NUMBER ONE: FLOW
A story is a living thing. Our goal should be to serve it and do what it wants, to be its instrument. Its flow from our imagination to the page is impeded in two main ways—if we try to make the story do something that it doesn’t want to do, or if something in us isn’t ready to face the full implications of the story’s theme and emotions. Avoiding those blocks requires developing a relationship with the story, as if it were a person. At the start of each writing session, especially if I’m having trouble moving a scene forward, I literally ask the story, “What do you want to do? Where do you want me to go with you? Why are you stalling?” This is a psychological trick that almost always creates an imagined response, along the lines of “This scene is boring. Why are you making me do it?” or “This scene is full of gimmicks. Why aren’t you being honest with me?” The device takes only a minute. It’s part of my ritual, and over the years, it saved me from writing a lot of scenes that were either unnecessary or else dishonest.
NUMBER TWO: INSPIRATION
In my writing classes, I devote a session to daydreams, which are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. After one of my presentations, a puzzled member of the audience raised his hand and asked what a daydream was. Others were surprised, but I wasn’t. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as a distraction and a waste of time. Fiction writers, however, tend to have plenty of daydreams, and they should not only welcome those daydreams but train themselves to be aware of them. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination (i.e. our subconscious) wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is, but often we push away those daydreams that make us uncomfortable when we should actually embrace them. The core of most of my novels came from daydreams.
NUMBER THREE: CLARITY
The great film director, Billy Wilder, was once asked if he liked subtlety in a story. He answered, “Yes. Subtlety is good—as long as it’s obvious.” The same thing can be said about complexity and simplicity. Some stories are so complex that it’s frustratingly impossible to understand them. But other stories (like Wuthering Heights or Bleak House) are complex in a way that we don’t find difficult to understand and that we actually find enjoyable because of the complexity. Conversely, Hemingway’s famous simple style is in fact very complex. What really matters is whether something is clear. Each day, as I revise the pages from my prior writing session, I take a few minutes to ask myself, “Is this clear? Will the reader understand it?” Don’t be afraid to deal with a complex topic in a complex way, using multiple viewpoints and the like, but always keep in mind that clarity will make you the reader’s friend.
NUMBER FOUR: PACE
William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is about screenwriting, but much of that wonderful book can also be applied to fiction. Goldman says that in his screenplays he tries to get into each scene as late as possible and to get out of the scene as early as possible. Faulty pace in a novel can be corrected, using his advice. Unless you’re writing an imitation of a nineteenth-century novel, there isn’t any need to begin scenes with the laborious process of introducing those scenes and explaining how characters arrived there. (“He woke up that morning, drank two cups of coffee to subdue his hangover, and took a taxi to his lawyer’s, arriving a half-hour late.”) This is dull telling. Chances are that the interesting part of this scene begins just after the introduction. Similarly, many writers tend to put an empty paragraph at the end of a scene. When revising, I take a minute to experiment by cutting the first and last paragraph of each scene. Suddenly, a sequence that dragged can become speedy. Arrive late in a scene and leave early. The reader will fill the gaps.
NUMBER FIVE: EVOKING EMOTION
Hemingway spoke about a story’s “sequence of motion and fact.” James M. Cain discussed “the algebra of storytelling: a + b + c+ d= x.” What they meant was a sequence of incidents in a story that, if arranged correctly and dramatized vividly, will create a stimulus that compels the reader to feel whatever emotion the author is trying to create. Talking about emotions won’t compel a reader to feel those emotions. “He felt sad” won ‘t make a reader feel sad. Instead, the reader must be made to feel the situations in the story, to experience what the characters experience, and as a result, just as a sequence creates emotion in the characters, it will also do the same in the reader. This is a case of stimulus-response. Writers can achieve this effect if they take the sense of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, thus creating scenes that are multi-dimensional. (Details of sight almost always create a flat effect.) When revising, I always take a minute to make sure that each scene has at least two sense details besides those based on sight. In this way, the reader becomes immersed in the story, feeling it rather than being told about it.
(These writing tips from David originally appeared as “Five Ways To Improve Your Writing in Thirty Minutes a Day” in Writer’s Digest, February, 2011. You’ll find many similar helpful strategies in David’s writing book, The Successful Novelist.)