Contents


Writing tips

This is the website of The Writers’ Guide, offering essential advice for the creative writer.

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Writing tips

If you’re looking for writing tips you’ll also find useful information in Basic story structure and Expanding the basic story, Scenes and Characters.

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Making a good start
Show, don’t tell
Flashback

Making a good start

Advice stated elsewhere in this book, but worth repeating. If you don’t capture the attention of your audience quickly you might lose them. And your audience also includes the editor/publisher/producer/agent reading your manuscript. If their interest isn’t engaged from the beginning they’ll soon go on to the next manuscript on the pile.

A good opening will engage the curiosity of your audience and deliver information that helps set up the main story. Here are some openings of famous movies. How do they excite/interest us?

Source Code: a man wakes up on a train and finds himself oddly disorientated. He tells his bemused companion that he’s not the teacher she thinks his is but a US Army helicopter pilot…
Watching this we’re as disorientated as the man; is he crazy or joking? Then he sees himself in a mirror and we realise something very odd is going on.

The Godfather: in a darkened room a man begs the Godfather for revenge…
The man’s story is harrowing and there’s a curious contrast between the gloomy room and the sounds of the wedding party outside. Who is this Godfather and why is he being grovelled to as if he were a king?

Star Wars: screen captions introduce the story so far, then a small space ship crosses the screen — chased by an enormous Imperial battle cruiser…!
We plunge straight into the action and meet two of the main characters (Princess Leia and Darth Vader) within the first few minutes.

Here are the openings of three famous novels. Do they grab our attention? Do we want to read on? How do the openings set the scene for what’s to follow?

“It is cold at six-forty in the morning of a March day in Paris, and it seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad. At that hour on 11th March 1963, in the main courtyard of the Fort d’Ivry, a French Air Force colonel stood before a stake driven into the chilly gravel as his hands were bound behind the post, and started with slowly diminishing disbelief at the squad of soldiers facing him twenty meters away…”
The Day of the Jackal Frederick Forsyth.

“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord — the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven — and Mr Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name…”
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte.

‘‘Oh my God!’ my friend Arnie Cunningham cried out suddenly. ‘What is it?’ I asked. His eyes were bulging from behind his steel-rimmed glasses, he had plastered one hand over his face so that his palm was partially cupping his mouth, and his neck could have been on ball bearings the way he was craning back over his shoulder. ‘Stop the car, Dennis! Go back!’ ‘What are you —’ ‘Go back, I want to look at her again.’ Suddenly  I understood. ‘Oh man, forget it,’ I said. ‘If you mean that ‘thing’ we just passed —’ ‘Go back!’ He was almost screaming. I went back, thinking that it was maybe one of Arnie’s subtle little jokes. But it wasn’t. He was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. Arnie had fallen in love…”
Christine Stephen King.

You’ll notice that many of these stories start with the aftermath of a previous dramatic event. The Star Wars opening is the end of a chase; the start of The Day of the Jackal shows the fate of a man who planned to assassinate the French President.

Aftermath openings are useful as they launch us straight into the drama. Some overlap the previous story, such as the opening of Raider of the Lost Arc where the movie starts with climax of an earlier tale, or they might provide the impetus that sets the new story rolling, for example, in No Country for Old Men the story starts with the protagonist coming across the survivor of a drug gang shoot out and a case full of money.

Show, don’t tell

Imagine you’re describing your walk in a park to a friend. If you present your story as a bare sequence of events, you’re ‘telling’ them about your adventure; if you describe it in a way that allows them to see themselves taking the same walk, you’re ‘showing’ them.

Telling (sometimes called narrative summary) can be a way of delivering bland, but important information quickly and efficiently. However, telling is often dead wood that is better removed (see Revision and editing). Take the following:

“On the way to the station Jackson bought a newspaper for the man at the corner stand. He climbed up the staircase to the platform and took his usual place opposite the billboard. They’d changed the poster since yesterday: cat food had gone; now it was toothpaste. Jackson unfolded the newspaper and his heart lurched as he saw the headline: ‘Torso Girl Identified’.”

Much of the above is ‘showing’ and if the details of Jackson’s journey to the station are unimportant it’s better to dispense with them and go straight to the action:

“Standing on the platform in his usual place Jackson unrolled his morning newspaper. The headline made his heart lurch. ‘Torso Girl Identified’. He looked up, staring numbly at the smiling white teeth on the billboard opposite.”

But let’s say some of the details in the first example were important (the man at the newspaper stand might later be revealed as an important witness). In this case we would rewrite the passage looking for ways that show the action rather than tell.

“Dodging traffic Jackson crossed the street and approached the station newspaper stand. The usual gnarled old-timer sat behind the counter muffled against the wind. A couple of times Jackson had caught him napping and managed to filch a paper and a magazine or two. Not today. The geezer watched his approach with narrow suspicious eyes…”

This version helps draw the audience into the action and has also been used as an opportunity to reveal character. We could have told you that Jackson was dishonest, but it’s better to illustrate the fact, in this case by revealing instances of past misdemeanours. Always avoid naming emotions and traits; look for ways to show them.

Flashback

A flashback describes events that took place in the past. Some authorities dislike flashback because it puts a break on the main story happening in the here and now. It’s true that a misplaced flashback can ruin a suspenseful situation (you wouldn’t have a man wrestling an alligator slip into a reverie about yesterday’s dinner) but flashback, like telling, can be a useful way of summarising important background information. To continue our Jackson story:

“Jackson stared at the teeth beaming at him. The girl had given him a smile like that; before she saw the look in his eyes and her expression had changed to doubt, then fear as the knife had slipped from his sleeve. The grime-coated train rattled to a halt and the doors slid open. Jackson pushed his way past the mother and toddler trying to get off; anxious to find a seat in a secluded corner and read the rest of the story.”

Isn’t Jackson adorable. The above illustrates three points.

Firstly, you must introduce your flashback with the past tense. When we read “The girl had given him…” we know we’ve gone back in time.

Secondly, the point at which we return to the present has to be clear — in this case it’s signalled by the arrival of the train.

Thirdly, it demonstrates the overuse of the word ‘had’. Flashbacks are often riddled with ‘hads’ and most are unnecessary. In this example we only need the first had so the passage could be re-written as: 

“Jackson stared at the teeth beaming at him. The girl had given him a smile like that. Before she saw the look in his eyes and her expression changed to doubt, then fear as the knife slipped from his sleeve…”

Count your hads in flashback. Often one or two are all you need to set the scene.


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