Mar 07 2011

Writing Memorably

Published by at 10:21 pm under Fixing Cliches,Writing Articles

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.

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Writing Memorably”

  1. Contra Gloveon 08 Mar 2011 at 7:34 am

    Ah, thanks for this article. It certainly gives me some things to think on with respect to my work.

  2. Danion 08 Mar 2011 at 5:08 pm

    “…than a taser at a hippie convention”

    One of the oddest but best lines I have ever seen written. Kudos.

  3. B. Macon 08 Mar 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Haha, thanks, Dani. I spent a few minutes thinking of that one. 😉

  4. E.J. Apostropheon 12 Mar 2011 at 6:43 pm

    This post is pure gold. I think all ideas have been rehashed or regurgitated to some degrees. The true innovators of creation will dare to challenge the status quo and break new ground.

  5. HarleyQon 12 Mar 2011 at 7:51 pm

    I agree with Mr. Apostrophe. (X3) It’s perfect, and I found it just when I needed it without really looking for it even!

  6. Ragged Boyon 19 Mar 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Sigh. I wish school didn’t consume so much of my mental energy and time. My writing has pretty much halted and any readings that I’ve read have all been focused on school. I’ve been reading graphic novels becaused the thought of even starting a book throws off my study schedule. Haha. Hopefully in the summer I’ll have a little more elbow room for personal pursuits.

  7. Goaton 14 May 2011 at 10:30 am

    Random question: How many words per day do you think is a healthy amount to aim for when writing?

  8. B. Macon 14 May 2011 at 3:44 pm

    300 words a day is a very doable starting goal–I can usually write that much in 20-30 minutes. If you can do 300 words a day for several weeks, you could probably gradually increase to 600 words (~2 pages) a day and eventually 3 pages. If you’re writing around 1000 words per day, you should have a rough draft of a novel manuscript ready within three months. I know some people that consistently write 15+ pages per day, but only God knows how.

  9. Goaton 15 May 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Alright thanks.

  10. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 May 2011 at 3:09 am

    I’ve been writing about 2,000 words per day, but I’m going to lose a lot of it during the editing process, so it’s mostly a safety barrier thing. I can bash out about 2,000 in 30-40 minutes when I’m using Write or Die, and maybe 400 in the same amount of time without it.


    I know what you mean. When I was still in high school, I found it incredibly hard to find time to write and read unless it was part of an assignment. But now that I’ve graduated, I have a lot of free time and I get a lot more done. Just hang in there. 🙂

  11. Wingson 16 May 2011 at 9:53 am

    I can go days without writing anything, and then write ~2500 words in two days. It’s a little weird.

    However, I’m trying Camp NaNoWriMo this summer, and as regular NaNo had me getting about 1000 words a day, I should get a lot of work done. 😀

    – Wings

  12. Anonymouson 28 Jul 2011 at 6:19 am

    “which is why you probably can’t remember the eye-color of any character ever.”

    in Shades Children one of the characters has gold eyes, never forgotten that, even eight years later.

  13. B. Macon 28 Jul 2011 at 8:42 am

    ” For example, in 99% of cases it doesn’t matter whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown. It doesn’t really say anything interesting about what’s going on, which is why you probably can’t remember the eye-color of any character ever.” Well, the eye color being distinct is a plus. Did they affect the plot in any way?

    I’ve rephrased the paragraph in question to be a bit less certain.

  14. Dr. Vo Spaderon 05 Nov 2012 at 5:29 pm

    If one were to write an absurdly original superhero story, which would be the best approach?

    >1775 – 1777: American Revolution. Characters include a super soldier redcoat antagonist, Native American invisible hunter, and a struggling invincible pioneer.

    >Swords n’ Stuff. A telekinetic monk, a super-strong mercenary, an electric powered knight, and a mind reading king.

    >Post-apocalypse. (Less absurd, maybe more relatable?) A fire manipulating refugee teams up with a vengeance driven, gravity manipulating marauder to save his daughter.

    >Twisted Turn of a World. (Lizardmen rule, it’d be a story of human revolution.) Charcters would be a pre-cognition fueled slave human, a magnetism manipulating gladiator, and a already-rebellion leading regenerator.

    >Island Paradise turned Criminal Relocation. (Heh, Escape from L.A. meets Arkham City.) Characters would be an ex-con agility survivor and an intentionally thrown in steel bone marine.

  15. edgukatoron 06 Nov 2012 at 3:35 am

    I like the American Revolution one, just because it’s not somewhere I have seen super-powers before.

    To a certain extent, having super powers in a fantasy is redundant, they have magic, so Swords n Stuff and Twisted Turn don’t really strike me as unique. Escape from LA was already a fantasy story with guns – and Arkham City is a superhero story.

    I’m not sure about the post-apocalyptic one. A lot of Cyberpunk deals with near superpowers (see Akira and Johnny Mnemonic) so it also doesn’t seem as unique.

    For all of them, however, the telling of the story would make a big difference. Personally, I’d be really interested in the American Revolution story particularly if it were dealt with in a way where you can never quite tell if its superhuman or not, but that’s just my preference.

  16. Dr. Vo Spaderon 06 Nov 2012 at 9:26 am

    American Revolution: Also my favorite.

    L.A./Arkham: This is why I included the island theme, and intended to make more superpowered heroes than Batman. (Don’t get me wrong, he and the game are both fantastic.) Both of these were intended to create hopefully substantial differences.

    Post-apocalypse: I was thinking of a more nuclear wasteland apocalypse than cyberpunk. Was thinking it would have been interesting to see how those with an edge would survive, and how they would relate to those without.

    I was seriously on the edge about the other two. Good advice, all of it, thanks!

  17. catswoodsriveron 18 Jan 2016 at 9:50 am

    My story has different arcs in it, each from a few hours to a human lifetime. It is centered around a female protagonist who is a hybrid of two alien races. In this story, she created the earth. Eye color shows power for one of the races. She can shapeshift, but she can’t change eye color without giving up or involuntarily losing a good bit of her power. She can kind of reincarnate, by becoming a child for a couple that wants one but can’t have one. When she does this, she retains varying amounts of power and around 12 years in that form is when she breaks out and becomes fully herself. Sometimes, her memories can start to leak through earlier.

  18. Kindraon 09 Jan 2019 at 8:23 am

    I have mentioned eye color a total of 4 times in five chapters during which time 11 characters were introduced. It only occured twice from each narrator (I have two). The first time was the male narrator pointing out how difficult it was to believe he and his sister were siblings based on their appearance. The second time he mentions it is when describing the other narrator (a girl) by mentioning her eyes are blue, which is confusing since her hair is red and this doesn’t make much sense in-universe.
    The other two times were the female narrator describing the eyes of the authority figures she spoke with. It’s kinda a thing she does.

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