The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Pages of exciting events … ho hum
Exciting events don’t make a story.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s a point that struck me forcibly when assessing a manuscript recently.
You might have the greatest premise for a novel. A coup in a small African country escalates into World War III. Great.
So you begin by showing the military plotting, then perhaps move to a scene in which we see the president eating chocolates and practising his fiddle. Then we move to the White House, where the US president is being briefed by his aides about the situation in some remote African country. (The president says, “Where is this Africa…” Only kidding.) Then perhaps we move to Russia, where…
Huge events, filled with drama, guaranteed to fill us with shock and awe, right? Actually, we are more likely to yawn and put the book down. We don’t really care about huge events unless we feel concern for someone caught up in them.
That’s why newspapers will always try to find a character affected by a dramatic event. We care more about an earthquake in our home town than we do about an earthquake across the world. That’s because we might know someone involved and we imagine how easily we ourselves might have been there.
So, writing about the earthquake for countries across the world, journalists will find a family whose house disappeared into a giant sinkhole and who are the only surviving members of their neighbourhood.
We’ll empathise, gasp in sympathy … and hey presto, we care about an earthquake across the world.
The same applies to stories. We don’t care a stuff about a coup, nor a huge war, unless we know someone affected by it. Give us a protagonist who is trying to prevent the coup, whom we get to know and care about. The coup, and the huge war, will affect him deeply … unless he can stop it. Oh my God, will he make it in time?
It’s his story we’re following. We care about his life … and suddenly we care about the coup.
My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.
Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.
Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other. When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.