Every time someone asks me how they could improve their writing I always answer the same thing. To be honest, whatever I say is the same thing everybody else says:
It is not that these suggestions are wrong – because they are not – it is just that everybody has probably already told them to you.
Do you really need me to repeat them?
I guessed so.
Despite this, here I want to give you a set of suggestions to improve your writing. These are relaxing, easy to follow, and fun to implement, but, on top of the rest, quite unusual.
One of the most important lessons for someone who just started writing is that a big chunk of what is in the manuscript is just fat.
I know… I know, everything you write is gold and you love it. But, look at it for real just a minute, don’t you think that the digression on why macaques* have a red bum in the last chapter of your noir was redundant?
This is so hard because we produce lines and lines of text to which we get attached. Maybe that sentence sounds great. Maybe that chapter allowed us to show off our prose. Despite this, if it is not useful to the plot, it should go away.
Scriptwriters have even stronger rules on this. They have pretty strong boundaries and, most of the times, their movie will have to stay within the two hours boundary. Because of this, scriptwriters have to learn the hard way how to cut all the fat from their stories.
Reading a good book on scriptwriting will give you the idea of how seriously these guys take the task. A good one is: “On Directing Film” by David Mamet (who I am also watching on Masterclass). I’d also advise you to just read some scripts: IMSDb is a great resource for that.
For similar reasons, I also suggest visiting the theatre from time to time. On top of that, this helps you with other three things:
While the third is obvious, the first two are more interesting.
Consider what theatre is: a set of actors talking. If there are no actors talking there is no scene – now, now… I know this is reductive and if you work in theatre you are going to kill me because of course there could be theatre without dialogue – just let me simplify here and talk for the majority of theatrical pieces.
When we are at the theatre, the scriptwriter has to keep us awake the whole time. They will have to fight against our short attention span. Because of this, dialogues need to be extremely well written and hit the point.
Similarly, when we watch monologues, they have to involve us even more. Especially on this point, watching some standup comedy might come to your help. Comedians tell stories and they do it very well – that is how they keep you there, listening to them until the punchline arrives.
I like to watch movies almost for the same reasons I suggest to go to the theatre. Again, stories have not much fat, dialogues have to be strong and the pace has to keep going.
I mostly like movies because they are inexpensive to watch. You can do that at home while you relax. An additional advantage to movies is that they are relatively short. I find them a great way to find inspiration and consume a good media. Reading books helps you even more but obviously, the number of books we can read will never match the number of movies we can consume (this because the information can be sent to us over multiple channels in parallel while we watch a movie).
I advise watching movies keeping your eyes open though. Try to identify characters’ motivations, general themes and key moments of the story within the movie. This will help you write better stories in general.
I know this is unfair: travelling might be expensive and not everybody can afford it. Fortunately, in 2017, there are other ways you can visit new places and learn about different cultures: internet and TV documentaries are some of those.
Whether you travel with your body or just with your mind and spirit, my advice is to look at the world. It is big; really big. Even if you write fantasy or sci-fi there are chances that whatever you are writing can get a boost of inspiration from some culture you’ve never heard of.
If movies and theatre have to be concise, comics have to be slim. We often keep this media on the side but I still think it has a lot to teach.
In comics, the dialogue is again the key but, in this case, the limits are extreme. The balloons are small and often you don’t want a sentence to go beyond a handful of words.
On top of this, comics have a lot of other tricks to teach. The narration often uses colour themes and tend to be able to drive the reader in a more structural way than books (which is needed since potentially what is coming can be spoiled by the page itself). Many of these tricks can be learned and ported into books.
Sorry, I am probably a bit overly obsessed with improving my scenes with dialogues.
Acting classes are great for this. Actors have to re-learn how to express emotions so that they are clear to their audience. They use recognizable movements and expressions. This is particularly useful for writers because it suggests us how to show our characters’ emotions in a way that is comprehensible and without having to tell them.
My final suggestion is to surround yourself with inspiration. One thing I do is listening to music as much as I can.
Other people might just like to go to museums or art exhibitions.
Whatever works for you, do something!
Just, don’t spend your days at home in silence struggling to find something interesting to write. Nothing comes to you if not from your surroundings.
*by the way: macaques don’t have a red bum (I mean at least that is visible to us) those are baboons – and this is for important reproductive reasons. Respect.