I've seen some pretty good discussions in the BBS about writing styles. I decided I would elaborate on the topic a bit, and give you some pointers on how to write good stories.
So here are my six most important elements of writing.
6. Describe things - carefully
This is perhaps the most fun bit of writing for most of you. Who doesn't enjoy flexing creative muscles at detailing the "Hills that rolled out like white fleece," or the "great and terrible beating of the sky that shook the fiber of the air and set every last blade of grass on edge"?
I will first say that describing things is good. Learn to describe things beautifully and well. Use metaphors, similes. Read poetry. Definitely read some poetry. Poetry is amazing for use in learning how to describe things. Write poetry. Learn how to get vivid imagery across in only a few words. Poetry - if you practice it right - forces you to get creative moods and feelings in your head across on the page with a minimal amount of words. This is good. Very good.
Now, once you know how to describe . . . don't.
Description is all well and good - but use it more sparingly than you think. Remember Hills Like White Elephants? How much description was in that? What about Chuck Palahniuk's Rant? These are examples of minimal description, and many good books have a little bit more than this, but nevertheless, keep your descriptions down. You may be able to describe a storm and a picturesque landscape with the most glorious imagery ever, but if you describe it for more than two sentences, your readers will probably get bored.
Note, there are exceptions to this, mainly when describing something that either is 'crucial' information or is important to your characters or plot. In a fantasy setting, you don't want only a couple words devoted to a new and foreign town your characters are entering. This isn't some easy thing the readers can visualize like, 'Oh there was a sky and some ground and that was it.' No, this would include detailed culture, manners, language, way of life - and your characters are going to have to interact with it all. So in a case like this, yes, you would want to devote more words to describing it.
5. Learn the Beautiful "What If" Feeling
I was walking with my friend and co-writer Alex in the library last year, and I jokingly said "What if there were a race of angry pig-dwarves who could fly?"
And then we decided to see if we could actually make that idea work.
What if there was a mutated race, whose faces vaguely resembled something grotesque and piggish?
Or, perhaps they were cursed!
How would they be able to fly? Their bone structure would have to be hollow, and the wings huge.
Because they were dwarves who could fly, their homes would probably be caves set high in the mountaintops, so they could be underground and have easy access to the sky, too.
This is a bit of a silly example, but it is precisely what I mean. If ever you're sitting there and you have one of those 'silly' what-if moments cross your mind, stop for a moment. Think about it. Think about how, logically, you could make that work with your plot and your characters.
This is quite seriously how I write all of my plots. If I don't know what to do with my characters, I think, 'What if?' about all the crazy and ridiculous scenarios, and I make them all work. And then I pick the one I like the best.
So learn to find that 'what if' feeling when you daydream. Usually you'll find them to be silly, or totally impossible. Even so, at least consider them. See if you can make them possible. And then you'll have an amazing plot on your hands.
4. Avoid Cliches - like the plague
I'm sure you've heard this before - don't say "easy as pie" or "weakest link." And while this is valuable, definitely, I instead want to address cliches of character and plot.
*Teenagers are emo over everything. Another emo teenager will add absolutely nothing to the literary state of the world.
*Charismatic boy-meets-shy/geeky girl is the only pairing ever seen in the world, if the usual teen writing is to be believed. Shake it up. Make the charismatic boy and the shy, geeky girl meet when they're 82 and just learning how to love again. Or when one of them is an ostrich. Or something. Shake it up, please, anyhow, somehow.
*Vampires. Do. Not. Sparkle.
*Seriously guys, is the only thing you can ever write romance?
*A teenage girl, rebellious and headstrong who disobeys the unreasonable demands of authority comes a dime a dozen in the world of amateur writing.
*Don't ever use the word 'smirk.' Please. For the love of god. No smirking.
*Nobody actually cares what brand your character's purse is or what color their shoes are.
*No Mary Sues. You can find out if your character is a Mary Sue by taking the Mary Sue Litmus Test. Google it.
3. Write a Children's Book Even When You're Not
I don't mean to write simply, and I don't mean to draw huge pictures in crayon in paint to insert into every page break. What I mean is this: Narrow what you say.
Let me explain a little further.
Say you have a story. It starts out with a teenage boy who wakes up in the morning, hits his alarm, has breakfast, talks to his mom, and goes to school. At school he goes through class, complains about his teacher, and then - finally, the main point of this entry - he meets this really cute girl.
Alright. Now try and tell that, in detail, to a five year old. Unless this kid is pretty dang special, I'm going to guess it's going to lose interest around the 'having breakfast' portion of the day. Why? It's not interesting. I have read story after story that begins with 'hitting the alarm clock.' No. Bad.
One of my favorite books when I was younger was "The Oath", by Frank Peretti. Here is the very beginning of the opening chapter:
"She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness. The mountainside dropped steeply, and she ran pell-mell, her feet unsure on pine needles and loose stones. She beat at the limbs with flailing arms, looking for the trail, falling over logs, getting up and darting to the left, then the right. A fallen limb caught her ankle, and she fell again. Where was the trail?
Blood. She reeked of it. It was hot and sticky between her fingers. It had soaked through her shirt and splattered on her khaki pants so her clothes clung to her. In her right hand she held a hunting knife in an iron grip, unaware that the tip of the blade was broken off. "
There is most certainly no alarm-clock-hitting in this novel. Good storytelling is there for plot. It tells what is interesting, what is important. Tell a story like you would to a five year old. Skip to your hero meeting the cute girl in the hall. Skip 'hellos' and 'goodbyes' in phone conversations. Skip telling the reader that he, 'Got in the car and stopped by the post office before going to the store.' Tell the reader about the exciting bits, the important bits, the bits where there are sword fights, romance, car explosions, fights, meetings, crying and laughing. That's all we really care about, anyway.
2. Show, don't tell.
This is the classic, age-old element in writing, and it's the main rule that every writer struggles to master.
Think of it like watching a movie. In a movie, you can tell what the actors are thinking and feeling based on two things - what they say and what they do.
In good movies, what an actor says is not precisely what they mean. Think of the classic opening to Princess Bride:
Buttercup: Farm boy. Polish my horse's saddle. I want to see my face shining in it by morning.
Westley: As you wish.
Buttercup: Farm boy. Fill these with water - please.
Westley: As you wish.
Grandfather(narration): That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying, "As you wish," what he meant was, "I love you."
Their exchange ends up being far more powerful and beautiful without them ever once having said the words, "I love you."
If any of you know me well at all you'll know my obsession with Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants". If you ever want to see how pure dialogue can convey such strong tension without actually addressing the topic, read that short story.
Secondly, you can tell a character's thoughts and feelings by what they do. For a really simple example, do not say, "he felt sad." Say, "He went to the window and stared out silently for a very long time." Actions speak far louder than internal monologue. Do not say, "He was worried because he didn't know if she was alive," say, "He cleaned the house madly, and when it was clean he went back and cleaned it again, and again. Then at 3:00 AM his wife came home, and he crumpled around her, weeping."
1. Read. Read, read, read, read, read
If there is anything you should learn, it's that you cannot write well unless you read, and read plentifully. If you don't read books and think that you can dabble in writing and come out with some good quality, you are very sadly mistaken. If you don't read, you can't write. Period.
Read mainly books along the lines of the kind you wish to write, and then sometimes read books vaguely related to what you wish to write. The first gives you establishment and thorough knowledge of the styles in the genre, while the second serves to broaden horizons and keep your mind from getting lazy.
But this is the most important factor of good writing. You. Must. Read.