Wednesday, 11 January 2012

How to make good writing great


You're probably sick of hearing that good writing requires well-drawn characters, exhilarating plots, conflict on every page and lots at stake - but that's really like saying what makes a great pizza is flour, eggs and tomato - we all know it takes a little more than that. Besides, a cursory analysis of what readers really like (i.e. what they keep buying) is a heady combination of story, romance and milieu.

Writing is exceptional when it becomes far greater than the sum of its parts – when the reader forgets the words and sees nothing but the world behind them; when the characters and plot become so entwined that you couldn't pull them apart. When you can't, in fact, see the science behind the magic. But how can we hope to achieve that?

Not easily, if at all. We have to start with the craft – this is the foundation of all great writing – but we can become obsessed with the craft itself and forget that it's just a means to an end. We can't win the race until we learn to drive, but let's make sure we don't stay in the pits fondling the gear-stick forever. We mustn't forget to look beyond the craft and remember why we're doing this. Here are some things to think about to help us achieve that.

Words are in service to your Story

You might want to be a poet, a word-smith, or a lyrical writer – but thinking of your work in those terms is already putting a barrier up between your story-world and your reader. If the reader is in awe of your beautifully constructed sentence she's not really being transported into your story-world or swept away by your characters. If that's the kind of writer you want to be then fine, but it will only invoke a superficial response from the reader, because

Emotion is the key to memorable writing

You probably laugh a lot a books, you may even find sequences breath-taking, but how often have you wept at a book you're reading, how often has your chest ached, and your heart gone out to characters? Not very often, and the books that made you do that are probably some of the best you've ever read. A character simply being emotional will not invoke an emotional response in the reader, a sad event alone will not do it either, because

Characters are inseparable from Story

The story reveals character and the characters make the story – you can have one without the other, and they can both be brilliantly constructed – but it's only when the two are intimately entwined do they really become effective. No one cares about a character without a story, and a story means nothing if it effects no-one. This is why context is the key to an emotional response in the reader, because

The effect of the story is more important than the story itself

A child being killed is a sad story, if you've characterised the mother of that child before you take the child away it's far sadder, if the reader of that story happens to be a mother she's going to feel it even more. Emotion is created in the reader when a cared-for and understood character is subjected to emotional events. Events are emotional because of what they mean to the character - either positive or negative. By doing this, we're on our way to making

Memorable moments

There will be only a handful of scenes, or moments, from all the books you've read which you will never forget, and the majority of these moments (if not all) will be events that had significant emotional impact for a character you cared about.

The effect of story-events on the reader is likely to be heightened if they tap into universal fears and hopes because the reader is more likely to share them with the character, or if the writer has particularly increased the significance of those fears and hopes pertinent to the character, so the reader can share with them through empathy. How best to let the reader understand your characters? Through action, because

Every hero needs a crisis

You don't really know a person until you see them under stress, which means (again) that character is revealed through action (i.e. plot) and the story will be driven by the character's response. Once again, we've come around to the point we made right at the start - that a truly great story is inseparable from its characters.

You see, if we manage that, we'll be famous.

4 comments:

  1. Lovely. Agree, agree, agree! What we are all trying to do is create a story where the reader forgets they have a page in front of them and instead is in thrall to real people, real emotions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You say it so succinctly! Thank you for your insights.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @roz - thank you, Roz - not many books have that quality and it's really something worth striving for as a writer. Hope your writing is going well.

    @I Spy - welcome to the blog and thanks for your comment.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What an immortal words that "a person can't be recognized until he is under stress". Amazing article.hands off to you...

    ReplyDelete