Tag Archives: writing tips

Worst-Case Scenarios Make for the Best Stories

As I’ve written before, a good story requires conflict. Without tension, a story lacks intrigue, and a lack of intrigue stops a reader cold. But how do you generate ideas for conflict?

One method consists in brainstorming a list of the worst scenarios that could happen to your character. Say your character, whom we’ll call Wilmot, is a pacifist who only wants to avoid the war brewing in the kingdom in which he resides. If Wilmot’s desire to avoid the war comprises his main goal, then you’ll need a dozen minor conflicts along the way to thwart that goal.

What terrible circumstances could happen to our pacifist? Well, Wilmot might think he’ll be fine so long as the war doesn’t reach his little farm in that out-of-the-way corner of the kingdom. But what if a band of rebels encroaches on his homestead? How will Wilmot respond to that? Then, what if the rebels decide to stay and make his farm their headquarters?

SoldiersWhat’s another awful event that could befall Wilmot? Suppose Wilmot possesses expertise in some area that the rebels lack knowledge in — and they impress him into serving their cause with that knowledge?

Or, for example, what if the leader of the rebels takes a fancy to Wilmot’s winsome teenage daughter? Then, what if the rebels say they’re moving on — but his daughter, won to their cause and enamored with the rebel leader, runs away with them?

All of these ideas can try Wilmot’s desire to remain a pacifist. His world has been invaded; his farm has been defiled; he’s been made to help the rebels; and his own daughter has joined them. Compound these awful events a few times, and you have a dozen worst-case scenarios to test Wilmot’s mettle.

Think of every possible blow to your protagonist and his or her goal. Be merciless. It’s your job to make life miserable for your main character; keep in mind that fire purifies. In the end, you want a hero who withstood the worst that fate can devise for him or her, because in the end, those are the characters we want to read about.

Allow Your Readers to Suspend Disbelief by Getting the Details Right

We are all familiar with the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. This phrase, coined by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, refers to the reader’s willingness to believe the plausibility of the narrative as long as the plot is pretty much airtight.

This does not refer to the realism of a plot. We may read a book set in a fantasy world featuring a Beast Glatisant and villages that appear only once every hundred years, but we’re willing to suspend our rational minds and accept those elements so long as they are presented with a well-thought-out explanation. Oh, of course, the village disappears as an act of God, or the beast is a Jurassic leftover. Of course, on with the story!

This is all well and good. And often in sci-fi and fantasy works, the science or the fantasy is well thought out and reasonably explained. But many works stumble on the presentation of utterly mundane details.

What do I mean? Here, I’m going to use several television series as my example. In the sci-fi world, Terran explorers often encounter alien species. The aliens are generally well-created, with backgrounds, technology, and cultures viewers can easily accept. But one tiny hitch exists: how are the Terrans and the aliens communicating?

Dominar Rygel XVISeveral series have come up with acceptable explanations for this. Star Trek had its Universal Translator, and Farscape had its translator microbes. Now, if you really start to deconstruct these tricks, you can find issues with them, and many do. But for the most part, you can accept these devices and move on to enjoy the show.

But what happens if you don’t even try to explain away a completely mundane but utterly necessary detail like this? I am thinking specifically of the television version of Stargate. In the movie, Daniel Jackson must learn to communicate with the inhabitants of Abydos. But in the series, this is simply not an issue. Somehow, no matter what planet the team visits, everyone can communicate immediately.

I’ll be honest, this sort of series-long flubbing of a perfectly mundane detail ruined the show for me, and I didn’t watch it after the first few episodes. And in the nerd world, trust me, people are watching for these flubs. They will notice, and they will discuss it online to the death.

Now, you may pooh-pooh some readers’ need for believable detail. And yes, yes, some people (meaning the likes of myself) may be overly obsessed with accuracy. But it’s really not that hard to come up with some sort of technology or device that fixes these insurmountable barriers for you.

Paradoxically, the more outrageous your fix, the less most readers will question it. But have a fix. Please, allow us to suspend our disbelief.

If a Black Cat Crosses Your Path, Pet It: Or, Don’t Rely on Superstitions

As writers, we have the sense that the power in our writing is magic. We don’t think of ourselves as the deliberate, logical creators of the words we write; no, we tend to assume it’s all the work of a fey being whispering the words in our ears. As such, when it comes time to write, we can latch on to superstitions or gimmicks that we think drive the perfect words.

Mostly this happens because when we do, by some mysterious means, manage to write something we think is perfect, we assume something other than ourselves drove the creation. If we used a certain pen to write a manuscript, well, then, it must have been the pen, and we’ll never use another kind. If we were wearing those fuzzy slippers when we wrote that perfect chapter, then they are lucky slippers, and we’ll wear them again next time.

Those, however, are the rather normal superstitions. Others include writing each manuscript in a new spot, or, the superstition goes, the spirits of the last work will interfere with the progress of the new work. Or how about this one: no chapter may have thirteen pages, or the entire work will fail. A pluviophile (someone who loves rain) will only write when it is raining, and one writer had to smell rotten apples while writing.

Certainly, at times, when we are really “on,” the words do flow as if spoken by an unseen force. And at other times, nothing you can do will make the words form themselves the right way. But, though I’m not normally one to knock superstitions (I rather like them), really, it’s not the fetish that’s behind the good parts of your writing. You know what it really is? It’s you.

Yes, horrible and frightening as it is, you and your own mind are the power behind your good writing. The talisman you rely on may, indeed, put you in a mind to write or give you the sense of safety that you need to write well, but believe it or not, good writing can happen without them.

Aleksander SolzhenitsynFor example, when I was in college, I wrote very little. My excuse was that I needed an uninterrupted block of time to write, and with classes, studying, and work, I just didn’t have that time (so I said). I knew this was an excuse, and I finally admitted it when I found out that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich while imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. According to legend, he wrote a few pages each day, memorized what he had written, and then destroyed the evidence.

Well, color me ashamed. If Solzhenitsyn could write while in a brutal prison, I upbraided myself, what’s your excuse?

The fact is, if you are relying on a gimmick to help you write, then you really don’t have faith in your own mind and powers. That’s the real issue with relying on a trick to produce good writing. For the time may come when the pen you love is discontinued, or you may have to move to a desert. Will the writing stop then, or will you learn to rely on your own mental powers? And if you can do it in that circumstance, can you do it now?

Learn to Make a Mess: On Befriending Your Process

Oftentimes, you’ll come up with a great germ of an idea for a story. You’ll dash off to write it, but when you do, you’ll find yourself meandering, following twists and turns that your erratic right brain dreams up seemingly out of nowhere.

Eventually, you end up with a jumbled mess of a draft—plot twists that go nowhere, holes you forgot to fill in, and characters whose situations you forgot to resolve.

If you’re not the sort of writer who outlines before embarking on a project, you’re almost certain to end up with such disarray. While I could take this opportunity to urge you to outline beforehand (and I probably will at some point), I’m going to give you a different bit of advice.

Getting muddy.That advice is to take heart. When you muck about in a draft, you do, invariably, toss up a lot of mud. In fact, you end up with piles of it. Writing is like that: lots of digging around in the earth and getting yourself covered in ick. But while you do dig up a lot of useless mud, you also inevitably stumble on some gold.

And that’s the whole point of the rough draft—finding the gold. When you get to the end of your draft, and you’ve got a sinking feeling that you’ve got a lot of dren, take the time to go back through what you’ve written. My bet is that pieces of the real story are hidden there in all the garbage.

Those are the pieces you want to keep and stitch together into the story you meant to tell. If you’re really the kind of spontaneous writer who refuses to outline, then this is a process you must learn to embrace. Befriend it. In fact, learn to enjoy the ride. Accept that this is how you write, get out your shovel and work boots, and make a mess.

Creating Verisimilitude With Images

When I first began to practice the craft of writing (as opposed to just expressing myself in writing), I very deliberately planned my stories. I created character worksheets detailing the entire life histories of the main characters. I drew diagrams of my characters’ living quarters. I collected images to represent each character, and I put together files of pictures of furniture and objects in my scenes.

I may have gone overboard with this process, but I wasn’t off-base with my idea. Collecting images to represent your characters and settings is essential to successfully telling your story. Even if the character you’re writing about is based on your great-Aunt Hortense, with whom you spent every summer growing up and whose face you think you remember in every detail, you should still get several pictures of her to reference.

If the setting for your story is an imagined one—say, the surface of Mars—it is even more imperative that you collect images. You may say that you want to use your imagination, and you should, but there’s actually no better kickstart to the imagination than a jumping-off point.

By Тимур Зиев/Timur Ziev (http://www.photosight.ru/users/300922/) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsWhy is this important? Well, let’s talk about the concept of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude refers to the depiction of realistic details and can often make or break a story. For example, say your character is imprisoned in a crumbling, old tower. If you describe the story with relatively overused images—it’s dirty, the stones are old, it’s cold—your reader doesn’t really get a mental feel for your character’s plight. These details just aren’t specific enough.

Now, say you have several images of actual crumbling towers, or even better, are fortunate enough to live within driving distance of a few. When you look at or visit these, you can see the exact quality of the light when the setting sun slants through the openings in the castle and hits the stone floors. You can see the centuries of rust on the iron bars of the window and imagine the reddish residue on your protagonist’s fingers when he grips those bars. You can see the ivy snaking up the walls of the castle and imagine that the protagonist gets so hungry that he actually tries to eat that ivy.

With all of these images, you ground the scene firmly in specific, unexpected details. By doing so, you cause your readers to fully immerse themselves in your story. That’s what you want.

So, no matter how well you think you know your character’s face or the setting for your story, always, always get pictures. Pick out the details from those images—the surprising ones. Create verisimilitude, and you’ll create a masterpiece.