(“BAD” in quotation marks because I don’t like using that word. It’s harsh, discouraging, and vague. BUT it’s also short and convenient. So for now, I’ll be using it.)
So here’s something I find odd:
Beginner writers are usually already REALLY intelligent about storytelling. They know their basics cold (basic structures, elements, etc). Discuss a movie or book with them, they’ll be able to offer smart critiques and even great suggestions for fixes.
And yet, beginner’s luck just ISN’T a reality in writing: Your first story WILL be bad.
What’s more, YOU will NOT realize it.
You’ll look at it and see NOTHING wrong.
So what’s going on here?
(Just to preface, this is not AT ALL about beginner-shaming, it’s about understanding what beginners lack, how improvement occurs, and in what areas it occurs. By understanding all this, we can perhaps expedite that improvement.)
When I was in fourth grade, Star Wars: Episode One came out and everyone who was ANYONE was into Star Wars.
At recess one day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to play “Star Wars”. I immediately apprehended his meaning: we’d be playing the classic children-playing game of Pretend. I agreed and immediately geared up with my imaginary lightsaber and stepped up for some shadow-swashbuckling–only to see my friend spreading his arms out in classic pretend-spaceship formation and taking off. (Like THIS stock photo:)
He said “Star Wars”–I thought Jedi, he thought X-Wing.
Obviously, we liked different elements of Star Wars. This may seem trivial. It’s not.
His conception of Star Wars was comprised of ALL the different ships and dogfights and proton torpedoes. Jedi were simply left out of that conception.
On the other hand, what Star Wars was to me was ONLY Jedi–the force, lightsabers, the mystique–with the ships left out.
Ask people WHY they like their favorite stories, and what they LEAVE OUT of their answers may surprise you.
Have you ever heard someone say that THE reason they liked Star Wars was because Luke Skywalker was such an AWESOME character?
I sure haven’t. He was indeed a fine protagonist, but no one likes Star Wars BECAUSE of Luke.
Conversely, have you ever heard someone say they liked Sherlock because of the PLOT?
Yes, the plots are cool and fun, but what everyone LOVES about Sherlock is SHERLOCK!
Ever heard someone even MENTION the theme of ANY action movie?
Of course not, we like action movies because of the action!
Ever hear any non-writer or english/film student talk about pacing EVER?
What am I getting at here?
Storytime Part DEUX!
In my experience, most writers get into writing after being inspired by specific works of fiction.
I got into writing primarily because of an anime called One Piece.
One Piece was, and still is, the greatest story I’ve ever experienced. There were two elements in specific that blew me away writing-wise. The first was the emotional intensity of the stories. The stories were SO deeply moving to a degree I had never experienced before, they evoked SUCH strong emotions in me, and this was from a cartoon made for kids!
The second element that I LOVED was the long-term plot structure. At the time of this post’s publication, there are 633 episodes of the show with the end nowhere in sight. Yes, this is a ridiculous length. Even more unheard of was the notion of building up a single overarching plot thread that spanned 400 episodes. As hard as it is to believe, One Piece not only DID this but NAILED it (breaking about a dozen sales records along the way).
I studied One Piece for about two years learning everything I could about it. I learned HOW One Piece pulled off such emotionally compelling stories. I analyzed ALL the ins and outs of that insane metaplot that spanned hundreds of episodes. There were episodes I watched over and over, picking up on as many of the subtle decisions as I could and trying to understand them.
When I started writing, I felt pretty confident in my skills. I’d learned a LOT from One Piece. Though the long term plotting stuff didn’t come in handy early on, I cranked out some stories that I felt had some pretty hard hitting emotional moments in them. And they did, even when I look back at them.
Were they good?
Looking at them now–no.
I was an amateur, so my stories were amateurish.
Back to our original question:
Beginner writers are usually pretty competent, so why are first stories always “bad”?
Here’s what’s going on:
When we start out, we don’t realize EVERYTHING a story needs to succeed.
Why is that?
Because we focus exclusively on what we love.
We look at Star Wars and remember JEDI.
Jedi were awesome. So Jedi must have been why that story succeeded. All I have to do is make a cool mystical swashbuckling faction in my story and it will succeed too, right?
Nope! In order for us to even NOTICE Jedi, Star Wars ITSELF had to be a good story. It had to have a good plot, good characters, good dialogue, good directing, even special effects were crucial! How long would we have even kept watching if Star Wars‘ special effects were all cardboard and plastic wrap? (Yes, I’m looking at you Classic Doctor Who!)
We forget SO MUCH of every movie we watch and every book we read.
How often do we think about the scenes in the Matrix when Neo is talking to those weird punk-hacker-goths, or sitting in his office, or getting that bug sucked out of his belly button? Hardly ever. But if those scenes weren’t compelling enough to carry us along to the parts we DID fall in love with–like the IDEA of the Matrix, the “I know kung fu” scene, and “There is no spoon”–we’d never get there.
Fantasy readers may start out designing fascinating worlds and magic systems, not realizing how big of a role plot played in their favorite stories.
Romance readers may write GREAT romance scenes, not realizing how much context and timing played a role in making those scenes great.
Mystery readers may not even know about writing with a compelling VOICE because they were SO engrossed in solving the mystery that they never even noticed it!
Pacing, theme, setting, structure, description, dialogue–the OTHER STUFF. We don’t think about the Other Stuff–ie ALL the story elements that go into making a story just decent enough to be enjoyed. At least, as readers and viewers we don’t.
Once we’re writers, we’re tasked with WRITING that Other Stuff. Usually we won’t even realize our stories are lacking it until someone points it out to us. We may not even be AWARE of the existence of the Other Stuff. WE don’t need it to be interested in our OWN stories. But as more people read our writing, we realize everyone else DOES need the Other Stuff to enjoy what we write.
Everyone’s personal bundle of other stuff will be different. Personally, I thought I could get by with good plot structure, very emotional climax scenes, and well-themed stories. I was decent at stuff like dialogue and worldbuilding. But voice? Never even thought about it. Description? Skimmed it. Character? Figured it came automatically.
The good news is that once you DO learn about the existence of the Other Stuff, you start noticing it in the fiction you watch and read and the improvement starts immediately.
But until then? You’re writing what you think is GREAT and what other people don’t like so much. Since that which is lacking what people usually don’t notice, their critiques can sometime be vague: “It didn’t grab me” or “Something was missing”. It can be pretty frustrating.
Rest assured, all you need to do is keep writing and you WILL improve. Even without getting critiqued (which you SHOULD), you’ll probably start to notice the Other Stuff on your own because you HAVE to think about it–e.g. setting, plot, character, scene structure, etc. Once you notice it, you’ll be on the road to improvement.
This idea isn’t limited to fiction. This is why we’re bad at anything when we start out. Every craft involves TONS and TONS of factors we don’t notice until we try it out ourselves.
Just to provide a little proof of this universality, take this very post!
This post has its own structure, voice, and pacing. I had to decide how to start it and I’ll have to decide how to end it. I had to come up with examples and find clear and interesting ways to present each idea. I had to find pictures to illustrate the idea and break the text into manageable sections. You may not have even noticed most of this stuff, in fact you probably didn’t. Even if you did, you’ll still walk away having pared down this entire post to one main idea. This is just how our brains work.
In short, no matter how simple something looks, most stuff humans do is pretty complicated!