Tana French’s Top Ten Writing Tips
- It’s OK to screw up. For me, this was the big revelation when I was writing my first book: I could get it wrong as many times as I needed to. I was coming from theatre, where you need to get it right every night, because this audience will probably never see the show again; it took me a while to realise that, until the book goes to print, it’s still rehearsal, where you can try whatever you need to try. If you rewrite a paragraph fifty times and forty-nine of them are terrible, that’s fine; you only need to get it right once.
- Your character is always right. No real person thinks they’re being stupid or misguided or bigoted or evil or just plain wrong – so your characters can’t, either. If you’re writing a scene for a character with whom you disagree in every way, you still need to show how that character is absolutely justified in his or her own mind, or the scene will come across as being about you rather than about the character. The classic example is Humbert Humbert in Lolita: his actions are utterly unjustifiable and hideous, but Nabokov writes them as not only justifiable but justified, because that’s how Humbert Humbert sees them. You can’t make the judgement that your character is wrong; let the readers do that for themselves.
- There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women’. There’s only the individual character you’re writing. One guy emailed me asking me how to write women, and I couldn’t answer, because I had no idea which woman he meant: me? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Lady Gaga? If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes. Sure, there are differences between men and women on average – but you’re writing an individual, not an average. If your character spends hours chatting on the phone or refuses to ask for directions, that needs to be because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she is. Write the person, not the genitalia.
- Kill the dream sequence. My husband, who’s my first reader and who has a demon eye for sloppiness, says that a dream sequence is almost always either a repeat of something that’s already been done within the action, or a lazy way of doing something that should be done within the action. I think he’s let me get away with one dream, in six books. At this point I just save us both time and kill them before he gets to them. You may well need to write the dream sequence, to help you towards an understanding of something in the book, but it’s very unlikely that anyone needs to read it.
- Don’t be scared of ‘said’. Writers sometimes go looking for alternatives because they worry that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ will feel repetitive if they’re used all the time, but I swear, they won’t. ‘Said’ is the default dialogue tag; readers don’t even notice it, the eye just skims over it. Anything else, on the other hand, does stick out. I read one book where the characters never said anything; instead they spent all their time grunting and bleating and hissing and cooing and growling and chirping and… It was like Old MacDonald’s farm in there. After a while I wasn’t even taking in the rest of the book, because that was all I could see: the dialogue tags. Unless your character is actually doing something specific that needs to be pointed out – shouting the line, say, or whispering it – it’s almost always a good idea to stick with ‘said’.
- When in doubt, mess with your main character’s head. A protagonist who’s everything he wants to be, and has everything he wants to have, isn’t interesting. Dramatically, that’s like some guy sitting on his sofa with a bowl of snacks and an Xbox: he’s happy, that’s nice, but you don’t necessarily want to spend the next few hours watching him. A character who’s moving single-mindedly towards his goal, battling one antagonist, is more interesting, but not much more. What’s interesting is a character who’s struggling towards something high-stakes, and getting held back by obstacles both outside and inside himself.
- Every character needs a solid reason of his or her own to be there. This is mainly a problem with supporting characters: the love interest wanders in so we can see the main character’s soft side, or because the author wants to throw in a romantic scene or a sex scene; the sidekick pops up so the protagonist can look extra great by comparison, or so he has someone to rescue or to discuss his inner turmoil with. I read one book where every single character had a concrete, clearly defined objective – except for the second lead. From the author’s perspective, she was in there to open up various plot elements and show various sides of the protagonist’s character; but from the actual character’s perspective, she was demanding to be part of a life-endangering plan with absolutely no upside for her because gee, why not? If a character has no objective – if he’s in the scene or the book for your reasons, rather than for his own – it will show; he’ll come across as artificial, forced and empty. It’s not enough for you to need him there, or for the protagonist to need him there; he has to need to be there.
Tana French is the author of The Trespasser, on sale from Viking on October 4, 2016.