Three Points about Story Craft


Writing a story takes skill, time, and work ethic. Here are three strategies to apply to your work in progress.

  1. Write

Wait – isn’t this a blog about how to write? So what’s the deal with advising I must write if you aren’t going to tell me how to do so?

We all dream. I dream of winning the Olympics, in figure skating. I take the ice and complete the first five-turn salchow double-lutz back flip camel. Then I stand at the podium and beam through my victory tears as The Star Spangled Banner plays and I’m jeweled with the gold medallion. My friends who read this tumble off their chairs, laughing and hold their bellies as they imagine this fat old body out there on the ice, wearing not much more than a sheath of glitter (painful sight, that), twirling around on skates until my tush meets the ice – for the tenth time in twelve seconds. Yes, I dream of skating, though I can’t. But I write, and so must you.

Everything you write is an opportunity to practice your writing skills. Emails to your faves, reminder notes to your spouse, business reports for the boss, you write all the time. If your computer isn’t open to the rough draft of your latest tome, but is open nonetheless, you might be writing. Write the most dramatic, funniest, pithiest, compelling, mesmerizing sentences you can. Even if you are only telling your no-longer-BFF to pith off. Write and always write well. Better yet, turn the blank page into words, paragraphs, images, characters, plot, into the story that keeps you up at night, making that blinding white page active with black letters. Millions of them. Because if you can’t sleep you might as well write. And if your story doesn’t keep you up at night, how do you expect your reader to be too excited to sleep?

A writer writes.

  1. Put on your briefs

It’s cold out there. Writing is not about finding the longest way to say something but about finding the most memorable. You’ve done well if your fans walk around quoting you. They savor your story as they repeat it. They also promote it to your next reader. Isn’t that cool?

Remember when you were in fifth grade and your teacher told you to write a story with as many adjectives and adverbs as possible? That was terrible advice from someone who wanted to make certain you learned a vocabulary list. How many of those convoluted sentences do you walk around repeating because of their sustaining emotional impact? You might just as well open a big dictionary, list all the impressive words, and call that your book.

Get briefer. This is a tip for the well advanced story, the one that’s complete and awaiting (more) editing. Length does not equal quality. Edit by excising. Eliminate all the filler words that contribute nothing to your story. Very, good, nice, big, little, pretty, ugly, that, (all the extra “thats” that simply stuff a sentence,) bad, lots, many are among the blah words that say pretty much nothing at all. They lack pungency.

Saying the same thing over and over and over and over is, well, unnecessary. Repetitive sentences and paragraphs bore readers. Trust that your readers are bright, introspective, and have decent memories. They draw conclusions and recall most of what’s important in your story. Remove the chaff and let it blow away. It was garbage no one could swallow anyway. What remains will be powerful and gripping.

Get rid of the words that say nothing of merit, dump the sections you’ve written previously.

  1. Write from the stage, not the balcony

Put your characters in the thick of the story, not at the beginning of the history of mankind. (Though that could be a great book also.) Get up on stage into the active part of the plot. Don’t sit back in your chair and type sentences distant from the scene. Too far distant from the interesting moments, too far away from the characters to see their warts, and the audience will wonder when they’ll get anything worthwhile. If you haven’t been to Medieval England in the court of the king, close your eyes and imagine it. (Also crucial: research it.) Now tighten your cloak, pick up the sword, and seek the knave who’s stolen your beloved. Walk with your characters, speak through their souls, leap their mountains, weep their tears. Don’t tell us the black knight got his due. Hang the bastard.

You must be in the middle of your own plot to report it believably. If you can’t convince your reader you’re right there, how can you convince them they are? If you can’t draw your reader into an exciting, intriguing, mysterious section they want to know about, why should they bother being stuck with your book? And if they’re not in the thick of your story, they might as well be shopping at the mall. That’s something they can believe in.

Get into the center of your story where it’s interesting. This is where your story must begin even if the motivation began generations past. Trash the boring stuff. If a few background details are truly important, find a way to sneak them into the narrative, conversation, or internal dialogue of your characters.

Start where the action made you shout, where the characters made you cheer.

Now, go write, Wordsmith.

Some dude’s thoughts on editing and presentation

not-so-famous philosopher

One day, some six years ago, I discussed with a colleague how I felt I wasted two weeks of effort preparing for a brief 10-minute work-related presentation.  Although the presentation was largely successful as I managed to distill the explanation of a somewhat complicated topic down to the bare essentials, I just couldn’t shake the guilt of expending nearly the two preceding weeks crafting and revising just five Microsoft PowerPoint slides as backup material.

My colleague, however, wasn’t surprised and then statedhe once read, “It takes one hour of preparation for each minute of presentation time”.

According to various Internet searches, that quote is attributed to an 18th century American philosopher named Wayne Burgraff, though personally I can’t validate the existence of the gentleman.

Who knows, maybe the guy was just a quick-witted slouch caught loafing on the job?  Perhaps he spouted the statement as a last-ditch effort to save his job?  You never know what fallacies lay in the depths of the Internet.  In any event, I extend my sincere apologies for my naivety to those of you who may revere the philosophies of said Mr. Burgraff.

It wasn’t until this week that I remembered the discussion with my colleague.  It happened when I was in my second hour of editing the draft of a one-paragraph poem, judging myself for how much time I spent near midnight arranging and re-arranging just thirty words.

I then took a step back and thought to myself, Readers don’t care how much time it took you to write a story or poem.  They’re going to judge the final piece.  It’s going to take as long as it will take to get it right.  And I don’t mean grammatically correct… but right.  Edit until you’re happy with the result; there’s no magic formula.