How to Get Good at Words

I've written a lot of stories, and a lot of blog posts about writing them. I didn't learn my writing skills in school – I developed them on my own.

How did I do it? This post will explain. Maybe it can help you develop your own skills, too.

My general approach

Many writers think of writing as a mystical activity. Their words come from a metaphorical “muse”, whose methods are unknowable. I am the opposite. I like to say “I'm not an artist, I'm an art engineer!” I want to understand the structure of prose in detail – how all the elements work, and how [...]

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How to Write Cliffhangers: a Theory of Writing

I grew up reading the Harry Potter books. They were real page-turners – I was always eager to keep reading. In particular, many chapters ended in cliffhangers.

I took a lot of creative writing classes, but none of them taught me how to write a book like that. They taught me a lot of theories about Conflict and Symbolism and Scene Structure. But none of them taught me a theory of how to write a page-turner. So I was forced to invent my own.

Like any theory of “good writing”, this theory isn't objectively true – it won't work on all readers. But I'm going to say it as if it's true, because it's been useful to me. Also, I refer to fiction writing in this post, but this theory applies to any form of narrative, including movies, comics, news articles, etc..

Promise theory

A classic cliffhanger is a type of promise. It says, “Just turn the page, and I'll tell you what happens next!”

Promises are what makes the reader want to keep reading. But there are lots of different kinds of promises. Some are [...]

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Let my writing shake the world.

(Content warning: physical violence used as a metaphor.)

I don't want my writing to be memorable like a beautiful sunset. I want it to be memorable like being stabbed in the face.

I want not pleasure, but awe. Not the beautiful, but the sublime. Not “that was cool”, but “holy shit!” I want my work to change you. I want to show you something you've never seen before. Something that shakes the foundations of your beliefs. I want to take what you thought was simple, and make it seem bizarre. I want to take what you thought was bizarre, and make it seem simple. I want to show you the truth hidden in plain sight.

If someone says to me, “I liked your story”, that's nice, but it's not what I'm after. I want to hear “I never saw things that way before”. Or “That was fascinating”. Or “I'm still processing it”. Or “I didn't think that was possible”. Or “I can't believe I didn't realize that before”. Or “I'm going to remember that next time I...” Or even “What the fuck did I just read?”

When you tell your friends about it, I don't want to make you say “You should read Eli's book. It's a high-quality piece of literature.” I want to make you trip over yourself trying to retell the whole story, because you have no other words to express what you've just experienced. I don't want to be like some other famous story. I want to become a point of reference that you use to explain the rest of your world.

Only after I have changed human nature – that is when I will have mastered my craft of writing.

– Eli

Positive and negative characterization

If you're acting on stage, and don't have real furniture, you can use pretend furniture instead. You can put things on an imaginary table. You can eat breakfast at the imaginary table. You can chop vegetables on the imaginary table.

But to make it feel real, you also have to walk around the table whenever you want to get somewhere. The moment you walk through the table, the illusion is broken. Now, the audience may not be paying attention to the table, so they won't consciously realize what happened. But as soon as someone walks through the table, the audience will automatically stop believing in it. They just won't know why.

Chopping vegetables on the table is positive characterization. Never walking through the table is negative characterization. In general, positive characterization is when it's interesting that you did something, and negative characterization is when it's interesting that you never do something. (Or that you always do something, which is similar to never-not-doing the thing.)

I think about this a lot for characters in my stories. When I'm designing a character, I think: what are some interesting [...]

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How to make your fantasy setting less racist

Suppose I'm a white supremacist, and I want to write a fantasy story. What kind of story do I write? Maybe it would be something like this:

  • There is a “white” race, which is consistently portrayed as normal or good. Other races are usually portrayed as unusual, exotic, and/or bad.
  • Races are clearly separated from each other. Interracial relationships are rare or nonexistent. There is no significant population of mixed-race people.
  • The white race may have some variety, but non-white races are often one-dimensional caricatures. The question “why are they attacking people?” doesn't need much of a reason beyond “they are [race]”.
  • However, I want to spread my propaganda without everyone instantly knowing how racist it is. So, I don't explicitly label the races “white”, “black”, etc.. Instead, I make them fantasy races that just have some superficial traits of the human races I'm thinking of. The audience can figure out what I'm implying for themselves.

What have I just described? This isn't just some weird thing done by a few white supremacists. It's a staple of modern fantasy. It's Humans and Orcs. In a lot of modern fantasy, all humans are white, and orcs are people's worst stereotypes about black people (and/or other PoC), just with the name changed.1

I'm going to single out [...]

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Supervillains are cool

Supervillains are cool.

Don't get me wrong. The story of a superhero is a story of empowerment. The reader – an ordinary person who can't easily fix the problems in zir society – gets to imagine having awesome powers and saving the world.

But if the superhero is empowered, the supervillain is even more empowered. Ze doesn't just have more physical power (although that's still true, so that the audience can root for the underdog). Ze also has more freedom. Ze isn't limited by laws or social norms. Ze can do anything ze wants to. The supervillain, and ze alone, has a vision to change the world.

Tell me – why is this character the villain? Many of our laws are unjust. Many of our social norms are repressive. In a typical story, the hero stops the villain's plan and restores the status quo. But in our world, the status quo is not good, and has never been good. To reach a good world, we need a vision for a change.

Give me a story where the hero accepts everyone's identity and sympathizes with everyone's struggles, not because the wise old mentor told zem to, but because fuck the rules. Give me a story where the hero ignores people's hypocritical moralizing, not to become evil, but to forge a better morality. Give me a story where the hero has a genuine project to change the world.

And then let the hero succeed.

– Eli

Story idea: The “Big Data Killer”

Our hero, an ace detective, gets called in to investigate a mysterious serial killer.

Apparently, the “Big Data Killer” strikes completely at random, all across the country. The only thing the cases have in common is this: The killer leaves behind a notebook listing all the metadata of the victim's recent communications. The notebook says who the victim called on the phone, how long they talked, what websites they visited recently, what search terms they searched for, and so on. The killer must be someone with access to some sort of big data database. It creates a picture of a terrifying surveillance state, seemingly assassinating people at random.

After many misadventures, our hero finally tracks the person down. But that's when the twist comes. The “killer” wasn't actually killing anyone at all. Ze was just a disillusioned life insurance executive. Zir company had used big data to accurately predict when its clients were going to attempt suicide, but didn't do anything about the suicides, because the insurance company didn't have to pay in the case of suicide. The “killer” had tried to work within the system to solve this, but failed. So ze decided to sabotage zir own company by altering scenes of suicide to make them look like murder!


I think this gimmick is pretty funny. I'm not sure it justifies building a whole story around it, though. The message seems unnecessarily cynical. I don't think it's bad to be cynical about mass surveillance, but I'd rather write something that actually says what we can do about it.

I also think there's something exploitative about this idea, and detective stories about serial killers in general. The story is about a tragedy – a series of deaths. But the story isn't a tragedy – it's a spectacle, a tale of intrigue. The main character is the detective, who usually has nothing in common with the people who are actually suffering. In this particular case, it seems like completely the wrong way to approach the issue of suicide, as well.

I guess maybe you could make it work by making the detective have a personal relationship with suicide and surveillance as well.

As it is, though, I can't really use this idea. But it does make a good example of 90% of my creative process: “Coming up with clever ideas, but discarding them because they aren't quite right.”

– Eli


This post is to give you some insight into how my creative process works!

So... Instinct vs. intellectual understanding. Complex ideas are great. The only trouble with complex ideas is that you can't keep the whole idea in your conscious mind at the same time. So you need to just rely on the knowledge you already have, so you can build on it. The things you're thinking about actively, I call “intellectual understanding”; the things you already know, that you can use without thinking, I call “instinct”.

Of course, it's a good idea to go back and examine your instincts, from time to time.

I drew my last comic mostly by instinct. Especially the panel borders. I didn't think “What do I want this line to express and how do I accomplish that?”; I just thought “Hmm, this line doesn't look right... *redraw* ehh... *redraw* ooh, this works!”. In short, I had an instinct for what I wanted, but I didn't intellectually understand exactly what I wanted.

I love understanding things, so after I drew the comic, I went back and analyzed my own work! Here are some of my thoughts:

  • The flared border at the bottom of the second panel echoes the powers Tritia's using in that panel. It makes the concept clear that Tritia is having an effect on stuff, especially with the way it stabs into the larger image below.
  • The way the last panel is drawn “in front” of the others give it more emphasis (which is good, because part of the joke is the fact that such a mundane statement gets so much emphasis). It also puts it slightly outside the flow of the story, which is good, because the main flow is the fight with Tritia.
  • The way Jeva's katana ignores panel borders. It's a bit of a running joke to draw the katana above things that it would normally be drawn below, but it also works for me here – in the first panel, it helps capture the interrupted-ness of the continuation from the previous page, and in the last panel, it helps accentuate Jeva's droopy-ness. If it was in the panel, I'd have to move the speech bubble up, and anyway, having things break the normal rules usually helps emphasize them. Oh! And I hadn't even thought about the fact that putting the speech bubble at the bottom, curving down, added to the overall effect of that panel.
  • Some other things didn't work so well. For instance, there's no good reason for Sam's speech bubble to be all the way at the right side; it confuses the flow a little. That's something I can keep in mind when watching my habits of where I put speech bubbles. I also should have found a way to indicate more motion in the crevices (bits still falling off, perhaps?), to make it clear that Tritia just dug them. As it stands, you might think that they were there the whole time.

Anyway, one of the interesting things here is this: I'm finding it just as productive to study my own work as to study someone else's. That makes sense right now, because I've read a lot of comics already, but haven't written very many of them myself... yet!

– Eli

In which I rant about the study of English

So, I had my first classes today – a math class (Ordinary Differential Equations) and the first-year English Composition class. The math class was awesome. The English class wasn't.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I'm not picking on this class or this professor in particular; I'll be naming specific things from this class, but I'm mainly doing that in order to talk about a general attitude about the study of English composition.

Item 1: What Is Good Writing?

First, the professor said that good prose was “a lot less subjective than you think”. That's a laughable claim, for two reasons. First, it assumes [...]

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Prose vs. graphic narration

So, I was thinking about prose and graphic storytelling (comics). My thoughts might be hard to explain, so how about an example? Here's a line of prose:

“I knocked. No answer. Let myself in anyway. Where was he?”

I think pictures can normally communicate faster than words, but I tried to make that line the opposite on purpose: something that words can express more quickly. Let's look at how we might write that in pictures:

Image: Three panels. The first panel shows a person knocking at a door. The second shows zem waiting impatiently, thinking about the time. The third shows zem entering through the door, looking around. At the bottom left is a note that says 'Eli Dupree - 25 min sketch'

If we were going to print this in a book, those three panels might take up about a third of a page. The line of prose takes about, what, a twentieth of a page? Sure, you can read the pictures faster than you could read a third of a page of text, but that's not what we're comparing. The prose version gets the job done in a single line.

On the other hand, the prose glosses over a lot of details. The pictures show the style of the person's coat, zir attitude about [...]

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Tired of coding


I'm ready to post the novella that I mentioned in my first post here. I did some last editing earlier today. But before I can post it, I have to make some changes to the website, because I don't want to just copy the text into a blog post. And I can't make those changes right away because I'm tired of doing computer programming (colloquially, “coding”).

I don't know why it happened. It's not because I'd been doing a lot of it, because I can sometimes code for weeks on end without getting tired. And it's not because I was failing to make progress, because I had been making progress on my drawing program when the tiredness hit me a week and a half ago. I suppose I could make an analogy to [...]

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Story idea: The shell

I had an idea that doesn't fit into any of the current stories I'm developing, and basically wants to be a novel in its own right, so I'm probably not going to be able to write it. So I'll write about it here instead. For fun, I'm going to describe it in the order I thought of it.

It started with the idea of destroying a person's mind. Zir body still functions, and ze can even still talk a little and give basic replies, but most of zir personality is gone, ze doesn't recognize people ze used to know, ze's completely cold and unfeeling, and ze barely bothers to fulfill zir basic needs. This kind of thing can happen in real life, but it's more common in fantasy settings, especially horror-fantasy; I was thinking about it because something similar happens in HP:MoR.

I've got a lot of respect for good horror stories. After all, what is writing if not an attempt to effectively convey an image or idea, and what is horror if not a [...]

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