Writing Badly, Well: Repeating yourself repeatedly

The Rule: Don’t repeat yourself and delete repetition when you find it.

I’m going to break my own rule here and say that, in many cases, this might actually be the case.

An infamous inside joke amongst my writer friends and I is that you should watch out of “rocky rocks.” Calling rocks rocky is redundant, and repetitive.

Also, making constant mention of specific information can leave the reader feeling bored. Give the reader more credit.

But that’s where my willingness to buy this rule ends. For three reasons, I think repetition can be helpful.

1. To instill a very specific sensation or emotion in the reader through repetition. One of my favorite examples is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Without giving away too much of the plot, there’s constant mention of moons, two moons, one moon, loneliness, and a rather repetitive life style for many of the characters.

This leaves a sense of belonging between the reader and the character. It also creates a sense of complete isolation from the world (like the characters are experiencing). And the moons? Well, to this day, my wife and I can’t look up into the sky, see one moon, and not wonder where the other moon went.

2. To instill urgency and passage of time in a heart pounding scene. Here I’d like to bring up The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Todd, the main character, is constantly repeating himself. He repeats himself a lot when things are moving very quickly by saying something like (and not a real quote), “I ran. I ran and ran until there was nothing left in me.”

This does a couple things. It makes the reader feel running while propelling the young reader forward and still letting you know there’s a significant passage of time just then even though it’s not explicit.

3. Repeated sentences drive home a point. If you come to a segment of your story where you’re trying to make a point, it could be a great time to use the Rule of 3s. The best example of this Rule of 3s is in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.”

So, be repetitive, repetitively. Just make sure you’re doing it for a reason. Because, if you’re not, like all the rules in Writing Badly, Well, you’ll just be another amateur.

Writing Badly, Well: Stories Must have Conflict

This is a rule I struggle with regularly. I have still yet to meet a critic or receive a critique that didn’t include “every story needs conflict to run throughout the story.”

This is also a rule I refuse to abide by. The reason? It’s not freaking true.

For argument’s sake, lets ignore the pre-2000’s novels and stories. Before this spastic schism between storytelling and !EXPLOSIONS AND ACTION AND CONFLICT AND EXPLOSIONS! novels seemed to be riddled with info dumps, to be verbs, and “bland exposition” that puts to sleep most unmedicated adults with ADHD. Though I still fail to see how Pride and Prejudice would be better with war scenes or lots of slapping, or heaven forbid a lack of exposition.

One of the main arguments I hear against my “No, not every story needs conflict” is that “just because it’s not fight scene conflict doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict.” Yes, this is true. Conflict can be emotion, internal, (Hamlet, most Romance, Moby Dick). But it’s also true that requiring conflict to move a story is both a new concept and a VERY Eurocentric story structure.

Eurocentric story structure comes in 3 Acts: setup with inciting incident (problem), confrontation of problem with conflict, and resolution of that conflict and finality of the problem through solution. But that’s not the only option.

For instance, the Japanese story structure does not include the typical story structure you and I know and are taught. It’s called Kishōtenketsu and comes in 4 Acts: introduction, development, twist, and resolution. Instead of conflict and action, Kishōtenketsu relies on exposition and contrasts to maintain interest in the reader. It’s why you might like Murakami but can’t explain what the book’s about without sounding like a raving loon. It’s also the reason why the average American reader gets bored with Murakami.

The article linked above includes my favorite representation of just such a story:



japanese story structure

Here we see an entire story knocked out without conflict. There’s no struggle for either character. There’s an implied emotion in both the boy and the girl, both in their separate and individual lives and also once they connect and share a moment. But conflict is not present in this story.

And Japan isn’t the only culture with this sort of story structure. I haven’t found a confirmation yet, but the few Nigerian novels I’ve read have the same Japanese structure to stories with a lack of conflict.

So, take a deep breath. Conflict is not an absolute necessity. However, this does mean, if you play this card and set conflict on a back burner, you’ve got to step up your A Game and really hammer home the prose, exposition, and plot.

Writing Badly, Well: Use concrete and specific language

This one I’m often being called out for.

The Rule: Use specific and concrete language so your reader is not left guessing what you mean.

The idea: If you are ambiguous in your narrative, it will cause your reader to stop and reread a passage, get lost, or be so confused that they are otherwise taken out of the story. One may think this is true of most readers. That most readers are ADHD-stricken and bobbing between the book in their hand and the 4 screens splashing pretty pictures into the room. But I would argue this is NOT the case.

Counter example: Gone Girl.

In Gone Girl we have two main characters. Both with their own POV. Both are HIGHLY unreliable narrators. Both speak to the reader in very ambiguous language. At no point did the masses say, “No, Flynn! No! I can’t understand your words.” In fact, the only thing that made that book great (or at least pretty good) is that very ambiguity that most writers are afraid of.

Mysteries and suspense novels are built around ambiguity and plays on word choices and pronoun games. An entire genre has been in existence for 100+ years that uses this at its very core.

But what about “normal” writing? Same thing applies.

One of my favorite things to do is to have 2 men (or 2 women) in a room talking and have sparse dialogue tags. I do this very methodically. If the last comment in the scene is “Yes” it may change the scene VERY MUCH based on who said yes. Does it change the outcome of the novel? No. But it could give insight into each character depending on who said it. Do I have to tell you who said it? No. Most readers will imply one speaker or the other.

Probably my FAVORITE example of ambiguity is Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The ending leaves something to be desired, but not so much so that you throw the book. And the reason? Well, the rest of the book, that’s the reason.

My wife and I both read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and STILL to this day argue as to what actually happened. I say Toru went into the well to find himself and never actually came out and probably died in there. Being the all forgiving optimist, my wife thinks that he climbed out of the well and bettered his life based on the conclusions he came to.

Does it piss me off that this happened? Not a chance! I love that it’s such a subtle ambiguity that two readers can both thoroughly enjoy a novel but yet read extremely different story lines from that same text. That takes massive tinkering and planning and mastery on a scale that few have managed. But to experiment and succeed is the point of writing!

Stop being a writer and start being a written storyteller!

Writing Badly, Well: Write what you know

“Write what you know” is probably one of the first bits of writing advice each of us receives. It’s usually attached to “What should I write about?” Granted, if you’re asking that question, it should be followed up with “Why am I writing if I’m asking you what to write about?”

That said, I’m here to say that this is taken WAY out of context. “Write what you know” is about 2 specific things. And it is specifically NOT 1 thing that everyone does.

First, the not: “Write what you know” is not “Tell a story you know” or “ONLY write what you know.” It’s a jumping off point.

When someone says that to you, they don’t mean “Write ONLY what you know.” If people only wrote what they knew, there’d be no fantasy, no science fiction, no historical fiction, no magical realism, and no paranormal romance (OK, not such a bad idea there).

People like Stephen King write mostly about places in Maine…because he lives there. Tony Hillerman wrote with the Southwest as a backdrop…because he lived there. His daughter is doing the same…for the same reason. Noticing a trend here?

What they know is a jumping off point. They took the vivid images in their mind, broadened them, and added to them. If King ONLY wrote what he knew, there would be no Pet Cemetery, no Green Mile (which nobody would fault history for), and no Christine.

What “Write what you know” is: Setting and emotion. 

Setting: As in the examples above, many authors use a setting known to them to build scenery that captivates and comes alive. But that’s where their “Write what you know” stops. Killer cars are hard to come by in rural Maine.

Those with a backgrounds in hard sciences tend to write science fiction. Those with backgrounds in theory and philosophy tend to write with big picture concepts. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is based on a thought experiment by Socrates when he discusses the nature of man. Of course, Socrates never brought up orcs and all the other creatures, but the concept that started the ball rolling for Tolkien was a tiny forgotten thought experiment from 2400 years ago!

Emotion: This is what people REALLY mean by “Write what you know.” The emotion, the characters, the pain and tribulation that drives all stories needs to come from somewhere deep…and true.

If you’ve had the perfect life, it’s hard to identify with a black slave from the South. If you’ve never spent time with a mentally disabled person, it’s tough to identify with one. Because it’s tough to identify with them, it’s tougher still to created realistic, lovable (or loathsome) characters.

Sure, King never met a killer clown, but he knows the fear when you’re in the middle of nowhere and your brain screws with you. That fear is real.

Most of the great writers throughout history have come from sorted and tortured pasts. Drug addiction, abuse, torture, war, mental illness, poverty, etc. Why is this the case? Because someone who can truly identify with the absolute darkest of humanity can WRITE about the darkness (and the light) of humanity.

So, if you’re reading this, stop writing what you think you’re bound by. Write about the fantastic, the unthinkable. Then, dig deep into that part of the soul that few take the time, energy, and tears to venture into.

Writing Badly, Well: Part 2, -ly adverbs

Another rule you hear all the time is -ly adverbs are for lazy verbs. If you have a lazy verb that requires an -ly adverb, delete the -ly adverb and change the lazy verb into a dynamic verb.

Example: “He said loudly” can easily be corrected and strengthened by changing to “He yelled.” You’re cutting words (which is always good) and you’re using a dynamic verb that MEANS “said loudly.”

These are true moments where the -ly adverb is almost always deletable. And THIS is what the rule is meant to fix. However, this rule is also taken to extreme to include every -ly adverb in the history of storytelling!

I am actually (UH OH) taken aback when I read a story and there are ZERO -ly adverbs. They do exist for a reason. They are not bastard children of the English language. They need love too.

Let me give you a good example where an -ly adverb works and should never be reworked to be deleted:

“She squished the bug.” versus “She squished the bug longingly.”

I’ll wait till you’re done digesting that last little ditty and are done squirming around.

But now you see what the benefit is to an -ly adverb. “Squished” is already active and strong. The -ly adverb here acts not as a typical -ly adverb but as something more. It serves to tell a whole new story with a single word. She didn’t just squish the bug, she longs for something. She longs for something so creepy and disturbing that squishing the bug brings that emotion into her consciousness. If you read it like Flowers in the Attic, you get one story in a single word. If you read it like Pet Cemetery, you got an entirely different story in that same solitary word.

Do we know what that something she longs for is? No. But do we need to know what that something is to get the full effect of that sentence? Hell no! If you shuddered, it worked.

As one who enjoys screwing with the reader, and scaring the crap out of people, that’s one of my favorite flash fictions. And, as one who enjoys  a good horror story, the scariest part isn’t that we know what the something is, it’s that we DON’T know what the something is!

Writing Badly, Well: Part 1 “To Be” verbs

If you write or are new to writing and are still waiting for your muse to come along or time to be on your side, then you’ve heard the adage “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs.” I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re brand new to writing, it’s time to step up your game and stop living by these rules. If you ARE new to writing, stop reading this, stick to the rules you’re told because you’re not ready for this.

First up, not all ‘to be’ verbs are passive voice. And not all passive voice is bad.

I linked these two rules “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs” because they tend to run in tandem. But they ARE different.

As for using passive voice, one need only look to Catcher in the Rye for your example of how to use it, master it, and when to use it appropriately. Passive voice is good if you want the actor of the action to be ambiguous. Or if you want to instill a sense of lack of action or even instill in the reader a sense of despair.

My favorite case of using passive voice is ANY time the action and the acted UPON matter more than the actor doing the action on the acted upon. Make sense?

Example: “Mistakes were made.” or “The door was left open.”

Who’s the actor? In the first case, it’s unclear, probably for a reason. That reason could be political (I don’t want to step on toes even though I know who made the mistakes). In the second case, “The door was left open” is left without an actor probably because we don’t know! But the most important thing is that the door was left open. In horror, you want to keep the fear alive, so you delete the actor. In suspense, you delete the actor for…well…suspense.

Passive voice isn’t bad. And if you use it correctly, you can add an element to your writing that breathes life into the prose and the reader’s experience.

Second, all ‘to be’ verbs are inactive.

This is true. But not all inactive verbs are bad.

Changing every ‘to be’ verb to an active verb is painful to read. It tires the reader. Inactive verbs provide a moment of calm when there’s no reason to engage the reader or get the heart racing. Changing “He was tall.” to “He towered over things.” is stupid. Unless there’s a good reason to tell us that he’s towering over someone in particular, all that’s important is that he’s tall. That’s it. Changing “She was American.” to “She spoke with American gusto.” is all well and good, but if that’s not important to the story beyond she’s an American, then why????

You want to keep the reader reading, not tire them with every sentence being the most important sentence on the page. Some sentences are just informative. Those sentences need inactive verbs. It gets you to the point and makes active verbs jump more when they do come up.

This push for active verbs is the same thing that’s wrong with modern horror movies. You’re constantly on edge and fake scares are thrown at you so often that by the time you get to the horror you’re so damn tired that you don’t even care anymore.