Monday

The Lazy Way To Be A Great Writer

Guest Post By Dr. John Yeoman

Have you ever yearned for just one simple formula that will help your stories glow with magic and resonate with depth?

If everybody knew the secret, everyone would be a best-selling author - or rather, nobody would, because the formula would be a cliché. So it’s important that only you and I know this. Will you give me your solemn word that you will tell no one what I am about to reveal?

I can see your eyes narrow. Your lips are widening in a sceptical smile. What, you don’t trust me? I feel intensely hurt. After all, I don’t have to tell you. I’m simply trying to pass on to you, in good faith, what I have learned from judging more than 3000 entries at my Writers’ Village story contest these past three years.

How come some won cash prizes and others didn’t? Why did many hundreds of stories, otherwise excellent in their craft techniques, fail by a whisker?

The secret is worth the wait.

Trust me, I speak from 42 years of pain as a commercial writer. Yet you’re still not sure about me, are you? I can see you leaning back in your chair, fidgeting. I can almost hear you thinking: ‘Will my ‘secret’ be all puff, no punch line?’

And have you read the secret before?

Of course, you have. The ‘secret’ was in the structure of my last three paragraphs. And you’ve just read those paragraphs!

Please let me explain. A competent story might include sparkling dialogue, strong conflict, well chosen words, firm structure and a satisfying close. Yet still it can fail. Why? It lacks depth. The reader is not emotionally engaged in the ‘hypotext’.

Sometimes called a subtext, the hypotext is the story beneath the story. It’s what’s going on, privately, in the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

A simple formula

A passage with hypotext classically has three steps:

1.    What is spoken or done (Dialogue or Action)
2.    How the key character in the scene thinks and feels about that (their immediate Response)
3.    What other characters think and feel about it at the time.

A competent author will have no trouble with steps one and two. For example:

‘“You’re wrong!” I said. Was I about to be charged with murder? I felt my mouth go dry.’

The narrator’s words have been dramatised by body language, reflection and emotional response. That’s fine, so far as it goes. However, few authors segue into step three: show how other characters in the scene are responding to that incident.

‘“I don’t think so.” Riley leaned forward, thrusting his grubby face within an inch of mine. His breath was a stewpot of garlic. “You left your fingerprints everywhere.”

The rookie behind him opened his mouth, startled. He looked at Riley then silently shook his head at me. My mind went cold.’

That may not be great writing but it has depth. Now we can feel the interplay of emotions in that room and know or suspect every character’s unspoken thoughts, the hypotext behind the surface narrative.

Read any good story that emotionally engages you and it will be underpinned by some variation of that formula. The better the writer, the more creatively they hide it. (Any passage of dialogue by Kathy Reichs is a master class in creative hypotext.)

Use the formula with any point of view (pov)

If your story uses an omniscient narrator, you can dart in and out of your characters’ minds at will. (That said, you might want to conceal their thoughts at times or deliberately mislead the reader.) Then the 3-step formula is a snap:

Action or Dialogue|Emotional Response of Key Character|Emotional Responses of Other Characters

But what if you’re telling the tale from a first-person pov? How can the key character - or reader - plausibly know what another character is thinking? No problem. Let them speculate.

‘Detective Riley was due to retire soon, I’d heard. It would crown his career to lock me away. His eyes gleamed like a cat playing with a sparrow. I was innocent. He knew it. And he didn’t care.’

Or the reader can draw inferences from a character’s actions or body language.

‘Riley lumbered to the window, turned his back on me and gazed at the Denver skyscape with every appearance of contentment. His body shook. He was laughing.’

Keep that 3-step process going throughout your story and the reader will be emotionally engaged whether or not they like your characters. They will feel the emotional tensions in every scene as if they were physically present. And your story will acquire depth.

That’s all there is to it. Truly. Just don’t tell anyone...

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:
http://www.writers-village.org/mini-course

Abstract

The article reveals a simple 3-step process that can add instant depth to any scene. While most competent authors know the first two steps, very few understand step 3 - the secret that can turn a mediocre story into a great one.

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4 comments:

widdershins said...

I've read a lot of what John has to say; it's rather brilliant, and this is no exception ... but no matter what the 'trick' or shortcut, or 'one-true-way', there's no 'lazy' way to become a writer, great or otherwise.
We have one of the longest apprenticeships of any profession, in just about the entire history of professions (OK, a slight exaggeration - but you know what I mean)
I know, the title is eye-and attention-grabbing, that's what it's supposed to be ... someone will read the post and work the system John has outlined and with a lot of work, may write something great ... and someone else will try it and go, "what the .."
... and that's my point. There isn't 'just one simple formula' to great, or mediocre, writing.
You ever wonder why Great Aunt Mabel says, “Anyone can write a book!”? Or Uncle George scoffs when you tell him you're a writer, and tells you to get a real 'job'?
In part, its the wording of articles like this. If it’s easy then anyone can easily do it.
I’m not knocking the techniques John suggests, and generously shares, just questioning the gung-ho delivery.

Karen Cioffi said...

Widder, Great point.

Anything is easy if you already know what you're doing. But, that's with any field.

Those who have a bit of knowledge realize there is no short-cut. We writers are always working on our craft.

I agree the title is a bit hype. A more relevant title might have worked better - giving a better picture of what's to come in the article.

The only other apprenticeship as long as, if not longer than, writing is book marketing. And, in that, the strategies can change overnight. :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Dr John Yeoman said...

True, I used the word 'lazy' with my tongue right through my cheek. It's somewhat Pavlovian, like those Readers Digest titles: 'A Simple Way to Increase Your Word Power'. We know it's not simple at all!

In fact, I'm a firm believer in the seven year apprenticeship scheme of the medieval craft guilds. It takes at least seven years, in my belief, to master any profession and writing is no exception.

That said, one of the professional skills of creative writing is to craft a title that catches people's eye - and draws a response. I hope I achieved that, if nothing else!

Karen Cioffi said...

Hi, John,

Glad you stopped by. I actually like the sound of 7 years to master a subject better than the 10,000 hour rule. :)

As a marketer I know the importance of a 'grabbing' title. I think you did well with that. I like the title because every writer knows there is no lazy way to learn the craft of writing.

But, attending MarketingExperiments webinars, they emphasize the importance of delivering on what you promise.

It becomes kind of a catch-22. You need to grab the reader, but you also need to deliver on what you promise.

I've used the same tactics: Easy to follow instructions; 5 Simple Steps to . . .

We just can't catch a break. What else will they add to a writer's marketing strategies 'must dos.'