In honour of it being Friday, and because I’ve been focusing on short stories and flash fiction this week, and because stories are taking over my tiny mind, I thought today I’d blog about some things I’ve learned about story-writing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call what follows a list of rules – far be it from me to lay down the law – but they’re a list of observations, based on empirical evidence. They may be useful; they may not. Either way, writing this post will get them out of my head, which will make my life a bit more peaceful.
Ahoy! Off we go.
One of the first things I’ve learned about writing stories is this:
Discard the obvious
Perhaps this isn’t news to anyone, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. You know when you see a writing prompt, or you read something inspiring, and a story starts to suggest itself in your mind? Chances are you’re having a wonderful idea which will turn out to be a fantastic story, but it’s also possible that the first idea – indeed, the first few ideas – which will occur to you are going to be ‘obvious’, predictable, and based, unconsciously, in things you’ve read or seen already.
I don’t mean this to sound discouraging. Write, and write, and write, by all means. But it’s good to be aware that the first idea which will strike you isn’t always the best one to go with. A really good tactic to get around this problem is to write as much as you can, and read widely; but then, I think reading and writing as much as possible is, pretty much, the cure for everything.
Try writing your idea from the other side
Now, obviously, I don’t mean slipping into the Happy Hunting Ground and writing all your stories from beyond the grave. What I mean is taking your idea and flipping it around. You could try writing the story from another person’s point of view, or taking your main characters and swapping their opinions on something important, or changing the gender/age/race/whatever of your main players. This may not do anything besides reinforce your conviction that you had the story right first time, but at least it’ll be fun. Also, you never know what new ideas might spring from it.
Try writing your story all in dialogue
Sometimes, stories written all in dialogue work quite well. Sometimes, they don’t. A key to a successful all-dialogue story is making each voice distinctive, so there’s no confusion on the reader’s part as to who is speaking at any particular moment. In fact, this is an important thing to bear in mind for written dialogue of any sort. However, the reason I think writing a draft of a short story all in dialogue can be a useful writing tool is this: it can help you to really get under the skin of a character. Their dialogue can betray verbal tics, sayings, dialect, accent, education, bias or prejudice – all of which, of course, makes them a richer and more rounded character. You can take these insights with you as you rewrite the story – or, of course, you could choose to keep your all-dialogue style. Either way, you’ve got a cool story.
Work on your images
So, you have a story. It’s working well. It’s about a woman having a terrible fight with her husband, we’ll say. The woman feels irritated at her husband’s habit of leaving piles of used tissues all over the house, perhaps, or maybe he leaves little towers of nail clippings in tiny sculptural arrangements on every flat surface, or something of that ilk. (Please note: this is not based on any observations of my own husband. Just in case.)
Anyway. So far, so good, so expected. The story is fine, and well-written, but it’s not grabbing the reader’s attention. Millions of stories exist about a husband and wife having a row over the silly minutiae of life. A way to elevate your story onto another plane of interest is to use descriptive images that are startling, eye-catching, perhaps even a little disturbing – the more ‘everyday’ your story is (i.e. set in the ‘real’ world, featuring ordinary folk doing ordinary things), the more ‘out-there’ your images can be. The contrast can sometimes be intriguing.
It’s very important to note, however, that this approach doesn’t work for everyone. It can, sometimes, lend a sci-fi or ‘magical realism’ air to a piece which won’t work for every story, so use this tip sparingly.
Right. Refreshed! Back to it.
You don’t necessarily have to have a ‘twist’ – but try to make the end of your story unpredictable
So. It seems to me that sometimes twists at the end of stories can irritate readers. They can sometimes seem contrived, and not in keeping with the rest of the story, if they’re only included for the sake of having them. Also, here’s the scary bit: a reader can always tell if the twisty ending is ‘set up’, and not an organic part of the story. So, it’s important to plan and plot your writing, especially if the piece you’re writing is as short as flash. In 200 words, or 150 words, or 300 words, or whatever, plotting and planning is absolutely vital – not one word can go to waste, so it’s important to make them all work as hard as they can. If you want a twisty, dark, unpredictable ending, then make sure it’s planned from the outset and organically, naturally hinted at and prepared for the whole way through the story. Anything else can seem like a ‘deus ex machina’, which is irritating.
Just my 2 cents, now. Don’t take any of this too seriously.
Remember all the senses
Sometimes in writing it’s easy to get distracted by the sense of sight, particularly in short fiction. You ‘see’ the world of your story through the eyes of your character; you see the other characters, you look at their reactions. But sometimes a smell, or a sound, will tell a reader far more than anything a character can see. Making full use of the senses also helps to create a believable character (this is, of course, if your characters are in possession of all the senses – of course, a lot of very interesting writing can centre on characters who have senses which are different to the ‘norm’); people naturally use all the senses at their disposal without even realising it, so characters should be the same.
Anyway. There’s lots I’ve learned about writing over the past while, but I hope these little pointers will be of use to others. If you agree, or particularly if you violently disagree, with anything in this post, let me have it in the comments. Healthy exchange of ideas is what it’s all about, right?
Happy Friday, everyone. Hang in there. It’s nearly the weekend.