Writing Lessons from Your Favorite Fictional Authors

Jack Karuoac writing lessons

Hone your work with help from the (fictional) greats. Like the people they strive to create in their works, fictional writers are interesting characters worthy of analysis. Tasked with organizing chaotic thoughts into structured prose, they are often tortured, introspective souls, and their grasp of the human condition stems from the recognition of their own personal frailty. Indeed, this is why audiences enjoy observing fictional writers at their craft, toiling and grappling with their demons. These narratives provide the observer with a mirror within a mirror: an observation into the fictional world of a character creating a work of fiction.

The following novels detail the tribulations of three fictional writers. Real-life writers like you can learn a valuable lesson or two from your fictional peers.

On the Road: Avoiding Paralysis by Analysis

In his seminal Beat generation classic, Jack Kerouac details the travels of an aspiring writer looking for inspiration while traveling across postwar America. The novel blurs fact and fiction–the characters and events are largely autobiographical and based on real elements from Kerouac’s own life.

The road trips detailed in On the Road are in large part real events from the author’s own experiences, and in fact served their ostensible purpose of dislodging Kerouac’s own writer’s block. The author’s fictional counterpart is Sal Paradise, a struggling writer looking to overcome his writer’s block by traveling cross-country with Dean Moriarity, the other protagonist of the novel. Indeed, the rich experiences and interesting people they encounter during their travels provide a bounty of material for the novel Sal is writing.

See also: Five Crazy Cures for Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is a common ailment to which no writer is immune. Staring blankly at the screen or over thinking–paralysis by analysis–can lead to more frustration and idle time. The open road can be a catalyst for material, even if the road only leads to the other side of town. One doesn’t have to embark on a cross-country adventure to find inspiration. Sometimes a walk does wonders for a halted writing process.

Wonder Boys: It’s Not All in the Details

Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel Wonder Boys tells the story of Grady Tripp, a professor and writer struggling not with writer’s block, but instead with this opposite problem. Tripp’s work-in-progress is a rambling, disheveled, 2,600-page manuscript lacking in meaning and structure to the point of absurdity. The novel tracks the misadventures in Tripp’s own personal life over the period of a few days; as he trudges forward in completing his work, the events that he gets himself involved him, like the extraneous words in his novel, detract from rather than create meaning and structure in his life.

See also: Write Wisely: Word Choice and Impact

Often, the challenge of writing lies not in dealing with a shortage of words, but instead with an overabundance of them. For some, this is a great predicament (vis–vis writer’s block), and indeed, this is what the editing process is for. But as the craft of storytelling involves effectively moving a reader across a fictional expanse of time and space, words serve as the primary vehicle for this journey.

One should omit the extraneous details that detract from the narrative flow. The mind’s eye of the author should not serve as a camera capturing every single last detail, but instead as a tracking device, guiding the reader to the important elements of the story’s environment that help move the narrative forward.

The Dark Half: Pitfalls of Embracing Your Dark Side

Stephen King’s horror classic The Dark Half is the story of writer and recovering alcoholic Thad Beaumont and how his pen-name alter-ego comes to life, carrying out a series of murders in which the actual Beaumont is implicated. The events that unfold require Beaumont to deal with his alter-ego and ultimately confront the possibility that he and his supernatural counterpart are one and the same–the result of years of tapping into the darker side of his nature for creative inspiration.

Though the danger of one’s imaginary persona coming to life and committing heinous crimes is highly unlikely, the relevant lesson here is that, as a writer, venturing into dark corners of one’s psyche is often necessary. The search for truth is an arduous one and may bring a writer to some unpleasant places. Keeping a distinct separation between one’s writing life and regular day-to-day activities will help you maintain a healthy balance. Remember, at the end of the day, writing should be an enjoyable activity. Embrace your dark side if the work requires it, but leave  behind any artifacts from those dark places.

Fictional authors are not merely entertaining: When considered from a different angle, they may also help you improve your writing process. The three aforementioned fictional writers face distinctly different challenges that most in the writing profession come to face at some point. These fictional characters, albeit invented, can provide us all with valuable lessons for our craft.

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