What Are The Three Types Of Writing?

Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!

Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.

Let me explain…

1. What is that? (Non-Action)

I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.

Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.

Here’s an example from Dexter & Sinister:


John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.

The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.


See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.

NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.

2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)

Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.

When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.

NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.

Again, here’s an example:


Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.

With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.

Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.


You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.

3. What are they up to? (Active Action)

This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.

This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.

For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.


The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.

John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.

The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.

John gave chase.


Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.

This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).


“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”

“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”

“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”

Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”

“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”

“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”


But why have these definitions in the first place?

Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.

When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).

To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.

John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.


See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.

So what does this all mean?

For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.

And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.

It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.

Addendum

I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.

These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.

Hope that helps.

My Top Writing Tips

I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.

I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.

It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.

I Am What I Am

You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.

NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.

But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…

When Is It?

I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.

Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.

Which bring me to my next point…

Make A Timeline

I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.

A tantalising photo of the many sheets of my timeline, all partially obscured, noted as Day One to Four, with the times down the side, and some bits of events next to them.

If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them

For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.

Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).

I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.

I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).

It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…

Compression

I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.

I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.

And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?

Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…

Too Much Description

*sigh*

One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.

(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)

My lovely head wearing a black newsboy's cap, like in Peaky Blinders and a pair of brass coloured goggles with black lenses that completely obscure my eyes.

What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.

Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?

Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.

NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.

As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.

But of course, just to contradict myself…

Go Nuts!

I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.

When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.

Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.

I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.

I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.

Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…

Purpose

This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.

In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.

Watch this scene from Apollo 13.

In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)

We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.

I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.

Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.

With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…

Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’

First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.

The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.

I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.

And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.

Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.

In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”

Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)

I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.

Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.

In Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.

If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.