12. Telling a story that matters with that sweet, sweet suspense

Writing for an audience is intimidating, isn’t it? Every word you write will be analyzed, judged, and possibly forgotten. And it’s so much different than television or radio. Sure, the writing is important regardless of the medium, but if you’re writing a book, you don’t have the option of having some gorgeous supermodel read it to your audience for them. You can inject a heavy dose of special effects into your action scenes. It’s all about your reader, their imagination, and their commitment to your words. 

So in order to make up for the lack of possibilities that other mediums exploit, writers must focus all of their creative energy on one thing: telling a story their readers will care about.

That’s right. You’re readers need to care about the words you’re shoving into their eyeballs. They need to be drawn in, used, insulted. Something needs to hold their interest, and it certainly won’t be Megan Fox’s cleavage or John Madden’s terrible, terrible voice. 

You’re on your own. It’s just you and your story, and together, you must give readers a reason to keep flipping through the pages. There are a lot of ways to do this, but at the heart of each is the universal fascination with suspense

So how do you use suspense? What makes suspense such a valuable writing tool?

People want to be toyed with. They don’t want the facets of a story handed to them on a blunt, straight-to-the-point platter. Readers want to be seduced. I read somewhere a while back that writing is like foreplay. There’s a buildup of suspense, a climax, and maybe some cuddling to wrap everything up. So use this in your writing. Caress your audience’s imagination, making them jump to the wrong conclusions, and when you’re finally ready to blow your story open, the built up suspense will make it worth their while. 

Hold back some important information and make the reader want to figure it all out. Sure, you’ll have to give them something to chew on, but save the main course until later. 

Write on, 432.


11. Your ideas are good, but are they great?

Something I’ve seen quite a bit on difference writing forums is the idea of falling out of love with your story ideas. Pat Mallon, a reddit user, posted this comment on the topic:

“A writing idea is a lot like a relationship – sexy and mysterious at first. Some of the appeal may fade as you shape it and make it stronger, but you have to stay committed in order to harvest its best qualities in the end.

To you, it may seem like a long arduous road. However, for a reader who picks up the book, it will (hopefully) fly by quickly and be filled with the excitement that you once had for the project.”

This is great advice, and something I repeat to myself often. Writing is a long, painful, challenging task. I’ll tell you right now that if you’re ever planning on writing a novel, you will not sustain a consistant amount of passion or enthusiasm for your story throughout the writing process. It’s just not realistic.

But that what makes writing so rewarding: the challenge. Overcoming mental blocks, plot holes, content. Your resilience can be used to your advantage in your writing, and it will make your completed novel or story all the more gratifying.

Stick with it, and write on.

10. Be creepy for better dialogue

That’s right. Find a bush to hide in. Eavesdrop on your neighbors. Do whatever it takes to listen to real conversation.

Dialogue isn’t an easy beast to tame. Everybody has their own speech quirks, and nobody really speaks perfectly. I think that’s the most important thing to take away from this: don’t write robot dialogue. Write in mistakes, weird mannerisms,mispoken phrases. Inject some reality into your dialogue.

“What do you think of these chairs, man?”           “What chairman?”

The best way to figure all of this out is to listen to people talk. Not yourself or even your friends. You’ve heard that all before. Listen to strangers talk. Watch how their conversation progresses. Is one person dominating the conversation? Can you use that in your story?

Dialogue isn’t a simple thing, but you can add some relatable aspects to your stories by making an effort at realistic character dialogue.

Good luck. Write on.

9. Cliches: There’s nothing wrong with a little familiarity

When I first began writing, it was hard to avoid cliches. I thought they were these terribly unoriginal things that would destroy any credibility I hoped to inject into my stories. What I didn’t understand is that cliches exist for a reason. They are what they are because a lot of people can relate to them. They’re simple ideas the are accessible by a wide audience and have become a staple of our reality. 

Still, cliches can quickly bore your readers and turn your story into a mess of relatable ideas we’ve all heard before. The trick to cliches are the layers that lie beneath. 

We do this all the time in our own lives. Imagine you’re describing a friend to somebody else. You might say something like, “Fred is studying programming at UW Madison. He’s a nerd, but he’s not your typical comp-sci major…” 

Computer science. Nerds. Cliche accomplished. But there’s something that differentiates Fred from the traditional programmer stereotype. That’s going to set you up to reveal something interesting about Fred. So in a way, cliches allow you to transition into content that is much more original and sets your story up for something that your readers never saw coming. 

Don’t be afraid of saying something that’s been said before. Just be willing to explain why it’s unique or relevant to your specific story, and you’ll write something that nobody else has. 

Write On, 432. 

8. Characters – Focus on what’s important, and the rest will write itself

Character development is crucial to an interesting and realistic story. But it’s something that’s often misunderstood and often overcomplicated. When you’re writing a story, the first thing you need is a plot. Then you need people or ideas to act out that plot. Pretty simple, right?

So when you’re writing your stories, the most important thing you can do for your characters are demonstrate their purpose within the plot. What are they trying to accomplish? What is their role in the story? What do they need in the moment?

You’re going to be tempted to flood the pages with details about your characters in hopes of making them more interesting or accessible. Where were they born? What did their parents do? Why are they unhappy? But there is nothing more interesting than stating the impact they’re going to have on the story you’re trying to tell. That’s really what the reader wants. Those details will come naturally, and they should come later. But the most important detail of all that should take precedent over all others is the idea of why a character is part of your story.

Do that, and you’ll find that character development isn’t nearly as intimidating. Don’t force it. Explain it.

And as always, Write On.

7. Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

From what I understand, if you read comics, you’ve probably read Neil Gaiman. I haven’t, although he married Amanda Palmer, so I already value his opinion. Earlier today I saw a blog post over at Moreknown.com about Gaiman’s 8 rules of writing:

  • Write
  • Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  • Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  • Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  • Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  • Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  • Laugh at your own jokes.
  • The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

This is all good stuff and it applies to whatever you’re writing. But the bolded point stood out to me. In writing, especially creative writing, you need to put some trust in others before you can have confidence in yourself. You have to share your stories and let the words on your pages fly around in someone else’s head for a while. Let them off the chain of your creative conscious. But when it comes to the point where that person gives you advice, things get a bit complicated.

Gaiman is right on with this point. When you’re getting feedback on something as personal as writing, it’s easy to be offended. Don’t. You’re not a perfect writer, you don’t know exactly what people are looking for, and you never will. But if someone doesn’t like something about your work, ask yourself: why? Your feedback should be coming from a reader, someone who enjoys the topic you’ve written about. And their feedback is important. Until they tell you how they would have written it by critiquing in detail. At that moment, you need to realize that you’re not them, and they’re not you. Your style is independent. It’s unique. So if there’s a problem with your writing, a plot hole or a shallow character, fix it. But fix it your way. Never adopt the style of some asshole who is convinced they’re a better writer than you are.

Write on, people.

6. Motivation is 750 words away

Everybody writes differently, and we all work at our own pace. But perhaps the one universal that exists in the world of writing is the fact that practice will make you better. Everybody should understand that, but it’s not always easy to find the time or motivation to practice on a regular basis. Nobody is holding your feet to the fire. Nobody is shooting you guilty looks when you put down the pen and pick up the remote. You’re on your own.

That’s where 750Words.com comes in. It’s a beautifully simple site with one purpose: to get its users to pound out 750 words each day. Only 3 pages. That’s it. What’s your excuse? You don’t need to write a novel, a story, or even anything coherent. You just need to write 750 words each day and you will become a better writer.

Check out 750Words.com, and write on.

5. Don’t give in to the MacGuffin: A pointless plot item

I read a post over at The Write Practice today, and learned about the MacGuffin. It’s a terrible, ugly, sloppy thing that I’ve never known there was a name for. You’ve come across MacGuffins before. I know you have. We all have. 

What is a MacGuffin? 

You know those movies, TV shows, or stories where the plot revolves around a protagonist that is searching for something? And you know when that something isn’t really relevant to the rest of the plot? It could be replaced with another item and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. 

Yeah, that’s a MacGuffin. Don’t fall into that trap. Make sure that if there’s an item a character in your story is seeking out, that character has some real, personal motivation behind their search. Do that, avoid the MacGuffin, and you’ll have a meaningful direction for your plot. Read more about the MacGuffin over at The Write Practice. 

Write on!

4. Writing a checklist, and checking it twice

Before I write, a do a few things. I make a pot of coffee. I turn on some music. And I make a checklist. It’s usually a short checklist, no more than 5-10 items that I want to keep in mind as I write. Sometimes when I’m writing a genre that’s less familiar, the list will be longer. Here’s an example of my most recent checklist I made before writing a short story about a 40-something doctor who is counting his final days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. 

  1. Show, don’t tell. Are the waves are crashing into the side of the lifeboat? Or does a surge of cold, unforgiving saltwater climb over the edge of the faded yellow raft, trying it’s best to guide the inflatable vessel to the bottom of the ocean. 
  2. In a story revolving around one person, dialogue is ok. Would you talk to yourself if you were stranded in the middle of the god-damn Atlantic ocean? I would. 
  3. Write, don’t ponder. The first draft should flow freely off the tip of your pen, not be forced out in fragments as you repeatedly diagnose yourself with writer’s block. Write now. Edit later. 
  4. Drift from your outline. You cannot fully develop your characters, your story, whatever, until you find yourself in the heart of your own story. So don’t be afraid to explore alternate plot paths as you write your story. If it’s good, you’ll know it and you can keep it. If it’s bad, scratch it in editing. 
  5. Details: if they come to you as you’re writing, that’s great. But don’t spend too much time visualizing a scene. Chances are, as you continue writing your story, you’ll form a clearer visualization of your story in your mind, Go back and add your details later, and they won’t seem so forced.

Creating a checklist like this ensures that you’re implementing the practices that you see in work that you enjoy. Does your favorite author have a tendency to write fragmented dialogue, or colorful action scenes? Emphasize that in your checklist. 

And write on. 

3. Grammar: When wrong is right

Let me start this post off saying that grammar is important. There are certain rules that you should pay attention to, edit for, and keep in mind when you’re writing a story. If you don’t know the basic rules of grammar, you will not succeed as a writer.

That being said, sometimes picking your spots and breaking those holy rules can make your writing clearer, more concise, and improve the flow of your work. Remember, writing is an art, and often times what feels natural isn’t going to always be grammatically correct. Here’s an example.

  • “I thought we had something special, really special, but, you leave me to join the circus.”
  • “I thought we had something special, but you left me to join the circus.”
  • “I thought we had something special. But you left me to join the circus!”

Dialogue is probably the most appropriate part of writing where some grammar rules can be disregarded. But that’s not to say other rules still don’t apply. Read the first sentence above. It’s hard to get through. The verb tenses don’t match up, there’s no real flow to the sentence. It’s miserable, just like the poor bastard who was thrown to the curb for a circus career.

The second example is fine. It works, it’s concise, it reads well. But it could be better, right?

The third example breaks a rule that was engrained in me in my high-school English class. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.” It’s a simple rule, easy to understand, but why is it necessary. (It’s not.) Start a sentence with a conjunction if you want. They’re your words. Mrs. Holstein isn’t going to track you down and give you a B- on your short story because you started a sentence with ‘but’. In the third example above, the sentence reads well, has a nice hard pause for effect, and sounds the most natural out of the three.

So when it comes to rules, ask yourself: what rules do I break when I speak? There isn’t some universal list of rules that you can chalk up as unnecessary and make a mockery of with your writing. But if something sounds natural, it’s ok to take a chance with the grammar Gods and write what works.

Write on!