(I like to write these pieces with an authoritative and knowing voice. Let’s be clear from the start that this is not prescriptive. I am sharing my approach to writing to provide some ideas to newer writers who might be reading this piece. There’s no literary elitism here. You may read a point and think, “I disagree. I would do it the opposite way.” Do it. We need your unique voice in the literary world, not scores of writers conforming to one way of doing things. And please feel free to share your dissenting and counter points in the comments!)
1. Writing and Storytelling are Similar But Distinct Practices
Martin Scorsese famously became the focus of debate when asked about his opinion on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.
My attitude towards writing is similar to Scorsese’s attitude here. I love the MCU because I adore the characters. They are the contemporary equivalent to mythology. Marvel and Disney are fantastic storytellers. Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in particular are among my favourite modern films.
It’s not cinema.
I would qualify his closing comment that the stories do convey emotional and psychological experiences, they simply lack the depth and nuance of other projects. That is intentional on Marvel’s part though, because these are meant for easy digestion by a massive audience. “Popcorn” entertainment is not a crime.
This first area of focus is clarifying that difference. Stephenie Meyer is not someone I consider a great writer, but I do think she’s a great storyteller. James Patterson is another who falls into this category. They have all of the technical writing skills and use the elements of literary composition to move a story from start to finish while entertaining the reader.
To reiterate, I am not condemning either of them. I think Meyer and Patterson are titans in the field who have provided enjoyment to millions.
Writers, by contrast, have a theme they wish to explore. No characters, no plot. There exists at this early moment only a theme. What then follows is something similar to the scientific method. We want to explore that theme. We come up with a plot (the experiment design) that will allow for that. We determine the protagonist (experimental group) and antagonist (a sort of control group).
The protagonist will champion an approach to the theme while the antagonist will challenge it the entire way. This is also where one finds a nice mix in villains. Some are the mirror image of the hero, opposing them at every turn. Other villains are nearly carbon copies of the hero except in some key element (despite my ever-growing dislike for Rowling, Harry and Draco are a good modern example of the latter).
This brings us to the second major consideration.
2. Writing with a Specific Outcome in Mind is Propaganda, Not Art
If you determine at the outset of the story how it will end, you will invariably twist the narrative to fit that conclusion. The logical conclusion to this is that you are not exploring your theme. You have predetermined your conclusion on the subject and everything that follows in the story is an impassioned defence of what you believe. It may be true, but the story lacks truth but you have sacrificed all credibility by succumbing to bias.
This is why I like the scientific method analogy more than a debate analogy. By determining a theme, then finding the characters and plot that will allow you to explore that theme, you set into motion a series of events where there is no conclusion except to resolve your theme.
That is, the protagonist must see it through to the end. The antagonist must oppose. Eventually you will reach a point where the climax becomes inevitable because all key forces at play will be set on a collision course that they must confront.
If you do not abide by this approach, here is what will happen. You will arrive at a critical point in your story where the protagonist must take a particular path. However, because you chose a weak character or poor plot for the theme, your character will have two or more valid choices at their disposal. You as the writer must then, in that moment, contrive a reason why only the one path works.
That is terrible writing and readers spot it a mile away.
If you choose characters critical to your theme, even if more than one option is technical available at a decision point (to any given person in that situation), your character will have no choice but to pursue a specific path. That is simply what that character would do in that particular situation. Your job as the writer is to walk that path.
This is why, circling back, one cannot have a conclusion to the theme prior to writing. Sure, you might have a sense about where you want the story to go in order to guide your writing, but do not presuppose the conclusion to the theme. If you do, you will force characters down paths they would not take with contrivances and gimmicks.
Consider this: if you are really stuck because your hero is not coming to the conclusion you expected, maybe your beliefs about the theme are wrong. It happens in science. Hypotheses are wrong all the time. That is why method is so critical to the writing process.
3. Everything with Purpose
This last one is more specific and I imagine will have the most opposition. It is, after all, based the least in evidence and more on my preference as a writer.
Consider the literary device known as Chekov’s gun. If there is a gun sitting on the table in a scene, at some point a character needs to fire that gun. Otherwise it has zero purpose being on the table in the first place.
I apply that principle to everything when I am writing. Everything. Trim all of the fat. Does this have a purpose? No? Then get rid of it or change it.
That part sounds simple on the surface, but I am extending it to every single detail of the story.
What colour are your characters eyes? Purple. Is that because you like the idea of a character with purple eyes? Why do you feel compelled to impose that on your reader? Maybe your reader was imagining this character with blue eyes because it reminds them of someone they know. Maybe they see brown eyes because they see themselves in the character.
But most of all, why are you setting aside time and resources to explaining a detail that does not matter?
This does not mean writers should never share a detail like eye colour. No, what it means is that like Chekov’s gun we can build meaning around that detail. Consequently, that detail should be relevant to the first principles that I shared. Allow it to further the plot, to develop your character.
Is your character an “everyman” type? Name him Mike and give him brown eyes. Is your character unique – someone to whom the average person might not relate? Name her Sephoracles and give her purple eyes. It’s an uncommon name and uncommon eye colour to highlight her uncommon nature. While providing some scenery for your story you are also providing subconscious depth. You are driving home how uncommon this character is without saying, “She was uncommon.”
Consider this wonderful advice from Stephen King:
In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.
This is what I am describing. Writers become so focused on world-building and creating a visual scene that readers get inundated with unnecessary details. There are guns all over the scene that no one will ever fire. Why have I gone through entire pages with nothing but description…something needs to happen!
This is what I mean by dense writing. Share details that paint a picture, but have them mean something. You can simultaneously put a visual in the reader’s mind while adding to other aspects of the story.
Your character leans against a wall as he delivers his line. If he does that because you think the visual “looks cool,” then stop it. We don’t need to know anything about how he is standing. If, on the other hand, the context also conveys to us that he’s ambivalent or attempting to seem ambivalent about the situation, now you are cooking. Something is happening. The other character in the scene should detect the same ambivalence as the reader. Now there’s conflict in the scene. We have a clear visual and you are moving the story.