As I write about the craft of writing, I sometimes worry that I'm repeating myself. I'm certainly repeating advice that I've learned from other writers, who frequently share the same advice as still others. There's a reason for all this repetition. The tips I've encountered over and over again are the best ones out there. I'll take my turn at sharing:
1. Present a scene, not an explanation. This is what people mean by "Show, don't tell," an instruction that always struck me as enigmatic. Readers want to experience the events of a story along with the characters, so give them vivid action, dialogue, and sensory details, not a recap.
"Douglas and Bonnie argued over the laundry" is far less interesting than a scene in which the argument plays out through hurled insults and undergarments. Instead of stating "Howie felt anxious," describe the physical effects of Howie's anxiety or reveal his troubled thoughts. Avoid generic descriptions such as "Meredith was cute" that neither paint a picture for the reader nor offer insight into the mind of the character who's appreciating Meredith's cuteness.
During important parts of a story, allow the reader to get inside the scene and the characters. At times, however, it will be appropriate to summarize. If the argument about laundry is incidental, a sentence of exposition may suffice.
2. Leave out the boring parts. Not everything that happens to the characters has to appear in a story. The logic of a plot often requires characters to undertake the same kinds of actions that bore us in real life: traveling from place to place, deciding what to cook for dinner, getting ready for bed. Unless something significant occurs during these events, sum them up in a few words or skip over them. Writers have the power to move characters through space and time with magic phrases like "When he arrived at the factory," "After hours of research," and "The next morning."
Repetition is boring. Don't write the scene in which a character reflects on or tells someone about a previous scene. Even if the musing or reporting is intended to offer juicy new insight, take care not to repeat information that the reader already knows.
Stay away from predictable characters, obvious situations, generic details, and cliché phrases. Unexpected alternatives are harder to come up with, but they're rarely boring.
3. Reveal setting through characters and characters through setting. Every person views the world from a unique perspective. A newcomer to a city notices different details than a longtime resident, who has different associations than someone who hoped never to return. A woman about to deliver a baby doesn't react to a hospital in the same way as a child with a terminally sick parent, and their observations are both unlike those of a medical student.
To write descriptions worth reading, adopt a character's perspective on the surroundings. The emotions and memories connected to a place are at least as evocative as the sights and sounds, and they give the reader information about character as well as setting.
4. Introduce conflict everywhere. Much of the conflict in a story comes from obstacles that prevent a character from reaching a goal, and it's a good policy to create as many impediments as possible. Other characters are a wonderful source of conflict. Keep pleasant, agreeable character interactions to a minimum or risk a story that drags from lack of tension.
Even settings and details can provide friction when they clash with a character's nature. Drag a shy character onto a TV talent competition or strand an internet addict in a remote mountain village. For extra discord, challenge the reader's expectations and make the tech fiend neither young nor socially awkward.
5. Say more with snappier dialogue. Written dialogue should resemble real speech but not reproduce it. In real life, people spend a lot of time making unimportant remarks or saying things they've said before. Don't waste space and reader attention on this boring repetition. Skip past the greetings, introductions, and small talk to get to the meat of a conversation.
Characters can still sound authentic while speaking more concisely than real people. Leave in the interesting, obstacle-riddled parts of actual speech: evasion, interruption, misunderstanding. Throw in a healthy dose of disagreement and emotion for dialogue that snaps with conflict.
These five pieces of advice are easy to pass on, but I know they aren't straightforward to follow. Every time I write a story, I find that I need to remind myself of these guidelines again. I invite you to repeat them with me.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ On the QueryTracker.net Blog, Jim Warner proposes that "Writing shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called editing."
→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins shaves the extraordinary elements out of well-known speculative works with Ockham’s Disposable Razor.