What vs. how

For the better part of my teenage years as a writer I’ve been obsessed with ideas. Four, five years can be easily summed up as being a quest for the million dollar idea, that brilliant one that was going to bring me success and fame and glory.

And I find that to be the mark of young, ambitious writers. They stress too much about the what part of this craft – ideas, settings, plot. They try to build a web of places and characters that’s going to awe the reader. Basically they’re trying too much.

I’m not saying that all the years I’ve spent obsessing about ideas have been fruitless. No, far from it. I’ve got some pretty good ideas from my endless brainstorming days, when I used to walk around the house, trying to find the next big thing. But I did one capital mistake then. I wasn’t really writing. But that’s not the point in today’s blog. The idea is that I soon understood, and with grave consequences, that I had good ideas, but at best I struggled to implement them, and at worst I just couldn’t.

That’s when I realized that the how part of writing is, if not more, than equally as important as the what part.

How do you write a story?

There’s a lot of stuff to say here, about technical matters such as point of view, tense, and other stylistic preferences. Writing style.

I always try to give my narrators, when I write in the first person, a reason for writing that story. Maybe he’s writing a diary, a letter, or even some sort of discourse, trying to write down some memories, or even writing an autobiographical novel. He’s trying to prove a point — something happened to him, and he’s writing the events down in an attempt to preserve them, or get them out of his head, or even hoping to find a bit of comfort. But he does so for a reason.

Even writers write for a reason. So, I try to give my narrators a reason for writing down their lives.

And now for the common sense part, but I do find that some writers find it awful to comply to this rule. The style should closely follow the narrator’s personality, and that’s a good way to prove a certain point. I’m a bit obsessed with writers — I write a lot about writers, because that way their style can be as good as I can be, without me getting all crazy about that part I told you about earlier. They do have a reason to write what they’re writing, but also they can do this at the best of their abilities. Well, the best of my abilities.

Someone who never wrote anything before wouldn’t really write that well. Probably they’d write some terrible stuff, regardless of how many books they’ve read. I’m making a compromise, of course, giving them some resemblance of style and such, because the very first thing someone would write would be basically unreadable.

What I’m really trying to say is that in the past couple of years I’ve been experimenting with the how part of writing. Trying to write stories in one paragraph, even in one phrase, trying to write stories with multiple narrators, writing in present tense (that’ not so experimental these days,) or simply mixing first person with third, or third with second (by the way, I love second person narratives.)

The best of stories leave you with a certain feeling, an after taste that’s still present long after you read them. And style has a lot to do with it, simply because style determines the way the reader absorbs the plot and characters.

I think that there has to be a right mixture of how and what. A story has to contain both a compelling plot, in which something has to happen,  and, at the same time, a certain style that will match the events that are being presented to the reader.


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19 thoughts on “What vs. how

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about what and how recently as well as I’m about to embark on blogging about them. Loved reading about your views on it.
    Haven’t really ever tried to write in the second person (I’m a first person writer all the way). Maybe I should experiment with it one day.


    • I agree that people do stress too much about the art of the craft of writing. It keeps some from every expression the meat that needs to get out! I have never heard anyone, yet, encourage writing in the second person. I try to avoid it. It was my natural bent, but I wanted to be inclusive instead of preachy, counting me in with the “you”. It was good to hear another take on it as an option!


      • I see what you mean about preachy, that hadn’t occurred to me, but yes it could sound like you’re trying to tell people how they should think.
        I think I’d been more thinking about a horror story in 2nd person; something to only read in full sunlight with your back to a wall and a clear panoramic view.


  2. I really like your thoughts about first person storytelling. Regarding giving the narrator a reason to write the story, do you just do this as an exercise in order to envision the character or do you weave that into your narration? I ask because always giving narrators an in-story motivation would become tedious, especially if you’re a writer of short stories.

    Apart from that, the writing styles I choose for my stories always come from the story itself. When I’m typing it out, the story somehow compels me to use a particular style (tense, PoV, etc.). Does that happen to you?


  3. Cristian, You are on the right track writing!

    Art and Beauty is in the eye of the beholder is an Old Truism. Reading your short soul stories, you remind me of this character from 2600 years ago.

    And I have heard of you, that you can make interpretations, and dissolve doubts:
    now if you can read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation of it, you shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.

    Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let your gifts be to yourself, and give your rewards to another; yet I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation…….
    Daniel, my Brother……


  4. You write some true words. And I find that I fit once in that class of young writers since I spent 4 or 5 years working on an idea only to end up with a terrible book. I don’t do that anymore. Like what you wrote about the first person narrator, most people do not, in fact, consider what you have written.


  5. I have definitely fallen into this ‘what’ trap too many times, and been just overwhelmed with too many ideas and no ways to put them together. It’s a great reminder that being a writer really lies in actually writing. Without getting anything down we’re all just wandering philosophers.


  6. An additional pro of brainstorming ideas over actually working on them is that writing (the physical, mechanical part of the process) is unexpectedly exhausting. It costs a lot of effort to transfer your mental images to paper (or Word, or OOO, whatever you use at the moment); many writers baulk at exactly that.

    Ideas are cheap and satisfying. Writing is difficult and time-consuming. And prone to scrutiny by other parties, which may prove destructive to one’s ego.


  7. This is a great point to make when thinking about writing a novel. Sure, the “what” of a novel is significant, because you can’t write a novel without an idea. But once you have the “what,” you have to figure out HOW you will write that idea. If you don’t know how you’ll write your novel, then the idea will stay in your head and never make it onto paper.


  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. Even though I have given up on writing novels, I would still like to write short stories, and this is wonderful advice. What I got from this is one should come up with one or two reasons that a character will write something down/be considered important to the reader, and then go with it. You never know what you may come up with…


  9. I like what you suggested about giving your narrator a purpose for writing. I think that’s something that is definitely overlooked and I’ll make sure to consciously think of that from now on.
    As for the second person narrative, can you suggest any books that use second person or discuss how to use it properly? I’ve always been intrigued by it, but haven’t been able to find anything that truly captures the skill of writing in the second person narrative style.


  10. When it comes to point of view, I’m someone who likes first-person and third-person. Third-person feels easier, but now that I think about it, I feel like my first-person POV writing needs more practice…and I think I’ve been using third-person a lot. Giving first-person narrators a reason to write…that seems like an interesting idea. Maybe recounting an experience to someone else can be a good idea?


  11. I find sometimes that in pursuit of perfection,of which the ‘great idea’ is but the first step, can be very self limiting. I’ve heard David Foster Wallace express the same opinion here:

    Sitting down and writing and just focusing on enjoying the process often shows me the ‘how’ In a mysterious way. Tone and manner and unseen connections between things just fall into place in a flashes of inspiration. Randomness and fluke have been by best friends at various times.:)


  12. This entry got me to thinking about all those sleepless nights I spent thinking of what to write, dismissing one after another because they just weren’t good enough.


  13. I find that I personally do not write much fiction because I do not feel like I have enough outline for characters or plot structure. But, once I do have a solid idea, I can write quite a bit about it and wander around wonderfully. I definitely agree that is is all about creating a balance as a writer. I could probably take notes from those writers who create pages of outlines before starting the writing process of a project. Nice post! :)


  14. Another insightful and eloquent quote from you which got me thinking about my writing and how to improve it: “The best of stories leave you with a certain feeling, an after taste that’s still present long after you read them. And style has a lot to do with it, simply because style determines the way the reader absorbs the plot and characters.”


  15. A pretty good article to consider before writing! Actually, the What and the How to write are both essential since first we need to find out What topic to write exactly in order to avoid the article that just goes around the bush, and How to put things into words so as to get the text across the readers and let them absorb what you want to tell. Also, the How will make the article more interesting if we understand the way to play around with words. Unfortunately, I still lack of the How in my writing, and I think I should learn from you :-)


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