In one of the writer’s groups I’m part of, they were recently having a debate about the old writing adage ‘write what you know’. There was a surprising amount of differing opinions on this, people taking it literally, people suggesting a more abstract meaning. I’ve never really been that tied up about writing what I know in a specific literal sense, but I also don’t think that’s the intended meaning of that statement. Write what you know does not mean, literally, write what you know.
If the intention was to take this in its literal sense, how many great science fiction and fantasy stories would never have taken form? Some things, you can’t know, but again, that’s not the intended meaning of that sentiment. The intention is to highlight the importance of honesty in your work, of writing from the heart – and not necessarily your heart, but the heart of the characters in the story you’ve created. When writing, you are beholden to the honesty of the story you’re presenting. If a character does something, you have to know why he or she did it. It can’t be that you need a plot device, you can’t have things happening at random, that’s simply not real. That is the essence of ‘write what you know’, that you write with honesty and remain true to the characters as you know them. As they would be in the reality of the world you’ve created.
For instance, you need to know all the traits and history of your characters. You need to know that your main character was raised mostly by his mother, that his father never knew how to deal with him, that he took longer than normal to speak clearly because he didn’t feel confident around the other kids. That his first love never even looked at him, that he was intimidated by male teachers because of his absent father, that he was easily lured into trouble by peer pressure. That he didn’t want to go into the abandoned house, but the kids made him do it, then rode off on him, and left him scared and distressed when the police came.
This sort of summary, a basic rundown of the general moments in a character’s life, these details might never come up in your story, but they are the elements that will lead you to knowing and understanding how he will react in all situations. Now you know, no matter where you take the story, that the character is intimidated by older men. Maybe that’s a key plot element, maybe not. The point is, this is something you know, you’ve come to know this through your character development.
Normally I work in the opposite direction – I think of the major plot points then work backwards through the character’s history to understand what would have made him take the actions he/she did in order drive the story – but by doing that, as the story develops, the characters start to take on a life of their own, as you know all the things that have happened to them. You know how they’d react if this or that happened. Because you know them. They’re real, not plot devices. Ideally, you’d have this depth of knowledge with every significant character in your story.
The important thing to note about ‘write what you know’ is it’s not about what you know. It’s about what you need to know. You need to research, plot and learn your characters so you can know the information you need to communicate your story in an authentic and believable way. You need to be honest to the story, honest to each scene and each interaction – because people can sense fake a mile off. If your characters are inconsistent, that will jar in the reader’s mind. You need to be real, to see the scene in its reality, then present it in its truest form.
You can’t know what the scene would be like in the wake of a nuclear bomb blast. But you can research and know the detail of nuclear winter. You know what winter is like, you know what smoke and haze can be like. Based on what you’ve read and learned – on what you know – you can imagine the reality. Now feel it. Now write it down. That’s the essence of ‘write what you know’.
It should probably be slightly extended:
‘Write what you know, learn what you don’t’
And there’s never any limit on what you can learn.
As many would be aware, the teaser trailers for Season 4 of Game of Thrones have started coming through. It’s exciting to have the show return, but the pending disappointment of having to wait so long when the season ends always lingers, bittersweet. As I was watching the latest teaser, I tried to think over what makes Game of Thrones so good. Sure, the acting, the sets, there are a lot of factors involved in making the show what it is, but it started from a book series – it’s core strength is in it’s writing. So here are five elements that I think are George R.R. Martin’s greatest storytelling cornerstones in Game of Thrones – the keys to it’s success, and the lessons writers, can take from them.
1. It constantly subverts expectations. The most refreshing thing about Game of Thrones is that it doesn’t go where you expect. I remember the first season, with Sean Bean up on the platform about to be killed. I remember his daughter weaving through the crowd, the tension rising. And I remember thinking ‘Sean Bean’s the biggest star on the show, they’re not going to kill him off’. But they did. It was so great, so amazing to have my expectation smashed, and I’ve found this over and over again with GOT – as soon as you think you’ve got it worked out, that this person or that one is going to come out on top, they’re gone. Killed, maimed, chained up and mutilated. There’s a whole science to why police procedurals are so popular, that it makes people feel more intelligent when they can work out the details of each case. GOT is almost the complete opposite, and it succeeds by switching up on you every chance it gets. It’s exciting storytelling, and hard to do in the modern era, where everyone has theoretically seen every story before in some form. GOT does this better than any other show I’ve seen. The takeaway for writers: Subvert expectation, don’t go down the well-worn path. Think about what you can do that will surprise and excite your readers.
2. It’s honest to the reality in which the characters live. As a writer, you’re only true obligation is to be honest to the story and world you’ve created. You can do whatever you want, so long as the actions and consequences are honest to the rules you’ve established for the world you’re writing about. GOT does this really well – if there were a medieval type world where the strongest ruled, generally by brute force, then there wouldn’t be the usual fairytale romances and maidens in towers. The key to success in that world would essentially be a willingness to do what others would not. Backstabbers and liars would rise, those willing to kill would seize power – it would be a pretty unpleasant place where you’d have to constantly watch your back (or resign to the life of a peasant). It somewhat aligns with the first point, but in GOT, the bad guys, more often that not, win. Because they don’t have the morals, the ethics of the hero. They’ll do what they need to take and maintain power. In the reality of that world, that’s how it would be. It’s that authenticity, that conceptual depth, that Martin has harnessed so well. The key note for writers is to stay honest to the reality you’ve created. Think through the impacts to ensure things don’t jar or stand out as obvious plot devices which don’t fit into that world.
3. The story develops organically. Or more accurately, the story feels like it develops organically. Martin has created such deep, true to life characters that every action has a reaction, every step resonates with someone else. And you pretty much know how each of the characters is going to respond. There’s a real logic and humanity to each of these interactions and no one ever gets away with anything, nothing is ever confined to one plotline. The characters respond as you’d expect real people to, and that changes their story arc. Someone who was once hell bent on one course of action can be swayed by emotion, and that change shifts the entire scene. It doesn’t feel like anything is planned or set in stone, which again, adds to that unpredictability. As a storyteller, the note to take away is to consider every action, not only from a core storyline standpoint, but for how it will ripple through to the rest of your fictional world. This attention to detail will add an important layer of authenticity to your work.
4. The characters are deep. I noted this in the previous point, but it’s a key one to highlight. The characters in Game of Thrones all feel like they could have a mini-series of their own to explain their back story. Martin knows each one very well, has got into tune with who they are and what they want. All of them have a level of humanity that is tangible, allowing the audience to be taken in by them. Well, except Joffrey, I guess. The key point – you need to know you’re characters. Not just ‘he was sixteen with brown hair…’ you need to know them, know where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, how those things have affected their world view. Once you do, once you can conceptualize a character to this level, the writing gets a heap easier. Because you know how they’ll react, what they’ll do in response to any action. Knowing your characters is key to writing great stories – research them, understand them. Even if you do all that work and a lot of it never makes it to the page, you’ll know it and your writing will be better for it.
5. Very little of Game of Thrones is revealed in exposition. I’m talking about the TV show here, not the books (which I haven’t read) but on the show, there’s very few sections of blatant exposition – characters delivering monologues on the reasons why things have come to be in this world. This is pretty rare, particularly for these fantasy realm stories, where you need to set up the parameters. GOT pretty much throws you into the politics and lets you work it out. And it’s much better for it. I liken this to something like ‘The Wire’ – when I first started watching The Wire I had to re-check I started on episode one, cause I had no idea what was going on. But four episodes in, I was totally immersed by it. Not knowing the detail made me concentrate harder and take in more to catch up. Of course, you don’t want to make it so complex that the audience doesn’t understand, but there’s definitely something to be said about writing a story that’s lived in, where things are how they are. Your characters wouldn’t, in their reality, sit down and go over the details of why things are how they are, and often you don’t need to, and shouldn’t, do this in your writing. People are smart, they’ll work it out, just give them what they need to make them want to turn the page and you’ll have them. It’s the old ‘show don’t tell’ principle – don’t spell it out, allow your readers into it, let them see it with the characters, engage with the story in a more organic way.
Game of Thrones is an excellent example of storytelling, and there’s a heap for writers to learn from it. Keep these elements in mind as you watch, try to work out how they utilise storytelling elements – and more importantly, how you can use the same tricks in your own work.
There’s this bell that starts ringing when the bucket is nearly full. It’s a huge bucket, massive, and it sits on top of the kids play area at the pool. It fills up then it tips, white water crashing down onto everything below and before it’s full this bell starts ringing, getting faster as it gets closer to tipping point. My daughter’s still too small, so I took her up in my arms and went to the spot just beneath the bucket, a point where the water won’t hit you, and I told her to get ready – Are you ready? Yeah. Are you sure? Yeah. Then the water crashed down all around us, a cone of liquid, just her and I inside. She flinched and ducked into me, then peeked out and watched the walls flowing down around us. Smiled those little white teeth.
Brevity – keeping things simple, keeping the story moving – is something I always try to keep front of mind in my writing. Is the information necessary? Does it impede the story flow, rather than enrich it? Is it adding anything to the reader’s view? I generally write in a minimalist style, so brevity is important, getting in those key details and trying to find more creative, intelligent and engaging ways to communicate the story.
• The first thing you study is “horses.” The metaphor is – if you drive a wagon from Utah to California, you use the same horses the whole way. Substitute the word “themes” or “choruses” and you get the idea. In minimalism, a story is a symphony, building and building, but never losing the original melody line. All characters and scenes, things that seem dissimilar, they all illustrate some aspect of the story’s theme.
• The next aspect, Spanbauer calls “burnt tongue.” A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés. In minimalism, clichés are called “received text.”
In The Harvest, Hempel writes, “I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence.” Right here, you have her “horses” of death and dissolution and her writing a sentence that slows you to a more deliberate, attentive speed.
• No abstracts. No adverbs like sleepily, irritably, sadly. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees or years-old.
In The Harvest, Hempel writes, “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.”
• What else you learn about minimalism includes “recording angel.” This means writing without passing any judgments. Nothing is fed to the reader as fat or happy. You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgment occur in the reader’s mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will re-assemble themselves within the reader.
Amy Hempel does this. Instead of telling us the boyfriend in The Harvest is an asshole, we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend’s blood and telling her, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.”
• Last point – “on the body.” Hempel shows how a story doesn’t have to be some constant stream of blah-blah-blah to bully the reader into paying attention. You don’t have to hold readers by both ears and ram every moment down their throats. Instead, a story can be a succession of tasty, smelly, touchable details. What Spanbauer and Lish call “going on the body,” to give the reader a sympathetic physical reaction, to involve the reader on a gut level.
These rules obviously can’t be applied to everyone’s work, but knowing them, thinking about them, will help you in being more creative and cerebral in how you communicate story. I especially like the ‘no adverbs’ rule, and I believe applying this, or at least thinking of options whenever you do use an adverb, makes you re-think what you’re saying and come up with creative solutions. I’ve noted this before, but it’s like Twitter, where you’re restricted by a certain number of characters, forcing you re-think what you want to say, abbreviate, and often you’ll find a smarter, more succinct way of wording it because you have to. You should also apply this to your writing, try to think through the best way to say what you want that is the most evocative and, as Chuck says, the most ‘on the body’, eliciting a physical and mental reaction with the reader that will better engage them with your scenes and characters.
The good people at Tincture Journal are publishing one of my short stories in their latest journal to be released shortly. For more info: