Whether it’s a work of fiction, a poem, or the narrative of a soul, good writing pulls the reader into the reality of its words and imprints an experience in the mind’s eye as real as any staged play.
After 30 years of scriptwriting, I’ve found a handful of techniques that can help tell any story.
Establish and maintain a clear voice
In a well-written play, each character has his own speech patterns. Some ramble; some utter grunts. Some use flowery language; others are coarse. If they all sound alike, none feel genuine, and the audience senses a disconnect.
Likewise, our voice — our character, if you will — should not sound like everyone else. We may admire the way another person writes, but if we emulate too closely, we rob readers of diversity and run the risk of presenting only a stale copy.
If we are writing a work that requires more than one voice, we should be careful that no given speaker flips back and forth between sounding like Dr. Spock and Anne of Green Gables. That gets very distracting. Each voice should be distinct and consistent to ensure fluidity and credibility.
This is not to say that a writer cannot be poetic and verbose in one essay, and practical and concise in another. But within a given text or persona, we need to make the voice clear.
Speak in vernacular
Characters on a stage need to convey their personalities through the way they speak, and the more natural the speech is, the more accessible the character. That is partly why plays are not written to sound like chemistry text books.
Depending on the venue, grammar rules can and ought to be flexible. Avoiding split infinitives, for instance, is a rule left over from Latin where infinitives are one word, not two. Is it really going to thoroughly unravel the message if I say I need to quickly run to the store for more eggs? Of course not. And half of you probably didn’t catch the “mistake” anyway. 😉
In casual writing, following stuffy, prescriptive rules, with all those “to whoms” and “with whiches” feels like legalese, not a blog post from a friend.
Intentional disregard for a rule can create a timing or mood effect that enhances the writing. Conscious use of fragments, for example, can direct pacing or add emphasis. And it’s how people talk. (Anyone who has ever had to transcribe candid speech can tell you that. Some sentences contain more switchbacks and drop-offs than a hike in the Gorge.)
A word of caution: “natural” is not the same thing as “sloppy.”
It is a mistake to think that grammatical conventions are unimportant. They provide clarity. A communication world without proper punctuation gets messy and confused very quickly. (You’ve all seen the “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” example, right?)
Thus we need to know the rules of grammar well enough to know when and how we can break them.
Give stage directions
In a script, there are often cues given to the actors as to how they should say their line:
[Sadly], [Hesitating], [While toppling off the desk].
Sometimes we need to tell our readers how to “hear” the lines we are delivering. In casual writing, this usually involves things like bolds, italics, CAPS — em dashes — or ellipses…
These tools, like the tweaks in grammar, aid in a sense of timing or emphasis, which in turn help convey the intended mood.
That said, we can overuse these tools easily. We should write the first draft without all the doodads, and then read it aloud to find out where the natural words of emphasis are.
Are they obvious? Or could someone logically punch up a different word, and thereby change the meaning? If so, add the cue.
But if it is 99% likely that the average reader will interpret the sentence the same way you do, then leave out the markers. It gets too visually busy and pulls away from the import of the words that do receive special font treatment.
Show, don’t tell
Although it is occasionally necessary to have a Narrator explain exposition in a play, that’s usually deemed a cop-out for a script writer. Audiences should ideally be able to pick up on the context from the dialog and action.
A well-placed line can give attentive listeners information about the past and clues about the future. Likewise, we don’t need to say, “This is a story about a youth coming of age blah blah blah…”
We need to paint the story of growth and self-realization through the events and images in our writing. Our readers are smart enough. They’ll figure it out.
We can get our message across without stating and restating the obvious.
Leave ‘em hanging
No playwright wants that 15-minute intermission to turn into an opportunity to slip out the back door.
Well-crafted scripts make sure that questions are left unanswered and conflicts left unresolved at the end of each act so that the audience will keep coming back for more.
When writing, we need to be aware of the adrenaline levels of our readers. Are they up? Are they metaphorically on the edge of their seats, wanting more? Good. Time to end the chapter.
Because then they have to start the next one… just to see what happens next, of course. And then they’re hooked for the next umpteen pages because no one wants to put the book down in the middle of a chapter. It isn’t right.
Every writer wants to hear,
It was a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down!
So don’t let them put it down. Except sometimes you really ought to. One can have too much of a good thing. There are times when you should grant a degree of resolution, a glimmer of understanding, a moment of rest.
But always with the feeling that there is more to come. Even when there isn’t.
What writing lessons have you learned to make a story better? Share in the comments.