How to become a great writer? #1
How to become a great writer #1
11 great writing techniques that will improve your storytelling immediately!
The obvious answer would be: writing, writing, writing. Repeat. Be creative, learn the rules, break the rules. Have something to say, to critique, to solve an existential problem. Distill some life wisdom and translate it for the common people. Be entertaining or exciting. Make us f*cking CARE. And most importantly: do not be BORING!
Great writers use certain techniques beginner writers do not even know exists. They probably have seen them many times but did not recognize them as such. Others have an impeccable instinct for it and do it without realizing. But many do not know the reasons why a certain text is considered great while others fall flat – analyzing what you like is one of the most important ways to get better in what you do, may it writing, music, story-telling, painting or politics.
A plot or story is a (not necessarily chronological) sequence of events that make up a narrative – cadence is a certain feeling of completeness, fitting totality and sets in when, finally, everything makes sense for you. When there is a certain feeling of wholeness in a story, all threads are solved, and life can go on without further questions “But what happened to…”. To make somebody feel like this, he first needs to feel tension. The audience needs to care. The person cannot go in with his life without knowing all the answers.
Tension – resolution, like in music, it also works in literary fiction. Similar principle, and many ways to rough people up. Let me show you 11 plot-relevant narrative writing techniques novel and screen writers use regularly and that catapult your storytelling into higher grounds when used in the best possible way.
Best ways to frame a story
1. Ticking clock scenario – well, there are some examples on TV and film, that are wholly built upon that technique, like the series “24” and the movie “Nick of Time” with Johnny Depp. Every ticking bomb or scenario with infected work like this. In general, any scenario of pending catastrophe! It builds up tension naturally and effectually. At time x y will happen – what happens though should be a surprise (see: plot twist) to be even more interesting or effective or at least an effective gut punch for the audience.
2. Framing devise – in every story there is a single event, scene, an incident or any element of significance that kicks off the plot and/or gives it a certain ending. Like Thanos’ snap. Or the death of Father Karamazov. Or the death of Moonbeam in my novel Noola and the Whale Changeling. It could be a narrative hook that draws attention! It is the center of your story building up to it or unfolding from it: it definitely must be a problem the hero cannot walk away from. A big one!
3. Frame story – or story in a story – is an interesting way to put various time levels in your story, giving plots and incidents further meaning in a story. Like in Arabian Night or many others. The movie When the last Sword is drawn makes perfect use of it. However, there are also some interesting examples in classic literature where stories in a story are told that have hardly anything to do with the frame story, like in Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy (mostly for comical reasons).
Best ways to start a story
4. In medias res – when you jump into an event, e.g. in the middle of a war (like in the movie Gladiator or the starting fight scene in Episode II of Star Wars). This is very tough to pull off because firstly, nobody knows what is really going on. When you do not know a lot about the story or the protagonists people lose interest fast. For example, Star Wars Episode 2, in medias res beginning is a big fail as it is very confusing. On the other hand, Mission Impossible 3 builds a lot of tension by torturing Tom Cruise (immediately recognizable!) and shows the stakes immediately.
5. Foreshadowing – one of my favorite technique also used a lot. The fun part, when you see or read it first, you do not know it is a foreshadowing of future events – it suggests a future event, similar to Chekovs Gun (it is more of a promise!). Famous, recent example is Gamoras death in Infinity War, foreshadowing Black Widows death. In literature there are countless examples, but I chose the following from Yukio Mishimas novel The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea, where a gang of boys kill and dissect a cat – suggesting that it will later happen to the sailor.
6. Flashforward – a flash forward is a great way to start a story. I do it all the time: you jump to the time right before the real ending presenting an outcome of the story (which looks very very bad for the hero). Think: Mission Impossible III (above). I do it in the first scene of some chapters in my novels. I think it is a great way to build up tension. It works perfectly as a narrative hook. However, the framing devise should be something stronger than that – the flashforward is just an effective build-up, not the actual main event.
Do not promise what you cannot keep
6a. Non-linear story telling – or you could also go wildly bonkers like Kurt Vonnegut and jump around time (Slaughterhouse 5) to create a certain effect in your story. The movie 21 Grams by Iñárritu jumps around and creates an interesting puzzle – however it also could become a complicated mess nobody cares about: even in non-linear story telling there should be a build-up and some interesting conclusion to the story, not only confusion and incomprehensible flashes of scenes, words and ideas. After all, you want to tell a story.
7. Checkov‘s gun – it is said by Chekov: “remove everything without relevance from a story” – a gun on stage without firing it would be a false promise and people would be disappointed. Unfortunately, when you are an experienced story consumer most stories become predictable this way. But still, it happens a lot. You see a chainsaw – somebody needs to use it! Objects are sometimes even emphasized seemingly without a reason during the first act of a story to finally turn out to be a plot changing, elemental devise. When there is a bazooka in a zombie movie, you know what will happen. I think it is better to avoid such a thing or make it less obvious. Or even better: promise something and hit them hard with something completely different. Let the zombie use the bazooka. Show the knife, use it in a surprising way!
8. Flashback – a jump back in time, sometimes being framed by a main story where somebody explains or tells the reason for a certain incident or for a certain state of affairs. For example, Swann’s Way is a whole flashback-novel being the solid reference for the rest of the story to come. It mostly serves in relation to some framing devise or frame story. Sometimes, there are effectively interwoven in the main story, like in the last chapter of Maria Vargas IIosas Feast of the Goat, where a soul-crushing event is told from different perspectives –it is very difficult to pull off, trust me, I tried and failed.
Twist it up – tense it up! Build high stakes!
9. Unreliable narrator – this is fun, just being unreliable as a storyteller! One of the most famous and contemporary examples is Fight Club! This is something extremely difficult to pull off to write from a perspective and constantly withhold or divert information so to confuse the audience. When you write crime from the perspective of the criminal it can me quite effective. Of from the perspective of mental instability. People are lying to themselves all the time, why not the protagonist? I also use it in my novels, I have a hard time with it, though, I have to admit. But also, a lot of fun.
10. Plot twist – an unforeseen event that changes the direction of the plot of a story. There are countless examples in film and literature, and they are best when they are expected but still feel organic. If you, for example, add a twist that is not easily explained without changing the characters (people claim that happens with Captain America in Avengers: Endgame or Daenerys in GoT, although I do not agree) or even the genre (like in the last Indiana Jones movie) people tend to dislike this kind choices of authors. They just do not feel natural and seem to be a lazy or just simply not necessary.
Sometimes, though, it works, when it is happening for entertainment reasons, like in From Dusk till Dawn (I, for example, did not know I walked into a horror movie so I was quite surprised when vampires started to wreak havoc)
11. Cliffhanger – an unresolved ending. This mostly happens when a future episode is expected, and it can happen in different ways. Like, when Negan is killing his victim in the last episode, but the victim is not shown, and you have to wait to find who it is (I consider this more effective marketing than purposeful storytelling). Or when killing Jon Snow in the last episode of Season 5 of GoT (everybody know in his heart he comes back – but how?) – actually, this not really a cliffhanger per se as it is an actual ending of a story not finished, but it feels like one. Another possibility of a cliffhanger is to show an ending, but later show it from another perspective where the outcome is rather different. The TV show 24 was a master in cliffhanger by finishing the main story but open up a new in the last half hour of the season, like killing Jack Bauers wife, or Shanghai-ing him to China and finally to Russia to an unknown fate (the story is still open!). In my series The Ballad of the Sperm Whale and Giant Squid I include a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter when possible. It is just the most effective way forcing the reader to continue.
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