Friday, 26 February 2010

Words Are Not Enough

Writing is all about the words, right? Well actually, not exactly.

When I first started writing I thought this was the case - I could reel off twenty thousand words without really trying, some of those words were good, some phrases were clever, some ideas interesting - but mainly it was boring, indulgent, telling authorial voice. That's when I began to realise there's a whole heap more to writing than just words.

In fact, the words themselves should sit on a deep reservoir of imagined constructs - places, buildings, characters, plots etc. that could be expressed in words, but equally don't have to be - a story can be told without words (dance, pictures etc.), some aspects of characterisation can be lain down with photographs, places can be modelled - examples from my own work are when I sketched out the floor-plan of a house, or dealt out some cards to drive a poker-playing scene.

What the narrative should be doing is revealing these constructs through the story. The narrative should merely be a window on a much broader story-world. Think of the books that have really engrossed you - you really get the feeling that the story-world is living and breathing beyond the page, both in terms of time and place, and that the characters had a life before you met them. There's a maxim I've read that says - don't bring your research to the page - which is essentially encapsulating what I'm talking about here - don't show everything you know.

The truth is, the bulk of that 'reservoir of imagined constructs' we could express in words, and are probably very likely to, we may even do so in a first draft before editing - we may be talented enough not to have to define the constructs at all - but they need to be there, behind the narrative. James Scott Bell calls this the 'iceberg effect' - whereby what the narrative reveals is merely the tip of the iceberg. The reader doesn't need to know the workings of the reservoir, but the writer does, and the better we know it, the more real those elements we do reveal will feel to the reader.

So, if you get tired of staring at your computer screen - draw some floorplans, deal some cards, take some photographs, even dance around - it's all part of writing. It isn't just about words, but your words will be better for it.


  1. Well said and thought provoking - I like to have a coffee or a hot chocolate as part of my writing. Some days are good and others days... you know the rest.

  2. Fantastic advice. I remember the days when I thought just getting the words down on the page was enough. There's more to the craft than mastering the elusive comma.

  3. Informative post and good advice. I often look out of the window for inspiration, and even though I see the same scene each time, different thoughts come into my head.

    CJ xx