Part of the purpose of Stories in Media is to not only explore what stories work well in various media but to explore how writers can implement the base principles into their own work. Writing a good story is a robust process. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few key tips to follow that will help you create a better narrative and an engaged audience.
4 Keys to Better Writing
We currently live in an era when some of the best characterization of all time is happening on television. Characters used to be mere conduits for the larger plot, interesting but often two dimensional individuals who existed more to spout exposition than exist in their own right.
Today, that is no longer the case. Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica), John Locke (Lost), and Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) all represent diverse individuals from a range of genres that exist separate the overarching narrative. These people deal with internal struggles that captivate the audience even when something larger isn’t being dealt with.
The modern writer has to contend in an era when characterization is king. If your character were taken out of the context of the larger plot, would they still be able to exist? Would they be able to engage the audience? Characterization requires the author to pay attention to a character’s mannerisms, their way of speaking, and their way of reacting to the world around them.
Consistency in all three respects will help you create characters that are distinct form one another and who can engage in lively discussion. When things aren’t exploding or large plot points aren’t being expounded, the back and forth between good characters will be the backbone of your writing.
When we refer to mystery, it’s important not to assume that we’re talking about LOST or Battlestar Galactica style mysteries. Instead, a book’s mystery is in the unknown that surrounds how conflicts will be resolved. Bad writing projects the solution to its conflicts too early. A good writer knows the value of keeping the solution a secret until the last minute.
For instance, it may be clear to the audience that a group needs to make its way down a mountain before a raging storm hits. In theory, the solution is simple: keep walking. It’s the small things that begin to crop up that present the mystery, that make the audience wonder how any of this will ever get solved.
What if one person becomes injured? What if another weakens due to lack of oxygen? What if some make it down while others wait to be rescued? What if personality conflicts lead to lengthy debates, prolonging the descent until the storm is already overhead? A multitude of small problems create larger ones, resulting in the audience wondering what will happen next. The mysteries we discuss in shows like LOST are only the most obvious types of mysteries and force audiences to ask themselves why are things happening, rather than how things will get resolved.
3. Attention Grabbing
As previously noted, Daredevil is a great lesson in how to grab attention. Action based narratives have the luxury of opening with action based scenes, while non-action narratives must still present conflicts, if even of the personality or plot-based kind. Important to all stories is the need to grab attention quickly by hinting at what the larger struggle will be and encapsulating that in an opening scene.
Daredevil, for instance, deals with the superhero’s struggle against criminal elements around Hell’s Kitchen. As such, his opening scenes involve battles against sex traffickers. A show like 30 Rock requires a completely different approach. In 30 Rock, Liz Lemon’s series long struggle will be to maintain creative control and battle back against the instincts of her corporate boss, Jack Donaghy.
30 Rock deals with this by immediately opening with Lemon’s television show, introducing Jack as the new boss, and presenting the conflict in the form of Tracy Jordan. Jack orders Liz to hire Jordan, a loose cannon who is unwilling to play nicely with Liz’s creative demands. This immediately presents a three-way struggle for creative control that will define the run of the series.
Regardless of the type of material you’re writing, it’s important to present the central conflict early. You don’t need to lay it out explicitly, but you should write a scene that, if taken apart from the rest of the narrative, would demonstrate a struggle that typifies the rest of your work.
Many writers forget to let their characters breathe. No matter whether you’re writing an action or a comedy, it’s important to give your characters breaks in between the major conflicts to simply exist alongside one another. They may discuss that conflict, they may discuss their reactions to that conflict, or they may discuss a subplot occurring in your narrative, but giving your characters a break from the larger action is important for your audience.
In writing, as in music, it’s important not to get carried away by hitting the high beats all the time. Songs are broken into verses and a chorus, with the chorus often being the highlight of the track. However, if the song was only the chorus, the song would burn out. Music requires a tempo that switches between the more laid back verses and the more intense chorus sections.
It’s the same in writing. A book about war that is only about the fighting will burn itself out. There needs to be time for the characters to engage with one another, or at least engage with themselves in their own inner thoughts. Writers should create sufficiently strong characters that they can stop and exist without needing heavy hitting moments of the plot to carry them. If your characters can’t, it’s time to consider rewriting those characters so they can exist independently.
While these are only four general tips to writing, they can be considered an introduction to writing better. These are guidelines, but they’re important ones that any writer should play with. Rules can be broken, but it’s important to at least be familiar with them before you start trying to break them. Watch for more in-depth discussion of these concepts in the future.