Since I just finished my sixth semester at college, today, and have one more year until I graduate, I’m in quite a celebratory mood so I decided to make this post as helpful as possible. I collected 8 tips that will help you improve your writing skills. It’s eight things you can practice that will improve your story.
This is a post for beginners – every established author already knows it but I selected a few things we should pay attention to.
I have to credit my English teacher who inspired this post in a discussion we had today about the progression of literature through the years.
I’ve written about things you can do to improve your writing skills before, but this is different. I will present some interesting and modern concepts here that you can apply to your writing.
Deconstruction – reconstruction
What I truly love about Neil Gaiman’s novels is the fact he takes well established concepts, takes them apart, revises them and puts them back together.
You have a freedom of doing anything with the existing concepts if you can change their interpretation and make all the pieces fit when put together.
An exercise: Follow his example and take real concepts (religion, love, life, death, birth, change, society, anything) and make a mind map about every aspect of it – analyse the aspects and shape their meanings, then put it all back together.
This is a well established concept authors apply to give depth to the settings, story, characters, etc. If you want reality in your fiction (‘Reality is continually established, by common effort, and art is one of the highest forms of this process’ – Raymond Williams, 1961 (Williams 315)), this is the way to achieve it.
There is no better way to show the depth of your characters than to have them contrasted to your other characters or ideas or abstract concepts.
An exercise: Create two simple characters and write a scene. Your scene should have a conflict (of interest, of opinion, of any sort). Have your characters act completely differently and see where it leads you.
This is something that I don’t often see in literature but it’s an interesting concept. In the previous one, you have characters that are opposite – now write about characters where one mirrors the other.
Mirroring is a process we go through when we admire someone or find someone dominant. It is also one of the NLP techniques but I suggest avoiding it since on the site I gave you it is very much glorified by as a student of communication I find it very unethical and morally ambiguous. Use the site as a way to research, but please don’t practice NLP.
An exercise: Have a manipulative character who intentionally and consciously uses NLP techniques, mirroring as the primary one, to achieve a goal.
Alternatively: Have a submissive character admiring someone and mirroring their behavior. See where that goes.
An addition: This is a cool way to call back to a scene from before if you have a scene that bears the context of one before. It was best used in a film, actually. It was in There Will Be Blood, the whole film is revolving around subtle context changes and call-backs.
This is yet another idea that can make your characters deeper. Have your readers compare characters. You already know no character should be just good or just bad – but this is an elaboration on that concept.
Have a few characters that are all at the same level in evil to good scale but have their sins be different.
When researching this it reminded me of the problem of moral luck. It actually sparked an idea.
An Exercise: Use the hypothesis from the moral luck essay as your story. Have a story that follows two people who are by all means similar. Put them in the same situation, driving above the speed limit. From this point we’ll abandon the essay and be more creative. Have one person almost run someone down while the other actually does accidentally kill a person. Follow them in their journey. Make your readers compare them and their mistakes.
As my English teacher said today, heroes used to go on a journey for the grail only to find themselves, while today they don’t go out, but in.
This is a well-known, used and established method of writing your character’s journey. It’s a personal journey and it’s a journey that takes them forwards and backwards. Have your character inspect their past, present and future.
An exercise (I stole this one because it’s so interesting – it’s from Before Midnight): Have a character in a single moment be reminded by some external impulse of something from their past and have them contemplate it. See where it takes you!
Yet another commonly used method, this one has its roots in the far past. A personal journey, emotional journey, seeking of ones self – represent it in a real journey.
Think of The Hobbit. Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Think of A Journey At The End of The Night.
An exercise: Have your characters go through a simple plot – have them go on a journey where they find themselves.
I know it’s a bit cheesy by now but I still think it’s a great writing device that can be used originally.
One thing that bothers me, and I find it too often, is the body language of the characters. It’s almost never written well enough. It reminds me of caricatures we used in lectures to show the basic human gestures and expressions.
Part of body language is the tone, color and pitch of one’s voice – remember that. It is called para-linguistic aspects of non-verbal communication. There’s a pretty piece of trivia for today!
You probably noticed as well that when authors want to describe a thought or a context by using characters’ body language, they overdo it.
Your goal is to minimize it.
The purpose of body language is to add some context to our words. So, use it accordingly. Use it when it’s a must, don’t over-describe it. Have non-verbal communication be subtle as it is in the real world.
An exercise: Have a character be devastated about something. Have them be alone, then have them be in a company of a friend or someone else close to them. Your goal is to describe them and their movements (even the person that is listening to the reason why your protagonist is devastated) in these two scenes.
This exercise will give you some insight in how to describe emotions without telling readers what your characters feel.
Alternatively: Have a character go through a range of emotions and describe them without ever saying: “She/he felt…” or some equivalent.
I find symbols interesting. I can’t help it, they intrigue me. I like deconstructing them and I like discovering interpretation of them. But I’m not alone. People like a little bit of mystery and not knowing something.
Have an object or a concept or an abstract idea symbolize something in your character’s life or in your story – have it be a thread that intertwines with your story from the beginning to the end.
An exercise: Have a story about a person with a problem (for example, a teacher who has stage frights or a warrior who fears loosing their strengths, or anything in between) and have a concept, a legend, a story that foreshadows and symbolizes exactly that. See how the symbol and the story go together.
So, there are many thing you could do to improve your writing skills and develop your characters but these are my favorite and I recommend using them as often as you can because they are all proven methods and I’m sure you’ll have some use out of them.
Choose one, some or all to practice. Use my exercises or devise your own. Creativity is the one thing no one can take from you and you’re in charge!
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.