On the Shoulders of Giants

We all have storytellers that inspire us. If you’re a fantasy writer, then you may cite J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling as influences. Maybe horror is your primary genre: then you might put Stephen King on that list. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to just be writers who influence your writing. Maybe you started writing because you want to recapture the feeling you got when you first watched your favorite movie or played your favorite video game. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn from and emulate the writers that you admire. But if we’re going to do so, we had best learn how to do so effectively and responsibly.

Being an Active, Analytical Consumer

A good writer, people say, is a writer who reads as much as they can. The more variety you have in the things you read, the greater the variety you’ll have in your writing. At least, that’s the idea. I feel it requires some elaboration.

First and most important: if you want to feel good about the stories you write, you won’t get that feeling from just copying the tricks that other writers use. At best, your writing won’t feel like something you created. At worst, it’s plagiarism, and no one wants that. Being influenced by other creators isn’t the regurgitation of talking points. Instead, it needs to be a conversation that you, as a fellow storyteller, are actively participating in. To do that, you need to know what you want to say about those stories you admire so much.

No more Netflix & Chill for you. From now on, it’s Netflix & Note-Taking. The “Netflix” in this equation can be anything: books, movies, television, music, video games, the news. Anything you choose to study. “Note-Taking,” meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily mean sitting there with a pencil and paper writing down all your observations (although you can if you want). Rather, it refers to being active and analytical in how you consume media.

Being active is the easier part: it means keeping your brain switched on when taking in a story, even when you might feel tempted to switch it off. Contrary to what you might be thinking, this doesn’t mean you should always be nitpicking everything you watch and read. We aren’t trying to be CinemaSins here. I mean you should be aware of how the story is being told. Take note of plot structure, character, dialogue, themes, symbolism, etc. Know what the story is saying and how it’s saying it.

Alright, so you’ve been paying attention, and now you’ve got your notes. What comes next? You analyze. Try to figure out why the storyteller might have made the creative choices that they did, and then figure out how you feel about those choices. Find and read some critical essays about the work in question. Talk it over with some like-minded friends — politely, of course. When all is said and done, you should be able to coherently say what you think works and doesn’t work about the piece of media you’ve been studying.

Building Your Toolbox

By now, you’re probably asking “What does any of this have to do with making me a better writer?”

The answer is, you’re learning how to be a better storyteller. To be specific, you’re learning about what kind of storyteller you are. By consuming and analyzing media, you can pick out tropes and patterns in narratives which appeal to you or come across as mistakes you would rather avoid in your own work.

Let’s use an example for this. Suppose you’re watching a movie or reading a book in which the hero’s girlfriend gets killed off to motivate the hero, and this particular plot point rubs you the wrong way. Maybe you’ll try not to use that trope in your own writing, or play around with it to make a storyline that you like better. The possibilities are endless if you’re determined enough.

This is why all creative works are worthy of storytelling analysis even if they aren’t considered good. In some ways, stories which are badly told have even more to teach you than stories which are good. On occasion, I’ve been asked for tips about writing romantic relationships. The answer surprises people: I watch Twilight and the Star Wars prequels, among other things. Why? Because sometimes, in order to learn how to do something, we must study how not to do it. By learning from the failures of others, we teach ourselves how to avoid making those mistakes ourselves.

All of this is part of a process that I like to call “building a writer’s toolbox.” Your toolbox is all the tips and tricks you’ve picked up from your experiences and studies, and it’s 100% unique to you. If a piece of writing advice just isn’t working for you, then don’t use it! If everyone followed the same writing rules, our writing would all sound the same.

I Respect You, But…

Let’s have another example. Stephen King’s book On Writing is one of the better known of its kind, and in it, King strongly advises against the use of adverbs. As you can tell by the adverb just then, I don’t think this is a rule we all need to follow all the time. An adverb used carefully is an adverb used well. Or you can go crazy with the adverbs if that’s what you feel like doing, because it’s your story, not anyone else’s.

If someone like Stephen King says not to do something when you write, your first instinct might be to do what he says. He’s a successful author, so surely he must know what he’s talking about, right? What works for one writer, however, may not work for another. It’s important to remember, and I think it’s what sets learning from another storyteller apart from the act of simply imitating another storyteller. You should take in what they have to say, but ultimately, you should also be willing to forge your own path and find the writing style that you are most comfortable with.

In conclusion: a good writer should learn about writing and storytelling from all the sources they can access, even those which seem like they might not have much to offer. Find out what makes your favorite stories tick, as well as the points that don’t quite work. Identifying the tropes you like and dislike will help you decide what stories you want to tell. Soak up all of the writing advice that you can, but only retain that which you feel is helpful to you personally. Keep it safe in your toolbox so you can use it later. It may not exist in anyone else’s toolbox, but that’s okay, because what matters is how well it works for you. When you study the work of others, you end up learning not just about them, but about yourself.

I hope you enjoyed this article! Keep an eye out for the next one!

— Dana

One thought on “On the Shoulders of Giants

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