NOTE: Here is Chapter Three of my book-in-progress called The Stories of Our Lives. In this chapter I present some rules and tools of good storytelling. I realize that most of the readers of this blog are already good writers, and some of this will seem elementary to them, but let them be reminders, then, of the ways their writing is good.
BY THE WAY: I won't be posting on this blog next week, because I'll be traveling and far away from my computer. I'll be back the following week, May 11, with a collection of 99-word stories contributed by volunteer writers. The theme for May is "Yes, You May," and I'll be accepting contributions until Monday, May 6. I invite and encourage you to send me a 99-word story with that theme!
Truth be told, this chapter contains a lot more than ten rules. I’ve lost count of how many rules I’ve written here, but I’ve clumped them into ten groups, so you can digest them easily. Digest them you should.
Should you really? Some people say that art (including writing) should obey no rules. Well, in response to that permissive attitude, I must say that my experience as an editor and publisher has shown me otherwise. I’ve reviewed thousands and thousands of manuscripts, and I’ve found that some work (or play) better than others. In my opinion, some stories are better than others. Moreover, I’ve noticed that there are recurring reasons why some stories fly and some stories thud. I call those reasons “rules.” If you don’t like that word, call them “principles,” “guidelines,” or just regard them as ten clumps of common sense.
I made this list of ten rules for a class I used to teach at UCLA Extension on how to write short fiction. But I find the same rules are valid for writing the stories of our lives, too. I’ve tried to make this point clear in the commentary that follows the rules.
1. Show ’em, don’t tell ’em.
This is the most frequently repeated rule you’ll ever hear or read about writing stories. Usually it’s said about fiction, but this rule is just as important for writing the stories we tell about our own lives. What “Show ’em, don’t tell ’em” means is…
Wait. Why should I tell you want the rule means? I should show you, right? Right. See here:
a. I never could stand my oldest aunt, and I was glad when she died.
b. When I heard that my oldest aunt had died, I sent two dozen roses to the funeral home. She always hated roses, said she was allergic to them.
Which is better, a or b? Which tells more of a story?
Here’s a tip: reread the last sentence of every paragraph, the last paragraph of every scene, the last scene of every story. If you find that you’ve restated or explained what you’ve already shown, you have written too much and have a bit of cutting to do. Rely on plot to do the work.
2. Stay in control.
Although I admit there’s some therapeutic value in letting your mind wander like a free-range chicken while you write, if you want anybody to read your stories and be entertained or enlightened by them, you’re going to have to stay on track.
I suggest that you outline a story before you start writing. Keep in mind your narrative arc, or even draw it on paper. Get your consequential plot points in order, and make the story build to a climax.
Be selective about what to include: make every element of your story support the whole shebang. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the architects of the American short story, maintained that every single word should contribute to the meaning of the story. William Faulkner advised writers to “kill their darlings,” by which he meant to get rid of the fancy details that may show off what a talented writer you are but that yank the reader out of the story. While we’re at it, avoid the clutter of “info-dump,” which makes the story grind to a boring halt. Too much information is a soporific thing.
Another way to stay in control is to be careful with point of view (POV). Generally I recommend that you stick with one POV per story. Usually that POV will be your own, since you’re writing a story inspired by an episode from your own life; but you could get experimental and write a story from the point of your mother, your friend, your spouse, your child… Such variations can be rewarding, but then you should stick in that POV. Whatever you do, don’t shift POV in the middle of a scene. That’s called “head-hopping,” and it’s considered amateurish.
While you’re plotting your story, keep in mind Chekhov’s rule of drama: if a rifle is hanging over the mantelpiece in the first act, that rifle must go off before the final curtain drops. Here’s a corollary to that rule: if a bomb explodes at the climax of your story, you should plant that bomb, ticking, at the beginning of the story.
3. Write strong.
What’s that you say? I should say “Write strongly”? Well, grammatically you’re correct, but I’m illustrating a point, which is: Beware of adverbs. Especially beware of adverbs that end in “ly.” Sometimes they’re called for, but often they’re unnecessary: I swam desperately against the waves, which were pushing me farther and farther from shore. The word “desperately” is a duh word. Cut it.
Especially, especially (look at that: two “ly” adverbs in a row!) beware of “ly” adverbs that modify how somebody talks: “Get out of my room. In fact, get out of my life!” she said angrily. Does the word “angrily” contribute anything we don’t already know? Nope.
What else to avoid: filler words, like “basically,” “actually,” “personally.” Also qualifier words, like “very,” “totally,” “extremely.” Weak words, like “somewhat” and “rather.”
The use of verb constructions is stronger than the use of noun constructions. Example: change the sentence you just read to: For strong sentences, use verb constructions, not noun constructions.
The active voice is stronger than the passive voice: I was taught by my father that honesty is the best policy is weak; My father told me, “Son, tell the truth” does the job better.
Watch out for the static past. That means telling the reader how it was in general, when you could be showing how it was in the context of your story. My sister always borrowed my clothes without asking is okay, but this is stronger: As usual, Sis showed up at breakfast wearing clothes out of my closet.
One more. Short, strong words work well most times. Elongated, erudite vocabulary inevitably aggravates.
4. Love your characters.
Or at least respect them, and that includes the rotters in your story, like the cousin who stole your best girl or the uncle who put his hands where he shouldn’t have.
By “respect them,” I mean show them as real people, individual people with their own quirks and characteristics. Don’t resort to clichés. Moms don’t just bake pies and correct our posture; they also smoke and cough, or sing old songs off-key; dress like a clown or like Katherine Hepburn… In other words, remember people as they really were, and make each character in each story one of a kind, and original. Someone your readers will never forget.
5. Tell a story.
By now you know what I mean by this rule. If you have any questions about what a story is; or what conflict, choice, change, consequence, structure, selection, significance, and style are; take another read through Chapter One.
Here I’ll add that a successful story is one that hooks the reader with curiosity and holds the reader with conflict. Drama is the result of desire plus danger; so when you write stories inspired by your life, take advantage of those risks you took, learned from, and changed as a result of. Another rule of thumb about change: it often result in a shift in the balance of power.
6. Be significant.
I already touched on this in Chapter One, but here it is again. Write about the human condition. The human condition includes buying groceries, just as it includes working for world peace; it’s a need for quiet, and a need to sing and dance. Most of all, the human condition is a matter of love and death.
Novelist Herbert Gold has said that all great writing is about love and death. He’s talking of fiction primarily, but the same statement ccan be made of memoir: all great life stories are about love and death. Herb Gold goes on to say that if you can suggest a piece of great writing that’s not about love and death, he will explain to you why that piece of writing is not great—or, he will show you why that piece of writing is indeed about love and death.
Love and death are essential ingredients to most of the stories of our lives. These stories are, after all, about life, which is miraculously sparked by an act of love. The whole process of life is a search for love and a forestalling of death. Love comes in many variations, of course; and death has many aspects. But to return to the human condition, as defined above, let it be said that buying groceries is either an act of love or a defiance of death, or both.
I will deal more with death in the next chapter, and more with love in Chapter Five.
7. Be honest.
Remember the advice you heard so often as a learning writer: “Write about what you know about”? Well, it’s true. Re-read the first six letters of the word “authority.” That’s you. You’re the author of the story because you’re the one best qualified to write it. No one can retell an event out of your life the way you can, because you’re the only one who knows how much the event changed you, and how.
How do you earn and keep the authority to write your own life stories? By being honest. Tell the truth. You may fudge the details a bit for dramatic effect, and you may even turn that life story into a science fiction tale 2,745 years into the future and place it on the ex-planet Pluto, but at the core of the story is something true. Something you know about, something you learned because of a change that happened in your eventful past. Write honestly about that change and the lesson you learned, and you will do so with authority.
(I will deal with reasons and techniques for fictionalizing your life stories in Chapter Six, but even when you use the tricks of fiction, it’s important that you stay honest.)
Level with your audience, and don’t talk down to them. Don’t explain when it’s not necessary. Imagine that you are writing for readers who are at least as intelligent as you are. That goes even if you’re writing for children. Children may not have acquired as many facts or memories as you, but their brains are just as curious and sharp as yours. They can probably smell out a phony, and they deserve your honesty.
Be original: say something new, and say it as you alone would say it, because you’re telling the truth. Don’t copy the ideas or the words or the style of others. Nor should you rely on stock characters, and don’t write in clichés. Above all, avoid cartoon writing. In spite of what we’ve been led to believe, light bulbs don’t turn on over our heads every time we get an idea. Nor do thunderclouds rain on our heads when we’re blue. These old gimmicks are lazy, and they’re not the truth.
Write with authority. Be honest.
8. Write with style.
I eulogized about style in Chapter One: it gives wings to your words. Style also is what makes your life stories interesting and even entertaining. Your number-one job as a writer is to keep the reader reading, and the way to do that is by serving the reader a generous helping of your own individual style.
Let me recommend to you what may be the most important ingredient of writing with style: irony. Irony comes in two forms. First, there’s irony at the sentence level, where you write a phrase or a word that surprises the reader and then on second reading is curiously accurate: When my mom has nothing to say, she always says it to me. Or: The herd of buffalo wandered slowly around the meadow like sofas at a cocktail party. Or: I crawled under the CRIME SCENE tape, but when I stood up I was confronted by a cop the size of a Buick.
On a grander scale, irony can be the stylistic ingredient that causes the plot to twist in such a way that it makes surprising sense. I offer you the plot you may be familiar with, in which a darkly beautiful queen, jealous of her step-daughter’s beauty, drinks a toxic potion in order to become an ancient crone, so that she can murder the innocent young girl. Ironically, the princess survives, whereas the scheming queen dies horribly, and she dies hideously ugly.
Irony, just one element of style, gives a story the element of surprise, either at the sentence level or at the story level. Either way, it entertains the reader. And either way (extra points to you) irony is a joy to write.
9. All writers rewrite.
Nobody ever wrote a perfect first draft, except maybe Lincoln when he scrawled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, and chances are he changed a few words by the time he read the piece aloud.
When you think you’re finished, let readers you trust read your work. Ask them to respond honestly and listen with both ears open to their suggestions. You may not agree with all they tell you, but don’t defend your writing out of a sense of pride. If they didn’t “get it,” it’s not their fault, probably.
If you don’t have friends to help you with this, read your story aloud to an audience of nobody. If something sounds clunky or phony, it is, and it needs to be rewritten. Remember, these life stories are how you will be remembered by your family for generations to come.
Don’t be discouraged. Any story can be improved, and the process can be fun.
10. You may break the rules.
But if you do break the rules of good writing, do so on purpose.
Want to write a story in which the point of view switches with every line of dialogue? Go right ahead. Want to write a story in which the employment of lengthy words, a preference for noun constructions and the passive voice are utilized extensively? Do you really, really want to feature “ly” words, filler words, and intensifiers, very, very freely? Be my guest.
But shine a spotlight on your intentional disregard for logic and clarity. Have fun with the experiment, so your readers will enjoy it too.
Because there’s one rule you may not break:
Thou shalt entertain!