This is Not a Checklist: How to Write a Story
Some things to have taken into consideration while writing your story. Not rules, just after-the-fact guidelines.
1. It’s paramount that, if at all possible, you rig your story such that it all happens in the actual present of the story.
What this allows is a clean dramatic line, for things to go from a definite A—a dead body—to a definite B: the killer dealt with. Granted, the detective, in order to be interesting, will need to have some depth, which, while expressed through nuance and decision, will still be trucking some backstory on-page, or trying to. What you do here, though, is paraphrase as much of that as you can, and then distribute it out across the story. If you can at all keep from dropping into some flashback to deliver that detective’s character, then, please, spare us that afterschool-special transition. Instead show us who that detective is now. If you do it with enough detail, enough care, enough attention, then who that detective was in the past will come through in the present.
2. Come up with some built-in apparatus to deliver all the exposition that’s going to need delivering.
Which is completely different than ‘allowing’ yourself to have chapters all in italics, where some lofty voice speaks of ancient days. And it’s also different than having your characters look at page after page online, just so we can also get that information. And it’s never as easy as dreams, or photo albums, or interviews. No, you need to be more organic. Like, in Dracula, say, the apparatus there is distance, which then forces an epistolary format, which has enough of a delay built in that of course these characters are going to be catching each other up on stuff. Take ‘distance’ out of that novel, though, and the whole thing collapses. That’s an apparatus that’s built in. Or there’s even the tried and true ‘rookie detective’ trick, from Se7en, say, where it would seem to be the rookie detective getting the walk-throughs and introductions, but it’s actually us. Again, though, if that rookie detective in Se7en wasn’t a rookie at all, but a veteran of the force, then the story isn’t even close to the same, right? Instead of being an initiation into the big bad real world, it’s a confirmation of it. And that’s not nearly so exciting, as it has no potential for an arc.
3. Decide early on what angle the narration’s coming in at.
First-person? If so, then what that brings in with it is that the story is either a defense of a world-view, purposeful or not, or it’s an act of self-valorization—again, witting or un-. Simply because first-person doesn’t allow a narrator to only witness and record. But they don’t always directly engage the plot, either. Where they have to engage, though, it’s at the level of intention, and possibly of artifice. Get a good handle on that. And, if you’re going third-person, then establish early on if you’re going to be jumping heads, like Tolstoy narrating a party. This is completely permissible, if antique, but it’s not something you can just fall into partway through the story. The reader’ll call foul every time. And, if you’re using a focal character for this third-person job—this has been the dominant mode for a while—then be aware that if your expositional apparatus isn’t set-up properly, you’re going to have a very difficult time maintaining perspective. So, the first time you slip, the reader slips as well. Right out of the story. And, if you’re taking a chance on second person, then know whether you’re going to be descriptive or imperative—whether you’re describing what X is doing, or whether X is kind of being ‘told’ to do (think choose-your-own-adventures). And then decide whether this second-person is a version of that character’s thoughts or if it’s an actual separate entity. Second-person is the most complicated of the three angles, no doubt. But it’s also the quickest inroad to engagement, as it doesn’t have to side-step all the walls first- and third- have to deal with.
4. Establish your point of narration, and chain yourself to it, never look up.
This involves both voice and tense—and, tense tends to be a product of voice, really, and as foolish as that has to sound. But try it: go into one of your stories that work and change the tense, see how that fries the voice beyond repair. You can often change voice without jacking with tense at all, however. And, point of narration will often deliver both your voice and your tense for you: Is this story being told by someone who lived through it, allowing interpretation and evaluation? How many years later is this? Or is what we’re getting a kind of moment-by-moment mental journal, for a sliding point of narration? And this doesn’t really involve first- or second- or third-person. This involves the presence of retrospection and foreknowledge. It also involves the chance of construction, and, within that building process, some of that dishonesty that so often provides the core dynamo for a story. And, as for voice, it’s more than just establishing a vocabulary or sticking with a rhythm or parroting a dialect. It’s about revealing things that speaker doesn’t necessarily want revealed. And all with word-choice, with syntax.
5. Know your world.
Obviously. Yet here I am, having to say it. Whether it’s the town you grew up in or a made-up place where people burn dragonblood lanterns, the place needs to be real, it needs to have rules. But, instead of mapping those rules out for us in some wedged-in prologue, what the reader needs is to see random details X, Y, and Z, and be able to tell that they’re all beholden to the same place. Which is to say you need to know the character of your place, in the same way you know your people-characters: instead of showing that someone’s mired in indecision, you usually will just show them ashing slowly onto a concrete planter, yes? It’s the same with places. Glance off all the band-stickers on this lightpost, say. Or show a kid in the driveway using a dragon scale to scoop water onto a very slow bug. You don’t have to sketch out the whole music scene or have a dragon rear up. It’s the indirect characteristics that make your world breathe. Let it. And you’ll find that if you know your world, then your characters can move more freely through it, as you’ll no longer be using them to explore, to discover.
6. Never forget what’s at stake.
If your main character’s not constantly in jeopardy—mortal, emotional, psychological, ontological, whateverological—then your story is. This goes for scenes, chapters, sections, parts, the whole novel. We always need to know what’s at stake in the big picture (“I’m surely going to die on this raft”) and what’s at stake moment by moment (“this tiger wants my fish”). And one thing so many stories miss is that once whatever’s at stake has been resolved, then your dramatic line is over. End of story. Right there. Patrick Bateman walks out the door and it’s over, it’s done. Don’t go back to clean up the Shire, don’t hold onto your characters just because you’ve fallen in love with them, want to see who married who, and what their kids look like. Once nothing’s at stake anymore, then you’re just testing your reader’s tolerance of your prose, or their willingness to let you indulge yourself on the page. And neither of those is a game that’s worthwhile to play.
7. Start the clock ticking.
Every story needs to have some time-constraint on it. Some kind of countdown to give the reader a sense of immediacy, of impending doom, of a giant stone ball rolling up behind them, and fast. It can be a nuclear device set to go off at the eclipse or it can be how many minutes before a spouse gets home from work, so long as it’s something. Where the story starts is with the catalyst, with that initial perturbation of the world, of the day, and where it ends is with that imbalance either being righted or magnified. Another way to look at this is that you, the writer, always have to be able to answer this about your story: Why today? If you can’t, then this day’s just like all the rest, there’s nothing impending, the dominoes are just tumbling away in every direction instead of in a clear, dramatic line. And the culprit in those cases is nearly always a catalyst that’s not enough of a deviation to blast the characters off into some adventure.
8. Be evil to your characters.
We all know that the stories that engage us are in hell, never in heaven—in hell there’s obstacles, there’s fraught decisions, the characters are in such extreme circumstances that we see them as they really are, undisguised—but we still have that instinct to coddle our characters through our stories. Not just because we’ve come to care about them, but because of the simple fact that we kind of need them to survive, or else the story’s over. Never mind that this character is secretly your brother, that one your little sister. You’ve got to drive spikes through their eyes, and take away the things they care about. Take D&D, for example: playing with a dungeon master who goes easy on the campaigners always makes for a boring quest, as each time someone dies, look, surprise, there’s a life potion under that rock. This lowers the stakes, siphons off the tension, which in turn makes all the decisions meaningless, as there are no real consequences. Readers pick up on this so, so quickly, too. They want the story to be happening in an unsafe place, with bad guys around every corner. It keeps the pages turning.
9. Don’t go back to fix the writing later.
You hear this so many times: somebody hands you a draft and says not to bother line-editing, as they’re going to get the story in place, then clean it up. Good fiction isn’t like that. Good fiction is more organic—the prose and the narrative are inextricable, they’re each expressions of the other. Granted, some fiction is written such that the prose is just a temporary lens with which to focus on the story, but in cases like that the prose needs to be written specifically to not foreground itself. To just deliver. And that’s a lot more difficult—and rare—than it sounds. Prose you don’t remember, ‘throwaway’ prose, it takes such a steady hand to produce, simply because A) the story itself has to be bulletproof, and B) most writers like to show off in little ways they think are secret. Whichever kind of prose you’re going for, though, don’t ever forget that its first job is to communicate. To not be obtuse, difficult, coded. Unless that’s part of the story, like in Brian Evenson’s “Munich Window,” say. Or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. And part of communicating clearly is, at the most basic level, correctness. An absence of errors, an attention to detail (which engenders trust on the reader’s part). And consistency: if you serial comma on page one, say, then for the duration of the text, you’re a serial-comma writer. Otherwise you’re betraying your reader, and they have only way to repay that, really: by going somewhere else.
10. Subtext subtext subtext.
It’s that old axiom of screenwriting, that if your characters are eating dinner and talking about the pork chops and broccoli, and that’s what they’re actually talking about, the food, then this scene is failing and failing hard. And subtext isn’t only a characteristic of good back and forth dialogue. Think of a funeral scene. You can write it ‘sad,’ but that’s a nearly automatic failure, as you’re delivering what’s expected. Instead, try to do this funeral in comic terms, say—that friction between tone and content, that’s the same as two lovers having dinner and using pork chops and broccoli to talk about who’s cheating who, who’s being true. What you’re doing is asking the reader to keep up with both lines of development: the dinner (funeral) and the accusations (slapstick). This is what makes pages deep, what gives stories depth; this is where those ‘layers’ you always hear about come from, which you can just translate out to ‘return-to-ability’ if you want: the likelihood of this getting re-read, getting unpacked and unpacked. Just be careful not to play games with signs and symbols and codes, or making every utterance a double-entendre. Your main focus is the dinner, is the funeral. The delivery is what’ll bring it alive, so long as that delivery’s somehow at odds with what we expect.
11. Let the reader be smart.
Trust them to know that, in order to have gotten from the living room to the garage, the character, yes, did have to walk the hall. The same way you don’t have to include every last part of the character’s backstory, you also don’t have to narrate each and every instant of their current day. But this lack of trust, this insistence that the reader’s not going to get it, that they’re not going to read charitably, that they’re not giving you the benefit of the doubt, it takes many forms. The easiest to track is italics: over-use of them is usually not so much an insecurity that the reader’s going to intone this sentence or line of dialogue wrong, but a certainty that, without your careful guidance, they’re going to. Readers don’t need bumpers, though, they need gutters. And, anyway, you can’t control the story after it’s left your printer. It’s got to be sufficient to stand, free to fall. Another way this insecurity often shows itself is in those small redundancies, where you restate a thing. Over there, she whispered quietly-kind of stuff, yes, except on large-scale, where you both show and tell, giving a sort of wrap-up of the scene that just happened, in case anybody might have zoned out for a few pages, in case they might not know the complicated flavor of ‘whisper.’ Always assume the reader is smart enough to have been actually paying attention. Assume they can draw a conclusion or two themselves, that they can complete a line you’ve just barely intimated. They nearly always can, and, the few times they can’t, or don’t, it’s unlikely they’ll blame you.
12. Come to grips with that fact the plot is your characters’, not yours.
Plot isn’t a line your story follows, it’s a chart of your characters’ decisions. And it’s only ever seen in the rearview mirror. Your job as the writer isn’t to plot three steps ahead, it’s to dream up a gripping situation and real people in a real place then stage some kind of catalyst. Then just put your characters in enough bad and revealing situations that the decisions they make continually surprise you—if there’s no surprise for you in the writing, do you think there can really be any for the reader? These hard left turns keeps the ‘plot’ from being a flat line, can turn it instead into the spike of a heart, the beat of a story. When it’s going well, too, you won’t be able to write fast enough. And when it’s going slow, you can usually bet that the lack of forward motion isn’t yours, but the story’s. At which point back up, look for a place where the story should have branched, and keep backing up until you find it. Sometimes all the way to the point of conception. Then conceive better. And never forget that just as the prose’s first job is to communicate, your story’s first job is to entertain. Everything else comes after that.
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