Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of lively writing, is brought to you by humorous mystery / romantic suspense novelist and ‘how to’ writer Morgan St James.
Do you write like a Zombie or with Zest? – Keep it fresh
Zombie-like writing means using the same thing over and over by rote. Writing like a zombie is not okay unless it’s paranormal and you’ve just gotten into the character of one of the living dead.
Most writers recognize there are only a given number of basic plots. The many variations result in books and screenplays we love. Also, there are only a given number of character types. The widest variety is in a multitude of possible settings. Here is where the trick comes in—how to work with plots and character-types that have already been used in some form or another and make it sound fresh and original. The challenge is to keep an open mind while developing the story. Sometimes an author writes the same story over and over with a slight change in characters or situations, as though one of the aforementioned living dead produced the manuscript. When this happens, readers might think they’ve read the book before.
Other times, it’s just a case of the writer being lazy and producing a new story by adding a few quirks or situations here and there. Once they are peeled away the story is almost the same as a previous one.
Then there is the situation where a series you loved in the past has somehow gotten stale. In fact, a few times I’ve picked up such a book and after a few chapters had to ask myself, “Where’s the zest? Where is that wonderful writing I loved so much?” That’s when you realize a zombie could have written it because the author has “played that song before” and all they did was change a few pertinent details without breaking a sweat. Wait a minute — do zombies sweat?
No matter. The point is to remember you must breathe life into everything you write. Back in the 1970’s one of my relatives by marriage was co-owner of a major animation studio. I happened to be in his office one day when a writer popped in. They had a brief discussion about the plot for an upcoming episode. It went something like this:
“How about using that story from the dogcatcher episode we did last year? You know — if we change the dog to a cat, move a few things around, we’ve got a script.”
I don’t recall the writer’s exact answer, but it went something like: “Hmmm. No, I like the runaway story from last November better. Better opportunities for changes and it would feel fresher.”
That happened many years ago, and I have no idea of what they finally did, but from the conversation I’d bet the final script was probably the same old plot line with a fresh application of makeup.
A few months later, with that conversation still in mind, I checked out TV listings. That day no less than three diverse shows, all set in distinctive places with different themes, had the exact storyline and were broadcast within half-an-hour of each other.
Sometimes you don’t even recognize your own zombie-like writing until someone else points it out.
“Hey, Johnnie — that really sounds like your last book. The guy discovers his wife cheating, convinces her to take out a big insurance policy, then hires a hitman.”
“What are you talking about? In this book it’s the girl who discovers her fiancé cheating, decides to cheat on him and winds up plotting to kill him.”
“Uh, oh. On the insurance policy he took out naming her as beneficiary when they became engaged.”
Taking the second scenario, see how many different ways that story could be told without emulating Johnnie’s previous book. Here are a few prompts:
- Is it a comedy, a thriller, romance or other genre?
- Does he actually kill her or does it blow up in his face?
- Does the fiancé, who didn’t really cheat on the woman, discover she met with the hitman and turn the tables?
- Maybe she was wealthy and he not only cheated physically but ripped her off. What would turn this into a revenge story?
- A mistaken identity story?
- What if they talk it out, discover neither was really cheating and live happily after?
- Does a third person enter the equation?
There are a multitude of possibilities to spice it up while still following the same basic premise. And, if you’re running out of ideas, true stories in the news on TV, newspapers and online, can provide wonderful inspiration. Maybe your story becomes a composite of a few items, or maybe you just follow the invaluable “what if” path to create something from the starting point of the news story. Comedy, romance, mystery—it really doesn’t matter. Once you have that kernel of an idea, it’s up to you to run with it.
Think about the things that would keep you turning the pages. Dip back into your memory and dig out experiences that might make sense in the story. Expand that. Think about funny or chilling stories that were told to you by someone you know. Start to weave the tapestry of a plot with the threads of reality.
Remember to use details. Make your characters and locations pop to life with details. Not information dumps, but the bits and pieces that make them seem real. Create characters who are someone you would or would not like to know. The pounding heart when you’ve almost hit another car, the delight of a cool breeze on a hot day, the sound of children’s laughter as the character approaches a playground. Sights, sounds, textures all woven into a tightly wrapped story.
That’s zesty writing.
I’m definitely a zester (I hope!). Thank you, Morgan.
She writes the comical Silver Sisters Mysteries series with her real sister, Phyllice Bradner, has written several novels on her own, and over 500 published articles relative to the craft of writing and people in the industry, as well as the book Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction.
It a funny crime caper about embezzling from the Federal prison system and the upcoming La Bella Mafia, a true crime book co-authored with Dennis Griffin as told to them by an amazing woman, Bella Capo.
St. James is an entertaining speaker, presents workshops and frequently appears on author’s panels.
She edits and publishes of the online bi-monthly eZine Writers Tricks of the Trade and writes columns for the Los Angeles and Las Vegas editions of Examiner.com.
All of her books are available at Amazon worldwide and many other online bookstores.
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