Making your stories better

(Taken from my How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded My Maths Class and Turned Me Into a Writer ... and How You Can Be One Too, Harper Collins, July 1998)

How to avoid moth-eaten ideas

Have you ever had a second-hand jumper? OK — second-hand clothes are always just a little bit faded — and the more they’re used the more faded they become.

Second-hand ideas are like that as well. If you base a story on something you’ve seen on TV or a book you’ve read, it’ll always be just a bit faded too — no matter how bright and exciting the original was. It’s the same with second-hand images — if someone says to you ‘it was as hot as hell yesterday’ you don’t cringe away in terror. Except you should — after all, it’s a horrifying image if you really think about it — heat like the fires of hell, so great your flesh is melting off your bones ... but the point is you don’t think about it because you’ve heard it so many times before.

The first person who heard that expression probably was shocked ... but now it’s not just second- hand, it’s millionth-hand — and it’s faded. Very faded. It just doesn’t mean much any more.

So what can you say instead? OK — what do you know that’s hot? Chips sizzling in the frying pan, bitumen that oozes through your toes, the car roof so sun-baked you can fry an egg on it? (Do not try this at home — I know a kid who did and the stain’s still there five years later.)

And if you want an original character — one that hasn’t mooched out of a book or movie ... well, that’s why you need to learn to make compost. But that’s another story.

How I make my stories fat

If an alien from Alpha Centauri were travelling over the earth right now and looked through my window at me at the computer, then looked through your window at you — what would they say is the main difference between me and you?

OK, I’m an adult and you’re a kid — but maybe aliens think that young humans are really caterpillars and we don’t get two legs till we’re older.  The alien might notice that I have brown hair and green eyes (I don’t know what colour your eyes and hair are), or that I’m dressed differently (I bet you’re not wearing a skirt with flour smudges, a T-shirt with blackberry stains down the front and bare feet) or that I’ve got a scar on my left hand where a wombat bit me. I’m not sure how observant aliens are.

But there’s one thing the alien would notice straightaway ...

I’m fatter than you are — and my stories are much, much fatter than your stories.

If you want to write good stories you need to make them fat. Skinny stories are no use at all. Everyone writes skinny stories when they start writing — you get an idea between your teeth and run with it as fast as you can till the end because you want to finish as fast as you can — because it’s exciting, because it’s interesting or just because the sooner you get the blasted thing written you can go and do something else.

So you’re writing skinny stories.

A skinny story is like saying: ... and then the dragon ate the knight and all that was left was his armour and his bones.

That’s a really skinny story — and it’s boring because it’s skinny.  Instead of saying ... and then the dragon ate the knight and all that was left was his armour and his bones you need to tell the reader ...

What did it feel like inside the knight’s armour? What could he see? What did the dragon’s breath smell like?What did it feel like in those last few seconds as the dragon’s teeth penetrated through the steel?What did the bones smell like three weeks later? What did the dragon feel like when her stomach was full of knight? (Maybe he hadn’t washed for six months and she got indigestion.)

When you write a story you have to put everything into it. You know what that world is like in your mind — but the reader only knows what you’ve put on the page.

So make your stories fatter.

Once you’ve made them fat you have to make them skinny again. This is one of the secrets of really good writing.

When you make a story skinny you go through and cross out everything that’s boring — because if it bores you, it’ll bore everyone else. You have to cross out any words that don’t say much. (Most verys and lovelys and awfuls don’t mean much ... it’s better to put down exactly what you mean. Instead of — It was a lovely day say the day was bright as chilled butter. Instead of saying I felt awful, say My cheeks were so red I thought I’d frizzle up and disappear ... but I didn’t, more’s the pity.

 

Go through your story and look at every word — and see if you can use a better one. (Not too complicated, though, because if people have to stop when they’re reading and say to themselves ‘Ah, that’s an interesting word — I wonder what it means’ the spell’s broken. Use simple words if you can.)

When you make your story skinny you have to go through and pull out every word you can get rid of — most ands and thens and wases.

 

And by now you’re probably yawning and thinking, I don’t care what she says, it sounds like a lot of work. Well, it isn’t. This is the way to write your stories fast — much faster than if you didn’t make them fat

then make them skinny.As I said before, most of the time you think you’re

writing a story you’re just sitting there thinking, What am I going to say, what am I going to say? No, that won’t work. Help! I can’t think what to say ...

When you know that eventually you’re going to go over your work and cross out everything that doesn’t work you can just start writing — and keep writing even if it’s rubbish. It doesn’t matter because you can cross it out later. So you write fast, and faster, and faster, and faster ...

Once you learn to make your fat stories skinny — really chop out bits and add bits and rewrite bits — you’ll find you just start writing and keep going till you can’t hold the pen any more.

 

Books that gallop: slowingyour stories down

When most people get an idea for a story they start writing and gallop away with it, trying to finish it as soon as possible.

Well, of course. It’s exciting — so you want to get to the end. Or the teacher’s waiting for it so you have to finish it.

But hurrying a story makes it a bad story.

Consider this bit of writing for example: ... and then we raced up the castle stairs and grabbed the treasure from the dragon and escaped out the secret tunnel.

That’s a boring bit of writing — because it’s too fast. There isn’t any time to build up suspense.

And then we crawled closer, closer, closer to the dragon.

The dragon twitched its nose. We froze.

‘Do you think ...?’ whispered Michael. His voice broke off as the dragon opened one round and golden eye.

It’s boring when a bus goes slowly, but when a story goes slowly it’s more exciting, because you have more time to wonder what’s going to happen next.

Slowing stories down also gives you time to get to know the characters in the story. Who cares what happened to the kids in the first bit of writing? I’m not going to start snivelling if the dragon crunches up their bones. They’re strangers.

 

But if I’ve lived through the story with them for ten or twelve pages — or even two pages — then I’ll be turning the last page in a hurry to make sure they’re safe.

Long stories are usually more effective than short stories. (Not always. But it’s very difficult to write a very short story that still has the power to move or excite readers, or be remembered by them years later.)

Always make your stories as long as you can. Most of the time you won’t be able to make them very long — you won’t have time. But if you can write a little bit of a long book instead of trying to cram all the ideas in your head into a few pages it will be a better story — because slowly it’s more exciting, because you have more time to wonder what’s going to happen next.

 

Slowing stories down also gives you time to get to know the characters in the story. Who cares what happened to the kids in the first bit of writing? I’m not going to start snivelling if the dragon crunches up their bones. They’re strangers. But if I’ve lived through the story with them for ten or twelve pages — or even two pages — then I’ll be turning the last page in a hurry to make sure they’re safe.

 

Long stories are usually more effective than short stories. (Not always. But it’s very difficult to write a very short story that still has the power to move or excite readers, or be remembered by them years later.)

Always make your stories as long as you can. Most of the time you won’t be able to make them very long — you won’t have time. But if you can write a little bit of a long book instead of trying to cram all the ideas in your head into a few pages it will be a better story — because that way you won’t get into the habit of writing books that gallop.

AN EXERCISE

Tell your best friend the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you.

But don’t just say, ‘The most exciting thing that ever happened to me was when I fell off the roller coaster at Wonderland.’

That’s a skinny story.

Make it fat. Take ten minutes to tell how you fell from the roller coaster at Wonderland (or were almost eaten by a shark or run over by a semi-trailer ...)

What were you doing on the roller coaster? Why were you there? Who were you with? What did it feel like? Look like? Smell like? How come you fell? What did 􏰁􏰐􏰄 􏰛􏰃􏰃you hear? What was everyone else doing? What did it feel like when you landed?

Now you've got a fat story and a heck of a good yarn you can tell over and over again...

© Jackie French