Sunday, June 05, 2011

Things I've learned about the craft of writing

Over the past two and a half years I've helped develop and deliver an innovative new MA in creative writing at Edinburgh Napier University. It's an old truism that teachers learn as much from students as students do from teachers. As a writer, the teaching of craft forces you to re-examine your thinking. Here's what I've learned.

When it comes to writing for comics and graphic novels, three things should always be uppermost - clarity, characters, conflict. CLARITY: making everything in your script as clear as possible. This doesn't mean unsophisticated or simple writing. It means clarity of expression, communicating your story as clearly as you can.

CHARACTERS: comics writing is like Haiku drama, everything trimmed back to the least number of words and pictures. That means your characters have to be finely drawn in just a few strokes. Not broad brush strokes, but with brilliant subtlety and finesse. This takes years of writing to achieve, perhaps a lifetime to master - if you ever do.

CONFLICT: this is where the meat of drama arises. Every sequence, every scene, every panel, every moment in your story should revolve around conflict. This doesn't mean men in tights and capes hitting each other [that's fistfight at a tranvestite bar]. Conflict can be about the tiniest of things, but the outcome has to matter.

Now, there's an argument to be made that the three Cs - clarity, character, conflict - are just as important in other kinds of written storytelling, whatever the medium. And they are. But I've come to the conclusion that the mastery of three other things are what separates the sheep from the goats in the world of narrative writing.

TONE: put simply, the narrator's attitude to the events of a story. The expression of that attitude is what creates the tone. For readers, it's about how the story makes them feel, the effect it has on them. Strong writers have a mastery of tone, either as a natural talent or as something they consciously work hard to achieve. It's crucial.

NARRATIVE POSITION: the choice of where you tell the story from, the angle you show narrative events, the eyes through which a reader gets to see stuff happening. In TV dramas, this is often determined by the show's format. The Bill had a cop in every scene, events were seen through their eyes. That was its narrative position.

Well chosen narrative position goes hand in hand with tone. If a writer is confident about the tone of their story, chances are they're got the narrative position under control as well. There's a strong interdependency between these elements of the writing craft. Again, using them well takes years of practice, of trial and error.

PURPOSE: this is a whole lot of things, expressed by a single word. At the core is one question - what's your story for? What's it trying to do? What's the theme? Why are you telling this story now? Does each sequence, each scene propel the plot or reveal character [or, ideally, both]? Is your writing purposeful? That's the gold standard.

If you can master tone, narrative position and purpose, you are a real writer in my book. The ability to structure a story is important, the knack of writing great dialogue too. There are lots of other things that mark out good writing. But for me, the essentials are tone, narrative position and purpose. Onwards!

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks for this and other writing posts on Vicious Imagery. Interesting stuff.