Writing

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

From Visually.

RULES TO LIVE BY

1. A STORY IS ABOUT LIFE. LIFE MEANS CHANGE.
No story is interesting if nothing happens to the character. That goes without saying. But one way the audience knows things have occurred is when there is a net change between the beginning and end of the story. If the main character comes out ahead or behind of where he was when he started, then we know there was some kind of result to the story. A good story has some kind of result ending. Because people expect a story to have some kind of resolution.

2. YOUR STORY PREMISE IS AN ARGUMENT. PROVE IT.
All good stories have some kind of point of view. They are actually making some kind of argument about why what the main character is right or wrong. Everything that happens in that story should reinforce the argument being made (drugs are bad, kindness is good, etc.). If your story has no point of view, then it will feel directionless and pointless.

3. ALL CLICHÉS MUST DIE!
Cliches are boring. We have seen them a zillion times and they make a story feel tired. Bad dialog is often bad because it is a cliché. Anything you have seen before somewhere other than real life should not make it into your work. If someone else has used it before, then you can be sure someone else has used it also, and so on. Don’t perpetuate the horror. No more Casablanca or Wizard of Oz lines. Please.

4. POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IS WRONG.
No one likes political correctness. It’s dishonest. It classifies people into artificial categories and sets them apart in some way. This is a patronizing and subtly discriminatory thing. It is not what it proposes to be. And on top of that, using PC terms dates the work, because anything so criticized and hated will become a joke in time. Already anti-PC comedies are all over the place. Using PC concepts and language will become as silly as “Jive Turkey” sooner or later. On top of that it’s lame. So why do it?

5. GOOD FICTION IS 40% WRITING, 60% REWRITING.
Your first impulses are not always the best ones. We tend to regurgitate ideas before realizing later they came from some movie we saw years ago. And first draft dialog is rarely great. Because dialog is about the interaction between different people. Different characters should sound like individuals. They should have unique ideas and voices. But in the course of writing a first draft characters often sound more like the writer. So you need to tweak things and fix plot holes or weak scenes. That’s why rewriting is essential to a good script.

6. STRONG STRUCTURES MAKE STRONG STORIES.
A “solid story” is a story that feels like it isn’t full of holes. That is resonates with thought and complexity. The only way you can get that feeling is if the story has a good structure. If your story is just slapped together with ideas that just popped into your head, it will have lots of weaknesses and the reader will feel it.

7. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
Too many writers have characters explain things, instead of showing it. When you show something it has more impact. How many bad lectures or boring conversations have you had to endure in life? Imagine how your reader will feel listening to one of your characters droning on about plot points that happened in a previous issue. Comics are a visual medium and it works best when you can see something rather than having to read about it. Wordy descriptions should be left to prose.

8. NEVER TAKE THE CLIMAX AWAY FROM YOUR PROTAGONIST.
Also known as “Deus Ex Machina” which translates as “God from a Machine”. The Ancient Greeks learned the hard way that getting your heroes out of a jam by having a miracle, like the Gods showing up at the last minute to fix things, robs the hero of their purpose and makes the story silly. It’s not something you should ever do unless it serves the story, like in the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

9. EVERY SCENE MUST ADVANCE THE STORY.
Stories that have scenes that have no purpose in the story except to show something the writer thinks as cool or funny is a wasted scene. Because anything that doesn’t serve the story in someway is interrupting the flow of the story. A story should build and move in a forward direction, so every scene should serve that purpose.

10. RESEARCH IS THE CURE FOR CLICHÉS.
The reason some things seem fresher than other things is because the writer was injecting something new and original into the mix. The best place to find ideas you haven’t seen before is research. The world is a wacky, wonderful place and new things happen all the time. You should keep reading non fiction and news all the time and studying the subject matter you’re dealing with to find situations and ideas that will make your work seem real. Relying purely on your own brilliance is a sure way to run out of fresh ideas.
11. NEVER TRUST YOUR FIRST IDEA. MAKE IDEA LISTS.
This goes hand in hand with the previous point. If you are writing a scene, you want it to strike people as fresh and original. So you don’t want to have the first thing that comes into your head happening. That would be too easy. You should jot down everything you can think of that could happen in that scene, even thrown in ridiculous ideas. Then look them over and see which one works best. You’ll be surprised what cool stuff comes out of that process.

12. IF YOU DON’T MAKE THE AUDIENCE FEEL, YOU’VE FAILED.
A story needs to make the reader feel something. Anything. I’m sure you’ve read many a story that you forgot about the second you put it down. Do you want your story to have that kind of effect on someone? So how do you make people feel something? Well, to start, you need to find emotional hooks to sink into the reader. You need to touch on subject or situations that are sure to get to people in one way or another. Search your own feelings about things and then work it out in the story. But try to keep shock value to a minimum as that can get old fast and it tends to cheapen things.

13. DON’T PREACH, CONVINCE.
Nothing is more boring than being preached at. No one likes having ideas shoved down their throat unless they are some kind of zealot who wants to be stoked up on whatever dogma agrees with them. In real life there are two sides to every story, sometimes more. And a story that works is a story that gives a fair shake to the different sides. You need to convince your audience that you are telling them the truth. And you won’t do it by only presenting one side and making the other side look like cartoons. Most people have an innate sense of fairness, and they’ll be able to tell when you are not being fair. That can go against you.

14. NEVER WRITE “ON THE NOSE.” SUBTEXT ADDS DIMENSION.
Writing on the nose is an old Hollywood term. It means writing dialog that’s as unsubtle as a punch in the nose. In real life, people rarely say what they really think. Therefore, your characters shouldn’t either. When people talk to others, they are revealing how they feel about that person. If they suck up to someone they think they are more important. If they talk down to someone they don’t respect them. And so on. You inform the reader how one character relates to the other by the way they talk to them. And rarely, ever so rarely, do they say what they really think in those conversations. But you can always get a lot of information from the context and the style of the conversation. People can understand context it’s always much cooler to see than the obvious.

15. SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST.
You don’t want to do all your best ideas in the beginning of a story, because then it’s all downhill. Stories should be like roller coaster rides. They should have a long build to the top, then a steep scary drop, then some twists and turns and then go to another rise before hitting you with the best part. Don’t blow all your best stuff right away because you will raise people expectations and they will be let down when they get to the end.
16. TRUE CHARACTER IS REVEALED UNDER PRESSURE. ADD PRESSURE!
In real life, as it should in fiction, the true character of a person is revealed when they are put under pressure. That is when they let their guards down and show what they are made of. By applying pressure to a character we see what kind of person they are. Are they cowardly? Heroic? Mean? Altruistic? Talented? Inept? What are they? The best way to show that is showing what choices they would make in any given situation. Character is action. You define people by how they act and react to things.

17. THE END OF THE STORY SHOULD NEVER BE TELEGRAPHED.
If you were going to hit someone, would you do it in slow motion so they knew it was coming? If you were going to surprise someone, would you tell them what you were going to do ahead of time? Well then you should seriously consider how you lead up to the ending of your story, because the audience should not see it coming in advance. If they know what’s going to happen, why stick around to see the end of the story? The end of a story has major importance to the reader. This goes back to rule #2. When someone reads a story or sees a movie, they walk away with the ending as their last impression. And if that impression was dull, it colors their view of the work. So don’t disappoint them.

18. TAKE YOUR HERO THROUGH ALL STORY VALUES.
There’s a whole chapter dealing with story values. If you are unsure what they are skip to that chapter. But basically, in order to show things have happened for your character you need to show that they have been through the extremes of human experience. Happiness to sorrow. Riches to rags. Hate to love. And so on. If the character does not go through the appropriate extremes in your story, then the story does not have much emotional range and you will probably fail to move people.

19. RESPECT THE AUDIENCE.
You’re expecting people to spend money on your product. You expect them to come back for more. Do you really think they will want to if you don’t treat them right? Do you go back to restaurants with lousy food and bad service? Do you go back to stores where the clerks treat you like a moron and talk down to you? Well, it’s a really bad idea to talk down to your readers, or assume that they are too stupid to understand something simple. It’s also not a good plan to deliver the goods in a haphazard way, or be lay about how much effort you put into it. I don’t like getting hot food served half cold. I imagine you don’t either. Well, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. They are not spending money expecting to get some half baked sludge. Nor do they want to wait three years to read the next chapter. You have to make an effort to deliver the goods as you would expect from someone else.

20. KNOW YOUR WORLD INSIDE AND OUT.
Whether you are writing about “reality” or “fantasy” your story is set in a world of your devising. It is based on your personal interpretation of the world around you and how you see things. And since you’re are creating a world, it stands to figure that it should feel like a real one to the reader. They should believe in it as much as they do the one they live in. If they don’t believe in your world, then they will not find it very interesting. And if you should a lack of thought or depth in the world you created, they will not feel very inspired to pay much attention to it. It will become a dull background to a dull story. Because readers are more involved when they feel a part of the story. And that only happens when that world is real for them. Therefore, you need to understand the rules of your world and how it works well before you write about it. If someone asks you a question about how your character pays the rent, or what kind of parents they had, or why is the dragon green instead of red, you better know the answer.

21. NEVER SECOND GUESS THE AUDIENCE’S TASTES. ALWAYS WRITE FOR YOURSELF.
As some of the previous rules explained it, you need to respect the audience, you need to know the world inside and out, you need to know what the story is about, etc. The only way you can fully do that is if you love the story and the characters. You need to write something that you care about, that you believe in. If you don’t, the readers will feel it, and then they will respond accordingly. You might say that a lot of mindless crap sells well and the creators probably didn’t care about it. But how much of that crap is remembered years later in a positive way? The work that stands the test of time is work that is a labor of love. So don’t write what you think people want to read, whether you care or not. Write what has meaning for you. Because you are human and your humanity and feelings should be reflected in the work. It is bound to affect people if you do.

22. WORRY ABOUT YOUR OWN CAREER, NOT OTHERS.
If you become a professional comics creator, it’s very easy to fall into the jealousy trap that so many people are stuck in. That being the constant attention people pay to other people’s popularity or success and feeling upset about it. It’s easy to be annoyed when you work hard to do something you really care about while someone else makes tons of money doing their comic and they don’t show enough interest in it to turn it out on a regular schedule, or to see someone else who can’t even write or draw get all the attention from the fan press as a “hot talent”. But you really shouldn’t waste your time thinking about such things. Someone else’s success is not a reflection on your talent or abilities. It merely means at that point of time and place they are successful, for whatever reason. You may have you shot at the spotlight later. But if you spend too much time getting angry about other people’s success and bad mouthing them, people will only see you as jealous and spiteful, which will do you no good in the end. It’s better to stay positive and focused on your own work and career. You will be much better served if you do.

23. WHEN YOUR WORK SPEAKS FOR ITSELF, DON’T INTERRUPT.
Don’t explain the mystery. If you manage to thrill people and entertain them, be happy with that. I personally find it distasteful when all these behind the scenes documentaries on films are made. George Lucas being one of the worst offenders. By explaining everything away as gimmicks and tricks you do your story and your characters a disservice. I’m explaining how things are done in this book only for your edification as a fellow writer. But the magic that you put into your work should remain a mystery to all but yourself.

24. DO NOT WASTE PEOPLE’S TIME!
Even if your story is really taking up sometimes time in reality, they should never ever think that it is. They should want more, not less. So dragging out things and padding them to lengthen scenes or novels is wrong. Movies and TV shows that spend a lot of story space on pointless exercises and drama are going to bore people. And boredom is death for a writer. Do not bore!

25. GOOD WRITERS ARE NOT AFRAID TO BE HONEST WITH THEMSELVES
To write a story that has impact, you have to reveal a truth. A lot of truth is revealed through painful self reflection. You shouldn’t be a afraid to express personal pain in your story as a catharsis.

Excerpted from The Secrets of Writing

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