Yes, Virginia, It's a Learned Skill
C1998, rev., Macedon
Having been blessed to enjoy the friendship of many fellow writers,
published and unpublished, I've been party to many conversations on the art
and craft of writing. I've also occasionally been asked to critique
stories. So I collected some of the things I've learned over the years
into a short essay. Then (somewhat arrogantly, I admit!) I decided to put
it up on my web page in case others might be interested. (Further links to
writers' resources are at the page bottom.)
Those who write purely for their own and
others' entertainment, or aren't interested in critical feedback or going
pro--bail now. Please note: there's nothing wrong with eschewing critical
feedback. Ultimately, to entertain is the goal of ALL writers, even
Pulitzer winners. In writing fiction (fanfic or original) the writer
attempts to touch the capacity of the heart. Stories which fail to do so
are meaningless, no matter how stylistically artistic. Myself, I prefer
stories which have heart and are well written. The better written the
story, the more effective it is at entertaining readers and conveying any
themes or points the author may wish to convey.
So studying the craft of writing is not
elitist, but very, very pragmatic.
What follows is commentary on various
technical aspects of writing: the nuts and bolts of narrative. Only 10%
of writing is talent (maybe less), another 30% is having something
interesting to say. The rest is being able to say it well. Talent and
content amount to little without skill, and skill is what we learn. So
yes, Virginia, you can learn to write (more) creatively.
To be frank, the best way to learn is to
find a mentor who will teach and do that tedious--but very necessary--task
of detailed critique on a hardcopy manuscript. Writing, like
bread-baking, is fundamentally existential: a hands-on experience. But
not everyone is lucky enough to find a writing mentor, so general
scatter-shot advice does have some value, particularly concerning those
things which are frequent technical offenses among beginning and
So, how can one know if he or she is
guilty of ____? I have found that as soon as a particular problem was
pointed out to me, I could recognize it in my work. I simply hadn't
realized it was a problem before that point, and so had failed to 'see'
it. If you think you're guilty of ____, you probably are. (If however,
you think you're guilty of everything, you're probably just paranoid!)
Finally, these are rules of thumb,
not absolutes. Some of them are matters of debate even among
award-winning authors. Ultimately, the only real rule in writing is,
"Can you make it work?" If you can make it work, you can get away with
it. But some people think they can get away with what they can't, too.
"That's just my style" isn't a valid excuse for bad writing. There's a big
difference between style and technical proficiency. e. e. cummings
didn't capitalize anything, but when you write poetry like cummings, you
can do whatever the hell you want, too. The people who play fast and
loose with the rules are usually those experienced, skilled authors who
kept those same rules until they learned their art. Most of us are not
Carson McCullers, to pen a classic at the tender age of twenty one.
So, on with the show...
1) DIALOGUE TAGS: The Dreaded
Said-Bookism and other Strained Prose, or, Get Rid of those Damned
At some point in every wannabe writer's
career, he or she had someone--in an effort to expunge the overuse of
certain common descriptors like 'really good'--say, "Hey! Vary your
word choice and go buy a good thesaurus, kid!"
2) CHARACTER NAMES AND DESCRIPTORS:
Pick One and Stick With It.
It's generally sound advice based on the
theory of choosing the best word, not just any word. But it becomes
problematic when taken to the extreme found among some beginning writers,
particularly regarding substitutions for 'said.' In an effort to avoid
'said,' the aspiring author tries a variety of other dialogue tags:
quip, growl, express, utter, expound, cry, declare, observe...
etc. ad nauseam. The dreaded said-bookism. In short, the aspiring
author has opened that newly-bought thesaurus, looked up 'say' or
'statement' and then started employing all the choices therein.
Don't do this! It's not artistic.
It's annoying, distracting and occasionally outright funny.
Simple fact: with use, 'said' is a
transparent word. When a writer employs a substitute, it's loud--i.
e. really noticeable. So don't have your characters 'growl' their
comments unless they really are growling them and you want to call
specific attention to that fact. And the word 'quipped' should appear
perhaps twice in a 1000-page novel, otherwise the guilty author should be
taken out and shot.
Dialogue tags can be divided into three
basic types: nonexistent, soft, and hard. The best of these is
nonexistent, allowing the dialogue to stand free and clear of narrator
intervention (which in turn allows the reader to hear the dialogue more
purely). In two-person dialogue, one can sometimes go for half a page
or more without the need for any "he said/she said" tag. With
multiple-speaker conversation, that's harder and tags more necessary.
Rule of thumb: be unobtrusive. Sometimes action can substitute for he
said/she said. Ask yourself, Do I really need a tag at all?
Soft dialogue tags include: said,
asked, told, replied, answered, (and occasionally) pointed out, and
remarked. These are soft because they're transparent to the reader:
that is, they carry no visual or audio sense and no connotations--they
draw no attention to themselves and are the next best thing to no tags at
Hard dialogue tags are basically
anything else. That is, words which convey a sense of how the speaker
is speaking (cry, growl, snarl, quip, laugh, huff, etc.). They
also include uncommon synonyms for said like declare, expound, utter.
These words are like pepper--best used sparingly. It isn't necessary to
describe how the speaker is speaking all the time. One may as well shout
all the time: it loses its impact. The overuse of strong tags comes out
as awkward--even amusing--not descriptive. Don't be the little writer
who cried wolf!
Another frequent fault of beginners is
not use of the said-bookism directly, but the overuse of adverbs in
conjunction with said, especially -ly adverbs.
Don't do this, either.
Like hard dialogue tags, adverbs should
be used sparingly. If you notice one quarter or more of your dialogue
tags include an adverb... that's too damned many! First, it's not
necessary to describe how the speaker is speaking every time (as I said
just above). Second, adverbs distract from the dialogue itself.
Remember, transparent is best except in those cases where one wants to
draw attention to the how.
So, you fear you may be guilty of the
dreaded said-bookism, what do you do? First, go through your
manuscript and convert every dialogue tag to 'said.' (I'm serious--every
tag.) Then go back over your manuscript to see where you can eliminate a
tag entirely, or where another word really is necessary. Sometimes the
only change needed is another soft tag, like asked instead of said.
Save the hard tags for those places where you need them.
Like the word 'said,' characters' names
become transparent. And as with said-bookisms, there are always
beginning writers who think they need half a dozen synonym-descriptors to
substitute for characters' names in order to be artistic. It's not
artistic. It's confusing. I've read scenes of dialogue between two
characters where it sounded like six people talking! ...all because the
writer kept subbing "the tall boy," or "the red-haired pilot" or
god-knows-what instead of the name. Unless one needs to use a name three
times in the same sentence, never use a substitute just to use the
substitute. As I said, character names become transparent. Like
adverbs and hard dialogue tags, the use of a descriptive synonym in place
of the name draws attention to it. So unless you mean to draw attention
to it, don't do it. For instance, in the following case, the use of a
descriptive synonym adds punch:
"Philippos' affairs never last beyond a
season," Leonnatos said.
A writer often does need at least one
synonym for a character besides the pronoun he or she. So pick one and
use it consistently: don't invent ten. Or even three. Occasionally,
one might need a second, but it should be fairly generic: the boy, the
man, etc. Too many and it gets confusing as to just who is who! (For
some reason, poor Paris in Voyager fanfic is particularly subject
to too many descriptors. I've seen--in the same story--"the pilot,"
"the tall man," "the blond young man," "the lieutenant," "the cocky
young lieutenant," etc. Um... just how many people are we talking
"True--fidelity isn't the king's strong point."
"Maybe it should be," said the king's son, stepping out from behind a
hedge of boxwood.
3) VIVID LANGUAGE: Chose the Best
Noun or Verb, or, Get Rid of Those Damned Adverbs, Take II.
When we write, we convey a mental picture
to the reader. Thus, and to that end, the more vivid our language,
the better. But truly vivid language is not achieved by the use and
abuse of adjectives and adverbs. It's achieved by the choice of the
precise noun or verb and by the level of detail.
4) SENTENCE LENGTH: Short Makes the
For instance, "he raced" is always
better than "he ran quickly." Attaching adjectives and adverbs weakens
the noun or verb: these are called 'qualifiers,' and they're best
avoided. So for this endeavor, get out that thesaurus and stretch that
vocabulary. A writer's most precious tool is not good characterization,
good dialogue, good plot--it's a strong, diverse vocabulary. Without
the vocabulary, none of the rest is possible.
I once sat down with John Crowley's
Aegypt, to study what he was doing. (Don't know Crowley? He's
arguably the best stylist writing fantasy today.) I did a word count on
adverbs and adjectives. In a ten-line descriptive paragraph, he
averaged only three adjectives and one adverb. Yeah, really. Yet
these are some of the most vivid descriptions I know of in prose. He
achieved it all with the right noun or verb.
He also achieved it by his attention to
detail, and not just any detail but those details which make description
live. For instance, in one brief scene where he describes a hot evening
in summer, he speaks of a fire hydrant left to gush water into the
street. Instead of saying it was full of "garbage" or "flotsam," he
picks out three items from that garbage, and unusual items at that (a
condom is one). The reader can, therefore, see it.
Or let's take an example from A. S.
Byatt's recent collection of modern fairytales (The Djinn in the
"Once upon a time, when men and women
hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and
walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the
songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of
Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan
hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could
dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find
them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was
largely irrelevant, and therefore happy."
What a collection of things to characterize
the modern world! It's lovely--and very, very vivid. (And if that
opener doesn't make someone want to read the story, they're dead to
language.) Notice that she doesn't say "fresh fruit," she tells you WHAT
fresh fruit. More, she doesn't pick out just any ol' fresh fruit to
name, but chooses those which further the point/picture. If she'd put
"apples, grapes and pears," it would lose a lot, no?
A sub point to this cry for linguistic
vividness concerns descriptions of characters and sex. I've read stories
with great place description but lousy sex scenes or dull characters.
Place description is among the easier things about which to be original.
Sex is perhaps the hardest because it's too easy to fall into cliched
phrases. If I read one more "He devoured her mouth" I'm going to go bay
at the moon. I don't know about y'all, but I have yet to "devour"
anybody's mouth--and no, I wouldn't call my sex life dull. When I read
about devouring mouths, I always wanna ask, "Does he like ketchup or
mustard with that?" (Okay, so I'm an iconoclast; what can I say?)
Beware not only of cliches, but of unintentionally funny cliches.
As for characters, it's too easy for
authors to get lazy and fall into what I think of as "driver's license
descriptions": height, eye color, hair color. Some of the best
character descriptions I've seen employ none (or only one) of those.
Don't tell us a character's height unless they're unusual in some way:
very short or very tall. Six feet is a tallish man, it's not a tall
man. Now, Jake Sisko is tall; it's worth noting. So is Hercules, so
is Xena for a woman, so is Jadzia Dax. But Fox Mulder and Chakotay are
not exceptionally so--why mention it? Pick something else. Avoid
overstatement. And if inventing one's own characters, please don't make
them all tall (or all short). I recall one delightful fanfic story which
described a character as not-quite-tall, not-quite-blonde and
not-quite-pretty. What a terrific description!
The same is true of hair and eye
color. Unless it's unusual, don't bother with it. Descriptions of
people should pick out those features which are distinctive. A cleft in
the chin and no earlobes is better for descriptive purposes than brown
hair and eyes. Mention the interesting things. (Also mention of one
will sometimes allow the reader to assume the other: if a character has
brown eyes, more than likely the hair will be some shade of brown,
too. If the hair is blond, more than likely, the eyes will be some
shade of blue or grey; if the eyes are brown or hazel--like Callisto from
Xena--then it's worth mentioning.)
A general rule of thumb: if one is writing
action, go for shorter sentences. Run-on sentences do NOT convey a
sense of breathlessness, they convey a sense of confusion for the poor
reader who is trying to keep track of what the hell is going on. If one
is engaged in introspection, one can get away with longer sentences.
Part of the reason for this is that longer sentences require more thought
on the part of the reader. Thus, shorter sentences are both more
immediate, and have greater emotional impact. (Curtin's Law)
5) POINT OF VIEW: First,
Third-Limited and Third-Omniscient, or, The Point of View Character
Can't See Himself!
Now, here we do get into a bit of
disagreement about style. Some people write short. I do. But some
write longer. A. S. Byatt, for instance. The quote used above is
both a single sentence and the whole damn first paragraph. But Byatt is
good. She can get away with it. It's not a run-on sentence... and
that's the key. Some writers write run-on sentences and excuse it with
"that's just my style." Uh--and just how many "and"s and "but"s have you
got in there?
Put simply, the longer the sentence,
the better the writer had better be or it becomes confusing and
unreadable. Ideally, sentence length and grammar should vary. If all
your sentences are short and all begin with a subject--"He walked to the
store and saw a blue car"--it's boring. Try, "Walking to the store, he
saw a blue car." Or maybe, "On the way to the local Giant supermarket,
he spotted a screaming-blue corvette careening along at speeds that would
earn the driver a traffic ticket in triple digits."
Variety is the spice of life (and of
Understanding the use--and abuse--of point
of view is critical to penning readable narrative. Most writers
understand the difference between first and third person. One uses 'I,'
the other, 'he' and 'she.' But sorting out the two types of third
person can be more tricky.
First Person is simultaneously the
easiest and most difficult point of view to use. It's the easiest
because the writer has no trouble staying in the head of the POV (point of
view) character. But it's the most difficult to use well--with
nuances. John Irving is a master of first person, so is James
Kirkwood, and Charolette Bront�. By nuances, I mean can the author
convey to the reader the biases of the narrator even while stuck in the
Third Person comes in two flavors:
Third Limited and Third Omniscient. The difference is where the reader
is "placed" in the story. With third omniscient, the reader stands
beside an impersonal, third-person narrator who plays God and can see
into the heads and hearts of all the characters. It's hard to do well.
With third limited, the narrator is in the head of one of the characters
in the story. It's not as close a point of view as first, but it's far
more intimate than third omniscient. It's also the most common point of
view employed in fiction, particularly in genre fiction (and fanfic).
All of these POVs have certain
advantages and disadvantages. The writer has to make a choice as to
which one will best accomplish what the writer wishes to do. Often we
make that choice unconsciously: we just sit down and start writing and
automatically fall into one.
The problem arises with the two third
person POVs, as some writers try to have their cake and eat it, too.
That is, they wish the freedom of third omniscient with the intimacy of
third limited... and wind up with a mess. Frequently, the writer isn't
even aware of what's happening. Even published authors commit this
sin. That doesn't make it okay. It's a problem, plain and simple--in
my not-so-humble opinion. Pick third limited or third omniscient and
stick with it.
The author must learn to place the
camera (if you will) for the reader. So let's take a look at what each
placement permits, and what limitations it imposes:
First person is, obviously, a great
choice to allow the reader intimate knowledge of the thoughts and feelings
of the main protagonist. It also permits longish internal monologues,
as well as retrospective and forespective comments, such as: "I didn't
know then..." or "When I was seven, I... but as an adult..." It does
require a strong narrator's voice or it descends into mundanity, like
reading the average grunt's diary. Boring.
But it does not allow similar intimacy
with other characters. We only and always see people and events through
the narrator, and are subject to all the narrator's biases. If the
author wishes the reader to realize that the narrator doesn't see a
particular character fairly or completely, it can be a trick to let the
reader in on this. In other words, a good first person writer can avoid
merging the 'truth' with what the narrator thinks, allowing the reader
enough distance from the narrator to see that truth--even while
maintaining the intimacy and empathy of first. Quite a feat, no?
B) Third Omniscient:
I think of this one as the master's POV
because it's so damn hard to do well... and tiring, too. It's hard
because it requires the writer to be able to make profound commentary on
the human condition without sounding either pompous or obnoxious. Like
first POV, it also requires a strong and distinctive narrative voice.
In first, one is a character in the story itself, in third omniscient,
one is an external observer... but both are narrating the story and so
are therefore free to comment on characters, events, action, etc.
What third omniscient permits which none of the others does is free access
into the thoughts and motivations of all the characters, and awareness of
all events and action.
But it doesn't allow the intimacy of
either first or third limited. The unseen, omniscient narrator stands
between the reader and the characters, mediating perceptions. It's got
a bit of a patronizing tone which some writers (and readers) dislike.
After all, the narrator is playing God, telling the reader what he or
she ought to think about the characters and action.
This type of POV is particularly
valuable for stories which are heavy on characters and theme, those that
"say something." One wouldn't ordinarily choose it for a PWP
(plot? what plot?) romp unless engaged in mannerpunk. (And I'm not sure
I'd consign mannerpunk to PWP romps, as it usually has a stylistic goal,
if not a thematic goal. So, you ask, What the hell is mannerpunk?
Read Emma Bull and Steven Brust's recent SF collaboration, Teresa
Edgerton's Goblin Moon, or anything by Ellen Kushner.)
To make third omniscient work, one has
to have something profound to say about the human condition. Otherwise,
it's trite, pompous or just plain dull.
C) Third Limited:
This is a happy medium between the other
two POVs, allowing a little of both--but it does carry certain
limitations. In third limited, the reader is put in the heads of
characters to see events from their points of view. Thus, it has some
of the intimacy of first. But because a little more distance is
maintained via the use of "s/he" instead of "I," the reader may be
permitted into the heads of a couple of characters instead of only one,
thus allowing the greater awareness of events that one gets with third
BUT in order for it to work and not
bleed into (bad) third omniscient, a little more rigidness is required.
First, the writer must keep in mind that the POV character (whoever it
is) cannot see him or herself. I can't say how many books and/or stories
I've read where we're supposedly in the head of X character only to have
the writer drop out of that character's head in order to give a
description of what the character looks like: "Her wispy red hair
streamed out behind her..." Ouch. How does she know what her hair is
doing? She can only describe herself if she's looking in a mirror or
other reflective surface. Yes, there are published authors who do
this. I still personally consider it bad, lazy writing.
Third limited works best if there is
only one POV character per scene. The author should avoid hopping heads
within scenes. If he or she does, the result is "POV ping pong" which
makes the reader dizzy trying to keep track of whose head one's in now.
Certainly the writer should avoid doing it within paragraphs. Make it
easy on the poor reader--pick a single person's POV and stick with it.
"But I really, really wanna show a
scene from both character's points of view!"
This is where the choice comes in, my
friend. The writer must make a decision: is it third limited he or she
wants, or third omniscient? Also consider, does this scene really need
to be seen from two points of view, or do you just think it does? Let
it be a challenge to write it from only one point of view. It is
possible to change heads within a single scene, if handled well, but the
privilege shouldn't be abused. Some tips:
a) Change only once, or at most,
twice. Add a few lines of "break" to alert the reader that a change has
b) Or settle on a very distant 3rd
limited POV. This is hard to do, but some manage. For example, take
a look at SF author Kit (Katherine) Kerr's fiction. Most of Kit's work
hovers somewhere between third limited and third omniscient. Another
example is historical novelist Mary Renault. Renault changes heads a
little more often than Kerr does, and for the most part, she manages to
pull it off without confusing the reader as to the "he." But even so, I
do still occasionally get thrown when reading her work and have to stop,
go back and re-read the paragraph to be sure whose head I'm in.
You don't want to make your reader have
to stop to re-read!
That's the real reason for picking one
head and staying in it for the whole scene. I'm not trotting out rules
for the sake of having rules; there's a point behind them. It's okay to
ask the reader to work a little, but if your writing causes the reader to
have to stop and re-read on a regular basis, at some point the reader
will just stop reading, period.
6) INTERRUPTED DIALOGUES: or, I
Don't Want to Hear Every Thought a Character Has while Talking to Someone
How much internal thought/description
occurs during dialogue is somewhat a matter of personal preference and
style. Some writers do a lot, some do very little. I happen to prefer
less... But too much is too much! What is "interrupted dialogue"?
It's dialogue which is interrupted for a few lines or paragraphs of
internal observation/thought from a character. But it also includes
one-liners meant to work as action dialogue tags:
He raised his hand. "Yada, yada,
Yeow! We don't need these interrupting
descriptions of mundane (and not very illuminating) actions on the parts
of the speakers. So, unless a gesture or action gives meaning to the
conversation (showing, say, increasing alarm), or is necessary to
facilitate the plot (one needs to get X character over near the window so
the sniper in the building across the street can get a bead on her)...
eliminate the one-liner deadwood. It ain't description, it's fluff.
Filler. The reader really doesn't need to know every gesture the
characters are making.
"Yada, yada, yada." She thought he looked sad and sighed.
"Yada, yada, yada." He walked away.
(Oh, on that topic--try some different
gestures. All writers can be guilty of falling into ruts: nodding
heads, taking a step up, back, turning around, etc. How about
putting hands behind the head? Scratching the bridge of a nose?
Cracking knuckles? Twitching a foot? Be... well... creative.)
My reason for warning against
interrupted dialogue--whether with lots of one-liners or extended bouts of
internal thought--is that it's easy for the reader to lose track of the
conversation. This is not a good thing. When using internal thought,
I find it best to aid the reader:
A) by alternating sections of dialogue
with descriptions. Have several lines of uninterrupted dialogue, then
intersperse description or internal thought. Don't do
talk-think-talk-think-talk. That's hard to follow.
B) by repeating part of the previous
statement if a long paragraph (or several paragraphs) of thought or
description has intervened. This is particularly important if the
speaker is answering a question. "What do you think, Jim?" ... [long
extended meditation on what Jim thinks]... "I think we should..."
No, we don't do that in real conversation. But a writer doesn't write
'real' conversation. If we did, it'd be dull, confusing and full of
"um, ah, hmmm," and run-on sentences. So cut the reader some slack.
7) TALKING HEADS: The syndrome,
not the rock group.
While interrupted dialogue makes
conversations difficult for a reader to follow, don't be guilty of the
other extreme: "talking heads." Yes, conversation should stand clear
and clean, but it's a story, not a screenplay. Sometimes you will need
to insert taglines, action, imagery, or commentary into a conversation
in order to give it depth.
The key here is twofold, as noted
above: not to confuse the reader by adding too much and thereby cutting
up dialogue so that it becomes difficult to follow; but also not to add
unneccessary commentary, images, taglines and actions. How does one
know what's unnecessary? Ask oneself a couple of questions: How does
this comment/action further the readers' grasp of the conversation
dynamics, or the reader's grasp of characterization itself? If you
present a character as habitually pacing when nervous, or have one who
scratches the bridge of his nose when he's feeling shy or uncomfortable,
that's a subtle clue--and it's not unncessary, is it? But don't join
every exchange in a conversation with some action on the part of the
speaker as a substitute tagline, or under the misguided notion that the
reader has to "see" everything the characters are doing. The reader
doesn't. Keep it balanced. Or, as Apollo would say, "Moderation in
8) SHOW, DON'T TELL
This is a cardinal rule of writing, and
what makes creative writing different from most other forms of writing,
such as journalism, essays, technical writing, et cetera. Some new
authors understand it instinctively, others--particularly those who think
linearly, or have been trained in scientific or other forms of logical
How does this manifest itself in actual
fiction writing? By telling us facts about your characters--what we call
'expository lumps'--rather than showing us these things. Yes, it takes
longer, but the show is what makes fiction interesting. There are two
basic ways to show: either through dialogue, or by creating a scene in
which the information is revealed. If you want to convey that your
character is impulsive, make a scene in which s/he acts impulsively.
Don't just tell us that fact. Why should we believe you? If you want
to pass certain information on to your readers, do it in a conversation
if possible, not by just dumping it straight into narrative.
Yes, there are times when telling is to
be preferred to showing, particularly when a story is already in danger
of being too long and the information given is somewhat peripheral to the
main plot so that showing it would introduce unnecessary tangents. But
I've seen far too many stories which read more like plot synopses than
story. The author drops in to tell the reader what the characters look
like, what their personality is like, and any and all background
information the author thinks the reader should know. That's not a
story: it's a profile. One does not need to describe one's characters
in detail upon the first meeting. One does not need to inform the reader
about the character's childhood and what she had for dinner last night.
In short, one does not need to hand out potted characterizations. Show
these things. Give me a scene, not a summary.
[Exception: If one happens to be
writing third omniscient, such commentary is the name of the game. But
what makes it work is the vividness (and occasionally the quirkiness) of
the narrative voice. Remember not to confuse what one can get away with
in third omniscient with what works in third limited.]
9) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Write what you know or research like hell
because there will be someone reading your story who's an expert on
whatever subject you choose to explore. That pretty much says it all.
If you tackle a subject about which you know nothing--or only enough to
get you in trouble--you'll just wind up looking like a fool.
No, this doesn't mean writers can only
write semi-autobiography. What it does mean is that if you've never been
to Las Vegas, don't choose it for your story's main setting. If you
know nothing about fly fishing, don't make it your protag's favorite
hobby. Or go talk to someone who does know about fly-fishing. Read a
few books. Do your homework. Or--hitting closer to home--if you're not
an Indian, have never met an Indian and know squat about Indians, don't
pick Chakotay for your main point of view character or dwell on his
Indian-ness. If you're writing Scully and are not a medical doctor,
nurse, or other medical personnel, or don't work in a hospital, try to
avoid medical jargon because you'll almost certainly get it wrong.
Finally, if you're going to take on a
controversial or emotionally-laden topic, dear god, know what you're
talking about. Don't romanticize trauma or use it as a springboard to
get character A together with character B. Don't assume people get over
rape, incest and other such traumatic situations overnight or as a result
of a couple coversations full of potted psychobabble. And please,
please don't fall into the plot cliche of "fucking her all better."
These are not topics to be employed for emotional chain-yanking. That's
not only lazy writing, it's insensitive and irresponsible writing.
In general, know your limits. Don't
be the lazy author who decides to wing it on a prayer and a remembered
conversation between your father and an uncle when you were seven. A
little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
10) LESS IS MORE
This is a point on which not all authors
agree, but enough do agree that it's become a maxim. Don't go for
overkill; remember that a point or feeling can be conveyed more
powerfully by understatement than by banging the reader over the head with
it. Simplicity is classy. (Give me a woman in simple black velvet over
sparkles and spangles any day.) Or, as I heard one author put is once:
"'Jesus wept' carries a hell of a lot more punch than 'Jesus threw himself
on the ground, kicking and screaming.'"
Related to this is knowing when to enter
a scene and when to end it. Frequently, authors enter scenes too
early, or let them run too long. As author Joy Anderson once said
jokingly, "Write your first book chapter to get you going, then toss it
in the trash." That may be overstating the case a little, but she has a
point. When editing your work, learn how to cut your material,
particularly to excise the unnecessary. Bigger is not necessarily
better. Are you overtelling? Do your scenes start too soon, end too
late? These are questions to keep in the back of your mind as you edit.
11) BEGINNINGS SET THE TONE
How and where you begin a book or story
will set the tone for the entire thing. Give it a lot of thought. You
have to catch your readers in that first few sentences or paragraphs.
This is called the "hook." They won't give you more than that, not when
there're a ton of other books (or other pieces of fanfic) to choose
from. That doesn't mean you have to start with exploding buildings or
murder or hints of deep dark secrets in the main character's past. But
do think some about how to set your hooks, so you can reel in that reader
and keep him or her following you for the rest of the story. Expository
lumps are not the way to open your narrative. Consider the opening lines
of these award winning authors/novels:
12) FORESHADOW, FORESHADOW!, or,
How Do You Get There from Here?
"124 was spiteful. Full of baby venom."
Toni Morrison, Beloved (novel/mystery/horror)
"I've watched through his eyes, I've
listened through his ears, and I tell you, he's the one. Or at
least, as close as we're going to get."
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game (SF)
"The child was wakened by the knotting
of the snake's coil about his waist."
Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven (historical)
"'I will arise and go to my father,
and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before
thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.' These were not
perhaps the actual words which Edward Baltram uttered to himself on the
occasion of his momentous and mysterious summons, yet their echo was
not absent even then, and later he repeated them often."
Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice (novel)
"At the beginning of the summer I had
lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to
transact some of his vague business."
Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburg (novel)
"The snow in the mountains was melting
and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand
the gravity of our situation."
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (murder mystery)
When plotting a story, be sure to avoid
unexpected, and illogical, plot twists. This means that one has to
give a modicum of thought to one's story arc. If you plan to make a
revelation in your story, or take it in an unexpected direction,
foreshadow. Good foreshadowing is an art. (Ever read Asimov's
Foundation Trilogy? Brilliant foreshadowing.) Avoid the Big Neon
Hint--the sort any fool can spot a mile off. Sometimes this type of
foreshadowing is fine, but not if one is aiming for surprise. (Much
depends on a writer's goal.) Of course, the opposite extreme is no
better: the sudden abrupt plot shift which is so unexpected that it
rudely tosses the reader out of the story world onto his ass. The best
foreshadowing is the kind that, when the truth is finally revealed,
causes the reader to say, "Ah, of course... but I never saw it coming!"
This goes not just for events, but for
character traits as well. Don't have your characters respond to
situations in unpredictable ways which don't mesh with anything we've seen
from them before--or anything we might expect from what we have previously
seen. If they're original characters, yes of course they're yours to do
with as you please... but that doesn't mean anything goes. Keep your
characters consistent. In fact, you must keep characters more
consistent than people are in real life because there is less room for
complexity in stories. I'm all for complex characters, but it is
possible to make them so complex that you lose your readers. As for
borrowed characters, I think it goes without saying that you can't take
them too far from how they've been shown on the screen or you've simply
created your own character and wrapped an actor's looks around him/her.
(See below under "Comments Specific to Fanfic.")
Finally, a related point: if you plan
to hint at deep dark secrets in the pasts of your characters, be sure
they're not cliches. If I read One More Incest Story, I may hurl. As
a former counsellor, I firmly believe that this is a matter which should
be spoken about openly and brought to public attention. But as a
writer, I recognize that it's become a plot cliche. Twenty years
ago--even ten years ago--it was shocking. Now, it's blas� because it's
been done to death. (See above under "Write What You Know" for warnings
against emotional chain-yanking, too.) To avoid writing a cliche
requires both extraordinary realism and extraordinary empathy, not to
mention a unique angle. But really--there are other interesting things
to write about.
13) DON'T USE DIALECT, or, O.
Henry You Ain't
Very, very, very few writers can pull off
dialect. It's better to assume you aren't one of them. Don't give
Scotty a brogue, or Chekov a Russian accent, by deliberate misspellings
and unfamiliar contractions. It's not convincing, it is difficult to
read, and frankly, it strikes as ridiculous. Instead convey
distinctive speaking styles by grammar. This means developing a really
good ear for language. For an example of an author who does this
particularly well, take a gander at the writing of Clyde Edgerton (Walking
Across Egypt, Rainey). He conveys a perfect western North
Carolina accent without misspelling much of anything--all by the grammar
the characters use. And by grammar, I don't necessarily mean bad
grammar. For instance, the combination "might should" is something you
rarely hear in New York City, but you're very likely to hear it in
Macon, Georgia. Likewise with "gotten," and "drug" (the 'past tense'
of drag, not a pharmaceutical item). These are southernisms.
Likewise, you won't hear many Americans say "we're getting up a party,"
or "I'm great for you," but you're likely to hear an Irish woman say
that. So listen for distinctive speech patterns and use these to convey
dialect--don't use lots of contractions (goin' instead of going) or bad
grammar to denote rural or linguistically unsophisticated characters, and
don't, please, please don't use misspellings to convey dialect. It's
[A few exceptions which are commonly
seen enough to use: ain't, gonna, wanna, y'all, 'tis, 'cept, ol'
and a few more. But use these with care.]
14) AVOID DEUS EX MACHINA,
or, Euripides You Ain't, either
What is deus ex machina? In
Latin, it means "the god from the machine" and relates to ancient Greek
theater, but what it really means in modern usage is to take the easy way
out at the end. That is, such quick-fixes as "it was all a dream" (or a
holodeck adventure) which results in automatic rewind, or inserting a
"miracle rescue" or "miracle medicine moment." Yes, TV shows are guilty
of deus ex machina all the time. That's not an excuse; that's
bad plotting. Be brave and permit actions to have consequences.
Euripides used deus ex machina in order to make fun of the Greek
tendency to anthropomorphize their gods. But lazy writers use it to get
themselves out of a plot pickle, to make a story end the way they want it
to--not the way the course of action demands, or because they're too lazy
to think out a more complex solution.
Another kind of deux ex machina,
or at least unbelievable manipulation on the part of the author, is the
illogical situation or conversation--especially when its sole function is
to drive apart (or drive together) the hero and heroine (or hero and
hero, as the case may be). Please. Assume that your readers have some
common sense--and that your characters do as well. People may say and do
stupid things, but they often recognize they're stupid even while doing
them, or recognize it shortly thereafter. And there are limits.
(Stories aimed at romantic entanglements are by far the worse offenders in
this category.) Don't allow yourself to be swept up in your own
emotional tidalwave. Think about what your characters are doing, or
saying. Is it improbable enough to make a James Bond movie look like
COMMENTS SPECIFIC TO FANFIC:
1) Please don't open a fanfic story with
the full name and title of a series regular. This is one way fanfic is
not like original fiction. Ain't likely to be anybody reading your
Voyager story who doesn't already know that Paris is Lieutenant Thomas
Eugene Paris, pilot for Voyager. Or, if you're into the X-files,
don't start your first (or even second) sentence with "Special Agent Dana
Katherine Scully..." We know her name and title, thank you. For
fanfiction to introduce characters in such a fashion is both unnecessary
A writer of fanfic can assume a certain
level of knowledge on the part of readers which a writer of original
fiction can't; take advantage of it. Assume in your readership the same
basic familiarity with facts that the show's script writers assume for
their episodes. They don't introduce every DS9 episode with a Sisko's
full name and rank! Same goes for semi-regulars like Dukat or Nog, or
(for the X-Files) Skinner or Margaret Scully. The exception, of
course, is if one brings back a guest star from one or two episodes.
Then one might remind the readers who this person is: _____, Worf's
adopted father. (See, I can't even remember his name!)
I'm not against incorporating the
information somewhere in the story, but please: not in the first
paragraph. And try to find a creative way to do it. Instead of
beginning "James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise was walking along
the corridor," Try: "Captain!" It was Spock's voice. Kirk stopped
his progress down the hall outside sickbay and turned.
[Exception: if posting a crossover,
you might need to include more information, depending on where you're
publishing it. Should you write a Star Trek-Avengers crossover and post
it to alt.startrek.creative, you should include more information about
the Avengers characters since there may be people reading the piece who
are unfamiliar with the Avengers. If you're writing an X-Files-Homicide
crossover and posting it to alt.tv.x-files.creative, you will need to
give more information about the Homicide characters. If it's a generic
list with all sorts of fanfiction, you should include more information
period. Where you're posting, then, governs the amount of
2) Don't exaggerate aspects of a series
regular's appearance. Janeway's hair is not red or strawberry blond.
It's dishwater brown with red highlights. Scully's eyes are light grey
blue, not baby blue, and Kirk's are hazel, or maybe swampwater green,
not gold, gold-flecked, or honey-colored or any of a half-dozen other
exaggerations. Chakotay is not a big man (nor does he have big hands).
Kevin Sorbo is big, Arnold Schwartzenager is big; Robert Beltran
is on the bulky side of average. Try for accuracy, not purple prose.
I know what these people look like; I see them every week.
3) Just as aspects of a series
regular's appearance shouldn't be exaggerated, neither should aspects of
his or her personality. For example, two characters who are subjected
to the worst offenses... Yes, both Tom Paris and Fox Mulder are
troubled individuals, but they are also 30-something adults with a
measure of social savvy and some life experience. They are not truly
dysfunctional. (I know dysfunctional; I counselled dysfunctional.)
Making them act and react like fifteen-year-olds with a terminal case of
angst, or like men who should be committed, is not engaging; it's
4) If writing original ships or
characters, don't put a long list of what neato-cool-techno-geek things
the ship can do, or include the cast of characters at the beginning of
your story. If a reader can't keep up with the story without all that
stuff, the writer is being lazy--and most readers won't bother. It's
boring, folks. If you want to include story backmatter like casts of
characters, technical information, pronunciation charts, then put it at
(On a side-note, I never personally
read stories in screenplay format. Other readers don't mind, perhaps,
but I want my fiction in narrative form, thank you.)
If you found the above essay to be of use
and wish to set pointers to this page, please feel free. Also feel free
to distribute the above in the public domain but, of course, keep my name
attached. I'd like to thank Mary Ellen Curtin, anne in chicago, and
Laura Taylor for suggestions and comments which became additions or
revisions to this essay. I'd also like to thank the folks on
alt.startrek.creative for a lively discussion of this essay which allowed me
to further refine it.