It’s funny where some great writing tips can come from. I learned one of my best years ago from Richard Adler, then a Professor of English at the University of Montana.
He was in New Zealand on a Fulbright scholarship and gave a talk about essay writing to my honours class. Up to that point, nobody had taught the class anything about how to write – it was an assumed skill that went with the university territory. Unlike most of my fellow students, I’d done multiple courses on writing, including fiction. I felt secure in my 21-year old notion that I knew everything there was to know. What could he tell the class in 50 minutes that I didn’t already know?
Actually, everything. The guy was a genius. Everything he said was new, sensible, and important. Starting with the opening point.
‘Start broad,’ he said , ‘then work down to the specific.’
Adler’s tip was deceptively simple -and said it all. Writing is all about structure, and THAT is the way to start with the right structure. First off, every time. It’s also known as the ‘inverted pyramid’ approach. Journalists get taught the same thing. It works for just about every type of writing. It first hooks the reader with the big picture, and then draws them deeper into the material.
It still has to be done right. If you start broad in a novel, for instance, it doesn’t mean bogging the readers down with miles of expository back-story. Try looking at the thing of broadest importance ot your lead character, instead.
The problem – with novels and every other kind of writing – is working out that big picture. Breaking the material into components may not be enough – you also have to identify the organising principle. What is the if-then structure? Sometimes it isn’t obvious.
There’s also another trick to the process, which Adler didn’t tell me – but which I’ve learned since.
The way to hook readers in early sentences, in any style of writing, is by adding a flourish – a narrative detail – to that broad start. Otherwise the broad exposition is liable to be boring. That seems counter-intuitive in a way – a detail, just when you should be looking at the widest picture.
Imagine an artists’ rendition of a sunset sky, all dark velvet with an orange horizon. Potentially dull – but then add Venus, the evening star. A sparkle. A detail. It doesn’t reduce the broad sweep of the picture but it adds a point of attention without disturbing the broad intent of what the artist is doing – creating the sunset mood.
Writing’s like that. Open the piece you’re writing broad, sure – but add that sparkle to punctuate the mood.
What do you figure?
And have you ever had an eye-opener experience like the one I had, way back in George Orwell’s favourite year?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up this week: Was going to do UFO’s and big rigs - but Dennis Tito’s come up with a space-type plan that’s even dumber. Check out my take on it tomorrow. Inspirations moves to Wednesday, this time exploring why music and writing are the same thing; and more writing tips and ‘write it now’ posts.