Note: I had this on THE TWEETERS, and thought it would be good to transcribe here, too: a series of thoughts and tips on purging that first — or zero — draft from your brainbucket. Please to enjoy.
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SOOOoooo let’s switch gears a little bit and talk more about one of my favorite things: CREATIVE REGURGITATION IN THE FORM OF HORKING UP THE MESSY, SHRIEKING FIRST DRAFT OF YOUR NOVEL — whether for #NaNoWriMo or just for shits and giggles, let’s talk some tips.
Obviously writing a book is fucking hard. It’s you wandering through a dark house that isn’t your own. You’re going to bang your knee on a lot of furniture. Gonna trip. Gonna meet some ghosts there in the dark. It’s okay.
It’s like, part of writing is that act of finding your way through that dark, unfamiliar house. It’s you mapping the terrain, gaining comfort, learning how first to creep through that place and soon, sprint. This tends to come as you write more and redraft.
But sometimes, wandering through the dark rooms and twisting chambers, you just wanna find a fainting couch and NOPE right the fuck out of the book.
So it’s valuable to consider some storytelling tips to help you push on through.
And obviously as always the caveat, the bleating alarm, AWOOGA AWOOGA, is that nothing I say here is True, writing advice does not equal Facts, this shit ain’t Math, it’s just me giving you some sassy notions you are free to use, abuse, or discard to your liking.
Or, put differently, WRITING ADVICE IS BULLSHIT, BUT SOMETIMES BULLSHIT FERTILIZES.
Let us continue.
(oh and these storytelling tips aren’t necessarily just for novels — stories share similar bones across a variety of formats and media)
Okay, first up: CHARACTERS ARE THEIR PROBLEMS. That’s why they’re there on the page. They have problems and they’re trying to solve them, and the story is about that attempt to solve those problems.
We talk a lot about motivation and wants and stuff when it comes to characters, but for me, there’s value in getting right to the heart of it — a problem. A problem indicates conflict, and conflict is food that feeds the reader. Identify that problem ASAP, and set them to solve.
Smaller problems are more interesting than bigger ones. By which I mean, Han Solo’s debt problems in Star Wars is far more interesting than OMG REBELLION VERSUS EMPIRE. His problem is empathic and understandable. Find common emotional bonds with the audience.
A character tries to solve their problem, it’s your job, as THE MONSTER THAT YOU ARE, to stand in their way. This is the maze — you create bends and distractions and hard choices and character flaws and physical obstacles that prevent them from easily solving their problems.
As a character walks this metaphorical maze — literally DOING SHIT and SAYING SHIT in pursuit of the end to their problem — they are basically excreting plot like narrative earthworms. CHARACTERS ARE PLOT-SHITTERS.
(that’s the name of my next book, by the way: CHARACTERS ARE PLOT-SHITTERS: YOUR GUIDE TO WRITING CHARACTERS WHO POOP PLOT ORGANICALLY, coming soon)
Another of your jobs as storyteller is to remember that storytelling is the act of shattering the status quo — at the beginning of the story, SOMETHING HAS CHANGED. There has been a shift, a pivot, and that ties into or complicates the characters’ problem(s).
Further, narrative is an act that must resist stabilization.
What I mean is, even as a story — the characters, the plot, the narrative — begins to stabilize, it must again destabilize to continue. This creates interest. This creates rhythm. A sense of uncertainty.
This is why in the units of narrative measurement, those units often end with a kind of upset — a scene, a sequence, an act all end with SOMETHING CHANGING. The larger the narrative unit, the larger that change will likely need to be.
This is for the characters, and by proxy, the audience — you want them to start to feel settled, and then you fuck up the narrative tectonics once more, moving the earth beneath their feet. Sometimes subtly, sometimes to break the world.
You have ways shake the ground — the saying goes that instead of using AND THEN, you’re better off going with BUT or THEREFORE — but really, it’s worth looking at all the conditional conjunctions as words of consequential narrative value.
Meaning, instead of this happens AND THEN this happens AND THEN this happens, it’s…
but EVEN IF this, etc, etc,
…it’s like a Mad Libs story equation, letting you play with chain of consequence and event.
The shape of narrative matters. You never want a straight line. Even the standard “male ejaculatory arc” is boring news — you want a story that kinks like a maze, that rumbles and loops like a roller coaster.
When in doubt: try to surprise yourself. Make a decision on the page that isn’t the decision you intended. You can’t fuck it up — it’s your story, you’re the god of this place. If you felt like going right, ask what happens if you go left, or up, or you blow it all up.
“Dave was going to ask Esmerelda to marry him in this scene, but instead, WHAT IF HE BECOMES A VENGEFUL WEREWOLF AND HE NOISILY EATS A BABY IN FRONT OF HER then what happens?” is a very good question.
(wait that’s a terrible example, eschew baby-eating)
Also when in doubt: pump the story full of YOU. Your ideas, your fears, your worries, your peccadillos, your armadillos, your bag of dildos wait hold on what
What I mean is, in that first draft especially, a story is often a conversation between the author and the author. It’s you… working stuff out. Maybe subconsciously, maybe not. But don’t be afraid to HAVE FEELINGS and OPINIONS and mud-wrestle with those notions on the page.
It’s why putting politics in stories is essential — not as an act of preaching, but as an act of examining these ideas, questioning them, grappling with them. Politics not as an emblem of political parties, but as a signal of grand ideas that affect PEOPLE.
That’s the nature of theme: hidden arguments going on behind the walls of the story, like ghosts bickering near the conduits of wire and between copper pipes. Every story is an argument. That’s not a bad thing.
And letting that be true — embracing that instead of fearing it — gives you energy to write more, because the work on the page is salient, is intriguing to you, is surprising, uncertain, argumentative. We all argue with ourselves. Do some of it in the story.
And at the end of the day?
We talk a lot about SHOW DON’T TELL but a religious rigor in this leaves a story being pure purple prose — all reaction shots and heightened senses.
We do call it “storytelling” for a reason.
When you must TELL something, the goal simply is to make it interesting. Fun to read, which means fun to tell, too. Exposition can itself be a kind of story nested in a story.
(It’s the difference between a boring-ass history book and a fascinating one. History is dull when it’s facts and figures. It’s fascinating when it is, itself, told as a story.)
AAAAANYWAY, hope that all helps, okay, goodbye, good luck.
Tell good stories!
And art harder, motherfuckers.
p.s. you can have all of this unpacked more in a book I wrote called
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.