A few years ago, I came across this Tumblr post from Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly) who shared a piece of writing advice from Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Fight Club 2):
(*NOTE* Writing advice is like pizza. You’re never going to agree with all of it, but almost all of it holds some merit.)
In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.The list should also include: Loves and Hates. And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: “Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…” Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
This piece stuck with me the longest and made the biggest impact because I personally have narrowed this down as the KEY skill many up-and-coming authors (like me. And you. And hopefully others.) need to improve the most.
Palahniuk describes it as “unpacking,” so I’ll refer it to it as such. We read books to immerse ourselves in the worlds and tales the author weaves. If our writing is too calculated, too dry, too “chess piece storytelling,” where plot is more important than character and we’re only moving the characters to the next big location, we’re missing the bigger picture. What’s happening around them? What’re they experiencing? How can we, as the audience, take in the greater world around them?
I’m guilty of this.
The first book I wrote from start to finish in 2012 was as dry as the worst turkey on the most awkward Thanksgiving. Whatever I had planned for the dramatic plot and high stakes caused me to completely gloss over the smaller bits. I didn’t know what my characters wanted or what captivating details from this future (It was a futuristic sci-fi) would interest my readers. It was boring, to be truthful.
So, as one of my writing warm-ups, I’ll give myself a challenge of writing a basic, “packed” sentence and do what I can to “unpack” it.
Challenge Sentence: Grand Ave. Coffee was Dave’s favorite coffee spot.
Unpacked Sentence: Dave could smell it before it saw. Around the corner, down the street from the run-down hotel with low-income housing, sat Grand Ave. Outside the doors sat an industrial-themed patio space. Rod iron chairs and glossy, wood tables with uneven edges. Overhead, garden netting blocked out the harsh sun and made sitting outside bearable. Massive stone columns littered the seating, and formed a pathway to inside. They designed the inside to resemble a train station from the turn of the century, with steel beams and a brown and black color palette, making the entire establishment feel like you were resting in a cool, calm factory. Dave grabbed an espresso and a blueberry scone there every day.
Done and done in one go.
Is it good? Not sure.
That’s the subjective part, but at least the sentence has been “unpacked” and the reader has a better visual idea of why Dave likes Grand Ave. Coffee so much.
We’ll do it all again next week.