In reading literary reviews, or writing reviews in general, one note that commonly comes up how the author has found his or her voice. ‘This writer has found his voice…’ ‘She’s established her own voice…’ ‘His unique voice comes through loud and clear in his writing’. The problem with this note, for prospective writers in particular, is that it can be a bit vague – what does that mean? How can someone find their literary ‘voice’? Your ‘voice’ is your distinctive presence, your way of communicating a story, and in that sense, there’s not really any way a person can say ‘here’s how you find your voice’, because it’s unique, it’s who you are – and not only that, it’s who your characters are, the authentic voices of your story. It’s the voice of the piece needs to be reflective of the story and true to the reality of the world that you’ve created.
While I can’t tell you how you can find your voice as a writer, what I can tell you are some of the things writers’ often do that are counter to finding their voice. We’re all trying to ‘be writers’, all trying to do what writers do, as opposed to what we, normal-folk, do, and inevitably, that leads to us adopting some practices which go totally against the mission of finding one’s own unique voice. Here’s a few things to avoid, or think about, as you go about your writing work.
Not every detail has to be painstakingly poetic
This is probably the most common mistake people make, they’ll try to create epic, poetic descriptions of even the most mundane and irrelevant details of the scene in order to conform to what they believe is a literary approach. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into – you get self-conscious about your writing, you think you need to make everything more stylised, more beautiful, and you end up wasting paragraphs on details that serve no purpose to the wider piece. The greatest stories have a flow to them, an effortless beauty, a sense that every word, every description, is rested right there, in it’s correct place. That sense comes from knowing the story, from having every detail relate back to the core of the piece. Everything you describe, every element, should all be adding to the wider themes and ideas of the world of the story.
For instance, I read a piece recently where a writer had spent sentences describing the details of the way a room was set out. The story had nothing to do with room detail, and the characters didn’t have any psychological predispositions to noting down such elements. The description was purely there because the writer felt like they needed to include complex description. Now, if the character did have a leaning towards being caught up in intimate details – if, for instance, the character was having a life moment and such details reflected a wider sense of his/her own position at that time, those details would be relevant, but painting literary embellishments without direct story purpose is often jarring and representative of your own lack of confidence in your writing. Every detail you note should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, cut it out, it’s just weighing down your prose.
Trust what you know
A big part of establishing your own literary identity is trusting what you know. Your voice is exactly that – your voice. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work. You know how people talk, you know what interactions feel genuine. You also know, in your own experience, what makes people do the things they do, what life events lead to people being how they are. Your experiences on this front are totally unique – you’ll have seen and heard of people doing things for different reasons, and you know those sequences as truths, as things that have happened. Those understandings are what you need to reflect in your work – if something happens, if someone does something, it’s not just a random event. What made that person do that thing? What compelled them to act in the way they did? You know what would most likely lead to a person being in the state of mind they’re in, and that is the truth that you need to reflect and tap into in your descriptions. That’s not to say you need to go into every detail of their life, but you need to know your characters, who they are, what they do, what their motivations are. If you know that detail, you can ensure their perspective is reflected in every action – how they react is how they would respond in real life. And that’s based on what you know – that’s where your own authenticity comes from, not from movies or books or what you think other people might think. You have to trust your own knowledge and understanding and ensure that that honesty is reflected in your work. If something happens that doesn’t feel true to you, it’ll likely feel totally fake to another reader.
Your only obligation is to the honesty of the story
This particularly relates to the voice of your work – the way the characters speak, the way the story is presented, these details need to reflect what’s best for your story. You know the characters, how they talk, how they act. The way it’s communicated, in your words, should reflect the voice of the piece. If you want it to be slow and dreamy, read other writers’ who’ve written in that way and study what they’ve done that works. Use thematic images in your writing area and music to inspire your thoughts and get the words flowing through your head. But above all, ensure that the voice you use for your work is true to the story you want to present. If it’s first person, get in the head of your character and describe the world as he/she would see it. If it’s third person, understand the flow you’re going for, how distant or intimate you need to be, and ensure that perspective is maintained – but always be true to the feel of the story, the characters, the drive. How do you want the reader to feel when reading it? What elements will keep them glued to your words as they flow through the piece? Don’t write in the voice that you think a ‘real writer’ might go for, write in the voice of the story, of the characters. Write as if they’re telling the story themselves, how they would describe it. You have to inhabit the story, be part of it, see things from the interior of the book. Once you get in there, in between the words, you’ll start to see your own voice shine through and move from being influenced by other works to being contained within your own piece.
As I’ve discussed before, there’s no sure fire way to be a successful writer – if there was, everyone would do it. It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of observation and a lot of daydreaming, allowing yourself to get caught up in your imagination. Finding your voice is difficult – it’s something that gets thrown about like it’s a goal to aspire to. But more often than not, you find your voice by not specifically looking for it. Be honest to your work, to the world’s you’re creating, to the characters you’re building, and through that honesty and focus, your voice and style will develop all on it’s own.
I’ve been catching up on some films recently, and got into a stretch of great ones that I wanted to share. So rather than write individual posts for each, with us now at the midway point of the year, it’s a good time to go over the best films I’ve seen, thus far, in 2014. Some of them I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but here’s my top five from the last 6 months:
There’s so much I could say about this film, so much I’d love to go on about, but it’s one of those ones you’re best not knowing anything about going in. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film ‘Prisoners’ was on my ‘Best of 2013’ list), Enemy is a lesson in film-making. Everything about it is precisely placed and planned, everything is deliberate. All I can say about Enemy is the film you’re watching is not the film you think it is. It’ll make sense in the end. Probably.
Under the Skin
Another one I’d love to go on about for pages and pages. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Under the Skin starts off with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Scotland in a large, white van, looking for directions. But then she’s looking for something else, a phone, a different road. Then you realise, she’s not looking for directions at all, she’s trying to lure each man she speaks to into the van. From there, she seduces them, then takes them to abandoned buildings. What happens next, in terms of the way it’s shot, the set design, the music, is mesmerising, and so great, and the story leads on from there. Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber – though it’s a loose adaptation, major sequences and plotlines are altered from the book. It’s a great example of restraint, of allowing the plot to develop on its own, combined with some amazing visual elements. A great, great film, one I’ll no doubt be watching over and over.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
I already geeked out over X-Men: Days of Future Past in a previous post, so I won’t go on about it again. For me, this is the ultimate superhero film – of all the ones that have come before it, X-Men: Days of Future Past has the strongest combination of amazing visual effects, solid story and deep characters (in superhero film terms, at least). People will praise Chris Nolan’s Batman films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers as the best superhero films, and to some degree, it depends on which comics you grew up with. For me, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best – it sticks to the real roots of the comics, it brings characters to life you never thought possible and it all just looks so great, no expense is spared on the detail.
I came across this film recently, one I hadn’t heard a heap about. Blue Ruin is the story of a broken man who returns to his home town to enact revenge, and the consequences of his actions then spiral further and further out of control. Blue Ruin pulled me in pretty quick and I had to know how it all ended. It’s well acted (by relative unknowns) and plotted and, most importantly, it moves. The story pushes ahead at such a pace, remaining compelling and engaging throughout – it’s a good lesson in plot development and raising the stakes to sustain engagement. It’s an intriguing, violent film, but one that’s well worth seeing.
This one sort of crept up on me. We watched About Time, essentially, because I thought my wife would like it – she’s into romantic films, The Notebook being her favourite, and this has McAdams in it and it’s by the guy who made Love Actually – it has all the makings of a film she’d love. But I actually really liked it. It’s got depth and heart, a reflective element to it, which is normally non-existent in romantic dramas which play out the obvious notes. About Time is about a guy who can travel back in time. Not anywhere he wants though, only back to places he’s been and experiences he’s lived – like, if he embarrassed himself the first time he spoke to a girl, he can go back and change it. That sounds really amazing, right, and slightly difficult for a film (how do you create tension in a scene when the audience knows he can just re-do it?), but it actually moves in a direction I didn’t expect and ends up being an interesting reflection on life and how we approach it. About Time isn’t going to go down as an artistic masterpiece, but it raises really interesting questions, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
So there they are, my top films of 2014 (so far). In terms of writing, all of these films have great written elements, great plot development points that are worth taking note of. I really loved that most of them went places I didn’t expect, opening my thinking to other angles in my own plot development efforts. It’s like when you read a great book and it opens up all these possibilities in your mind and then you get that electricity, that momentum that compels you to just get writing. All these films had elements of that for me, all triggered ideas and tangents, new perspectives and elements I could consider. Each one got me thinking – especially the first two on this list – and anything that gives your creative mind a kick is worth taking a couple hours out of your day for. If you’re looking for inspiration, seeking out a great film is always a worthy avenue to try.
One of the main reasons I write is because I’m fascinated by people. The things people do, decisions people make every day – I love to look into them and try to understand, try to see why this or that person would do things they way they did. People you pass in the street, people on the train, they’ve lived an entire life with a completely different perspective to yours. I’m always intrigued by what shapes a person’s life, what things they’ve lived.
This is what drove me to write my first novel – I’d heard stories about the increasing amount of people drugging and raping girls in nightclubs and I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t imagine why someone would ever do that. From that, I tried to imagine a scenario where such horrific crimes could come about and how a person could get involved. To me, everything in life can be explained. Everything that happens, everything a person does is the result of the path their life’s taken. You might read a story about some guy who killed three people and that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to know about the case – the murder and maybe the basic motivations and lead-up events. But if you could know more, if you could see his entire personal history, you’d see things that happened, things that lead to this person making a decision to do something unfathomable to you. It doesn’t mean such acts can be justified, but knowing the full story helps understand why things happen the way they do. That’s what I love, trying to understand, trying to see things through another person’s eyes and rationalise their decisions. It’s fascinating to find those connections, the bread crumbs that lead to a person doing what they do.
This, I think, is a crucial element in developing character depth. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to steal a car or pick a fight with a neighbour or tell somebody they love them out of the blue. The things that have happened in their lives have formed them – their actions, good or bad, are a result of their experiences. I read a quote once that was something like ‘the human brain is perfect when we’re born – it’s what we put in that changes it’. On top of that, of course, there are natural tendencies and abilities that will also play a part in the process, but I do believe that is correct – who you are is a result of your inputs. In terms of character development, it’s important that you know these motivations and know how and why your characters would respond to each situation. It’s also where, I believe, the idea that characters sometimes write themselves stems from. They don’t, and they never will, but the more you know them, the better you understand each character’s history – what’s been put into their brain – the more you’ll know how they’d respond to each twist and situation. You need to have an understanding of where each character comes from, what’s happened to them in their lives, and what’s lead them to where they are. From there, you’ll better understand what they’d do next.
It’s actually an interesting exercise – next time you read a newspaper story, try to think of what each person’s motivations were that lead to them making the decisions they have. What might have happened, why might a person do what they’ve done in this instance? This type of thinking helps open your mind to possibilities and will better enable you to creatively elaborate on character motivations and choices. Don’t just read the headline, try to think of the why, what could have made this person see things the way they have, make them decide to take this course of action.
Everyone has a book in them, so the saying goes, but we’ll only ever hear a fraction of a percentage of those stories, because not everyone will have the opportunity to communicate them. With that in mind, isn’t it fascinating to think of all the stories that haven’t been told? Doesn’t it make you think there’s so much opportunity in the world, so much we don’t know? Trying to understand these questions is part of being a writer – an inquisitive mind, and need to know more than what you can see on the surface. You need to do all you can to embrace and build on this, let you mind ask questions, go with them, try to understand all you can. Not only is this the critical to being a better writer, more understanding is key to being a better person in general. If we could all take the time to see things from each other’s perspective, the world would be a much more understanding place.
One thing that a lot of writers have trouble with is perspective and tense. In itself, people can switch tense mid-sentence and some have trouble staying consistent, but a bigger and more challenging question is what perspective/tense should you use? There’s no definitive guide as to which works best for each story type – any can work if done well – but there are some basics that are worth considering:
First Person – Present Tense: ‘I wake up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. This is the logging things as they happen. I’ve found this best used in action novels and faster paced books, as it’s more immediate, things are coming at you quickly. It lends itself to sharper, quicker prose, as it’s the language is progressive.
First Person – Past Tense: ‘I woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. This is also effective in faster paced novels, but the ‘looking back’ style lends itself to more introspection by the narrator – if you’re writing a book where the main character is doing a lot of internal monologue, thinking over how he/she feels or sees things, I think this is a more effective voice to go with than First Person – Present Tense.
Second Person – Present Tense: ‘You wake up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. This is also another good one for faster passed pieces, though rarely is it used for an entire novel length. The best uses I’ve seen have come in the form of chapters within a larger work, break-out switch-ups that work to amplify a segment, give the reader a sense of being drawn in.
Second Person – Past Tense: ‘You woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. I actually don’t find much difference in effectiveness between Second Person – Past and Second Person – Present, the reader effect is similar. I would think the use of this would depend on the style of the rest of the book – unless you were using Second Person exclusively, which most authors are not.
Third Person – Present Tense: ‘He wakes up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. Third person is a great way to explore more of the world your characters are in. Third Person – Present – as with all ‘present’ tenses – is good for faster moving narratives, as it keeps things immediate. Third person allows you to explore more perspectives within the story, whilst also only revealing the motivations of characters when you need, as opposed to First Person, which generally forces you to reveal the inner thoughts of your narrator all through.
Third Person – Past Tense: ‘He woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. Similar in effect to present tense. I find most fantasy novels are written in Third Person – Past, as it allows for the writer to reveal more about the world he/she has created through historical or atmospheric exposition, which is required when you need to reveal the rules of a new world. Third Person enables you to reveal what you want when you want the reader to know it, as opposed to First Person, which is more confined to what the narrator knows.
These are obviously very quick overviews, and are in no way encompassing of the intricacies of each style, but hopefully they give you an idea of the purpose and strengths of each. Choosing the style of your piece is a big factor in determining how it will resonate with readers – each story has it’s own unique voice, and it’s important to understand the emotional arc of your tale – what you want to reveal and when – to help you determine which voice is best. Some authors will go their entire careers only writing in one style, but the best can switch between them, utilising the strengths of each to create the most compelling literature – even including sections of different styles in one work.
It’s about looking at your story plan, as a whole, and understanding what you want your reader to feel as they move through. You’ll generally be influenced by writers you admire, but always worth considering how to best use perspective and tense before you write, thinking about what’s the best fit. If your story is fast paced, then present tense is probably better. If your piece takes into account the perspectives of various characters, third person might work best. There are no definitive rules, but playing over the sentences in your mind in the different styles will eventually reveal which one is the most natural fit for your story’s voice.
A long time ago, I remember reading an interview with a young author in the paper. She’d just had her first novel published, and she talked about how she’d done an ‘apprenticeship’ in novel writing by writing short stories – writing as many as she could, entering them into competitions, etc. This note stuck with me – at the time I was into short story writing exclusively. I was reading a lot of Amy Hempel, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore and I was all about being a short story writer. Who needs to write a novel? Short story’s where it’s at. This, at least in part, was because the thought of writing 50,000+ words was way too daunting to contemplate. That word count is a massive mountain to climb. I had attempted a novel, kind of, but it was half way through 30 pages in so not quite long enough.
But this idea of doing an apprenticeship in short story opened my mind to the idea of planning a novel in short story form. I didn’t know that I’d be able to write a novel but I could give you 100 short stories, no problem. I was writing new pieces everyday, coming up with new ideas, it became more conceivable for me to visualise a novel as 50 connected short stories. 50,000 words = scary. 50 short stories = doable.
This is how I planned and wrote my first novel (and planned my second, the writing has been slightly more problematic). I thought of an idea, of a concept that I thought would work. I thought of the key points, played them over and over in my mind and then, once I had a basic skeleton of the story, I sat down and wrote a list of 50 short pieces that would tell the story. Suddenly I could see how it was possible, writing short stories, one by one, was easy, I could knock them over at a rate of one a night. If I could get a solid plan down, I could do it. And with luck, lonely nights, and a lot of persistence, I did.
Of course, there was a lot more that came up along the way – extra planning, re-plotting, adding in chapters to build additional context once the themes were clear (note: the themes of your novel will only be 100% clear once you’ve completed your first draft), getting the voice right – there was more work to be done than one planning session. But it did work, and I do think this is a solid way to go about writing a novel. If you’re dedicated to writing a book but having trouble visualising such a vast amount of content, I’d recommend this as a process to help rationalise the workload, to break it down to an digestable amount. Writing 1000 words a day is something you should commit to, if you can, and if you’re able to do that, you can write a chapter a day. And eventually it will start to take form.
I love opening a new novel. I love going through the bookshop – the smell of books – and I love finding that one that is going to take me away, curl round my brain like a cat and warm me into this whole other world. And one of the great things about new books, one of the reasons that I’ll take it to the counter, is the opening line or paragraph. I love a good cover, but more importantly, I love good writing, and that first section, for me, really sets the tone. A good opening will drop you right into the story and make it hard for you to leave. It will capture your imagination and almost force you to read on. It’s also a great learning tool for writers, working out how the great books begin, understanding how that can be applied to your story. There’s so much to learn from those first lines, it’s worth reading as many as you can to ensure you are using the best starting point for your story.
As an example, here are some of my favourite novel openings:
‘Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says “We really won’t die.”
With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.
You drill the holes wrong and the gun will blow off your hand.’
– Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
It’s so fast-paced and it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which all moves at breakneck speed. Palahniuk drops you right into the chaos and lets you work it out from there – a really good opening.
‘Until the telephone rang, the only sound in my office was the scratching of my pen as I made margins notes, corrections and amendments.
I pressed the speaker button.
‘Catherine! I meant to send you home hours ago…’
She interrupted me: ‘I am home. I’ve been home, been out to see a film, eaten a pizza, paid the baby-sitter and watched the end of Newsnight.
The clock on my desk read 11:42. I turned in my chair. The window of my office was floor to ceiling. Through the window, I could see the city glitter and the night sky. No stars – a low cloud layer made the sky glow almost red.
Catherine continued: ‘I’m calling because the last train leaves in twenty-five minutes’.
The Coma by Alex Garland
This also sets the scene for the whole novel, the pace, the steady flow of the narrative. But again, Garland drops you right into the story, not pages of him living his normal life, but right here, right in the midst of where the action is about to take place. It’s an important note – you want to start your story at a compelling point, a point where people need to turn the page and find out what happens next. Granted, this scene is still somewhat commonplace, but we know the narrator is now out in the middle of the night and will struggle to make the train home – and we, as the audience, know what a frightening train journey that midnight trip can be.
‘About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.
It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that – well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been – or, more precisely, being about to be – hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who’s to say that these are genuine memories? Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap – the crater – that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.’
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Remainder is a real mind twister of a novel, looking at psychology and the depths of the human condition. This opening sets the scene really well – you get, from this, that the narrator was involved in accident in which something fell from the sky and damaged his brain. The novel is about how he doesn’t know what’s real anymore, what are memories and what’s imagined, and this opening clearly aligns to that theme. I like this because McCarthy has explained a lot very quickly, very cleverly, almost without you knowing it. But again, it drops you into the story, rather than starting with long-winded context or backstory.
‘He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d near chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn’t object, so I lit a Silk Cut. A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was fright, but I’d daydreamed how I’d be.
He was bare and dead face-down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at. Over and over you saw Him stretched out then the pitch dark with his computer screen still on.’
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
The detached, confused emotion of the narrator streams all the way through Morvern Callar, and again, the author has dropped us right into the story, leaving Morvern at home with her deceased boyfriend – what will she do next? I also love the detail in this scene, the image of the Christmas lights flicking on and off gives it a real sense, an authenticity and feeling, through such a small but important detail.
Not every novel starts out by dropping you into the action like this, but the vast majority do. It’s a powerful tool, and an important lesson for writers to learn, that the story starts where the action does. Your readers will work out the details and you can communicate back story through their interactions within the narrative – in that sense, it’s like someone telling you a story in real life. People generally tell you the highlight, the most shocking element up front, then explain the detail of how it got to that point. That peak moment is the hook that will gets the audience in, and it’s important to use that to compel your readers to turn the page.
One other thing I’ve heard when discussing good opening lines is ‘yeah, but those are great novels’ – as if their own work could not, and should not, be compared to works of this calibre. But why shouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t you hold your own work up for comparison against the greats? If you want your book to stand side by side with them in a book store, you have to aspire to being compared with them on quality, on compulsion. It’s important you do compare your work to established authors, you should be as good as them. Every author of every book was once a nobody. They started with nothing behind them. A blank page. The only difference now is that they made it. So your work should be compared to them. Because that’s the way that you can make it too.
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.
Here it comes – we’re nearing year’s end so get ready to see list after list of top tens. Rather than fight it, I’m going with it (though I’ll only go five to save you from fatigue) – here are some of the best films I saw in 2013:
I’ve written about Mud briefly here, but definitely Mud was my favourite film of the year. It was released in 2012, but only made it to Australia in 2013, so I’m counting it. For people who think traditional film storytelling is being pummelled into submission by visual effects, a never-ending number sequels and movies based on board games, you should check this out. McConaughey is great in this.
The most tense, gripping film I’ve seen this year was Prisoners. The story was clever and compelling, forcing the viewer to question not only which character was behind the crime, but what lengths would be acceptable to obtain the answer (reminded me of the also excellent ‘Unthinkable‘ which is definitely one to check out also). Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman are so good in this movie – Jackman’s best performance ever, in my opinion (yeah, he is Wolverine, but in a dramatic sense, this is a better performance).
3. The Kings of Summer
So good. I’d read some of the buzz about this film and it definitely lives up to everything promised. As a comedy, it’s pitch perfect and the dramatic elements are weaved through, so you’re not quite sure which way it’s going till the conclusion. The lead actor, Nick Robinson, is someone we’re going to see a lot more of in future films, no doubt.
4. Captain Phillips
I only saw this recently, but it’s right up there with the best things I’ve seen for the year. Going in, I wondered whether they would be able to sustain the tension of a whole film (as this is based on a true story), and early on I had my doubts (Tom Hank’s accent seemed odd in the first scenes and the pace takes a moment to kick in), but it’s an amazingly well done film. Director Paul Greengrass knows momentum and story has become such a good film-maker. Captain Phillips continuously raised the stakes as the film moves along and Hanks gets better and better, till the final scenes, where he delivers five minutes of pure acting brilliance.
5. Monsters University
When I head Pixar were doing another ‘Monsters’ film, I thought they might be coming off the rails. ‘Brave’ was good, but not up to their usual brilliant standards and ‘Wreck it Ralph’ the same, entertaining, but just some flaws that you usually wouldn’t get from the perfectionists at Pixar (note: a reader has corrected me on this, Wreck-it-Ralph is not Pixar). The first time I saw Monsters Inc, I thought it was okay, but in subsequent viewings (I have two young kids, I’ve watched it a lot) I’ve come to really like it. Even if you stop seeing it as a Monsters film, as a college film, it’s right up there with the best. And I loved the message in the end, that life is what you make of it. Great film.
There’s a book I read many years ago called ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler. In it, Vogler has studied the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and how it has been applied to storytelling throughout the years. Campbell studied story telling through cultures and generations and found similar elements existed in all tales, more complex than just a beginning, middle and end. Campbell called this ‘The hero’s Journey’ and detailed how the hero would always be faced with certain challenges and hurdles. Vogler took this research and applied it to a more modern medium, film, making it much easier to comprehend and apply, as you have all the reference points in your head already. Vogler’s contention is that all films have The Hero’s Journey at their heart, and he goes on to give example and example of this applied to modern films. And it’s amazing.
If you don’t have this book, you need to get it, in my opinion it is essential reading for all writers. For example, George Lucas used Joseph Campbell’s research to write ‘Star Wars’, plotting out all the key notes based on The hero’s Journey – Vogler discusses this in intricate detail. Interestingly, Lucas used The Hero’s Journey again for ‘Willow’, applying the rules and plot points exactly as noted in Campbell’s research as something of a test to see if following them exactly would be a ticket to success (which, it alone, wasn’t, based on ‘Willow’’s box office performance). Vogler even breaks down ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a challenge in the book.
The thing is, when you read it you’ll note that most of the elements are already evident in your writing. You instinctively know story structure and pace from watching films and reading books, so a lot of it, you’ll fine, is already present in your work. But having the knowledge of how story structure works, understanding why each step happens when it does, all this is invaluable information to have and will help you solidify and strengthen your writing.
The below image breaks down the steps of The Hero’s Journey – some, if not most, of it won’t make any sense without the further context of the book, but these are the elements that occur, or should occur, in all stories in some form. I highly recommend all writer’s obtain a copy and go through it. Essential reading.