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Don’t Let Your Writing Be Ordinary

on January 2nd, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 14, 2013

The title of this article is a nod to Tom Schulman, script writer for Dead Poets Society. In the award-winning screenplay for that movie, Keating, played by Robin Williams, instructs his students about writing poetry. He doesn’t mind if their poems are short or simple, he just doesn’t want the boys to resort to ordinary and common—should I add bland and boring?—in their writing.

There are as many tastes in reading matter as there are readers. What are they looking for, these readers, when they pick up a new novel? Do they want what they can find at the office or in the newspaper? Or are they looking for something not so ordinary?

I’m guessing they’re looking for what doesn’t exist in their lives, be it adventure or thrill or discovery or romance or the chance to be a hero.

You, as a writer, can give readers what they’re looking for by writing creatively, by reaching beyond the ordinary.

People who don’t write, who aren’t musicians or artists, look to those who create to show them a different world. Give that to your readers. Give them a world outside their everyday one. Give them a simple twist or a whole new universe. Give them what they can’t give themselves, what it might not be safe to seek out in their daily lives with their families who depend on them and an uncertain economy. Give them freedom from the ordinary and real—give them bigger than real, worlds both dangerous and safe, that they can retreat into when their own worlds are too real, too dangerous, too daunting. Too predictable.

How can you do this, produce more than the simply ordinary?

  • Push. Push your characters and situations beyond the normal limits. Make it bad for your characters and then make it worse.
  • Push yourself. Refuse to be limited by what you think you know. Write boldly, take risks. Dare yourself to say something you thought you couldn’t say much less write for public scrutiny.
  • Expand your word choices. Put words in a character’s mouth you never imagined saying yourself.
  • Wax poetic. Go farther in description or scene setting.
  • Go overboard. Write a scene without trying to make sense of every phrase.

Be sure to include something of the unusual in your story. Whether you create a fantasy world or dump a common man into an uncommon situation, give the reader something unfamiliar. Shake up the reader’s world by approaching the dilemma from inside out.

Give the reader something different.

Whether it’s word choice or situation or character or resolution or style or… Challenge the reader’s expectations. Make the reader think or feel. Be an agitator—stir up something.

Don’t let your writing be ordinary.

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In the same scene from Dead Poets Society that I mentioned earlier, Keating pushes one of the other students into a description of Walt Whitman that’s far from ordinary. It’s a vivid lesson in how we can move beyond the ordinary in our writing. Keating encourages the boy to freedom in his description and then pushes him even farther. That’s my desire for you, that you push beyond some arbitrary limit and once you’re deep in a place you’ve never been, push even deeper.

Include something of the extraordinary in your novels.

(I wanted to include a YouTube video of the great Dead Poets Society scene with Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke that I mentioned here, but I couldn’t find a legally posted clip. Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it. Definitely worth your time.)

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