There is no formula for great writing. No shortcuts. No magic pills (though many have tried). And no easy path.
While there are shelves full of “How To” books on the craft, and I believe that writing is a craft that can be taught, it starts with talent and intent; and must be honed. If anything, it’s a fusion of natural talent with hard-fought practice.
In my own writing (which I wouldn’t call great…yet. I’ve only been writing for five years, and have a long road of practice ahead of me to achieve greatness), there are three pillars I never lose sight of.
The first, and most important, is compelling characters. I think character is key because the reader or audience must care. Otherwise, why bother. Writing is an exercise in emotional manipulation and in order to pull at someone’s heart, you must give them someone to care about (which is very different than someone that you like, by the way).
The second pillar for me, is story. I’m obsessive about story, and worship at the altar of great story – the journey your character goes on. I certainly subscribe to the Hero’s Journey/mono-myth sect of storytelling, and urge every writer to read Hero With A Thousand Faces – not to make all stories the same, but to be aware of how to make them different.
The third pillar is the one that often gets overlooked, and is the one that surrounds your character and anchors your story: world. I believe in creating an immersive world in writing; a place with verisimilitude that you feel you could inhabit.
Whether writing contemporary, historical, or speculative fiction, constructing a convincing and internally consistent world is a critical skill for every writer.
And since I contend that character is key, my three pillars are circular. For creating a fully realized, rich story world is fertile ground to create a compelling character. Characters are forged by their life and times; the world in which they live informs their very essence. Characters are people, and people are products of nature and nurture….and that nurture aspect comes from the world around them (from immediate family to global geo-politics).
It’s also a way to build trust with the audience…and lose trust if you betray the constructs of the world you’ve created. The reader/viewer will feel cheated and betrayed if you establish a set of rules (either assumed or explicit) that you violate.
In understanding a character’s world, we need to remember that even in a fantastical setting, characters are driven by needs which range from the most basic (food, water, shelter, safety) to those way up high on Maslow’s hierarchy (self-actualization, whatever that actually means for your character).
Take economics, a subject that many writers I know avoided like the plague in university – it’s an essential science for world building. As someone clever on twitter once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “great that you’ve got flying unicorns in your story, but who pays for their food?”
Economics is the study of how scarce resources are allocated. In story-building terms, its the quest to understand how your characters will react to that scarcity as a tool for forging characters.
History, especially, accepted wisdom, is a crucial pillar to world building: is your character hostage to their history or fighting against it?
Value systems are another area worthy of deep exploration. What do people believe in your world, and why? Is there a dominant hegemony or multiple belief systems vying for dominance? There is rich drama in the conflict between different value systems.
Those are just three examples, but three of my favourites.
Whatever story you’re writing, it’s crucial to carefully construct the world that the characters inhabit – it’ll lead to a richer, more fully realized story; one that the reader/viewer will want to relish and revisit.
If you’re interested in doing a deep dive on world-building, I’ll be teaching one of the Guardian Masterclasses on the subject on 25th of January London. All the info is here:
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