HTWF is 10 years old. After all that time and over 500 entries, this is the last post (other than a coming Index Series).
Stories mean a lot to me. Certainly, they provide entertainment and emotional experiences. They also provide insights and readily accessed models for living in a complex world. The characters introduce people who are very different from myself, and, unlike real people, I can get into the minds of these characters and come to understand them.
I believe that people never exhaust their need for stories. Good stories. Stories from new perspectives. Stories that reflect how humans live today and those things that never change about us. Poetic expressions that feed us when we don't know we’re hungry. Tales that embed us more deeply in our own cultures or introduce us to societies that are lost or distant or never were (but maybe should have been). constellation good times and laughs and heartbreak.
So, after over 500 posts, I'm going to offer a few perspectives on storytelling, for storytellers.
Your audience. A lot of writers write for themselves and occasionally the combination of what's in common the rest of us and what's quirky pays off. For most writers (and most writing), I suspect there's more to be had by seeing storytelling as a form of communication. That means the writer is not alone. The writer is actually hoping to say something to someone else. To move someone else. Maybe convince someone else of something. To do that effectively requires real thought on who your audience is for a particular piece. And I agree with Vonnegut that the first draft is best written to one specific person. That will shape the language, the pacing, the details, and the arguments within the story. The next draft may be (and probably should be) to more people, but one person is a great starting point.
Thrills, surprises, and questions. Never write predictably. While it's important to engender participation in readers or audiences, stories that flow as expected are ultimately tedious. We love those twists and turns. It's also important not to explain everything right away. Questions, especially if they lead to worries about characters, keep us involved. Unless you're writing instructions rather than telling a story, withholding is a good thing. It's not deceptive. It's part of the contract with the readers.
Escalation. I often come across stories that have great things happening in them. But even when the choices and the actions are highly inventive, the tension goes right out of the story if the stakes are raised or the problems don't become more difficult. The simple solution is to organize the tasks, once a draft is done, so that more is expected with each one as the story goes on. That avoids one of the major problems with pacing, sections of the story that plateau. (Pacing can also be damaged by excess verbiage. That means making sure there's a reason for every word. Strong verbs. Fewer adverbs. Fewer qualifiers (some, a bit, rather). Too much exposition.)
Clarity. You can have the best story in the world and lose readers if they hit the spot where they're forced to reread. Or even worse, can't figure out what's going on. It's fine to include mystery (see surprises above). For some audiences, ambiguity is a good thing. Confusion is never good. A baffled reader is an ex-reader.
Characters. In most stories we love, it’s the characters we remember best. We reread (or watch) old favorites and follow a series because we want more time with Atticus Finch, Huckleberry Finn, Walter White, and Anne of Green Gables. Most writers I know start with a plot or a premise, but a high percentage won’t get to work on a story until the character comes alive for them. So characters are just as vital to most storytellers.
I’m one of those lucky writers whose characters talk (and talk back) to him/her. That’s why my easiest way to get to know them is through interviews. Others need to do more work at assembling the parts, and I know writers who have to create thick files of descriptions, pictures, and traits. However a character comes to life, the three elements that can be most effective to bringing them to life for readers are voice, action, and flaws. Voice comes across most often in dialogue, but first-person stories are founded on voice. When a character narrates, the perspectives, word choices, concerns, humor, and emotion reach us directly. While exposition may get tricky (point of view problems), empathy is readily available (except to those who just don’t like the character).
Actions show the truth of the character. What a character does may be aligned with thoughts and statements or diverge, but actions don’t lie. They reveal. But actions also make it possible to visualize and remember a character. Someone once told be, when I couldn’t remember what a friend who’d died looked like, see her doing something. It worked for her. It works for characters.
Flaws are the easiest and hardest ways to create a full and living character. Easiest because foibles and sins help readers identify with and worry about characters. Pages turn quickly when a character gets him/herself into trouble. Character arcs are steep and have real impact when a characters is broken, often dealing with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. So flaws make the creation of stories easier. Unfortunately, there is a psychological cost for many writers. Most students (and I’ve had hundreds) can’t bear to give their protagonists serious flaws. They say the makes them unlikable and will drive readers away. I suspect it’s because these writers identify too closely with the heroes and heroines of their stories and revealing their flaws makes the writers feel vulnerable. It does take courage to show evil in a character we love.
Theme. Most stories, and any stories worth reading more than once, have something to say. In my experience, other than people who write propaganda, most writers don't know what they have to say until they finished at least one draft. The reason why the work means something to them only crystallizes over time. It may take some work to figure out what the writing process revealed. Not everyone sees it right away. And I've known some writers who have only figured out what they were up to while talking to an agent or a friend. But once you have that insight, it can direct rewriting. It can suggest imagery and what needs to be cut and and what might be missing.
Authority. Confidence shows in writing. Much of it flows from hard-earned skill, but a lot depends on knowledge. Well isn't necessary to research the times, the places, and the characters before writing a draft, touchstones in reality (even for fantasy works) suggest moments and choices that will feel right to you and your readers. Story logic also makes a work convincing. While every step in the logic doesn't need to be included, leaving too many out for heading off into different directions will make readers stumble. Own the worlds you create.
Curiosity. This goes in two directions. First, your own engagement in your story will increase if you look closely enough to wonder about it. When things are really working, it's likely that questions will take over. Answers will fill pages, and many of the answers you find will never make it into the story. But all that you learn, even when it's not included, will support the work. How many times have you read a story and had a sense that you were seeing just one piece of a larger world? That has tremendous power and appeal.
But don't restrict curiosity to yourself. Actively suggest enough to make your readers curious. Obviously, some of the questions raised will point to what will happen later on. But some will shape impressions of the characters and their relationships that will go unspoken. That sort of curiosity encourages the kind of participation that leads to readers falling in love of the work and discussing it with other readers.
In addition, it's always great when the mention of a historical figure or a place or a body of ideas or something else from the real world motivates people to look things up and learn more. In such cases, you may be opening new doors for your readers.
Entertainment. The first rule of fiction writing is don't be boring. It doesn't mean you need to write crazy and jarring stuff. Stay near the boundaries of your genres is just fine. Don't be afraid to exaggerate or use colorful language or experiment or introduce a character who makes you feel uneasy. A lot of fun comes from charm, pizzazz, and walking tightropes. Humor, at the right time, is also welcome.
How do you do all of these things? There are lots of hints in the How to Write Fast posts that precede this one. I hope some will be helpful to you. Mostly, whether you discover tips or find a mentor or dig into references, your success as a writer will depend upon writing and growing. It's great if you can dedicate yourself to it, but a lot of value can, from fairly minimal effort. I've had students who have committed to writing (meaning actually putting words on paper or typing them into a file) 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Stories can be created on a regular basis I following the practice. And the more stories you write, the better command of writing, over time, you'll have. We need good stories, so I hope you can do this.
I'll keep writing my own, but my plans don’t include writing more about writing. I think there's enough here to help out. I'm not going to abandon this blog, but most of my efforts will be aimed at making the advice more accessible. Some of these were written in a blistering speed, so I'll be making repairs. I hope to add some illustrations to add a little fun to each post. I suspect I'll find some things that I regret having written. Those might be reworked or removed. And, about every week, I'll suggest topics and point to the best posts that cover those topics.
I'll keep an eye out for any questions or comments and try to respond in a timely manner. This is not been a highly interactive blog so far, but, who knows? It might become one in its afterlife.
Thanks for reading. I wish you success.