Rules for Writing Good Fiction
By Katrin Schumann
In the most recent New Yorker, Teddy Wayne wrote an article called “Eight Rules for Writing Fiction.” Wayne has written three novels (one which has been optioned by HBO) and Kirkus Reviews said of him: “A spectacular stylist, Wayne is deeply empathetic toward his characters, but—brutally and brilliantly—he refuses to either defend or excuse them.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like something to aspire to.
Since I’m spending hours a day not writing while staring at a screen, I read the article with a great deal of hope. Perhaps a little too much hope.
Wayne’s rules got me thinking of my own personal version of his eight rules.
1. Show don’t tell
I’ve now twice attended Steve Almond’s Muse and the Marketplace session on this topic, and each time I’ve been awed both by his insights and his storytelling capabilities. Steve says “the ’show, don’t tell’ mantra often wreaks havoc on writers’ storytelling by creating confusion, sapping their prose of suspense, and causing them to write disjointed scenes. In short, an over-dependence on “show, don’t tell” can leave readers bewildered rather than dazzled.”
Once, seeking a way out of some writing agony, I bought a bunch of books that are bibles to the screenwriting industry—Story by Robert McKee and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder for instance—thinking that if I could only focus on the plot, I’d get things moving. Show stuff happening rather than getting mired in detail. Create some forward momentum.
I discovered that focusing only on what happens doesn’t work for me.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch breaks almost every writing rule I can think of. While not everyone loves her book, for me it was a timely reminder to chill out and stop listening to the rule-makers.
I think writers need a combination of approaches: We need to root our story through distinctive, precise description and we need to make things happen. Character and plot. Slow detail and swift movement. Show and tell.
2. Create three-dimensional characters
Walsh treats this as a bit of a joke but since I’m a character-driven writer, I can’t start telling my story until I really, really, really understand my characters.
In a past post titled You Never get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression, I write about character development, and my take-away is: be specific, be three dimensional, be interesting. Say something fresh and new!
We’re asking readers to spend a lot of time with our stories, and they’re disappointed when it turns out we’re presenting them with the same old characters again and again. Human beings are complex and infinitely varied, our characters should be, too.
3. Choose a point of view
I’m at the mercy of point of view and I don’t recommend it: in my writing, I cannot depart from the close third person. This was drilled into me as a new writer by one of my first teachers, and I have never been able to unlearn it.
Celeste Ng learned to ignore the strident voice inside her telling her to maintain POV at all costs, and she’s not doing too badly. In an interview with her on NPR, Val Wang explains: “The omniscient, “all-knowing” point of view is associated with writers with booming, bossy voices like Tolstoy and Dickens, who migrate freely into the viewpoints of many characters, offering their opinions on the people and action.” Celeste realized she could do it differently—she could write a more powerful, complex story that unfolds at a clip by consciously yet quietly slipping from one character’s mind to another.
An insightful primer on POV is Christopher Castellani’s book On Perspective. “It’s all situational, which is why each book requires its own narrative strategy, that, if it’s a successful book, is working for that book and that book alone,” he explains on GrubWrites. (Chris is teaching The Art of Perspective: Who’s Telling Your Story in Key West this January, and there are still a few spots left. Learn from a master!)
4. Give your characters motivations
Again, Walsh makes fun of how writers take this too seriously but I don’t think we can ask ourselves “why?” too often as a writer. Why does my character do this? The “why” lies at the core of causation and consequence, and plot will not feel authentic without those two elements.
Sometimes to shake things up a bit, I make my character do the opposite of what I’d expect--so when I ask why, the answer is, “Who the hell knows!”
5. Write what you know
This one is easy. Please, for God’s sake, do not limit yourself to writing what you know. Period.
6. No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader
This one seems easy, too. When I’m bored, the reader is bored.
Writing can be a struggle. What appears as boredom to us as we’re writing is often just our brains saying I give up; this is too damn difficult. That’s not boredom, it’s our inner editor bring a prick.
We have to learn that what looks like boredom is sometimes our brain trying to trick us into distrusting ourselves.
7. Revise, Revise, revise
Since I spent the last few years revising two novels I’d been struggling to write, I can barely remember what it feels like to start from scratch.
Well, now I remember: it doesn’t feel that great (at least not to me). First drafts are shitty and unfocused and confusing, and have no real thematic backbone.
… second, third and fourth drafts are MAGIC. This is when you can layer in all those complicated, amazing insights you have. This is when you sharpen your prose and get rid of crutch words like: shrug, smile, turn your head, moment, ugh, thrum. Write that shitty first draft just so you can get to the magic of the (many) drafts that follow.
8. Trust yourself
“Ultimately, you should value your own judgment over that of others,” Walsh writes. “Except for this list of writing rules. It is completely accurate.”
I agree. Good luck!
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann