Many people dream of being clever wordsmiths. Masters of fizzy, quotable dialogue. Creators of plots that are full of cool twists and nutty-but-brilliant ideas. The undisputed champions of madcap invention.
But then you spend years chasing the mantle of "ultimate cleverpants," only to realize that you've been chasing the wrong thing. Because what matters isn't cleverness, but the actual storytelling. If you're not telling a story that rocks, then all the cleverness in the universe won't matter.
I spent years trying to be cleverer. And then, I spent a few more years trying to learn how to be less clever, so I could pay attention to the fundamentals. Here's everything you need to know about how not to be a clever writer.
For speculative fiction authors, in particular, the temptation to luxuriate in clever ideas and nifty tricks can be almost overwhelming. Science fiction is, after all, the genre of ideas. And a big part of the appeal of reading speculative fiction is the thrill of shiny ideas. If most SF fans list their favorite books and authors, there are probably at least a few titles in there that are renowned for their zaptastic sparkiness.
Some of the cleverest authors in SF and fantasy are so masterful, they make it look easy. But that's a trap. It's often not until you read their works several times that you realize all the hard work they're doing under the surface to support that cleverness. All of the subtle character development and worldbuilding, all of the human touches that work below the level of ideas, are what make the cleverness possible.
Also, I hate to break it to you, but chances are, you're not naturally as clever as, say, Douglas Adams. Very, very few people are. That idea-a-minute, sproingy style of the first couple Hitchhiker's books is not something that just bursts out of most of us. Plus all too often, writers who try to be clever wind up just seeming like they're trying too hard, or being "clever-clever," in the phrase that David Bowie immortalized in the "Blue Jean" video.
So maybe the best thing is to banish cleverness as much as possible — and then see what creeps back in. The "clever" touches that still remain after you've focused on the non-clever things are probably the ones that really support the story — as well as the ones that the story supports.
So with that out of the way, here are some tips:
How to make your dialogue less quotable
I know, you want to be Joss Whedon so bad it hurts. (And, quite possibly, it'll hurt your readers, too.)
But quippy dialogue can get overwhelming in a hurry. It can make your characters feel like a mouthpiece for the author, instead of real people. Sometimes the more quotable the dialogue, the less it sounds like the way people really talk. You also risk coming across like a sitcom writer. And most of all, dialogue that is too sparky and witty may fall flat in the crucial area of actually letting us know what's going on in your character's heads.
That's not to say that a sharp line of dialogue isn't a great source of pleasure in its own right, of course — but not if it comes at the cost of letting your characters have their own voices. And their own thoughts. The only way your readers are going to be hearing a character's voice in their heads is if you've heard it first.
Handy Tip: Here's something to try, the next time you're writing a dialogue-heavy scene. Try writing the same line of dialogue three different ways: 1) the quippy version, 2) the version that simply conveys the meaning of the line, and 3) the emotional subtext of the line. And then try to find the version that combines 2) and 3) as much as possible. You might find you end up with a line that's more quotable than the witty version you originally had.
How to make your worldbuilding less brilliant
There a few things that good worldbuilding tends to do: it's entertaining, it makes your world feel like a real place, it makes the events of your story seem plausible, and it makes your world seem like someplace your readers would want to spend a lot of time in real life, if they could. And the greatest sin of fancy worldbuilding is when it places entertainment value over the rest of those goals — which are all, arguably, more important.
So maybe it's better not to try and dazzle your readers with a million cool ideas in your worldbuilding — which risks just turning them off, anyway — and focus instead on creating a believable, solid world. To paraphrase Yoda, believability leads to a place you want to spend time in. And if you're really lucky, a place you want to spend time in leads, in turn, to a clever locale.
But it all starts with the bedrock of plausibility — which means thinking about your place and its history. How does the economy work, and how do people feed themselves? How did things get to be the way they are now? And so on. And then build from there — including throwing in funny, off-kilter touches as long as they actually make sense.
Sometimes, I think of really good worldbuilding as being like falling in love with a person. Maybe that person's sparkling personality and funny quirks is what draws you in — but those things won't keep you interested for long. You need to see the person behind the sparkly surface, including a hint of what really animates him or her, or else you're just going to wind up having a fling. In a sense, good worldbuilding is like good character development writ large.
(And it pretty much goes without saying that if your dialogue and your worldbuilding are both solid and grounded, then your characters will be too.)
Handy Tip: Try to imagine how people actually live in your world, and some of the random irritating things that they have to deal with just to get through their day. Sometimes the annoying little details about the difficulty of getting from A to B in a city can be funnier than a bunch of big, sprawling, tangential ideas.
How to make your plots less brilliant
The world is full of ingenious plotting. Byzantine stories with a million twists, where it all comes together in the end in some surprising but wonderful fashion, are dime a dozen. At their best, they're like fancy contraptions that whirl around and keep everybody's head spinning, only to seem totally logical at the end.
At their worst... they just sort of spin around in every direction at once, until everybody can see the gaps.
We're all so accustomed to "five dimensional chess" plotting nowadays, you might actually have to work to keep your plot simple and linear. Complications naturally creep in, and genuinely neat ways to tie it all together will just pop into your head. Why should you struggle to avoid having a fancy plot?
Most people would answer that the fancier the plot, the likelier your characters are to get short shrift. But we already know that the plot-based/character-based storytelling division is a false dichotomy. No, the real reason is because a too-clever plot makes it harder to write about ideas and themes.