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Write More. Read More.

How does one get good at writing? The commonsense answer is to both write and read more. The more someone writes, the better, naturally, they become at writing. The more someone reads, the more ideas and techniques they’re exposed to. Writing more and reading more will absolutely make someone a better writer. This isn’t debatable.

What is debatable is whether writing more and reading more are the best ways to become a better writer. I don’t believe they are. I believe the best writers are the best because they are good storytellers.

Don’t misunderstand me. Things like syntax and style are crucial to a story. In some cases, theyre the reason a reader reads a particular work. Studying how to write well is essential. But I think they’re secondary to creating a good story. When we read more and write more, what we’re really improving are things like syntax and style. As I said, these are things that are worth improving.

But improvements in creating a good story occur tangentially, if at all, with the aforementioned routine.

You might object here and say that if you’re writing a story, then you’re getting better at writing stories. That might be true… if you know what makes a good story a good story. Most people unfamiliar with the craft think they know what makes a good story good… until they try to define it.

It would be analogous to me thinking I could write a song because I’d heard songs all my life. And while I might know, unconsciously, just by listening, whether a song is good or not, I wouldn’t be able to recreate a good song on my own. I might be able to say “I really liked this solo” like a person might say “I really liked the part where he saved the princess”, but I wouldn’t be able to make my own musical solo that fits within the framework of the song it belongs to any better than I’d be able to create a sequence of events leading to the strong emotional payoff of the prince getting the princess.

Within one of the craft’s greatest books, Story by Robert McKee, McKee poses a question:

“What is the ‘substance’ of story?

In all other arts the answer is self-evident. The composer has his instrument….the dancer alls her body her instrument. Sculptors chisel stone. Painters stir paint. All artists can lay hands on the raw material of their art — except the writer. For at the nucleus of a story is a ‘substance’, like the energy swirling in an atom, that’s never directly seen, heard, or touched, yet we know it and feel it….

For just as glass is a medium for light, air a medium for sound, language is only a medium, one of many, in fact, for storytelling.”

The best way to become a good writer (of stories) is to learn what makes a good story and then practice making good stories. I recommend Story — McKee is brilliant.

Reading more and writing more are just work for work’s sake. That’s not deliberate practice and it’s not going to make you a good writer. 


Writing and Empathy

We’ve all tried our hand at acting, music, or the visual arts at some point in our lives, even if it was only in art class. They all have one thing in common: instant feedback.

Writing stories has no instant feedback. I’m not talking about grammar or sentence structure. I’m talking about whether or not you’ve written a story worth reading. When you’ve written a story, it’s extremely difficult to know if your story is good or not. In fact, you’re deluded into thinking it’s good. Why?

Well, when you tell a story, you’re turning the images in your mind into words. These words allow someone else to see the same things you do.

Here’s the catch — you already know what the images look like. You already know the story.

This means that when you read your own words, you can’t help but see the vivid images that inspired you to write in the first place. And the images are always vivid to the author. Otherwise the author wouldn’t have been compelled to write them down to share them with the world. This leads to what I call the delusion factor, or an innate inability to objectively read your own work.

Unless you have intuitive talent, the reader won’t usually see what you see. Many people have this talent in some form or another simply from reading a lot. But I don’t think this unconscious, intuitive talent is enough. I think it’s important to understand why a story resonates with an audience. Being able to write the best story in the world doesn’t mean you know how you wrote it. That might sound counterintuitive. How could someone not know how they produce their work?

Pretty easily, actually. One can know what works without knowing why it works. We know that getting food from the grocery store works, but I doubt most of us know the inner workings of that store. We know talking to each other on cell phones works, but how many know exactly how a cell phone works, and why? Same with television, the internet, and hundreds of other examples all around us.

Generally, people try different options until they find one that works. Once they find the one that works, they tend to stick with it. In fact, people tend to stick with what works even if better options are available, simply because they know it works.

Something might work, but that doesn’t mean you know why it works. It is my belief that the author who knows why stories work will produce work much richer than one who doesn’t. Principles, not methods, are what should be focused upon and mastered.

In the quest to uncover the principles of good storytelling, I think it’s very important to develop an empathy for the reader. Best case scenario, you must completely forget you even wrote your story. When you read the words you wrote on the page, you have to see ONLY those words and know ONLY what they tell you. You have to free yourself from as much bias as possible, and, even though it’s impossible, forget as much as you possibly can about your story.

Bullet in the Brain: POV

The best way to learn about writing is to critically analyze the works of great writers. This article tackles a critical issue — POV — by examining it in the beginning of Tobias Wolff’s short story Bullet in the Brain. I recommend reading it at least once to familiarize yourself. We’ll start with the first sentence:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.

The story begins in the limited third person POV. That means that everything we know as a reader is filtered through Anders. In other words, even though the protagonist, Anders, is referred to in the third person, the reader ONLY sees what Anders sees. This is crucial because it defines Anders’ character. Here’s what I mean:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, (1)so of course the line was (2)endless and he got stuck behind two women whose (2)loud, stupid conversation put him in a (2)murderous temper.

Look at the section indicated by (1). This part of the sentence does three things. First, it tells the reader, subtly, that Anders is a pessimist. The second thing it does is prime you for the strong words, indicated by (2)s, following it. If those three words were “so of course” wasn’t in the sentence, then the POV has a different effect. Because “so of course” is very colloquial, it makes the reader feel like they’re getting more of Anders POV.

Think of “so of course” as an indicator that’s saying “HEY! READER! THESE THOUGHTS ALL BELONG TO ANDERS!”. Because of them, the subsequent powerful words (endless, loud, stupid, murderous) are more effectively attributed to Anders as opposed to a narrator.

Last but not least, “so of course” is the perfect stylistic transition for the rest of the sentence. It feels exasperated, and it gives the reader the sense that Anders is both angry and in a hurry.

One sentence. That’s all it took to sow the seeds of Anders character. And, even though it’s not going to be covered in this post, it introduced conflict into the story, which is THE MOST important thing in fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

Second sentence:

He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

This sentence is in third person omniscient. Third person omniscient is when  a narrator outside of the characters knows everything about them. For example, if this whole story were told in omniscient third person, the reader would expect to read about the thoughts of the women in front of Anders or the thoughts of the bank robbers.

One might argue this is still 3rd limited, as Anders could be reflecting that he’s rarely in a good mood and also reflecting on his career. It is arguable. Still, I think it’s third person omniscient and this isn’t one of Anders’ thoughts, because I don’t believe Anders would identify himself with those adjectives, especially after the first sentence. He doesn’t possess that kind of self-awareness.

There’s an important lesson in how these two sentences come together. Remember, as a storyteller, you’re transporting your reader to a world of your design. The LAST thing you want to do is break that illusion. If anything in your story does that, it could cause your audience to lose interest and do something else.

POV shifts can be very jarring for a reader, but this is a fine example of a POV shift done right. There are a few reasons for this. First, the shift is at the beginning of the story before the reader is fully accustomed to a particular POV. Second, it makes sense. The first sentence mentions that Anders is in a murderous temper, and the second clarifies and adds to that statement. It’s a natural progression.

Time to skip ahead to when the bank robbers arrive. The following paragraph illustrates how so very effective — and subtle — good POV is at immersing the reader in the story and creating conflict:

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black skimasks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun.

Note the POV and how Anders slowly realizes that something is wrong. The story doesn’t read “Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits entered the bank.” That sentence would suck for a few reasons, but the thing to note here is what POV it would be. If the story read “Two men wearing black ski masks…”, then there is no drama.

But, because we are inside Anders’ POV, we are shown the events, not told them. Something you may have heard somewhere from someone about an effective way to write. By seeing the events through Anders eyes, we are shown them.

Read the paragraph again. Note how Anders notices things sequentially. Also note that we are never, not once, told something that Anders wouldn’t know.

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black skimasks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun.

Read it Twice

When approaching art from the deliberate practice standpoint, I believe it’s important to view it multiple times. To get the most out of a story as a reader, you should read it at least twice. To get the most out of a t.v. show or a movie from a storyteller’s standpoint, multiple viewings are essential. Why?

It’s simple. The first time you watch/read something, you’re seeing it as a consumer of the art.

One example: I’m currently reading Ted Chiang’s excellent novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. While I’m thinking about several things while reading it, my main concern is on whether or not Ana and Derek are going to get together, or what will happen to Jax in the wake of continuing technological evolution coupled with Jax’s growing maturity. I notice things in the back of my mind as they happen, like “hey, here’s the end of Act 1” or “Ahhh, I see why he put that sentence in the story earlier.” For the most part, however, I’m concerned with the story, and my critical, editorial self is in the background.

If I were using this story as deliberate practice, then I would read it a second time. Second readings, and even third and fourth readings, produce greater and evolving insights into a work. When you already know what’s going to happen, your mind isn’t as engaged on the emotional aspects of a story. And, if you want to be a writer, you can consciously train yourself to pay more attention to things like structure, plotting, characterization, setting, and how all of them come together.

The same applies to t.v. I’ve been watching many episodes of House recently, and (SPOILERS EMININENT) just watched the season 2 season finale. This episode is perfect for what I’m talking about. In this episode, House gets shot. On a first viewing of the episode, the viewer is concerned with House, especially because House is having increasing hallucinations as the episode goes on. At the end of the episode, it becomes clear that everything that happened was a hallucination, and the entire episode takes on a new light.

As a first-time viewer, it’s impossible to view this story in a critical light — you can’t even know what’s going on until you’ve seen the entire episode. And it’s only then that repeat viewings will generate further insight not only into the story itself, but in why the writers made each decision they made.

Special things happen when you view the art in question subsequent times. When your mind isn’t thinking about what’s going to happen to this character or that character, it notices other things. Why is this scene in the movie? Couldn’t the director have gotten the same emotional response without it? Why is this sentence here? Hey, this sentence rhymes with this one.

The point is this: no matter what, the second read or viewing or whatever frees your mind to see things as a builder of stories, not an impartial observer. I’m not saying read everything multiple times — that’s just ridiculous. But when studying the craft, pick a story you know is done well, and go over it multiple times.

Anatomy of a Story, Part 1: Unity

In a nutshell, this is how I think about and evaluate every story I write/read.

In my mind, a story is like a painting. None of the parts exist separate of the others. Character, setting, plot, pacing, POV, etc. are all enmeshed together to form a cohesive whole. The story fails or succeeds based on how unified all of the elements are with one another. Just like a painting, every word and element of the story, when taken together as a whole, should form a single unified idea or theme.

Just as a cell is simultaneously an entity unto itself and a part of something greater, a single idea, so are the words, sentences, and paragraphs part of a single idea or mission. Though the metaphor is incomplete, think of atoms as letters, cells as words, tissues as sentences, paragraphs/sections as organs, and the story itself as a single being.

This idea of complete unity should guide every single decision you make in writing a story. EVERYTHING.

I would go so far as to say that (A) the more unique parts a story has and (B) the extent to which they are all unified (connected) without having any parts that don’t belong (cancers) is what makes a story good. On a spectrum, the higher (A) and (B) are, the better your story is.

For clarification, this isn’t saying that a story needs to be complex to be good. While that may take more skill, that doesn’t mean it’s better. It takes a lot more skill to throw a small plastic ring around a pole at the carnival than it does a football to someone, but no one gives a shit about that. People care about quality.

What I’m getting at is that the type of connections your story makes are vital. If your story puts together several things that have never been connected for, and those things are unified, then that’s WAY better than just putting a bunch of random stuff together.

Whether or not it resonates with people is a different issue — different people relate to and respond to different things. The very best stories are complex (or unite a few parts in brilliant, unexplored ways, like Bullet in the Brain) and touch on themes that resonate strongly with people.

More thoughts on the anatomy of a story later.