Out of My Head 4: The Technique of Writing

The storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What’s happening?  Who’s it happening to?  Why should we care?

  • What’s happening is the plot
  • Who it’s happening to is the character
  • Why we should care is the emotional heart of the story, the most important part

Writing is making decisions.  Every moment of every story, every chapter, every paragraph, is a decision.

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use words that fit the setting.  Earthy setting = earthy words.  Sophisticated setting = sophisticated words.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together.



Style is the way the story is told.

Effectiveness vs elegance.  Clarity requires that most of your sentences be simple and straightforward.  But storytelling also begs for vivid imagery and character, and it requires a distinctive voice to evoke that imagery.

Language should always be clear.

Don’t choose frills over substance.  Don’t be pretentious.  When you focus on the language instead of the meaning, you’re putting your attention in the wrong place.  Focus on clarity.  Accuracy is the most effective style of all.



Three types, which interact in varying degrees and capacities:

Voice-of-the-Story: subject, setting, and genre imply a specific resonance; high fantasy, Westerns, crime drama, hard SF.

Voice-of-Point-of-View: first person or third?  If first person, who is narrating? Past tense or present?  All of this implies tone.

Voice-of-the-Author: the subconscious word and style choices we make as writers; our tells, our fingerprints.  The distinctive quality that makes you you, arising out of talent, craft, and life experience.



Effective dialogue needs descriptive action interspersed throughout.  This gives detail and context.  If dialogue is the best way to reveal a character, the second best way is the description that accompanies dialogue.  This includes the use of silence, as demonstrated through pause, beat, or hesitation.

Steer clear of verbs other than “said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer not being invisible.  Be straightforward and simple.  A word like said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, or lied.

Avoid adverbs to modify the verb “said”.  The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.  (As notoriously found in the Tom Swift series, where writers went to great lengths to avoid repeating the unmodified “said”… he pointed out sharply.)

Characters living in the past need to speak like they’re living in the past.  Contemporary turns of phrase will shatter the fourth wall and pull readers out of the story.

Use accents and regional dialects sparingly.  Once you start to spell dialogue phonetically and load the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.  (Think early Star Trek novels, where Chekov and Scotty were written like the actors sounded onscreen.  Their lines were all but impossible to decipher.)

Write dialogue first whenever possible, before describing action or scenery.  Most of what your reader needs to know can be conveyed through the spoken word, keeping description and stage direction to a minimum.

Historically, the art form with the purest representation of dialogue has been the theatre.  Motion and scope are far more limited on the stage than in any other form.  All you have is language.  Shakespeare never included stage direction in his work, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to carry the story.  (As opposed to Neil Simon who over-staged every action and movement, no matter how small.  Don’t do this.)


Story Form

  • Long Novel – 150,000 words and up
  • Mid-Sized Novel – 75,000 to 150,000 words
  • Short Novel – 40,000 to 75,000 words
  • Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – less than 7,500 words
  • Flash – 1,000 words or less.

Short Story – a singleness of event and decision.

Novella – events build one atop another, often with progressing value systems; a single principal character is featured more often than not.

Novel – the central player is the society in which the story takes place; one or more principal characters within that society carry intertwining plots.



The first line can either set the stage or hook you into the character.  (And those that hook you almost always follow with a bit of scenery.)  It should be surprising enough to tease you into reading the second line and the third and the rest.  Let your line have some mystery to it, and the reader will keep going to find out why.

The last line should imply that the story will continue, and should hopefully leave you wondering what will happen next.

Short sentences provide clarity and a crisp readable style, very useful for writing action and short fiction.  Long and involved sentences create a flowing sense of motion, but use caution: long sentences can become labored and overwrought.

A paragraph is a complete moment.  Every sentence in the paragraph is a part of that moment.  Tell not only what happens but also what it feels like.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.


The Rhythm of Fiction

Three elements to keep in mind with regard to narrative flow: story rhythm separates plot from random strings of events; there must be equal parts action and reaction (yang and yin); there must be movement, either internal or external.  The hero must change

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close
  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.


Three Axes-of-Story in Genre Fiction

First axis-of-story: story elements.  A character in a setting with a problem, who makes multiple attempts to solve that problem with increasing stakes for failure, before coming to a resolution.

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Problem
  • Try/Fail Cycles
  • Resolution

Second axis-of-story: craft techniques.  Voice, point-of-view, structure, style–all the narrative and technical choices that a writer makes to build a story.

  • Voice
  • Style
  • Point-of-view
  • Structure
  • Person/Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Paragraphing

Third axis-of-story: genre devices.  These are the things that make a genre story what it is, rather than mainstream fiction.


Behind the Scenes

Authority – the writer’s ability to convince the reader he knows what he’s talking about.  Don’t undermine your own authority by losing the reader.

Research – a shotgun blast, not a well-targeted bullet.  Winging something of value with a single pellet is a success.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

Second Artist Effect – the first artist sees a landscape and paints what he’s seen.  The second artist see’s the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of the real landscape.  He’s not creating anything new, nor uniquely his own.  (Think of the countless replications of Lord of the Rings, or any Young Adult dystopia.)

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.

MacGuffin – a plot device that motivates the characters into action or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.

Word Echoes – the same word repeated in close proximity.  It draws attention to itself and distracts the reader.  However, there is a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.




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