A Writer's Toolbox:
A writer needs a mental toolbox to keep from getting discouraged, every time he or she encounters a problem.
1. The top level of your toolbox should have:
vocabulary - "It ain't how much you've got, honey, it's how you use it." Don't dress up
your vocabulary, using words you don't really know. Use the first word that
comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful." Build your
vocabulary through reading.
- vocabulary includes slang, shouts, and noises that aren't standard English.
- ". . . vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling." So, copying another
writer's words and style won't guarantee a success.
- vocabulary also includes profanity, which is sometimes necessary. People
often say, swear words are a sign of ignorance. Well, ignorance is a
common characteristic, so if you want realistic characters, they have to
speak like real people. And besides, sometimes a swear words can be quite
Example: "I'm busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
"Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up first."
grammar - "The best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. But, unless he is
certain of doing well, he will probably do best to follow the rules." - William
- Proper grammar can sometimes stiffen a sentence.
- Avoid the passive voice! It's weak. Too much of it annoys the reader.
Example: The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa.
Better: Freddy and Myra carried the body out of thekitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa.
- Avoid using adverbs! They're like weeds. The worst kinds are for dialogue attribution -
they explain how a writer says something:
Examples: "Put it down!" she shouted menacingly.
"Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "it's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptuously.
Better: "Put it down!" she shouted.
"Give it back, he pleaded, "it's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said.
Why are these words so bad? Because, if you know how to write, we already know how your
characters sound, and these extra words get in the way. They can even become a joke, known
as "Tom Swifties".
Examples: "I made this basket all by myself," Tom said craftily.
"My pencil lead is broken," Tom said pointlessly.
"I'm sort of fond of modern art," Tom said abstractly.
"You got a nice butt, Jill," Tom said cheekily.
- Watch out for pronouns! Too many creates confusion.
Example: "He did it to him before he could do it back."
Better: "Patrick did it to John before he could do it back."
- Don't use extreme verbs for attribution, like "grated, gasped, jerked out".
Simple words like "said, told, shouted, pleaded" are fine.
2. The second level of your toolbox is for style:
style - Every writer has his/her own style or voice. Some are wordy, some are poetic,
some may remind you of a certain colour or flavour. Style reflects the mood of the
writer - serious, comical, nostalgic, bitter, and this mood colours the story.
- Telegraph style: Some writers use sentence fragments "telegraph style" to explain
what they see. It adds variety of style, speeds up the pace, and creates clear
images, but don't overuse it.
Example: "The boat was thirty feet of sleek white fiberglass with gray trim. Tall masts, the sails tied. Satori painted on the hull in black script edged with gold." - Survival of the Fittest, by Jon Kellerman
- Journalistic style: This writing is short, to the point, factual, and unbiased.
- You can also add different forms of writing: personal letters, diary entries,
newspaper articles, etc.
they look as for what they say. You can tell how hard a text is just by
looking at the paragraphs on a page.
- Every paragraph should start with a topic sentence, followed by support-
and-description. Don't wander off topic!
- In fiction, paragraphs are less formal, and should flow naturally, like
talking. "It's the beat instead of the actual melody."
narration - Narration moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z.
- Narration should be graceful. What does this mean? It means telling what
happened, respecting the story and the intellect of your audience. Graceful
narration is tactful, understated, and accurate.
description - Description creates a sensory reality for the reader. It's not just a question
of how to describe, but how much to. "The key to good description begins
with clear seeing and ends with clear writing."
- "Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted.
Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find
a happy medium."
- "It's also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone."
For example don't go into detail about all your character's clothes. "If I
want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue."
- "I can't remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the
people in a story of mine looked like––I'd rather let the reader supply the
faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is
a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim
wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can't you?"
- Overdescription slows down the pace of a story and can bore your reader,
and worse, it can ruin the bond between you and your readers. The more
these characters match the picture in your head, the less the readers can
create their own interpretations. "Description begins in the writer's
imagination, but should finish in the reader's." A few details will do, and
the best are usually the first that come to mind.
- Physical descriptions of characters are no shortcut to personality. So, don't
mention "sharply intelligent eyes, a determined chin, or arrogant
cheekbones." It's lazy writing. A cardinal rule of good fiction is, "never tell
us a thing if you can show us, instead . . . I tried never to come right out
and say 'Annie was depressed and possibly suicidal that day' . . . If I have
to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-
haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you
draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-
depressive cycle, I win. And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a
Wilkes'-eye-view of the world––if I can make you understand her
madness––then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or
even identify with."
- Locale and texture are more important than character's physical features,
but follow the same rule as above––enough detail to put a picture in the
reader's head. "If I think longer I can come up with more stuff . . ., but
there's no need for more. This isn't the Taj Mahal we're visiting, after all,
and I don't want to sell you the place."
- There are two ways to describing things: straight (literal) and poetic. both
can be great. Be careful with poetic descriptions, because a bad simile
(without a logical connection) can ruin a story.
Example: "He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich."
What does that mean? Men don't always wait patiently for turkey
sandwiches. Everyone is different, and sometimes you're in a hurry. And,
what is the writer really saying? That the man waiting for the doctor is
bored, or could care less about who died? This is not clear writing.
- Poetic language can be a lot of fun when done right, even when vulgar:
Example: "It was darker than a carload of assholes"
"I lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber's handkerchief."
Here the meaning is clear, and it gives you a clue as to the kind of person
telling the story.
- "The most common pitfall of figurative language is the use of clichéd
similes, metaphors, and images. He ran like a madman, she was pretty as
a summer day, the guy was a hot ticket, Bob fought like a tiger . . . don't
waste my time (or anyone) else's with such chestnuts. It makes you look
either lazy or ignorant."
dialogue - Dialogue brings your characters to life, through speech. It defines them, the
good and the bad. People reveal themselves by what and how they speak, often completely unaware. Let your characters speak freely, and you'll learn about them organically, just as your readers do.
- "The key to writing good dialogue is honesty . . . the dialogue has to ring true
to our ear." This will often get you in trouble with critics who can't see the difference between a flawed character and a flawed writer. Never let the "Legion of Decency" dictate what or how you write. Stephen once wrote about a character who killed a dog. He then received hate mail from people wondering why he hates dogs so much. These are people to ignore.
- Dialogue tells us about characters, little bits at a time, like solving a puzzle.
This is much more engaging for the reader than simply telling her, "this character is smart, while this one is stupid, and this one is short tempered."
- A big part of the readers' enjoyment comes from believable characters - their
behaviours, surroundings, and their talk. The more realistic a character, the more it echoes with the readers' own lives and beliefs. There's a guilty pleasure we get from reading good dialogue, like we're eavesdropping on an interesting conversation.
- "Bad dialogue is deadly . . . Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who
enjoy talking and listening to others––particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups. Loners such as Lovecraft often write it badly, or with the care of someone who is composing in a language other than his or her native tongue." One can forgive a writer for bad dialogue, so long as it's scarce. Stephen King praised H. P. Lovecraft as a genius while noting, of the millions of words he had written, fewer than five thousand were dialogue.
3. The third level is for:
plot - "I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to
convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I
distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless . . . and
second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't
compatible. . . my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much
- "I believe stories are found things, like fossils in the ground . . . The writer's job is to
use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, . . . the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.
- "No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it's
probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer's jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It's clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored."
- The century's greatest supporter of Developing the Plot may have been Edgar
Wallace, a best-selling potboiler novelist of the 1920's. Wallace invented––and patented––a device called the Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. When you got stuck . . . you simply spun the Plot Wheel and read what came up in the window: a fortuitous arrival, perhaps, or Heroine declares her love.
situation - "The situation comes first. The characters––always flat and unfeatured, to
begin with––come next."
- The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:
Examples: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem's Lot)
What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)
- Situation is much more intuitive and organic. "I want to put a group of
characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn't to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety––those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot––but to watch what happens and then write it down."
- "What happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I
discover about them as I go along––how they grow, in other words . . . If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around." This kind of writing is called "character driven". You decide which characters are most important to the story as the situation develops, and that's how you determine which will be the protagonists, and which will be supporting characters.
Note: "character driven" is different from a "character study" in which the whole book revolves around the life and thoughts of one character, without any important situation. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote character studies, using stream-of-consciousness.
believable characters - avoid cardboard characters! In real life, "no one is 'the bad buy'
or 'the best friend' or 'the whore with the heart of gold' . . . In real life we each regard ourselves as the main character." Treat all your characters this way, and remember, "every character you create is partly you."
- "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things
my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it's something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing . . . if I'm not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out . . . I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes to an end somewhere."
- "Make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both
help the story and seem reasonable to us."
- Believable characters are crucial, but it's not enough. They also
need to be vivid and interesting. This is typically much easier with villains than with average heroes.
pacing - "Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken
(hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many things to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you'll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can."
"Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit . . . which is why, when books like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose or Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best-seller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books' unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public."
"Not that there's anything wrong with rapidly paced novels. Some pretty good writers––Nelson DeMille, Wilbur Smith, and Sue Grafton, to name just three––have made millions writing them. But you can overdo the speed thing. Move too fast and you risk leaving your reader behind, either by confusing or be hearing him/her out . . . Nevertheless, you need to beware––if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive."
"The best way to find a balance is your IR."
back story - is all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an
impact on the front story. Back story is always an important element to a story, because even when you write all the events in chronological order, "every life is in medias res." "How much and how well you deal with those years will have a lot to do with the level of success your story achieves, with whether readers think of it as "a good read" or "a big fat bore."
- Back story helps define characters and establish motivation. "Get it in as
quickly as possible, but it's also important to do it with some grace." Giving back story isn't simply about giving information, it's about building a drama. It's an art.
Example: "Hello, ex-wife," Tom said to Doris as she entered the room.
Better: "Hi, Doris," Tom said. His voice sounded natural enough––to his own ears, at least––but the fingers of his right hand crept to the place where his wedding ring had been until six months ago.
- "The most important things to remember about back story is that (a)
everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting. Stick to the parts that are."
research - "Remember that word back. That's where research belongs: as far in the
background and the back story as you can get. You may be entranced with what you're learning about flesh-working bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story."
- There have been very successful writers who rely on fact and research. But,
for every one, there are a hundred wannabes. "story belongs in front, but some research is inevitable; you shirk it at your peril."
- "Also, enough details––always assuming they are the correct ones––can stem
the tide of letters from picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers that they messed up (the tone of these letters is unvaryingly gleeful)."
4. The fourth level of your toolbox is for theme and symbolism - things to develop after the story is complete.
theme - Theme and symbolism are decorative ornaments to your work. They might be
present in the story, and they might not. But, the story always comes first. "Starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction . . the only possible exceptions to this rule I can think of are allegories like George Orwell's Animal Farm (and I have a sneaking suspicion that with Animal Farm the story idea may indeed have come first; if I see Orwell in the afterlife, I mean to ask him)."
- Themes can also be a handy tool in your kit, working like a magnifying glass.
When done right, a theme can give your work resonance - a memory that lingers in the heart and mind of the reader.
- "Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and
pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don't be shocked) it's really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you've finished and ask yourself why you bothered––why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what's it all about, Alfie?"
- In Stephen's book The Stand, he determined the theme to be, "violence as a
solution is woven through human nature like a damning red thread."
"Near the end of the novel . . . Fran asks Stuart Redman if there's any hope at all, if people ever learn from their mistakes. Stu replies, "I don't know," then pauses. In story-time, that pause lasts only as long as it takes the reader to flick his or her eye to the last line. In the writer's study, it went on a lot longer. I searched my mind and heart for something else Stu could say, some clarifying statement. I wanted to find it because at that moment if at no other, Stu was speaking for me. In the end however, Stu simply repeats what he has already said: I don't know. It was the best I could do. Sometimes a book gives you answers, but not always, and I didn't want to leave the readers who had followed me through hundreds of pages with nothing but some empty platitude I didn't believe myself. There is no moral to The Stand, no "We'd better learn or we'll probably destroy the whole damned planet next time"––but if the theme stands out clearly enough, those discussing it may offer their own morals and conclusions. Nothing wrong with that; such discussions are one of the great pleasures of the reading life."
- Some other common themes in Stephen Kings works include:
"How difficult it is––perhaps impossible! ––to close Pandora's technobox once it's open."
"Why, if there is a God, such terrible things happen."
"There is a thin line between reality and fantasy."
"Why is violence so terribly attractive to fundamentally good people?
symbolism - "Symbolism does serve a useful purpose, though––it's more than just
chrome on the grill. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader."
- "Symbolism doesn't have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. Nor does it
have to be as consciously crafted as a kind of ornamental Turkish rug upon which the furniture of the story stands."
- Your story doesn't have to have symbolism. If it's there, great. "If it isn't so
what? You've still got the story itself, don't you?"
irony - Stephen King didn't offer advice on this, but mentioned it as something to look
for and develop, along with theme.