Mar 07 2011
1. Think outside the box. When you’re writing, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the most conventional (and forgettable). It probably came to mind first because you’ve seen it (or something like it) so many times before. If for some reason you need to try something that’s very conventional, at least have characters respond in a different way or build to a different outcome or try a different angle. For example, killing off the parents in a superhero story gets used more often than a taser at a hippie convention, but it was still extremely effective as dark comedy in Kick-Ass. (Instead of leading to a “MOTHER, I WILL AVENGE YOU!”, it was a deliberately random aneurysm). Likewise, instead of another scene where a protagonist saves a love interest, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim his dead dog. It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for something that wouldn’t matter to pretty much anybody else.
2. Let your characters act unusually compared to other characters in their genre(s). If the characters only make decisions and do things that 90%+ of other characters would do in the same situation, they’re probably going through the paces of a pretty banal plot rather than anything we will want to remember. This is most immediately noticeable for protagonists, but distinctive villains can also excel. For example, who else but Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter could get away with psychically strangling one of his boss’ subordinates in front of him or taking down two cops with his teeth?
3. Read widely. As a rule of thumb, I think that novelists really benefit from reading 50+ books published in their genre(s). I think all authors are subconsciously guided by the works they’ve read and it is painfully obvious when an author has only read a few works. An author that has only read a few works is much more likely to write something that feels like a second-rate knockoff of a work that everybody has heard about, whereas the influences of a well-read author will be much harder to pick up. At the very least, reading widely will give you a better idea of what you need to distinguish yourself from.
4. Don’t just show us things because they’re there, but because they matter. Details tend to be forgettable unless they advance the plot or develop a character or at least the setting in some way. For example, in 99% of cases, it doesn’t matter whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown. Unless it says something interesting about the character or is relevant to the plot in some way, it’s probably just an extraneous detail. (Of the hundreds or thousands of characters you’ve read, how many eye-colors do you remember?) It’s more effective to bring in details when they reinforce what’s happening in the story. For example, if a character is making a difficult decision (like divorcing his wife or firing a close friend), you could use the character’s bloodshot or clear eyes to show how hard or easy the situation is for him.