So I’m in the midst of sifting through submissions for issue #5 and this process has compelled me to go on a bit of a tirade about the business of writing good stories. Seems that some of you submitters out there have forgotten some fundamental principles of good storytelling so I thought it would be in both of our best interests if we took a little trip to Writing Day Camp.
Here is what you are about to say:
“Who the fuck is this guy telling me how to write good stories? I’m already a good writer. I drink and I smoke and I read Chuck Palahniuk. End of discussion. I’m a fuckin’ writer.”
Take it easy. I promise you will get something out of this. And if you don’t then, well, you can punch me in the arm at about 40 percent. No, 30 percent.
Also, I wanted to do a “list” kind of post cause apparently they’re really popular with internet nerds and I want to drive up my hits. Tryin’ to make dat internet money son!
(ahem) Sorry. Let’s begin…
1. Give a shit.
I know these funny little ideas pop into your head like, “What would it be like if animals could talk and they played dress-up and were your bestest friends ever?” These ideas should not, under any circumstances, be expanded into literary fiction. Manly because you don’t really give a shit about them, do you? It’s a quirky premise and that’s about it. When you’re writing a story that you don’t care about, it becomes immediately transparent on the page. And if you don’t care what you’re writing about, why the hell should I? Why should anybody? That’s right, they shouldn’t.
If you’re going to take the time to sit down and make something good, something meant to last, make it something you can’t stop talking about, or a part of your life that you can’t live without.
There’s a few sentences in the prologue to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that sums this point up for me:
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I have a fukú (bad luck) story too. I wish I could say it was the best of the lot – fukú number one – but I can’t. Mine ain’t the scariest, the clearest, the most painful or the most beautiful.
It just happens to be the one that’s got its fingers around my throat.
So I ask you this: What story are you dying (clawing at the cage, screaming) to tell? What story has its fingers around your throat?
2. Keep it simple.
Say you and I are friends. Say you’re walking down the street and you see me walking towards you. You smile and you wave and I see you and I smile and wave and when we get closer together we hi-five and I pull you in for a bro hug and even though that’s a little weird for you, you’re cool with it cause we’re such good friends.
“Hey Chris,” you say, “What’s goin on, man? How’s your life?”
I laugh heartily, arms akimbo like a genie, and say “Simply splendid dearest friend. And what an auspicious occasion for our twain tracks to intersect as my satchel is abounding with delectable ephemera and other such pleasantries! Let us feast like the kings of yor, my proprietor of such friendshiply delights!” After staring at me in silence for a moment, you punch me in the face for talking like a fucking idiot and you walk away.
Don’t pull out the big words cause you want to sound smart or more like “a real writer,” whatever that means. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use florid language. If you can wield the language well, like a Zadie Smith or a Jonathan Lethem, then more power to you. It can come out as some truly pleasurable reading. But the truth of the matter is, those people are geniuses and the rest of us are not. Words are tools used to convey meaning and feeling. If you’re not a professional contractor then it’s probably not the best idea to pull out the concrete drill and start boring away at the walls. So leave the fancy talk to the fancy people. Write with your own voice.
3. Have a problem.
You know how life just kind of goes along in one straight line and things are all nice and quiet and beige and nothing ever happens and no one ever really changes? No, you don’t, because life is violent and beautiful and explodes into different angles and paths that you never saw coming and has more colors than a kaleidoscope on amphetamines. Life is like this because of one unifying concept: Conflict. Even though we may claim to hate it, we, as humans, cannot get enough of it. We thrive on it. It drives us. Especially if it’s not happening to us personally. Why? Not sure. But we do.
So in order for a story to be interesting you have to have a big problem. Consider the concept of conflict as the seed that grows the story tree. Wow, that was a super lame sentence I just typed just now. I’m really embarrassed. I don’t know how I’ll ever recover from this. Maybe I’ll never get over it for the rest of my life. Hey, wait a minute, maybe that’s a potential conflict for a story!
See how that works?
And say you do wrap your mitts around a good conflict. Don’t just let it sit there. As a Muscovite once told me, a conflict must cast itself over the entire story. Don’t just mention it once and be on your merry way. Let the conflict BE the story.
4. Show, don’t tell.
This is a staple cliché saying of most writing workshops, but the reason it’s cliché is cause it’s true.
Man, I remember this one time that my buddy did this crazy thing at this crazy place and after he did it I was like, “Whaaaaat?!” Man, it was wild, you shoulda been there. Good story, no?
No, not remotely. Mainly because I’ve given the audience nothing to latch onto. No distinguishing characters or human characteristics of said characters, no accurate description of where the story takes place, no clear gestures or scene-moving dialogue, nothing.
Typically people make this mistake when writing in third person. Third person can remove the narrator from the story he/she is telling and sometimes they are so far removed that the audience can’t get a clear draw on the characters or actions the narrator is referring to. Ray Bradbury said that most stories are better in first person. I’m inclined to agree.
Tell me what’s better…
–Mary felt despondent in her cold dark apartment, all alone.
–I couldn’t seem to get myself out of bed today. There was frost on the inside of the windows cause the gas got shut off last night. Gotta remember to pay my bills on time. You used to remind me about paying the gas bill, but since you left I guess I just let things fall apart.
Okay, maybe neither is all that good. But the second example is more immediate. When the audience feels as if the narrator is speaking directly to them, they’re more likely to immerse themselves into the story. Just because a story makes sense in your head doesn’t mean anyone else will understand it. Make the audience and active participant in your story. Show the story unfolding right in front of their eyes.
That’s basically it. There are a few other things that you need to worry about like pacing, structure and working towards an acceptable ending. But everything will more or less fall into place if you work on these four fundamentals. At least, they are the things that make a story work for me. Then again, I’ve accepted stories that have achieved only one of these guidelines, but done so in such a way that they had the ability to carry the entire story. So there’s really no definitive way to write a good story. The best thing to remember is this:
There are no rules. If it works, it works.
I just realized that I kind of just negated everything this post was supposed to be about. Oh well. Good luck and keep writing!