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Nov 22, 2012

The Writer's Hiearchy of Needs

If you've ever taken a Psych 101 class, or read a book of pop psychology, you've probably heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. As I mused about what constitutes Bad Writing, it occurred to me there is a similar hhierarchy of skills a writer needs to master.

Let's take a closer look. I'll explain why I've placed these things in the order I have.

1. Grammar

Grammar is basic. You must communicate clearly before you can hope to write a novel. Good grammar goes beyond semi-colons and apostrophes, although that helps. Do you know what First Person vs Third Person means? Do you use words correctly and not grab them out of a Thesaurus without fully understanding them? Do you understand the difference between the past present and passive voice?

How to improve your grammar: Take books that you admire and enjoy, and copy out particularly striking sentences or paragraphs, word for word. Then try to write a sentence or paragraph with the exact same structure but your own content.
How NOT to improve your grammar: Read comments on YouTube.

2. Plot

Fairytales and many other ancient stories are all plot. Beowulf? All plot. Don't sit there trying to sell me your English teacher's BS about the deep character insights of Beowulf. Monster attacks village, dude kills monster. But yes, it works, because a story only requires one thing to be a story. You need to know who is doing what to whom. In other words, you need grammar (clarity of communication) and plot (what is communicated).

It wasn't the cardboard characters, but unbelievable plot that tanked Nurse Betty.

How to improve your plot: Study scriptwriting to learn beat structure and then, as you watch television shows or movies, note down when each beat occurs.
How NOT to improve your plot: Get an MFA.

3. Character

I believe it was the Modernists who attempted to introduce books that were Character with no Plot. You're entitle to your own opinion, but in mine, that was a disaster. Sure, the prose in The Waves was lovely, but oh lordy. However, I think it's true that it's harder to write original characters than original plots. Great literature as well as most blockbusters, have both.

To write believable plots, you need to master Text;  to write believable characters, you need to master Subtext. Real people interact mostly through Subtext.

Painting a realistic character is like painting a realistic portrait. You need to know basic human anatomy first (or in the case of writing, basic human psychology). Then you need to practice, practice, practice, paying attention to the detail. Use delicate strokes.

Portrait by seventeenth century painter, Velázquez.

How to improve your characters: Observe yourself and other real people closely. Take notes on human interactions, including gestures, sensory details and emotions.
How NOT to improve your characters: Copy characters from television or cinema.

4. Theme

I think if you have story with a solid plot and psychologically realistic characters, theme will emerge naturally...but it might not be the theme you intended! To start with a theme and write plot and characters from that risks turning your characters into Sock Puppets for Author Rants. When theme, plot and characters all work together, a simple story can achieve a greater richness and depth.

How to improve your theme: Know thyself. Take an issue you care deeply about and then imagine you are someone with the opposite point of view and argue it from their position. Then try to look at it from a third or forth point of view.
How NOT to improve your theme: Rant.

5. Style

Style, like self-actualization, emerges from mastery of the rest of the pyramid. Can you learn to improve your style? Certainly. Read widely in your genre, read widely outside your genre.

Read. Write. Repeat.

How to improve your style: You can learn style in the same way you can learn grammar. Take books that you admire and enjoy, and copy out particularly striking sentences or paragraphs, word for word. Then try to write a sentence or paragraph with the same voice and style with your own content. See if you could write a paragraph of Hemingway or Austen or King.
How NOT to improve your style: Not bother to read books because that would contaminate your genius; not bother to learn grammar because bad grammar is your "style."

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