The Great Whodini

I have a friend who is sort of like an oracle of writing advice. It seems like any time we are having writing conversation, he pops out some real gems. Last time I was talking to him, I took notes, so here is a combination of my own contributions and thoughts with his excellent, random nuggets of writer wisdom.

  • Along the vein of “Show, don’t tell,” (which is and always will be great advice,) whenever you see an adjective not referring to a real object, find some other way of describing it. Feelings often fall under this category. Instead of saying “Sam is sad,” or even “Sam’s eyes welled up with tears,” put Sam in a misty, blue setting with a trickling rain and then bring a tear to his eye.
  • Consider having your protagonist “save a cat from a tree” in the first few pages of your story. It’s old advice, but having the character do something unselfish and risky can establish a positive feeling about the character before we have too many restrictions about what we, as the reader, will believe about him/her. I did this, sort of, in my first novel. In the first three paragraphs, Mikhail (the male counterpart) is scraping roadkill from the street and burying it. We get it: he’s a compassionate guy. (Whereas my main lead, Gaby, was shown being particularly normal in the first few paragraphs, and strongly rooted in her family. Different goals, I guess.) This works especially well when we are going to see lots of the character’s more trying characteristics over time.
  • Beware the Predisposition. Alright, this is my advice, and I’ve been harping on it for over fifteen years. Just realize, and make yourself pay attention to the fact, that once you hear or read or write a word–especially a particularly memorable one–you are likely going to use it again, and soon. Like Harry Potter and “panting.” Or Rowling’s other book and “stocky legs.” Those are repeats that will distract a reader. Stocky legs.
  • If you are at point in the narrative where you think your reader may be confused, make one of your characters just as confused and have another character explain it to him/her. So obvious, right?
  • Think of the start of your story as the window in. Think of the ending as the bookend.
  • “Pick things that imply things.” This is something I do all the time, but have never put so succinctly. Sort of like in the example above, rain is not simply rain. There are connotations and relationships with every word we choose, and you can pick loaded ones as long as you understand them. I think this is part of writing which comes so intuitively to some (and I hope, to me). Rain can imply sadness or mellowness, it can imply newness or birth, it can imply an answer to “Why is Sara staying inside on this particular day?” And you thought it was just a setting description. It also really helps with keeping descriptions short, like choosing blue eyes and crow’s feet to describe someone (all-American, advanced age) or that he is carrying around a folder of headshots and a Sharpie (he is clearly confident, maybe cocky and deluded).

Thanks to the Great Whodini. Pretty sure he’ll be showing up again.

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