May 24, 2011

Writer Ramblings: A Writer's Four Basic Food Groups

Writing is possible for anyone who can read and write. Yes, I’m going there. There is a “gift” that can be attributed to the artistic side of writing, for sure. For example, songwriting, poetry and the way a writer can make his words flow together that just makes it so easy for a reader to follow. The thing is, with practice doing these things the right way (Yeah, I went there again) anyone can learn to do these things well. There are exceptions, and these exceptions, I will admit are gifted people. These are the people at the top and stay there consistently. Someone who hits the top and then topples back to reality is most likely someone who just did it right, and gave it their all. They may come back, they may not. As long as they stick to the formula that got them there in the first place, they’ll always be good.

The ability to write itself is not really a gift. Anyone can do it. This is why a lot of people who don’t know what goes into actually writing a book, screenplay, song or poem think that the writer’s life must be an easy one indeed. The thing is, it’s not easy. Not if it’s done right. It takes years of honing the skills and instincts to produce something people will enjoy. There are some secrets to reaching these goals. All of these secrets can be learned and they are all taught in workshops and college courses. There are books anyone can buy that can teach these skills to anyone. So anyone can write something well. Where the true master of writing comes in is after that. The “Gift” some people will call it, is the ability of the writer to tell their story and entertain at the same time. Even the worst stories in the world can come to life with the right technique and enough imagination and determination of the writer. These learned skills are what I call the Writer’s Four Basic Food Groups. Most writers will already know these, but there is one that eludes many writers till they approach an agent or an editor, who will point it out right away. Something readers don’t even see most of the time when they read. We’ll save that Food for last.

1) Characters: This is the most well-known of the Food Groups. There are literally hundreds of resources for learning to make your characters interesting. Some quick tips are: Avoid stereotypes for several reasons. First, they can be offensive to certain cultures and second they make your character predictable. Next, don’t make them perfect. Face it, if Superman wasn’t weak against kryptonite, would anyone stay interested in him? Other than that, he’s absolutely perfect, but if he didn’t have any weakness, he would be boring because the reader would never worry if he'll save the day or defeat Lex. And finally, don’t make your characters just like real people, or say what real people say. That’s boring. Readers see and hear real people every day, they read to get away. Entertain them.

2&3) Theme & Concept: These two different things are sometimes confused with each other, and would really take a lot more than a single paragraph to really explain the differences. They are directly related and one can’t be there without the other. Most often, writers will come up with a theme and concept at pretty much the same time. The theme is the underlying tone of your story. What is the story really about? A man who fights crime to save the world, or would it be about a man who deals with overcoming drug addiction so that he can stop a serial killer who is threatening his family? Either could be called a theme. I prefer the second option as a way to describe a story. It reveals more of the true nature of the story. The concept of that would be something along the line of, a detective is struggling with drug addiction and it affects his ability to solve the puzzles a serial killer is leaving him, he must choose to save his family or keep his drugs. What he doesn’t know is that the killer is his partner, and she is trying to make him quit his drugs so that he can be the best detective he can be. The question is, will she follow through with her threats and how many people will she kill before then. Theme vs. Concept. That’s how I look at it, you’re welcome to argue writers and editors. Point is, these things can also be learned in basic writing classes anywhere. Many writers do this portion subconsciously. It just comes to them, and then the rest of the story flows in between these things.

4) Story Pace / Structure: The final and most elusive part of writing a good story is this. This doesn’t mean you have to make Outlines or plot out every scene or make the story flow exactly the same with every novel you write. However this is the most important thing a reader never sees in a story. They understand the flow, the twists and turns as they come, but if you don’t have enough of these things writers call Plot Points and/or Pinches, then you might write something that starts too slow, or ends too quickly or just seems to run on endlessly (Like my blogs). Structure can also assist someone who keeps writing each chapter as a serial. People get bored if every chapter has an ending, unless they are reading a book of short stories or something advertised as a collection of serials. If you’re not writing shorts, then you need to rework your structure. This does not mean that someone who writes organically (also known as a pantser, because they just sit and begin writing the story by the seat of their pants) is not doing this already. Most organic writers have a structure in their head as they begin, and it evolves as they go, encouraging them to rewrite at least once. The first draft by a pantser is in many ways a very detailed outline. There is no wrong way to build story structure, and there are classes for learning this. The only reason I feel this is elusive is, for starters, I never realized there was  a trainable method to keep a story on track and to keep it at a steady pace. Not too fast and not too slow. Recently, I’ve also noticed a few writers making comments on blog posts about how their story needed better planning or flow or organization. I’m glad those writers found someone to point this out to them. There’s no wrong way to do it, and even though guys like M. Night Shyamalan and Quentin Tarantino don’t conform to the standard of most writer’s structure, they do prove there is no wrong way to structure a story. Although Shymalan has declined in popularity since The Sixth Sense, somehow he keeps making more movies. The point here is they still build their stories so that they keep people interested, even if they are gimmicky.

Share any thoughts you have on my Four Basic Food Groups. I might be pretty stuck to these, but I’m an open-minded person and I always welcome new ideas. Or if you disagree with anything I posted, please explain why. I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything and again, I’m open-minded.


  1. Nice thoughtful post! :)

    I might put theme and concept together and make conflict the other food group. The lack of that is usually what makes the pace feel slow. If there's one gift you can be born with I'd say it's a finally tuned bored-o-meter. ;)

  2. Yes agreed on the conflict part. I sort assume that's a given, but assuming is a bad habit. I also thing the "Writer's Voice" is something that should be learned. There are limits to how flowery someone should write. I used to write songs and poems for a while, those don't translate well when trying to write a novel. Learning what voice to use is another skill I wasn't pointing out in the post. I may have to make this a weekly topic.

    The ability to read your own writing and realizing it's boring is truly a gift. The Food Groups is something that helps me realize what it is that's wrong with my story. So having both can really help.

    The books I've read of yours Lindsay are well done, so you must have that gift of detecting boring work. ;)

  3. After seeing the title of this post, I clicked in my feed reader thinking it was going to be about alcohol, cigarettes, ramen noodles, and something else. But, it's very helpful to read about the basics that go into writing. Great post!

  4. Lol. That's pretty funny, and those three things probably are what beginning writers live on.

  5. Up here in Seattle, we just live on espresso. :D Not sure if it's healthier than alcohol and cigarettes or not!

  6. It's probably not but I'm an odd one in Texas because I do love my coffee more than my alcohol. Always wanted to visit Seattle. One of the few places I've not been in the US.