Celestial Navigation

Writing is a strange business, a dealing in constant abstraction, invention by sheer force of will. It’s not always easy to see where you’re going, or how to get there. So when you manage to discover a trick that makes the process simpler, it’s like the stars broke free of the clouds.

This is a running list of techniques I use to navigate. I hope one of them might help if you’re lost.

Spend at least as much time worrying about the characters as the plot. Get to know them. Figure out their conflict with one another. Plot and character evolve in tandem.

Know your villain as well as you know your hero. And remember that everyone is a hero in their own story. Make them act accordingly and they’ll be a lot scarier.

Your main character must always want something desperately. Never write about someone who isn’t at the end of their rope.

A rule of good storytelling is that the protagonist will confront the thing he fears the most and overcome it in order to win the thing he desires the most.

The audience should always be uncomfortable.

Write about who gets hurt most. But make sure that everybody has skin in the game.

Dynamic tension comes out of character motivation. Put a pacifist in a position where if he doesn’t fight he loses everything he cares about. Take someone who has worked for years to build a new life and force them to deal with their old. Without this, all you’ve got is a scenario.

Every viewpoint character should have a plot and conflict of their own.

Leave out everything you can.

Describe via action and response. Instead of writing, “There were food vendors lining the street,” write, “The smell of hot dogs and sauerkraut tightened her stomach.”

Have as many people as possible in a state of change — or at least desiring one.

Take the time to properly learn three-act structure. You don’t need to be a slave to it, but understanding it will help you solve innumerable problems.

Keep things tightly plotted by making sure that every action taken by any character creates a problem for at least one of the other characters. This way the plot is constantly plaited into itself.

Explore your themes in the form of arguments between people. Each character can represent a different viewpoint. But keep them real, and don’t hit the themes at the expense of the story.

Stories are made of events, and you shouldn’t have a chapter that doesn’t have something happening. Illustrate whatever you want, but do it through action, conflict, and stakes.

Think of your story and the way you tell it as inversely related. The more fantastical or demanding your story, the more accessible your structure should be. The more experimental your method of telling, the more conventional your tale should be. Sorry to say it, but you ain’t Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce.

Write from the inside — medieval characters aren’t disgusted by open sewers, modern travelers are more interested in their seat assignment and free drink than the wonders of aviation, and no one on Star Trek thought communicators or tricorders were particularly neat.

Complicate things. Take your basic plot and add hiccups. See what happens if you make connections. See what happens if you kill a wife or give them a child. If you send them to law school or give them a coke addiction.

Never stop taking the advice of your agent, editor, and friends. You can mark the decline of an author’s career to the moment they got big enough they thought they knew better than everyone around them.

Read constantly. If you don’t read, you cannot write. If you’ve never been a reader till now, it’s too late for you. Sorry.

Don’t get it right. Get it written.