Writing Tips #1: What's It Really About?

Free weekly writing tips and prompts from Shuks

Hi there

Welcome to the first of my free weekly writing tips and prompts. Thanks so much for subscribing. I hope you find these useful. I’ll try and keep them as short as I can. I’m going to this for ten weeks see how we go. These are aimed at people at all levels. And as ever, they’re just my thoughts. There are seventeen million other writing tips and guides out there. Find what works for you. Good luck with your writing!

WRITING TIP: WHAT IS IT REALLY ABOUT?

What is the story you’re telling? What is it really about? Sure it’s about a meteor hurtling towards earth and the hero who will stop at nothing to save humanity. But what’s it really about? There is story and there is event. There is story and there is plot. These are separate things. The event, the plot, these are the things that happen on the page: the hero’s montage, the hare-brained mission, the twists and turns. But what is it really about?

Craig Mazin, the creator of Chernobyl, often talks about When Harry Met Sally… and how in the first scene of the movie, you know exactly what the film is about. Harry and Sally meet, get in a car and have an argument about whether men and women can ever just be friends, or does sex always get in the way? This is the story of the film. Every single scene advances this story. So what is your story about? What is the journey the characters are going on? The emotional one. The one that makes us care about them.

Two examples: Lord Of The Rings is about a hobbit who has to chuck a ring in a volcano. It’s really about a sheltered person being thrown out into the wider world and having to become braver in order to navigate it. That means, when he finally chucks the ring in the volcano, he has become the bravest version of himself. And we all cheer. In Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Connell and Marianne are exploring what it is to ‘be a normal person’ given the different environments they’ve grown up in. In Lord Of The Rings, there’s a lot of plot and event but all of these hang off Frodo’s story. In Normal People, it zeroes in on the smaller moments and intimacies of these characters because through these interactions, we see Connell and Mariane’s stories. Both books know what they’re really about. And give us compelling interesting characters to explore their stories.

So, what is your short story/novel really about? What themes are you exploring? What emotional truth? Because once you know this, you can have your characters save the world from a meteor or fall in and out of love for a decade or anything really. The events aren’t as important as the story. Really think about what the story is.

WRITING PROMPT: FIND THE STORY (25 minutes)

A (10 minutes): Think about your favourite novel. Think about the characters. Maybe get it off the shelf to flick through and familiarise yourself. For ten minutes, I want you to think about what it’s really about. What are the themes it deals with? What is the story at its core? Write this down. And then think about all of the points in the novel this theme crops up. Maybe this one chapter where x happens and the protagonists reacts in this way, it’s because the story is really about the protagonist’s x y or z. Write this all down. Really evaluate your favourite book. Break it down. Understand what it’s really about.

B (15 minutes): Do exactly the same thing with the project you’re working on. It may be a short story, or a novel, or a screenplay. Each of these requires you to know what the story is. So do the work as above. Understand exactly what your story is. When you’re done, tear the paper out of your notebook or print the document. Stick it up somewhere you will see it. Remind yourself of the story. This is your guide for what you’re working on.

MY WRITING LIFE

I was recently at a friend’s barbecue, standing nearing the meat because I think that’s what men are supposed to do at barbecues. Soon chat turned to jobs. Someone I’d not met before asked me what I did for a living. So I told him, I’m a writer. Which is a super cringey thing to admit. It sounds so pretentious. He replied with the question people always ask when you tell them you’re a writer. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Have you written anything I might have read?’

I hate it when people ask that. It always feels like they’re saying, oooooh a writer, let me make you feel bad that you’re not a household name like JK Rowling. Even if they’re asking as an awkward way of finding out the name of the things you’ve written, it still feels pass-aggs. Like, impress me.

I replied, ‘I don’t know what you’ve read so I couldn’t tell you. What’s the last book you read?’

He said he wasn’t much of a reader and talk quickly turned to a sport. Point: Shukla.

Okay, that’s it for this week. Hope the above was of use. Next week, I’ll talk about dialogue. Obviously this is a free weekly newsletter designed to inspire writers at all stages of their career. You can support me by either spreading the word about the newsletter, or buying my books or, you could buy me a coffee. There’s a site called ko-fi that allows you to caffeinate freelancers. I drink a lot of coffee. So please do consider buying me one

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Keep going.

Nikesh