, or sympathise with the character in question, are unlikely. And if they’re not likely, then your story is likely to suffer, as a result of this.
Purpose and Personality
The important thing with any character-building is that each character needs to stand out as an individual. This isn’t strictly necessary with background characters, but with secondary and primary characters, it is vital. You must be able to differentiate every character. Each one must have their own way of talking, acting, reacting, interacting and engaging. They must have their own ways of doing things, or not doing things, their own morals, motivations, habits, and other things which make them human! If they’re not human, or human-relatable, then your readers aren’t likely to enjoy them.
Now, you might well ask – How important is this stuff, really? Who cares? Why does it matter? Do we HAVE to do it?
Well…Yeah. If you want your writing to work. Every character must have traits, issues, attributes, qualities, foibles and voices, which make them stand out as individuals. I’ve known writers who could have a whole cast of characters – anywhere from three to six to a dozen or more – and all their characters – regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other form of individual marker – all sound alike. They all speak alike. They all talk alike. They all act alike.
Starting to see the problem here? If you can’t identify, or give individualism, to each of your characters – your writing suffers. And what’s even worse – your reader suffers, because they can’t tell apart your characters, their voices, and what the hell is going on! Oh my god…they’re gonna put down your book and find something else more interesting to read. Possibly Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.
Every character should have a purpose and a personality. They should have a background and traits that make them stand out as an individual. They should act, and react in ways which are specific or unique to them. This is what makes them believable and relatable to your readers.
The Voice of the People!
Another aspect of character-building in good fiction-writing, is the creation of what I like to call a character’s ‘voice’. That is, his or her way of speaking. This means their accent, their diction, their delivery, the tone and pitch of their voice, the slang or inflections, words and phrases that they use, and so-on. This should be as individual to each character as their fingerprints, DNA, and colour of their eyes. Having two characters or more, which sound exactly the same, is very boring, and confusing.
How your character speaks lends interest, individuality and persona to it, and people will enjoy reading about his or her exploits. It will also make it easier to identify the character and build up a fuller picture of who the character is in the reader’s mind, as well as what they’re like.
How your character expresses things like joy, anger, romance, happiness, and sadness, the turns-of-phrase they use, how much they swear, how they speak to different kinds of people – these are all aspects of their ‘voice’. If you don’t have this, your character sounds flat, stale, unrealistic, and boring.
A 4-year-old toddler should not speak or sound the same way that a 45-year-old private detective does, and neither should a bitter, 90-year-old war-veteran sound like a fresh-faced, 21-year-old gaming-nerd. If your readers cannot tell the difference between these characters simply by how they speak – then you have failed to give each one of them a distinctive ‘voice’.
Every good character should have a few flaws, character deficiencies, or bad habits. Not many, just a few. They might be forgetful, easily angered, claustrophobic, mentally or physically scarred, have a broken relationship in their past, or even their present. Flaws and imperfections make your characters sound realistic.
Now, I do understand that some people – myself included – have this thing where they want to try and create the PERFECT character – whatever that may be, varies from person to person – and sometimes that’s fun to do, and fun to write about. But it’s not always fun to read. A character which is TOO perfect can become boring.
One way around this is to make what appears to be an impressive asset, actually a hindrance or personal issue to your character. A war veteran with loads of combat-experience might struggle from shell-shock. A person who’s really tall, muscular and good-looking might have to deal with issues like how the world just isn’t sized for someone of his height.
On the other hand, unexpected or contrasting flaws or failings can make a character more interesting or human. An intelligent, bookish and adventurous character, such as perhaps Prof. Robert Langdon of the ‘Da Vinci Code‘ fame, suffers from claustrophobia, while Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and so-forth. A ‘Mary Poppins’ character, which is practically perfect in every way is unrealistic, and uninteresting.
Producing Plot and Purpose
Once you’ve understood the rudiments of good writing, and the surprising complexity that can go into producing a good character, you now need to decide what type of story you’re going to write, and how that’s going to happen. Here, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.
The good news is that there’s loads of different plots and ideas and scenes and scenarios to pick from! Everyone – give me your best Homer-Simpsonesque ‘Whoo-hoo!’ fist-pump right now!
Here’s the bad news: Every single one of those ideas – yes, even that one you had as a child about a kingdom of bunnies made of candy-floss who harvest chocolate baubles that grow off trees made of cinnamon – has been done before.
There’s No Such Thing as an Original Story
Remember how I said – there’s no such thing as an original story?
Well…guess what? It’s true.
Now I’m sure there are people who will read this, who might dispute this assertion, but it is, in essence – true. There are only so many story-ideas and plot points and twists which can exist in the world, and after thousands of years of making stuff up – mankind has pretty much exhausted all of them.
“Well crap!“, you think. “I might as well give up being a writer now, then!”
Why? Because you can’t think of an original idea? Big deal. Why should that stop you? Nobody’s thought of an original idea for centuries. Even Harry Potter, where the protagonist discovers a secret world which he’s never realised ever existed, isn’t a new idea – Alice in Wonderland, anybody? There is a reason why writers are always suing other writers for stealing their ideas – it’s because they probably did! After all, there’s only so many ideas to go around, right?
The skill of a good writer is NOT to try and create an original story. That’s already been done. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to do the impossible.
The skill of a good writer – a REALLY good writer – is to take what has already been done – and CONVINCE PEOPLE that what they’re reading – that thing you’ve written – is actually something completely new and original!…even if it isn’t. Not only is it much more impressive, but it also keeps other writers from suspecting that you’ve just pinched their ideas and are claiming them as your own. And not getting sued for plagiarism is always a bonus.
And that, my friends – is a MUCH harder job. If you want to test yourself as a writer of skill and creativity – try doing that. Not many people can. And that is why really, really GOOD writers, are few and far between.
Ask most people to tell you the same story ten different times, and make it sound like a different story every single time, indistinguishable from the last one – and most people would struggle. And yet, that is what a good writer must be able to do. This is why to be a really skilled, effective and successful writer, is not something that just any Joe Schmoe from Cocomo, can do, right off the street. I doubt even I could do that, and I’ve been writing for over twenty years.
Building your Story from the ground up!
Because this task of dressing mutton as lamb, of making something old or bland look new and fresh again, is so difficult, great care and planning must be undertaken in any serious literary endeavour which you undertake. You must consider absolutely everything about your characters, your plot, what drives it forward, what holds it back, what makes it what it is, and what doesn’t. You should therefore plan and write down as many of these details as possible.
Decide things like how the story starts, why it starts where it does, and what happens to your protagonists to drive them forward, make them stagnate, retreat, or reach some sort of resolution. It’s best to write these things down in a notebook, where you can scribble, cross out, re-mark and change things as you go along. I still have notebooks which are crammed with hundreds of pages of notes, ideas, characters, and even entire chapters, all written by hand. At last count, I had about half a dozen of them.
As you plan, don’t be afraid to chop and change things. In fact, the more you do that, chances are, the better things will be. As with the act of writing, itself, the act of building up the plot and the details that hang off it or propel it forward works best when it’s uncluttered. Less is more. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you’ve got too many things going on, which will result in your reader getting confused, bored, or both. And if they do become confused, or bored, they won’t bother reading what you’ve spent weeks or months or even years, trying to produce. As the Comte de Exupery once said:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
And this applies just as much to writing, as it does to anything else.
Addressing your Audience
I have said that the way to good writing, is to have clear writing. Writing which is uncluttered by too many plot-points, twists, descriptors or details. Clear, concise, inventive and entertaining writing is the best kind – where people can be both engaged and entertained, or engaged and educated. But they can only do this – if you know what you’re doing!
I have met people who take the sparsity of detail in their writing to absolute extremes, and this makes the writing difficult to follow. As I said earlier – the right amount of detail is the amount at which the story is easy to read, enjoyable, but not overbearing.
If you want to succeed as a writer – be it of fiction, or non-fiction – then it is vital to always keep in mind who you are writing things for – your audience.
I’m sorry to say this, but many people write without considering who their audience is; and their writing suffers greatly, as a result.
Unless it’s a diary, you never write something for your own consumption. Everything that anybody has ever written, has always been for the consumption or use by another party, whether that’s a kids’ story, a teen-fiction novel, a crime drama, the script of a blockbuster movie, a computer-game strategy guide, a repair manual, or anything else that’s meant to entertain, or inform. So when writing anything of substance, be it informative or entertaining, remember the following:
Never assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Never assume that they can guess something. Never assume that they will draw the correct conclusion from hints and tidbits of information. Never assume that they understand what particular types of jargon mean, unless you’re writing to an audience which uses said jargon regularly, and you wish to connect to them and ‘write on their level’.
These are the things you need to consider when you write. At all times, you must consider who your audience is, what they might, or might not know, and how to tailor your speech in what you write, accordingly. If you do not, then you run the real risk of boring, insulting or otherwise alienating your readers.
How to be a Good Writer: Ten Commandmants
Here’s a few final tips on those aspiring to be really good writers. Things to always remember, if you intend to be as fantastic as you possibly can. These should be used as guidelines, to ensure that you’re always at the top of your game, and constantly finding things to raise that game, at all times.
1). Thou Shalt Remember Thine Audience, and keep them holy. Those who do not risk alienation and loneliness.
2). Thou Shalt be Humble in the eyes of thine Readers. No writer ever got anywhere by thinking that they were incredible and without the need of self-improvement. If you think you’re fantastic, you’re going to get a NASTY shock when people think otherwise. Especially if your delusions of grandeur result in your writing falling in quality.
3). Thou Shalt Strive towards Perfection. Just like the Soviets and True Communism, a writer should always strive to attain perfection in writing, even if perfection, like true communism, is actually unattainable. The closer you get to that ever-escaping pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the better you’ll be as a writer. The key is to never stop chasing it.
4). Thou Shalt Be Pedantic and Methodical. Always write things down. Always take notes. Always keep writing-aids (be it a dictionary, reference books, plot-notes, notepad, etc) near-to-hand. Never settle for second-best in your writing.
5). Thou Shalt Always Write. The true writer, the writer who wishes to constantly improve, and maintain their craft, is the one who never, ever stops writing. This is one reason why I took up roleplaying as a hobby. It forces me to think fast, and write all the time, and that is what improves you. Sometimes pressure is good. Also, nobody will believe that you’re a serious writer if you’re not always at least thinking about something to write about!
6). Thou Shalt Keep Thine References Close. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to have a good command of the language in which you write. Know the difference between words, know proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Don’t make the mistake of, for example, confusing a depository of information with a suppository of information. A dictionary is your friend. If you don’t like physical dictionaries, then try something like www.dictionary.com
7). Thou Shalt Read Constantly! You won’t become a good writer if you do not read, and read voraciously, preferably about subjects which you are at least a little bit interested in. History, geography, science, literature, technology…the list goes on. But if you expect to be a good writer, you must first study the craft itself and observe the styles, techniques, word-choices and sentence structures of other writers. These will show you what is possible, and how it may be achieved.
8). Thou Shalt Ask for Feedback. You’ll never know if you’re doing any good as a writer, of anything, if people don’t actually read what you’ve written. Only impartial, unbiased opinions are worth anything when it comes to finding out how creative, imaginative, interesting, or easily understood, your writing is.
9). Thou Shalt Be Thine own Critic. It’s often said that the creator of a work is usually its most scathing critic. And this is good. A writer should always view his or her own work with the most critical and dispassionate eyes possible. Detach yourself from what you’ve written, and look at it objectively (or as objectively as you can). This will enable you to ruthlessly make the changes which are necessary to improve your work, regardless of how much effort you might’ve put into it.
10). Thou Shalt Use Thy Details Wisely. This bears repeating, since it’s a huge problem with aspiring writers. Be careful with how much, how often, and what kinds of details, descriptions and adjectives you use, to add spice, colour, flavour and texture to your writing. Too much, and it becomes overbearing. Too little, and it becomes incomprehensible. The best way to do this, I find, is to go back and remove as much as you can, without sacrificing readability, and not to add so much, that the essence of what you’re trying to say, gets lost in all the fancy words you’ve gone and scattered everywhere.
I call bulky, over-descriptive, over-compensatory writing ‘sawdust‘. In the old days, flour was expensive. To stretch out flour, and to make it last in hard times, bakers used to add ground-up sawdust into the dough to thicken it up, to make the resultant loaves of bread seem bigger and more substantial than they really were.
It didn’t DO anything to the bread. It didn’t make it taste better, or bake faster, or last longer…all it did was fatten it up and make it look more impressive. But in terms of actual benefit – there was none to be had. The bread was not more nutritious, or easier to eat, or anything. It was purely a superficial result.
This is the exact same result that comes from using an overabundance of detail and description. Avoid it like the plague!
Anyway, that ends this rather lengthy posting about the craft of writing. I hope that it has in some way helped any aspiring writers of creative fiction or creative non-fiction out there, who have been hopelessly groping around in the darkness, trying to find writing advice that they can actually understand, follow, and apply to their own work.