Wordcrafting is so much more than just writing. It’s about using words in the right place at the right time through the right medium to the right audience. But also, more than that, it’s about invoking both beauty and meaning viscerally with an unseen audience, out of time.
If it sounds a little magical, that’s because it kind of is.
We all know that words have power to them on some level. All we have to do is cast our glances to political leaders throughout history. Words have always been wielded as invisible weapons, both to spread the seed of hatred and to spur the fires of change. We all have been affected by these words at some point during our lives for better or for worse. You, dear reader, are being affected by them right now in so many ways: by reading the news, by reading this blog post, even by listening to a podcast.
In my last post, I detailed my own journey with storytelling so far, and while writing it, one thing stood out to me the most: Knowing the importance of stories is not enough to master the art of wordcrafting.
Disclaimer alert: I’m not exactly a master of words myself. I’m still learning every day how put one word in front of another, how to tell compelling stories, and how to express myself. There are days that are harder than others.
But I’ve also been writing a long time, and there are a few things, I think, that are worth sharing especially for aspiring writers. As the famous saying goes, you do not need to reinvent the wheel. All you have to do is use it.
I also see this list as a growing one, and I hope to do more of these posts as my experience in this field grows.
But for now, let’s explore these five aspects of writing fiction.
The Balance of Wordcrafting vs. Storytelling
The creative part of writing is divided into two parts: wordcrafting versus storytelling.
Cue some Libra imagery: If we see the art of creative writing is a scale, then wordcrafting is one weighing platform while the storytelling is the other. What matters is not each individual platform but the balance between them both.
You might just have read that paragraph and thought, “No duh, Yasi!” But I cannot tell you how important this simple truth is. It’s taken me most of my writing career to realize that beautiful words mean nothing if there’s no narrative behind them. Likewise, storytelling within the medium of writing means nothing if the craft of the words does not make sense.
As a person with a chronic poetic heart, I am naturally drawn to beautiful words that invoke powerful imagery, but in the last decade, I have come not only to appreciate the beauty of storytelling but to start applying it to my own writing.
But while this might be a simple truth, it is certainly not easy to achieve. So … how do I usually go about it?
Everything Is Soup
“Everything is soup,” is a phrase I borrowed from my incredible wife who knows the art of storytelling like no other. It’s a fun way of saying “everything is connected” but the analogy is that life is a big pot of soup and all of its ingredients, though seemingly strange at first, all add to make this delicious soup we call life.
But what does this have to do with stories?
Let’s go back to my wife for a second. I’ve told her time and again that I envy her storytelling abilities, because she’s a natural at it. Her intuitive control over the flow of stories and the intermingling lives of larger-than-life characters is simply awe-inspiring. Storytelling is simply more intuitive to her.
Or… is it?
My wife makes it a point to consume stories in any shape or form. On average, she reads more than 250 books in a single year. She listens to fiction podcasts and watches television shows and movies but sprinkles in operas, musicals, ballets, documentaries. Her tastes are diverse, but whatever form of art she devours all have one thing in common with each other: they all tell a story in one way or another.
A thing about wordcrafting a lot of writers overlook is the consumption of stories. I was absolutely not immune to this when I started taking my writing more seriously. Throughout my college years, I did not read anything besides my assigned readings, and as a result, my writing skills were mediocre at best around that time. (I say all of this lovingly and without judgment.)
There is a good post by K.M. Weiland on her website Helping Authors Become Writers which talks about the importance of ‘filling the creative well’: “Fill up your noggin. Pack it full of nutritious info and strong stories that make you grow. Ingest glorious, beautiful, archetypal images. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read writing guides, read books about how awesome it is to be a writer. This will totally make you want to write more.”
By reading more, you get to know more diverse characters, more stories, real or fantastical, and you become knowledgeable about what a story looks, sounds, and feels like on an intuitive level. You will get to know good stories from bad stories, what subjects excite you as a person, what kinds of characters you relate to the most, etc. Most importantly, I think, reading allows for a more empathetic outlook on life, and what are our stories if not a way to express our own unique experiences?
So everything is soup. All stories ever created are the backbone of human existence, and they all contribute to our existence in some way no matter the subjective quality of those stories.
One caveat to this is that I would suggest reading more important for a writer than any other medium, and there is a simple explanation for that: writing material such as novels, essays, articles, short stories, etc. have both a wordcrafting and a storytelling aspect, and as writers, it’s important that we fill our well in a balanced way.
The Importance of Personal Symbolism
If you just groaned reading that, I’m with you. I’ve been in English classes where we took entire class periods focusing on the symbolism of a blue mat in a bathroom.
But that’s not the symbolism I’m talking about here, really. I’m talking about personal symbolism that speaks to us in stories.
Let me go with an example first: I have found over the years that I gravitate towards darker stories — not darker in nature but in a more literal sense. I love stories that take place underground and in worlds below and choose to do something clever with symbols of darkness and light. It’s why I love retellings about Hades and Persephone; it’s why the Daredevil TV show is one of my all-time favorites (seriously, that show is #aesthetics); it’s probably why I think that The Starless Sea is my actual favorite novel.
Think about your favorite stories and explore whether they have symbolism in common that speak to you on a deeper level. Personal symbolism is why it’s important to consume the right stories for you.
This does not mean only consuming material that makes you feel comfortable. If you are seeking to be a well-rounded author, it’s important to find stories that speak to you but those also that are diverse and outside of your comfort zone. It is, after all, impossible to be a writer without some personal growth.
The Perfect Story Does Not Exist
Ah, that felt so good to write.
Here’s the thing. I already know, that there are gonna be people who hate my specific wordcrafting or storytelling or both! Even the most popular stories have critics. It isn’t personal. It’s just life.
If you’ve ever taken a writing class or been around writers, you might hear phrases like, “Write what you know” and “write for yourself.” While the phrases are well meaning, they come off as surface-level and too vague.
So what do they mean?
I’ve come to interpret from those phrases is this: Your story is not going to sound genuine if you’re performing for someone else. There’s nothing wrong with figuring out what kind of manuscript “sells” in the current publishing world, but that’s just some tactical research for actually selling your work, if you’re inclined to do so — it should not inform your actual creative writing process. Eventually, you’re going to run out of gas if that story is not compelling to you personally.
So now that that pressure is off of writing the most perfect story, all you need to do is ask yourself only one question: What kind of story do you want to tell?
Larger than Life Characters
I genuinely believe that characters are what make stories, because we as a species tend to tell stories about our own experiences. Tying a character to a story makes that story more human, more accessible, and allows us to relate and communicate our deepest thoughts and desires.
I love me some characters. Whether they’re my own or from the figment of someone else’s imagination, I love them larger than life, daring, bold, and just a little roguish. On the other hand, stories without character-driven plot usually leave me absolutely bored.
What I’ve noticed in the long road of creating my own characters is that I usually need to know them as I would a friend. I would like a whole range of knowledge about them from the mundane to the serious: what their favorite food is, what they fear most in the world, what is their happiest memory, etc.
My go-to guide for creating a relationship with my characters is a character interview highlighted in K.M. Weiland’s “Crafting Unforgettable Characters” guide.
(Side note: if you’ve realized that I quote K.M. Weiland a lot, it’s because she’s particularly wonderful at dissecting the art of storytelling to its nitty gritty details. If you have not read any of her work, I highly recommend her! She does a weekly newsletter on the art of writing, and those posts have been both encouraging and informative.)
But while the interview is a good jump-off point for building good characters, I personally need a deeper connection. I usually need to envision the most human parts of them — how they would react to a particular social situation, what drives them forward, what they care about, and most importantly of all, what they fear.
One thing I’ve been exploring in my WIP is to think of story settings as silent characters of their own. For example, if the walls of an ancient temple could talk about the worst things they’d seen, what would they say?
The Takeaway and Feedback
Sometimes writing, especially writing fiction, seems like an untamable beast, but the more time I spend with the written word, the more fascinated I am with all aspects of writing.
To that effect, I know this is a pretty broad blog post about fiction-writing, with each of these elements deserving their own blog post.
And that’s where you come in! Comment on this blog post or hop on Twitter and tweet me @yasaminnb about which of these facets of wordcrafting and storytelling you’d like me to explore next.