Our lives contain an abundance of indelible experiences, but a good memoir isn’t just about us—it’s about illuminating a facet of our shared humanity.
To convey a sense of immediacy, nothing beats the present tense. But for readers to want to stay in that moment, your scenes must be suspenseful and compelling.
The point of fiction is to make believers out of us. Small details provide authenticity, making an invented world feel real enough to invest in emotionally.
To convey a scene clearly, your narrator must experience it clearly—from a specific, well-defined perspective rather than a vague, general one.
Used judiciously, metaphors and similes can help readers see more clearly. Overuse, or ones that seem forced, can draw attention away from the story and onto your writing.
In a story that straddles multiple genres or narrators, they can’t all have equal weight. Avoid confusion by making one dominant and others subordinate.
To write in plural perspective—articulating the inner thoughts of a group—ensure you’re also giving enough personal expression to your narrator.
Mastering POV—a particular sensibility operating from a specific vantage point—can make the difference between bland and vivid storytelling.
Even a trivial detail can justify its place in your first sentence, so long as it achieves every sentence’s ideal goal: rendering a distinct character.
Who, what, when, where, why and how: An effective opening doesn’t necessarily address them all, but presents the best ones to serve the reader on a particular journey.
Rule No. 1 for flashbacks: until and unless you’ve invested us in a scene, don’t flash back (or away) from it! The point of a flashback is to illuminate the scene from which it digresses, to add dimension and tension to it.
A problem with fictional dreams is that they ask us to invest emotionally in an experience only to have that investment rendered null and void when the experience turns out not to have been real.
Writing about addiction is tricky business. While most stories have a single protagonist, addiction narratives are usually about two people: the addict deep in the throes of their addiction, and the recovered narrator looking back objectively on the experience.
Now and then my students and I broach the unavoidable question: What makes a work of art? The question can be stood on its head: What makes art work? They’re the same question, really, with (to me, anyway) the same answer: a true work of art is something that doesn’t merely elicit our emotions. It confronts us with emotions that don’t quite fit into any of our ready-made boxes.
The only stories that matter are those we inhabit personally, not just with our minds, but through our senses. Remember: the fiction writer’s job (or that of any storyteller) isn’t to report experience, but to create it. And experience is processed in the mind by way of the senses.
If you’re determined to transition readers quickly through various scenes occurring at discordant times, skillful handling of tenses, and particularly of the no-longer-taught past perfect or pluperfect tense, becomes vital.
Some story openings happen to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Those not charitably inclined will call it “throat clearing.” However it’s characterized, throat clearing should be cut. It’s there for the author, not for the reader.
Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed.
Sometimes everything we need for our story openings is there, more than we need, in fact. It’s just a matter of cutting and rearranging.
With modifiers, you want to choose your battles. Just because every noun offers itself up for modification(s) doesn’t mean you should modify it. Think of adjectives as ketchup or hot sauce; put it on everything and it quickly wears out its welcome.
“True” suspense raises the question, “What’s going to happen next?” It arises organically and authentically from characters and their actions as conveyed to us through a firmly established, consistent viewpoint. “False suspense” is generated by an author who, intentionally or otherwise, withholds information.
Telling readers what to think or feel is the job of a propagandist. A storyteller’s main purpose, on the other hand, is to create experiences for the reader, to involve us so deeply, so convincingly, so authentically in those experiences that we feel what characters feel.
Routine is important. Without routine the extraordinary events that make for a plot have nothing to work against or to set them into relief. But that routine also needs to evoke character to make us feel something.
As writers, we’re always either setting up some moment or scene, or paying it off. Since scenes are the building blocks of narrative, we should always be writing scenes.
Literary fiction’s subsumption by other genres and vice-versa has become so pervasive one must wonder what distinction if any can still be claimed by “pure” literary fiction beyond pretentiousness.
One reason behind the supremacy of the writing rule “Show, don’t tell” is that telling is, frankly, harder. To gain and hold a reader’s attention through action and dialogue is one thing. To do so through exposition is another.
To those who may object that the mere fact of two opposite-sexed people sharing the first scene of a novel (and a cockpit) doesn’t—necessarily—imply a romantic future between them, all I can say is … yes, it does.
I have had mixed feelings about ghost narrators. As narrative sleights-of-hand go, it strikes me as a little too easy, a bit too glib. It also requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics.
When we read about routines in fiction, or in any kind of story, most if not all the pleasure we get from the experience derives from our anticipation of seeing the routine shattered, or, at the very least, disrupted.
In most works of fiction, either a character’s status-quo condition of discontent is challenged when opportunity presents itself — or — a character’s status-quo condition of contentment meets with an obstacle.
Among a novelist’s chief challenges is that of determining what information to supply when and where: how to balance the desire to arouse suspense with the need to prevent confusion.
While there are seven deadly first-page sins I commonly encounter, there is one that’s most deadly of all: default omniscience. No point of view = no story.