Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

My 5 Best Tips for Writers

I’ve written, edited and read a lot of books over the years, and I’ve interviewed authors for more than a decade on Write On! Radio – bestsellers like Cokie Roberts and Dean Koontz as well as lesser-known and debut writers. And I’ve learned a lot about good writing in that time. Here are my five best tips.

Number one: Get the reader involved emotionally. There are many ways to do this – from creating a haunting description of place to eliciting laughter out of the ridiculous to producing warmth from a touching situation – but the best method is to create three-dimensional characters we can root for or against.

Think of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird or Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Unfinished characters at the start of their respective novels, both grow immeasurably by story’s end.

Number two: Create tension. This is an obvious one, but too many authors write stories that fail to elicit tension because they present small obstacles that we as readers don’t really care about. You need to set out a difficult challenge for your protagonist. Think of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Kill or die. That’s an extreme case, but wow!

Number three: Design dialogue that pulls us in. For example, if Joe says, “Where’s the suitcase?” and Mary says, “It’s in the closet,” you’ve created mundane dialogue.

But if Joe says, “Where’s the suitcase?” and Mary says, “You promised you wouldn’t leave,” you’ve created better dialogue – you’ve added tension, partly by introducing a new idea (that Joe and Mary have a history involving a promise) and partly by introducing mystery (what’s behind the promise and where is the suitcase anyway?). A great way to create good dialogue is by having a character be non-responsive in her answer – as Mary is.

Number four: Embrace the unexpected. In a romance, for example, the story must end a certain way; the same is true for a mystery. You have no real choice in the end result. But you do have a choice in some of the elements leading up to the end.

Jane can end up with Dave as long as she does some other things we don’t expect. If she gets her man and winds up rich and pregnant and happy, maybe that’s enough for some readers, but most, I submit, would rather see a twist – Jane learning she can’t have children but deciding to open a girls’ school, for example.

The unexpected nearly always results in something better than the anticipated. The bomb under the seat creates tension. Having the hero exit the vehicle before it explodes works on one level, but what if the bomb detonates, maiming the hero? Whoa. Didn’t see that coming. How does the story move ahead now? This is interesting.

Number five: Editing matters. Over-edited books do exist. But they’re extremely rare. Much more common is the decent story with flat words and a predictable destination. It’s a rare book indeed that is not well served by another round of editing.

Recall well-written picture books and how almost every word takes on a heavy load to carry the story. Or study a good poem and notice the value of each word. Obviously a novel or memoir or even short story or essay can’t duplicate that structure, that import for each turn of phrase, or it would take years to write. But one can still refine word choice, tighten language and rid the text of unnecessary passive voice.

Finally, as part of editing, know that size matters. Lengthy descriptions from years gone by rarely cut it anymore. People want brevity. That doesn’t mean every book has to be short, but a description generally can’t run on for five or six sentences anymore.

The dilapidated house on the corner? Talk about the one or two things that make it stand out: the broken windows, all bereft of drapes except the top-floor bedroom on the left where Lisa used to sit in her wheelchair staring out at the world, as if the fates had decreed that this one room at least should be spared the ravages that befell the others.

There are many other things you should know about writing, but these five tips will help greatly. And the more you write, the more you read, the better you’ll understand the craft.


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