A Smattering Of Stupid Writer Tricks

• A simple formula for writing: take the story from high intensity (action, argument, manifest tension, drama) to low intensity (dialogue, simmering tension, concerted character development). Nothing should be without tension, and conflict should carry throughout. A film like Die Hard does this well — period of calm, then period of action. Calm, action, calm, action. You can play with the timing and the length of these sections, too. Requiem for a Dream does slow, fast, slow, fast, too. But as it goes on, the slower periods begin to winnow. The sharp, fast, nasty patches get sharper, faster, nastier. The last ten minutes are a roller coaster ride through human depravity, addiction, and tragedy.

• Another simple formula: character wants something, something or someone stands in their way, character is tested on how far she’ll go (and what she’ll do) to accomplish her goals.

• Another simple formula: shit happens, shit gets worse, shit gets complicated, shit twists, and maybe just maybe the shit gets cleaned up.

• After today’s writing, ask: what was the conflict, what were the stakes?

• Create an outline as you go. As you finish a day’s worth of writing, open a new document, and write a short paragraph (50-100 words) of what transpired during the writing. Er, not what transpired in and around you personally (“I felt grave existential dread and suffered unruly crotchsweats”), but what happened in the story. Then, by the end of your effort, you will have a rough outline detailing the course of events in and around the story.

• After today’s writing, ask: does my character have agency? Did she push on the story more than it pulled on her? Could she be replaced with a potato being passed around? Is she a little paper boat on the river, or is she the goddamn river? (Hint: she should be the river.)

• Chart your story. Use graphs. Give a number (1-100) to a particular aspect of the story (tension, drama, character development, pacing, physical/social/emotional, pornographic quotient, instances of the word ‘indubitably’). You can use use spreadsheets to create graphs.

• After today’s writing, ask: why do I care? What about this is engaging me? Why will it engage others? Explore the give-a-fuck factor. Challenge yourself.

• Don’t name your characters similar names. Even starting with the same initial can be confusing. I mean, you don’t want to assume your reader is so dumb that they cannot distinguish between “Davenport” and “Darren,” but if you have characters named Dan, Don, Dave, Dale, and Dom — then you’re going to confuse us. Though Wes Anderson could probably pull it off. He’s so quirky!

• After today’s writing, ask: what happens tomorrow when you write? Not to you — you cannot predict that my pet tiger, Lucius, will rend you from teeth to taint. (Well, I guess you can predict it now. Spoiler alert.) Figure out where the story will go tomorrow when you sit back down. Think about it. Maybe write a couple words to remind you.

• Got writer’s block? Skip the section you’re working on. Nobody said you had to work in order. Writer’s block might also mean something is wrong in the story. You might need to cut the last section you wrote because something in there is off-kilter and your writer’s soul can feel it. Maybe go back, stop writing prose and outline the thing. A hasty, chickenscratch, combat-landing outline — zero fuckery, just a quick scrawl of what the story should look like.

• After today’s writing, ask: what if? What if it doesn’t go the way you think? What if you do something different? It’s like the TV show, Survivor. Sometimes, you have to make big, unexpected moves inside the story. Sometimes it has to stop going the way it seems to be going and turn sharply in another direction. You sometimes have to fool yourself to fool your audience. Sometimes, some unwitting fucker gets voted off the island. Blindside the characters. Blindside yourself. Blindside the readers.

• Answer the question: “WHAT IS THIS STORY ABOUT?” Answer it in a big way but with a short sentence. One sentence only. What are you trying to say with this story? Not, “what’s the plot,” but the intense, gut-wrenching question of what is this story really motherfucking about? When you answer it, write it on a Post-It note. Stick that post it note from your monitor. Let it remind you as you write. Doodle a dong and/or boobies on another Post-It note. Because why not?

• After today’s writing, ask: why now? Why does this story happen right now? What events lead to it? What matters about this moment in time that the story has to exist, has to play out this way?

• Don’t just read your work aloud. If you hit an uncertain point, let someone else read it aloud. You’ll hear things in the way they say it. The story is written in your voice, yes, but it’s written for other people. What does it sound like coming from someone else’s mouth?

• After today’s writing ask: was I bored today by the work? If so: why? Fix that shit.

• Assure that you have STORY NOODLIN’ TIME. Every day. In the shower. On the lawnmower. While gutting your enemies and tanning their flesh for your leathery manskin bedsheets. Find time every day to just think about the story you’re telling.

• After today’s writing, ask: where are my pants?

• Before writing today, read the last page you wrote. Just one.

• After today’s writing, ask: who is my audience? Am I writing for them? (And also remember: your primary audience is you. Write first for yourself. Tell the story you want to tell.)

• Write for 45 minutes. Stop for 15. Repeat while able.

• After today’s writing, remember to save everything. Redundant backups. Extra saves.

• If you’re not sure about a word, sentence, or whole section, don’t fiddle with it right now. Writers start fiddling, they fiddle for hours while nothing else gets done. Highlight it in big bold yellow. Then move the fuck on until it’s time to edit.

• Cut the first chapter of your story. Cut the first paragraph of a chapter. Cut the first sentence of a paragraph. Be on a quest to tighten. Assume your job is to tell as little story as possible to get the point across. How little can you tell, how late can you enter, to still ensure that people a) understand what’s going on b) feel something about it c) think about it after they’re done?

• To understand story in a new way: study comedy. Study the shape of a simple joke — a joke is a story with a twist ending. Study magic tricks. Study how people tell stories. Study commercials. Study anything that has a narrative flow.

• Get some sleep. Sleep is brain food. You need your brain to write. Get some sleep.

Now go write.

54 comments

  • An excellent example of something to look at to understand story: The first three minutes of the pilot episode of Justified is one of the most perfect examples of using a character’s Goal – Motivation – Conflict to drive action you could ever find.

    • That’s because it’s a faithful adaptation of “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard. I love that show most of all because it led me to finally start reading Leonard’s work.

      These are excellent bits of advice.

  • Jesus fucking hell. This is absolutely the most succinct, to-the-point, useful (and, yes, funny) bit of instructional brouhaha I’ve ever come across. It embarrasses me as a teacher, and my students tend to think I’m worth their shekels.

    Seriously — as I read there were times when I thought: That’s it. Except a line later I’d be saying the same thing. (I tend to be redundant that way. It explains the cats.)

    I’ll be sharing this across the world-wide interweb. But you reminded me of two specific things:

    1. Mark Haskell Smith once said: I try to begin every scene by asking: What’s the worst thing that could happen? This speaks to your “blindside your character/yourself” adviso. I’ve come to believe this is one of the scariest but most vital guidelines for writing something with honest-to-god juice.

    2. The stakes always always always have to be in some way a matter of life-and-death. Somehow the McGuffin your dear hero/ine wants has to speak to or awaken something so deep in the soul s/he realizes that turning back or surrendering will mean at best a worthless empty existence. They will always know: at the crucial moment, I punked out. If s/he can live with that, you chose the wrong hero/ine.

    And if you’re really brave, apply these lessons to your own misbegotten life. Wake up scared at the prospect of having wasted your days or dying alone and misunderstood. Try for something impossible and don’t quit. Love someone with your whole heart and defend her like the queen she is. Know why you’re doing it, and let your failures both humble and strengthen you.

    Now: Off to share this wicked little dog with the neighbors.

    • I like your number 2, however, you can use a hero/ine like that as a secondary character to push your main character as a sidekick “You can’t give up! We can’t give up! We have to keep going!” whatever to give them that push “I failed once, I can’t let that happen again.” sort of thing. It’s been done, but I don’t think to the point of cliche yet.

  • Similar names! When I first read Lord of the Rings while pretty young. Sauron and Sauramon had me mightily confused since for most of the time i thought they were the same character.

  • Stuck? Take a walk or take a shower. Or if it’s hot and sticky out, take a walk and then take a shower. Either way you end up somewhere with nothing for your brain to do but chew on things and spit out ideas.

  • After reading these tips, I now want to roll your ideas in to a writing app. You know, a sort of WindigScrivener, though I’d probably skip the tiger-taint-rending and pile on the obscenities. Add in a FPM (fuck’s per minute) counter? Whisky dispenser?

    That’d be fun, huh? Course, building an app is just my twisted form of procrastination — another way avoiding the difficult job of writing. ;-)

    Thanks for the advice, sir.

  • Stupid? More like stupid-good. Especially blindsiding characters. That’s not only good writing, it’s FUN.

    Are we allowed to add to this? If so, I say the higher you raise a character the harder they fall.

  • All good writing advice rolled into one teeny-tiny post…at the end of which is a sweet request for all of us fledglings to go and write. Because writers write. You are the Grand Master of Inspiring Authors, Chuck. do you know…getting inspired by your blog posts, I finished three manuscripts?

  • when isnt story noodling time? i story noodle all the time, more than i actually write… even now i be noodlin!!

    awesome post chuck, i found it very useful.

  • This is a great post! Bookmarking it to use a checkpoint after writing. I’ve been visiting your blog daily for a while (usually while sitting at my writing desk avoiding writing) but it really makes me excited to go back to it.

  • “To understand story in a new way: study comedy. Study the shape of a simple joke — a joke is a story with a twist ending”

    All the ‘this’ ever. Sketch comedy provides incredible insight into storytelling. You know what kind of writing is super succinct, tells a story, and surprises? A good sketch. My fiction got so much better after writing and performing sketch a few times.

    • I decided to try writing some jokes, just to see if I could do it. They tended to be in the Stuart Francis/Milton Jones pun vein. Only a small percentage of them were actually funny, but after doing it for about six months it taught me a lot about the positioning and use of words. Also, how to arrange them to produce the maximum impact.

  • April 29, 2015 at 2:15 PM // Reply

    ” You might need to cut the last section you wrote because something in there is off-kilter and your writer’s soul can feel it.”

    That’s something I’ve noticed, and always forget the next time I get stuck. Getting stuck, for me, always seems like an indication that something ain’t right and needs to be changed.

  • Chuck, I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and never commented. After reading this post, I’m going to print it and memorize. It’s that damn good!

  • GRAPHS. I make graphs and spreadsheets for damn near everything else; I cannot believe I’ve never done it for a story.

    This list made me happy.

  • And if your entire story is about a dong then one Post-It note will do, yes?

    Actually, I think I’ll stick this entire post next to my computer because holy heck this is great advice!!

  • I love this smart, simple, encouraging advice. I needed some structure to the before/after writing times, and outlining has been a nightmare. This is will be printed and hung over my desk, next to my dong-shaped post-it notes.

    Will you write another post about editing advice?

  • Thanks for the tips. I especially like the one about similar names – sometimes it’s just impossible for readers to remember who is who and they need to return to the beginning of story to clarify a characters’ name.

    • April 30, 2015 at 6:00 PM // Reply

      I had a similar issue with names in my mystery–a reader (fortunately at the editing stage) pointed out that many if not most of my characters had names with double initials (John Jones and Kathy Killarney sort of thing). It looked just weird after a bit, so I renamed a bunch of characters, which is harder to do than you’d think.

  • April 30, 2015 at 5:55 PM // Reply

    I think that final note is key for me. I really lose my creative ability when totally sleep-deprived. I just can’t do it. Maybe because when I’m super tired my attention span is measured in nano-seconds.

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