Writing is a skill, and like any skill it can be improved through practice, but there needs to be more than simply exercising existing knowledge. If you wanted to learn to play piano, you could learn how to play Mozart and Beethoven, but that simply makes you a performer. Writing is the equivalent of composing, and to learn how to compose you would need to compose. You need to try things out, experiment, and fail.
Every concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies.Douglas Hofstadter, Analogy as the Core of Cognition
To be someone who can create fiction, you need to experiment as much as you can. It is through experiments that discoveries are made, that theories are proven, and that mistakes lead to marvels. This second lesson will be focused on the value of experimentation.
Choose a Category
Many writers I meet, particularly new writers, seem to have pigeon-holed themselves into a niche; for example, only writing werewolf stories, or being entirely focused on a Young Adult novel about growing up the 1950s. Whilst knowing what kind of story you want to tell and understanding your target market are both great advantages when writing, there is a danger of creating a bubble around your chosen genre. By only reading—and writing—within one specific niche, you run the risk of adopting genre clichés and tropes, and could end up following the same story beats that all others do within that bubble, thereby making your great story just another run-of-the-mill tale that sinks into mediocrity because it doesn’t stand out.
This is a trap I almost fell into myself, as when I started I was very much focused on a particular style and theme for my first few stories. Developing within that bubble was beneficial in terms of learning the basics of storytelling and channelling creativity into something that outputs with structure and sense, but I did not grow as a writer as much as I could have. Fortunately, or perhaps luckily, I stumbled across an idea fairly early on that helped me develop and find my voice as a writer.
Having finished a first draft of a novel and a couple of short stories, I became aware of some common themes within my writing. Very common, if truth be told. I did notice, however, that the two short stories could both loosely fit into separate genres or styles, should I wish to classify them. They didn’t follow the standard rules of those categories, nor did they have any of the traditional tropes or clichés one expects, but they could be defined—if they had to be—as part of them. I decided that to combat the common themes, and broaden my horizons somewhat, I would compile a list of categories that interested me, and then write a short story for each.
I have found that by writing in different styles, and playing with genres, I have developed a stronger voice as an author, and a greater grasp of my own ability to explore character and situation. In a sense, writing in multiple styles has allowed me to find my own, and as a result my writing has naturally settled into its own groove.
The trick to this system is to not follow the rules of the style you are writing in. For example, if I was writing a noir story then I wouldn’t have a hard-boiled detective who is hired to track down a missing girl by a rich-type, who then meets a seductive woman who he falls for and is then double-crossed by, and after some digging (and getting beaten-up at least once) discovers a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the very man who hired him in the first place. That is, after all, exactly what the genre expects. Instead, you switch the roles and change the stereotypes, breaking each and every rule to build something different and new. Why does the detective have to be male? Why is he, or she, even a detective? Perhaps write about a driving instructor who suspects her neighbour is selling counterfeit cigarettes to the parents outside the school gates. There’s a noir story that immediately stands out amongst the others.
I would like you to write out a list of genres, styles, or categories you would like to try writing. It can be as simple as ‘horror; cyberpunk; romance’ or as detailed as ‘set during the wake of a funeral; a coming-of-age story about a young girl in a small town; a story that unfolds in real-time’—the choice is yours. The initial list might be long and full of strange variations on different genres and styles, but after some adjusting you should be able to get it down to ten. That’s ten different categories: genres or styles or variations that you want to test out, in your own way.
By exploring these different genres and styles you can further develop your own skills as a writer, whilst also picking up tricks and ideas that you never thought of.
Don’t Be Predictable
This may sound obvious, but it is absolutely true: do not be predictable. This relates to everything, from character choices to genre, plot-lines to subtext. If what you are writing is obvious to the reader, it will not be satisfying.
Aristotle wrote the earliest dramatic theory that still exists, Poetics, and in it said the following:
Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.Aristotle, Poetics
In other words, your writing needs to lead to events that feel both surprising and inevitable to the reader. You do this through cause and effect, rather than predetermining results. That doesn’t mean you cannot plot out in advance, or that you need to give everything up to chance, but instead you need to understand the application of the two aforementioned rules of fictional settings:
- Every decision has a consequence.
- There are no coincidences.
For example, your character is a lawyer who wants to make a positive change in their community, as that is where they grew up, yet they are proud and stubborn with an arrogant self-belief. This character’s mother turns up, and she is overbearing and embarrassing and meddles in your lawyer’s life. The obvious question to ask is: why is the mother the way they are? Yet, as a writer, you need to think the other way: why is the lawyer the way they are? The mother shaped their child; they should not be a foil for a cheap and obvious set of scenes creating simple conflict. Trace the lawyer back and instead of making the mother a caricature, identify who they really are. What was the community like when the lawyer was growing up and how has it changed since? Did their arrogant self-belief come from an overbearing parent, or an empowering one? Is stubbornness a hereditary trait? What about pride? Why did they choose to become a lawyer? Perhaps, instead of a cliché comedy farce, the mother is a proud and positive woman who is as stubborn as her child, and who made sacrifices so they could grow up and become a lawyer and follow their passions. The stubbornness, then, will be the point of conflict, as both will perhaps disagree about a particular choice and neither will back down; later the party proved wrong will not admit their error due to pride, and a rift is created. There is a story which feels surprising yet inevitable, whereas the meddling mother feels obvious.
Rethink your approach to plotting, to characters, to dialogue, and to every other aspect of the writing process. Make sure your storyline does not read like this:
This happens, then this happens, then this happens.
Instead, your plot should read like this:
This happens, so this happens, so this happens.
Every decision needs to be a consequence of the one before, with no coincidences. Only then will you cease to be predictable.
Add Some Depth
A story is more than a story. Writing is about creating depth, not just telling a simple narrative. Anyone can write the tale of the person who walks a hundred miles to hand-deliver a letter. To tell that story well, however, requires depth through analogy. What does the letter represent to the person? What does the delivery represent? What does walking the journey represent? What would giving-up represent? What does the letter represent to the writer? What does the person represent to the writer? What does the story itself represent to the writer? The only way to find out whether the story will work is to experiment with the answers to these questions, and any other questions you can think about along the way.
When writing a story, pick apart everything that is important, and then start to look at the unimportant. If your character is interested in flowers and notices them often, consider what flowers represent to that character. Then, consider what each type of flower represents. Does the character know different types of flowers? If that is the case, consider selecting flowers to represent the key moments they appear before or during. Brush up on your floriography, then you can add purple hyacinths to the scene where the character is about to experience regret.
Everything is an analogy, but that does not mean you need to spell each analogy out on the page. With the example of delivering the letter, the character does not need to say or even know why the letter means what it does to them: their subconscious connection will come out through their actions. Similarly, the meaning of a purple hyacinth does not need to be described; the flower can simply exist within the scene, foreshadowing the tone through hidden symbolism.
Analogy should be treated with the lightest touch. Think of analogy as hiding codes for other people to decipher. If everyone will get it, it’s too obvious. If no one will get it, you’ve been just about subtle enough.
During this lesson, you should have written down a list of ten categories of stories that you would like to tell. They could be genres, or ideas, or concepts, or styles; it’s your list.
Your assignment for this lesson is to choose one of those categories and write that story. Give yourself a limit of 2,000 words. Make sure that every decision, action, choice, and element of that story is both surprising and inevitable by following the natural consequence of each throughout. As you write, consider the analogies of each character, plot moment, setting, and the story itself. Add as much depth as you can but be subtle.
Mary Brabeck, Jill Jeffrey, Sara Fry, Practice for knowledge acquisition (not drill and kill), American Psychological Association, 16 February 2010
Douglas Hofstadter, Analogy as the Core of Cognition, Stanford Presidential Lectures/MIT Press, 2001
Paul B. Paulus & Mary Dzindolet (2008) Social influence, creativity and innovation, Social Influence, 3:4, 228-247, DOI: 10.1080/15534510802341082
Intasao, N., & Hao, N. (2018). Beliefs About Creativity Influence Creative Performance: The Mediation Effects of Flexibility and Positive Affect. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1810. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01810
John M. Anderson, Linguistic Representation: Structural Analogy and Stratification