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:
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.
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.
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.
Because, you know, a story is the sum of the choices that your characters make. And those choices can only be at the center of the story if everything else that's going on is kept stark and simple enough to let them stand out. If you build the story around the choices the most important people make, then all the complications and twists and reversals and stuff will have to come out of those choices, or fuel them.
Of course, here's a good place to note that there's a huge difference between "clever" and "complicated." A plot can be clever and fairly simple, or complicated and stupid. But even if your plot is clever without being overly complex, chances are it's drawing attention to itself, and how brilliant it is.
Really, it comes down to writing a sincere first draft — figuring out what you really want to write about, and sticking to it. It's easy to be distracted by shiny ideas or scenic detours, and sometimes it's hard to stick to the one relationship, or the one set of questions. The more tangents and fractals you add to your plot, the harder you have to work to make them thematically coherent. It's certainly doable — some of our favorite SF novels combine a crystalline structure with a solid focus on theme and character — but it's hard.
Handy Tip: Try making a list of the most important characters in your book — anywhere from one to five main characters. And then for each character, list the defining choices that he or she makes in your book. Then try to create an outline of your novel in which those choices are front and center, along with the events that inspire those choices or come out of them. This won't work for every type of novel, but it's one way to see if your baroque storytelling has gotten away from your main story.
People spend years of their lives, in MFA programs and writers retreats, learning to become more literary writers. And yet, fashions change, styles get redefined, and the boundaries around what works get to be considered "literary" change all the time. In this way, literary fiction is like any other genre.
I often feel like the best way to be literary, especially in the long run, is to try your damnedest not to be literary. Don't try and second-guess what the literary gatekeepers are looking for this week — just try to make your writing as strong and as pure as you can. And remember, "literary" is not a synonym for "good." It's just a type of writing. (I say this as someone who loves literary fiction, and has a giant bookcase full of litmags at home, everything from Ploughshares to Eleven Eleven and ZYZZYVA. At one point, I had almost a complete set of Granta.)
In particular, less is often more when it comes to literary devices. Poetic language tricks can get distracting. "Postmodern" metafictional devices and textual games can easily seem like an outmoded fad brought back to life. Likewise for long digressions and descriptions of mundane objects or experiences. Ditto for random ironies like having the narrator say something that the reader knows has another, more poignant meaning. I feel like a lot of literary fiction, five years ago, had the "preternaturally innocent narrator who notices a lot of details but fails to understand their significance," and now I'm seeing a lot more world-weary narrators who comment on everything explicitly.
The thing is, literary devices are tools of storytelling. This sounds like an obvious statement, but sometimes it feels as though writers are like hospitals: you installed a CT scanner at great expense, so by gosh you're going to use the CT scanner on every patient who comes in. Because the scanner must be amortized. In the same way, writers tend to use every tool in the toolkit, because why the heck not? And yet, every story is different and requires a different set of tools — which is part of why a really great writer is one whose books don't all feel exactly the same.
So I'm not saying that you should eschew irony, or metafiction, or fancy language games, or any other literary devices — just make sure you're using the tool that fits the job, rather than changing the job to fit your tools. Try telling the story with as little fanciness as you can, and then see what parts of the story absolutely will not work without the use of one of these devices. As with everything else in this article, I'm not saying you should banish literary devices entirely — more that you should try to banish them, and then see what you absolutely can't do without.
And it bears repeating: often, the works that use the least amount of "literary" devices are the ones that wind up being regarded as the most literary, especially over time.
Handy Tip: Sort of like with dialogue, try writing the same scene or passage a few different ways, including a stark recitation of what happens, and an ultra-detailed description of the scene, and then some more experimental or metatextual versions, in which you mix it up — and see what conveys the feeling of the scene best. Even if this doesn't help you do anything with that particular scene, it's a fun writing exercise. And remember to have fun! If this isn't fun for you, at least at some points during the writing process, then it won't be fun for your readers.