What to Write

We can talk endlessly about craft, and if you stick with me, we will. But, knowing how to write won’t matter unless we have some idea what to write.

Some people refer to a story’s concept. As in, every story starts with a strong concept. Or, they might refer to a story that isn’t working as conceptually flawed. All this means is don’t write something lame.

You can flawlessly execute a story, but if that story is kind of stupid, what’s the point?

How do we avoid this pitfall?  Well, we have to take a couple steps back to figure out what makes stories worth telling, or more to the point, what is our interest in stories.

Biology comes into play. Psychology. Evolution. We are the way we are because being this way has enabled us to survive, to propagate as a species. Among our advantages, we are problem solvers. We are predictors. We have the ability to simulate the world and understand the likely outcome of our decisions.

That’s where our interest in fiction comes from. We daydream, we imagine, we fantasize, we watch movies, and we read novels because those activities exercise our skill at simulating. We like stories because it to our advantage to be a species who likes stories.

That’s why conflict is so crucial to storytelling, why stakes matter. We’re most interested in rehearsing the types of scenarios that are hardest to predict and that have the greatest consequences.

We’re touching on the subject of theme. A story has to have a point. When we read the Three Billy Goats Gruff, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the point is to learn some lesson. As we mature and our fiction grows more sophisticated, the lessons become more abstract. Stories are more about vicarious experience, which is interesting to us for the same reason as regular experience is.

But wait. Does every story have to have a moral? Aren’t some just pure entertainment? Of course they are. For most stories, entertainment is the primary goal. But, what could possibly entertain you, except by engaging your intellect and emotions? And, what could possibly engage your intellect and emotions and not cause you to learn or grow in some way?

Reverse engineer this argument. How do we know what to write? Write something that causes the reader to learn or grow. Think of yourself as a teacher. Find a teachable moment in your own experience and write about that. Or, if necessary, make one up.

You could start by picking a theme that is important to you, and figuring out some way to make a story about it, perhaps by analogy. The Terminator movies were written as an allegory about nuclear weapons. (The tools we build to protect ourselves end up wiping out humanity.)

But, unless you are very skilled, this approach tends to produce works that are preachy. Heinlein – who was certainly very skilled – wrote Starship Troopers partially as an essay about his political views. Several chapters include conversations where the characters directly discuss politics in ways that sound suspiciously like Heinlein talking.

Perhaps a better approach is not to worry so much about theme right away. Start brainstorming, start writing, start planning, however you begin a project. But before you go to far, dig into what you have for themes.

Odds are, themes are already present in whatever you chose to write. It was interesting to you, wasn’t it? Figure out why, and you’ve found some theme. Let’s say you’re writing about robots, and you find that your story – intentionally or not – is about human ingenuity being more important than robotic efficiency.

Do you like that theme? Do you have a lot to say about that theme – perhaps an angle no one else has taken on it? If so, you’ve got yourself a story. There’s plenty of work still to do, but you can proceed down that path and know that at the end of it is a good story.

Do you hate the theme you found? It could be you thought of a cool scene and it grew into a cool idea, and when you dig into it, you find yourself arguing against your own beliefs about the world. It isn’t impossible to write a story this way, but it is advanced.

Poe wrote several stories from the point of view of characters who were insane or even possibly evil. It is easy to write about things you actually believe. Just be honest. When you write against the grain, there is a lot more to keep track of. You have to decide exactly what it is you are pretending to believe, and you have to meticulously prune out places where your true mind would show through.

Worse still, do you dig into a project you’ve just started and find nothing – No theme, no lesson, no point? It’s possible your idea isn’t a story at all. And that’s okay. Not all ideas are stories.

If your idea is to write about time travel, that’s not a story unless you have some point to make about time travel, or some point to make using time travel as a metaphor. Or something.

If your idea is to write a story like Moby Dick, but in space, and instead of a whale there’s a giant elusive space monster, that isn’t a story either. Not unless you know exactly in what way it will be like Moby Dick, and what you will bring to the thematic arena that Melville did not.

It’s possible you have an idea that is underdeveloped. It could become a story, but you haven’t thought it out enough yet. You want to write about AI. You have a lot of scattered ideas and opinions about AI. But you haven’t found your angle yet. That’s probably okay. Still some work to do, but if you feel like you’re close to something, maybe you’ll clarify the story in your own mind in a sloppy first draft. Or maybe you just need to sit and think it over, or do some reading, before it comes together and you’re ready to begin.

Far more often, though, you’ll have an idea that just isn’t a story at all. It’s an image, a line of dialog, a sweet motorcycle stunt, a bizarre setting, a mutant power, piece of sci-fi technology, a stunning title, a great character, or even a complex plot. None of those things are stories. They’re pieces you can use to tell a story. But without a story to tell, they’re not going to do anything.

Keep these pieces handy because you might need them. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking once you have enough pieces you will have a story. If I have half a cow, and you have half a cow, we don’t necessarily have what we need to make a whole cow.

What’s missing is a purpose. Find a reason to use the ideas you accumulate. Figure out some true thing that you believe I need to be convinced of – Nuclear weapons will kill us all. Nature is too complex for humans to control. Overuse of electronics is undermining society. The tardigrade has more claim to this planet than we do.

Whatever your thing is. Find that, and you’ve found a story.

Laws of Writing

When you learn to write, you run across a lot of rules. Don’t open with weather. Murder your darlings. Omit needless words.

Like it or not, a lot of authors have come before you, and they’ve figured out a lot of what works and what doesn’t. They’ve figured out readers have expectations, and they’ve done their best to give us rules to follow to meet them.

Trouble is, one thing readers want is to be surprised. We know what has worked for them in the past – that doesn’t mean we know exactly what will work moving forward. Readers don’t want to keep reading the same stories. They want to be surprised. And there are no rules for how to do that. No one has ever been successful because they adhered more precisely to existing writing conventions than everyone before them.

Follow the rules, especially the one that says you must break the rules.

I’ve seen this piece of advice everywhere, but I’m not sure it’s productive. Writers follow this advice, trying out some new fiction, arbitrarily breaking a few conventions along the way.

The process is like evolution. Most arbitrary changes you can make are bad. Only occasionally will you stumble across something that works, and even more rarely will you do so in a work that doesn’t die because of the other rules you’ve broken. You may write something brilliant this way eventually, but like evolution, it will take millions of years.

I suggest a different way of thinking, a different way of processing writing advice. Don’t think of rules in the legal or scholarly sense. You don’t have to do what anyone tells you to. You’re a writer, and you can write whatever and however you want.

Instead, think of writing rules more like laws, like the laws of physics. You don’t follow the law of gravity because some physicist says you should, or that it has worked for him in the past. The law of gravity doesn’t tell you what you should do. It helps you understand what will happen regardless of what you think about it.

The laws of writing – the useful ones anyway – work the same way. For example:

Show, don’t tell. Is probably the most common writing rule you see. It just means, don’t tell the readers how to interpret things, what opinions to form. Show them the evidence, and let them interpret it themselves.

Telling the readers a person is attractive or a basement is creepy deprives them of the chance to create that experience for himself. You are doing all the work, and so they don’t have to. And since they aren’t complicit in creating it, it doesn’t become real for them. It stays on the page, nothing more than words.

Showing the readers some key details about the person or the basement leaves work for them to do. They have to create the experience for themselves, and that is what makes it real.

Clearly, showing is better. And thus the advice is ubiquitous.

However, it’s naive to just follow that advice constantly. If you show absolutely everything, you overburden the readers. They have work at every page, every scene, every detail. It becomes tedious, and it breaks the bond between the writer and the reader.

You have to trust the readers sometimes, trust that they can understand the simple stuff without you belaboring it. Trust goes both ways. If you don’t trust the readers, they won’t trust you.

There is an art to deciding what to show and what to tell – which is really just a decision of how much explanation to give. And it’s a dial, not a switch. The more you turn the dial toward showing, the more work the readers do, the more impact that part of the story has. Turn the dial the other way, and the story gets easier. Readers do less work, and that part of the story has less weight.

It’s a tool. You can use it to vary how important, or not, readers will perceive the different parts of your story. And you should vary that amount, because if you emphasize everything, nothing stands out.

But the point of this article is not Showing vs. Telling. The point is how you should think about any rule. Consider another:

Avoid informative dialog. That’s a good one. You see, people don’t sit around talking about the plot. They don’t reiterate what they know for the benefit of whatever readers might read the story.

Informative dialog feels unnatural. The character disappears, turning into a zombie, who opens his mouth and the writer’s voice comes out.

So the advice is, don’t do that. Which is good advice, except for the times when it’s wrong. You usually shouldn’t give your main characters informative dialog, because you wouldn’t want them to disappear.

But what about that doctor character? The one who drops the tragic bomb and walks out. That’s informative – pretty much just talking about the plot. And if you infuse him with too much personality, it could be confusing. The readers might expect to see him again and be jarred when they don’t.

If a character is extraneous, maybe having him disappear and be forgotten quickly is actually desirable. In the doctor’s case, it even feels natural for him to divulge key plot details. Kind of his job really, in the story and in his profession.

An advanced technique would be to give informative dialog to a main character, specifically to hide that character. In the Song of Ice and Fire series, the character Littlefinger is certainly a main, but he’s always telling people key pieces of information. He carefully chooses what information to give out to whom, to serve his own specific ends, but you don’t really know that until it plays out.

More importantly, you don’t really know what his ends are. You see him frequently. He talks to many people. He spends a lot of time discussing the plot. And because he is so present, you don’t realize how little you know about him. All of his dialog is informative, so none of it actually reveals anything about him directly. He fades to the background, and the character is hidden, right out in public.

So, that’s how you know when and where to break the rules of writing. For any rule, work to discover the underlying principle. Figure out what you get by following the rule, and what specific effect you get by breaking it. Then, when you choose to create that effect, that’s when you break the rule.

Product over Process

When you study writing, you run into this thing a lot – Plotting vs. Pantsing.

They say these are the two ways two ways to write. Plotters outline their whole story – beginning, end, and all the milestones in between – before they start writing any actual story. Pantsers just dive in, and let the story develop as they go.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice, neither does much writing at all. They mostly sit around on the internet and argue about which process is better.

Plotters argue their stories are more structured. Since they know exactly where the story is headed before they begin, everything they write is pertinent to the story. Pantsers don’t know where the stories will go, so they end up including a lot of extraneous junk and threads that never go anywhere.

Meanwhile, pantsers argue that their characters are more natural. There is no predetermined course for them to follow, and so they are able to pursue their dreams and desires and whatnot. Plotters write characters that are stilted and artificial, who are loyal to the plot structure above their own needs.

It’s all bullshit, okay?

The problem is, neither process actually helps you figure out what to write or how to write it. When you’re facing down the blank page, what difference does it make if the top of that page says Outline or Chapter 1?

You still have to decide what to put into the outline or first draft. You still have to think it all up. Now, if you write down what you thought up, maybe organize it a little, you’re plotting. If you instead commit what you thought up to memory, you’re pantsing. The whole question boils down to whether you want to keep notes or not.

Deciding if you are a plotter or a pantser is like taking a quiz in Cosmo to find out what kind of kisser you are. How do you intend to ever use that information? You’re still just going to do whatever you do, and either you’ll be good at it, or you won’t.

Still, eventually you’ll get around to writing your first draft and it is going to be “shit,” according to Hemingway. But now that you have identified yourself as a plotter or pantser, you might be able to predict in what way it is shit. If you’re a plotter, it’s probably inconsistent characters and plots driven by timely coincidences. If you’re a pantser, maybe your plot fails to arrive at any real point, or maybe your tone changes going into the last third of the book.

Whatever the problems are, you have to fix them. You can’t use Plotters for life, yo! as an excuse for your shitty characters. Plotters will eventually have to make their characters act naturally, and pantsers will have to cut the extraneous bits of story that never went anywhere.

When it comes time to make these changes, both writers will have to grapple with a much more difficult task: reconciling these unrelated pieces. Your characters have to act consistent with their nature, and at the same time, move the story forward. The plot must be logical and concise, always moving forward, and at the same time, emerge naturally from the characters doing their own thing.

We can discuss the pieces of writing one at a time. We can study them one at a time. But when we write, we have to do them all at once. A story is a dozen things working together – characters, plot, theme, tone, pacing, setting, tension, and like five other things. That’s the end game. That’s the final product: a story where all these elements come together and work in unison to create a single work of art. You can’t just ignore any of them. Choosing to plot or to pants is just choosing which parts of your story to put off for a later day.

That’s a bad approach. If you choose to neglect some element of a story – for example, if you decide theme is something you can throw in there later – you’re setting yourself up for a lot of extra work. You’re giving yourself a lot of darlings to murder. Because if you don’t think about theme (or whatever story element you don’t care about), you’ll make a lot of decisions that turn out to contradict one another in terms of theme (or whatever).

If you don’t think about plot structure, you’ll write a lot of clever and beautiful scenes, and then when you try to impose some plot on the next draft, you’ll realize those scenes don’t belong. If you don’t think about consistency in your characters right up front, when you go back you’ll find them doing a lot of things contrary to their nature. And if you really need your characters to do those things to advance the plot, fixing it is going to take major surgery.

You can deconstruct writing into separate topics, but that doesn’t mean you should. Whatever you learn, keep the end game in mind while you learn it. Focus on how each topic relates to the finished product. Break yourself early of the habit of writing for character, and then going back and fixing the plot, and then going back and fixing the tone, and then going back and fixing the pacing. Eventually, you will need to keep all those things in mind at once.  It’ll be hard, but the sooner you start trying, the sooner you’ll be able.

Don’t focus so much on your process. That will emerge and evolve on its own. Instead, focus on consistent and distinct characters, fluid and concise plots. Learn about tone, pacing, dialog, rhetoric. Brush up on the basics like description, word choice, showing vs. telling, grammar.  All these things (and others) must come together to make one complete picture, and if you don’t know what that picture is, no process will get you there.