What’s the secret?

The secret of good writing is secret because so many people overlook it, and when you read someone who does it brilliantly, it seems like that elusive magic stuff that works, but you can’t quite explain it. If you learn to do it well you’ll truly find your writing voice as well as discovering more about storytelling along the way.

Before I tell you what the secret is, try this for yourself:

Wherever you are now, notice something. Something concrete. Doesn’t matter what: the colour yellow painting the road, the back of someone’s head, the smell of exhaust fume, the beat of the music coming through the wall, the texture of the chair you’re sitting on. Whatever you’ve noticed, try to go deeper, to get more specific. You only have to do this in your mind – no need to stroke the back of the person’s head.

Did you start to get interested in or curious about the thing you noticed? If you got specific, you probably did. But maybe the person moved on, or the music stopped, or the double yellow lines made you feel miserable – and that stopped you getting interested in it.

This time notice something that makes you feel happy, comfortable, or content. Something concrete. In your mind’s eye, get closer and more specific – get into the detail. Watch the flame in the open fireplace or the smudge of chocolate on your son’s cheek or listen to the sound of the train carefully- whatever it is, focus on the specifics.

The story of your shoes.

I was at a drama workshop recently. We had to tell stories about our shoes – and as soon as people started telling their story specifics started to come up, intriguing details that made us curious and drew us in. Their shoes had just been – well, shoes – and now we had the specifics we started to get interested.

Try it now: tell the story of your shoes. Get to the details.

Putting things in categories.

Whatever situation we’re in, our brains will automatically put things into quick categories – it’s the way our brains work, a short cut so we don’t have to rethink each and every encounter every time. When I see a cushion, I don’t have to refigure out what a cushion is, same with a phone, or a pair of curtains or a box of cereal. I don’t have to think – “oh wow they crushed up corn into flakes and put them in a plastic bag inside cardboard with a picture of a cockerel on the front, I wonder if they taste nice with milk?” each time I see a cereal box. Our brains do this with people too but most of us know to reserve judgement until we’ve got to know someone a little bit. That is, our rationality, our humanity, and our empathy kicks in. Sometimes the capacity to group people by category is helpful when used with care – understanding the category of ‘toddler’ is useful for instance! Sometimes the capacity to put people in categories leads to assumptions and stereotyping which can be destructive: racism or sexism for instance.

Book, cat, table, toys, TV.

If I look around the room where I am I see books, a cat, a table, toys, a TV, a cup, the house over the road, a tree. My brain is able to identify these things and assign them to general categories. But that’s not interesting. Getting to the detail is interesting: Kafka’s short stories, an elderly cat with three legs, a battered 1950s hostess trolley, a set of plastic Scooby Doo figures, including monsters, scattered across the floor, a TV showing adverts on loop, a tea stained mug with a Psychedelic Furs lyric on it, the woman from the house over the road looking right at me as she puts her rubbish out, the leaves coming back on the tree, and the branches casting a shadow over the road. I hope you’ll agree that the second list is much more interesting. All I did there was to get specific – some of these are fictional, some drawn from what I could see – and each object starts to tell a story. Objects – concrete interactions with things – help root our readers in the location of the story. They help us evoke emotion.

Types of people.

As well as categories of thing, I know all about types of people because I’m a human being. These types help orient me in the same way knowing something is a book, a phone or a cat helps orient me. I’ve got a choice whether to go with stereotypes and make assumptions, and not really think about it – not a good idea – or to go deeper and treat people as individuals. Once we take at least a bit of time to get to know people the assumptions, the stereotype disappears, and it’s the same with fictional characters. Our readers want to read well-rounded characters, people who are interesting, and people they can imagine are real.

Writing fictional characters.

Let’s try it: think of a dentist’s receptionist, a rich elderly woman, a cat lover, a computer specialist, a heavy metal fan. You know what I’m talking about. You know these types. But to stop there means we’re not really writing.

What do we need to do? We need to get specific. Get to the details but also to the uniqueness of the person. Add the detail. The dentist’s receptionist who has a hard time with money and has her daughter do her homework at the reception desk next to her every evening, a rich elderly woman who buys sleeping bags from camping shops and gives them away to rough sleepers, a cat lover who lives in a flat in a high rise block and had to leave her cats with her boyfriend, a computer specialist who wanted to be a gardener and spends his spare time volunteering at National Trust properties, a heavy metal fan whose job is working in a tattoo parlour removing unwanted tattoos and who counsels young people at the weekend. Again, all I’ve done is add some specifics to these made up people. I’ve started to go beyond the ‘types’ – these people are coming to life.

Take one of these people. Add at least 3 more details. Can you see a 3-dimensional person begin to appear?

Get more specific.

Identify an action you could take today to bring greater specificity to your current writing project. Hint: that might mean going for a walk and looking for the detail.

So: what’s the secret of good writing?

So: what’s the secret of good writing? Specificity! Specific is such an important word. I can get pretty evangelical about it. There is no secret stash of writing ideas somewhere. Everything is an idea and specificity is the key to unlocking those ideas.

Happy writing. x Louise


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