This post is in continuation to my review of Sol Stein’s stellar book Stein on Writing in 2018.
Sol Stein passed away in September 2019. A prolific author and a visionary editor, Sol was a cut above the rest of his ilk. An author of 13 books himself, he edited the work of illustrious authors such as James Baldwin, Elia Kazan, and Jack Higgins.
Stein’s legacy deserves to be shared. With this in mind, I thought of extracting some of the best pieces of advice from his books – Stein on Writing and Solutions for Writers – and publishing them here in my own words. This is a tribute from a fan.
Though the following ideas may appeal more to fans of fiction writing than nonfiction, if you study closely, these can be adopted by the writers of both genres.
Stein also wrote something to this effect once, “Like fiction, nonfiction accomplishes its purpose better when it evokes emotion in the reader.”
Information sticks best when it is crafted to touch the reader’s emotions. If you want to spare your readers dry, soulless text, then you should inculcate Stein’s insights – something that he gained during 27 years of his career as a Publisher and Editor-in-Chief – into your writings.
Without further ado, let’s dip into the 22 illuminating lessons from this master author:
1. Start With A Bang
A terrific ending will never be experienced by readers put off by a poor beginning. Simple.
If you want to gain the trust of your readers, if you want them to read beyond those first pages, you ought to catch their attention from the get-go.
The same logic holds for a blog post, too. Start on a high note, always.
2. Add Visual Elements
Inject visual elements into your writing to perk things up. Remember the key lesson – you have to show than tell. Don’t simply report a story, but, show it.
The following exemplifies plain writing: he came into the classroom late and sat in the seat near the door.
A better version would be: he strolled into the classroom, late as usual, with a grin on his face and plonked into the seat near the door.
3. Use Startling Facts
Let’s face it – there are too many distractions and our minds are fidgety.
Unless you inject enticing facts into your narrative that make your readers sit up and notice, chances are something else will get their attention.
Use startling facts to trap your readers’ attention.
4. Focus on an individual & amplify his actions
Isolate an individual and turn all the spotlights on him. Create an odd circumstance that results in the amplification of his actions.
Imagine a city ravaged by war and plunder.
Amidst the rising, dark fumes and rubble sits an old man in a yellow jacket, playing a melody on his piano.
A description like that lends itself to strong evocation in your readers’ minds.
You may also like to check out 10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco
5. Focus on ‘Immediate’ scenes
Stein argues that one of the key reasons behind the rejection of many novels is the inordinate amount of static description. The reader does not want long-winding narratives or redundant descriptions.
The reader wants to see immediate scenes – adversarial dialogues, combative arguments, vivid action.
“An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable. That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate.”Sol Stein
6. No wimps
Readers are not interested in wimps. They want assertive characters. I mean you don’t read novels in order to experience the boredom that you often experience in life.
You want to meet extraordinary people, preferably, people different from anyone you’ve met in or out of fiction.
7. Vulnerability first
Show a character’s vulnerability before you show his strengths.
8. Show them nude
Show your character in the nude. This one almost always works if you portray your character (in the nude) honestly and in detail.
People seen in the nude are immediately credible or vulnerable.
9. Accentuate differences
Accentuate social and cultural differences in your characters to arouse emotions. Stein instructs to play on the inherent otherness in everybody.
10. Highlight your character’s want
The more urgent the want, the greater the reader’s interest.
If your character doesn’t want something badly enough, the reader will have a hard time rooting for him to attain his goal.
11. Thrill them with unexpected
Readers enjoy being thrilled by the unexpected. New obstacles, a sudden twist of circumstances, etc., tug at their heartstrings.
Experiencing a character’s embarrassment also engages the reader. It always creates an interesting plot development.
12. Add conflict
The audience likes to see conflict. The secret of creating conflict is to give your characters different and opposing goals.
Magic happens when your audience is expecting your characters to behave in a certain way, but, thanks to your out-of-left-field twist, they are left jaw-dropped.
13. Prolong the crisis
Don’t let the character overcome the immediate danger without facing an even greater danger. Make certain his/her action backfires or gets counteracted immediately.
14. Straight past tense
Most fiction is written in the straight past tense.
Had, emphasizes Stein, is your enemy no 1. It spoils more flashbacks than any other word.
15. Keep’em on the tenterhooks
No other factor affects readers as much as suspense does. Stein instructs to keep the suspense steady by shifting action from one location to another.
If you have seen any of Christopher Nolan’s movies, you’d know what Stein meant by ‘shifting action’.
16. Less is more
Don’t fill the reader’s envelope with unnecessary details. Leave room for him to imagine stuff.
For the reader’s imagination, less is more. You only have to trigger his stimuli and let his imagination do the rest. Instead of describing the terror of characters in detail, let the reader feel it.
17. Remove all adjectives
Stein instructs the potential authors to remove all adjectives, adverbs and metaphors from the manuscript and then re-admit the necessary few after careful testing.
18. Use catchy titles
The primary function of a title is not to provide the locus of a story, but to entice the reader. Look at the following titles:
The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, How to Cook a Wolf
19. Persevere to develop your own voice
20. Be prepared to walk through fire
Don’t be afraid to deal with taboo topics – topics that can trigger controversy or arouse emotions. Stein stresses that it’s a writer’s responsibility to speak the unspoken. He states:
“A writer can’t be a Pollyanna. He is in the business of writing what other people think but don’t say.”
21. Hallmark of a solid storytelling
All storytelling from time immemorial is based on somebody wanting something, failing to achieve it, facing obstacles, overcoming high odds, beating strong adversaries, etc.
If your plot follows a different course, it may not be strong enough to sustain the reader’s interest.
22. Use all six of your senses
Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Writers neglect touch, taste and smell. But if you are to enrich a layman’s experience, you must deploy all senses at your craft. Look at the following example of Stein’s use of smell in his writing
“Down and down we went. I stopped counting the stairs. The dank smell told me we were well below ground.”
That said, Stein cautions that it’s not an easy exercise, but to have a successful writing career, your job is to look for distinguishing details and express what you want your reader to see.
I hope you benefit from this post. This list, by no means, is exhaustive and is only meant to serve the purpose of a ready-reckoner. If you seek deep insights and guidance, I recommend reading Sol Stein’s books – How to grow a novel, Stein on Writing or Solutions for Writers. No blog post is ever a substitute for the true work of a writer.