I’ve written more posts here than I can even imagine about writing and prose style and editing rules. These often take a “negative” approach: don’t use excessive adverbs, don’t use passive voice, don’t tell, and so on.
Here are some of the things I actually do that I think make good writing strategies. I hesitate to use the term “technique” because these are more like big picture writing strategies than writing technique.
1. Forecast the Payoff as Early as Possible
The thing that makes fiction have emotional resonance comes from something usually called the “payoff.” There aren’t good definitions of what this means. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” type of things.
One way to create a payoff is for a character to overcome a deep flaw. If they’ve been struggling against it for the whole novel, then that will create a more satisfying payoff than if the character just overcomes a recent defect randomly.
In fact, a payoff can almost be seen as the opposite of a deus ex machina. Recall that a deus ex machina is when something appears in the story to resolve a problem that has no earlier context (originally it meant a god literally showed up out of nowhere to fix it).
There are three main ways to execute this writing strategy.
- Show the flaw early.
- Give the information that will solve the problem early.
- Make the valuable object appear early.
Most common character arcs have a character overcoming a flaw. They grow and learn. You’ll usually want to demonstrate that this flaw actually harms someone (while making sure the character is still sympathetic).
This plants a seed for the payoff later.
The second one looks like it would only apply to things like mysteries, but that’s not the case. Even in romances, you’ll need a way for one character to overcome the barrier by demonstrating their love.
This “proof of love” is usually the love interest showing they paid attention to some little detail. This is information that solves a problem to create a payoff.
The third is really common in a certain type of TV show. The perpetrator of the crime or alien plant or whatever is shown early on (I’m thinking of Star Trek or Eureka or The Librarians or any serialized crime or science fiction show).
Once you catch on to the formula, it’s a bit obvious. They’ll show you the suspected cause. This is a distraction to make you miss the real cause shown to you just before or after it.
Then at the reveal, you think: oh, I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was that all along!
There are a lot of potential problems with this writing strategy. First, you don’t want to foreshadow too much. This will spoil the ending and make the payoff worse.
This means you’ll want to be subtle about it.
But that can lead to the other problem. If you’re too subtle, no one will realize it was introduced earlier. Foreshadowing that is too obscure can make the payoff read as a deus ex machina.
I’ll end this one by reminding you of Chekhov’s gun. This is standard writing advice these days, but it’s related to the payoff issue.
Make sure you do not accidentally create expected payoffs that never manifest. I’ve too often seen new writers get obsessed with “showing” every detail in order to “not tell” only to give too much weight to something unimportant.
For example, don’t spend two paragraphs describing a vase where the main character wonders if it’s magical if that vase is unimportant.
Show; don’t tell—but be judicious about the details you choose. Pretty much everything should be put in a scene for a purpose.
Many times writers hear that they don’t have a satisfying book, but the readers can’t articulate why. The reason tends to be that the payoff wasn’t forecasted early enough or strong enough.
2. Understand Where the Tension is Coming From
Most people understand the standard form of a novel. There’s rising tension until the climax followed by a denouement.
A lot of new writers don’t realize that most scenes need this same structure, too. Scenes are boring without some sort of tension, and you’ll lose your readers if you have too many early scenes that only act as setup.
Readers tend to say a few different things that will indicate this problem in your writing:
- The story didn’t grab me.
- I lost interest.
- It was boring.
It’s easy to think your “hook” isn’t good enough in these situations, but it’s likely not the big picture causing the problem.
You’ll want to find the exact scenes where the reader got bored and then ask yourself: what is the tension in this scene?
Don’t underestimate the importance of this. It doesn’t only apply to super fast-paced thrillers or suspense novels.
I’ll use To Kill a Mockingbird as an example since I just read it for my Year of Required Reading.
That book is absolutely not a thriller or suspense novel. It’s not even “commercial fiction” in the traditional sense. Yet, I bet you can find a key source of tension in almost every scene.
Even when the kids are just playing without a care in the world, there’s the lurking tension of the Boo Radley house.
It’s quite hard to do this well, especially if you’ve written a scene that’s supposed to be “informational.” The story grid method gives some good ways to think about it.
You can think about key traits of the characters involved. Do any of these clash? If so, play those up a bit more. Is there hidden information or something unknown? Draw attention to it.
Is there a tone shift happening from the start of the scene to the end? Try to pinpoint what causes this shift and edit the scene with this in mind rather than the information.
“Information dumps” are considered bad, but I think they can be okay if they are done using a scene that still drives forward through tension. They’re only bad when they stop the momentum of the novel.
Don’t just use language and description to indicate the tension; actually make the stakes known and understood to the reader. This is one of the reasons fight scenes can be boring to read.
It doesn’t matter if the main character feels the tension. The reader needs to feel it, and just telling the reader to feel it isn’t good enough.
In fact, one of the best ways to create tension is for the main character to not be aware of some danger or trap but the reader is.
I’ve been reading Foundryside, and I think this is one of its biggest flaws. There’s a lot of description about the character feeling the difficulties, but the stakes, tension, and challenges are never clear to the reader.
3. Know Your Purpose
A common phrase writers are told is “know your audience.” This is so commonplace that there’s usually not much pushback.
It’s pretty obvious that a book intended for a 12-year-old is going to be written differently from a book written for the Pulitzer Prize committee.
I’m going to incorporate audience into this broader category of “purpose.”
Here are some common reasons for writing a book:
- You’ve always wanted to write a book.
- You want to sell as many copies as possible.
- You want to entertain people.
- You want to explore a unique concept you had.
- You want to win literary awards.
The list is endless, and it’s pretty clear you’ll be making very different decisions depending on the core purpose.
I always make a “purpose sheet” when I start a new book. I physically write down the purpose, the genre, the core values at stake, the core theme, the main conflict, the audience, etc.
Being clear about these things is much more important than it first looks.
How to Use
I don’t care how many books you’ve written, you’ll probably get stuck at some point. One of the best things to get going again is to look at your purpose.
It serves as both motivation and guidance for what types of scenes should occur.
This is why every successful business has a core mission statement. If every choice you make consistently aligns with your purpose, then you’ll be writing the best book you can.
As soon as you start adding themes or characters or plot elements that don’t align with your purpose, you’ll get a disorganized, confusing mess.
This is why first novels are often bad. You can’t cram everything you’ve ever thought of in a novel.
Experienced novelists stick to their core purpose, and this is how great authors get the compliment of a “tightly constructed” novel.
They trust their purpose and don’t stray. It takes a lot of maturity and restraint to do this, but the results speak for themselves.
How Not to Use
I know I’m going to get pushback on this one, so let me point out what this is not.
I’m not saying to pick a theme and make a preachy novel that keeps pushing this in every scene.
In fact, one of the best ways to let your theme emerge with the appropriate amount of subtlety is to never be overt about it while consistently making decisions that keep the theme in mind.
You can also have a lot of subsidiary elements. Maybe the novel is cross-genre or it’s an action thriller with some deep philosophical moments.
These can be done, but it’s important to have one or two purposes stick out as the most important. This way you have a clear way to make decisions and choices as they come up.
Your novel can’t be all things to all people. When you try to make several things be equally important, it will often come off as a hodge-podge mess.
It’s usually an accident when a novel achieves more than one thing.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle became a bestseller, but he couldn’t have written that novel with this as its purpose or it would have been an unsuccessful flop in all ways.
These are just three of many writing strategies I use in writing a novel. I might do some more if people like it.
As usual, hopefully, this finds someone and helps them. If you disagree, feel free to disregard it. Everyone’s process is different.