8 Tips For Creating Great Stories From George R.R. Martin, Junot Diaz, And Other Top Storytellers

Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction is jammed with storytelling wisdom from some of world’s top fantasy writers. Here’s some of it.

What the hell is a Story Lizard? In Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Abrams Books, October 15), Story Lizards join Prologue Fish and other infographic helpmates designed to banish dry textual analysis in favor of a kicking, screaming, slithering approach to storytelling creativity.


Author Jeff Vandermeer, a three-time Fantasy World Award-winning novelist who co-directs the Shared Worlds teen writing camp, says “The way we’re taught to analyze fiction is to break down and do a kind of autopsy. But I think writers need to be more like naturalists or zoologists when they study story because then you’re looking at how all the elements fit together.”

Enter the Story Lizard, above, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss.

As Vandermeer tells Co.Create, “A recurring thing in Wonderbook is to think of stories as being more like living creatures than machines.”


In addition to Vandermeer’s own insights on such topics as “The Scar of the Splinter” and The Ecosystem of Story,” Wonderbook incorporates contributions from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz along with fantasy fiction superheroes including Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin and novelist/comic book auteur Neil Gaiman.

Read on for a sampling of Wonderbook tips about how to craft mind-blowing stories.

Tell, don’t show

Hugo Award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy, believes “exposition” deserves more respect. He says, “The advice ‘show don’t tell’ is a zombie idea, killed 40 years ago by the publication in English of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet still sadly wandering the literary landscape … what is boring in fiction tends to be the hackneyed plots with all their tired old stage business, while the interesting stuff usually lies in what is called the exposition, meaning the writing about whatever is not us.”


Name Wisely

Fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman stresses the importance of a good name in describing the genesis of his American Gods protagonist. “There’s a magic to names, after all,” he says. “I knew his name [needed to be] descriptive. I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack, and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstiltskin. He finally got his name from an Elvis Costello song … on Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours and Rendezvous. It’s performed by Was (Not Was) and is the story of two men named Shadow and Jimmy. I … tried it on for size …
‘… Shadow stretched uncomfortably on his prison cot, and glanced across at the Wild Birds of North America wall calendar, with the days he’d been inside crossed off, and he counted the days until he got out.’ And once I had a name, I was ready to begin.”

Build a Better Backstory

Stant Litore, author of the Zombie Bible series, asks himself three questions when creating characters. “I take a very pragmatic approach to backstory,” he says. “I want to know what moment defined the character’s relationship to their parents, what moment defined their greatest desire, and what moment defined their greatest fear. Those three moments are most of what I need, because those three tell me where the character comes from, what they want, and what holds them back.”

Take Your Lumps

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe author Charles Yu, winner of the National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award, advises “Leave things lumpy.” He elaborates, “People want to know how the protagonist’s father’s dress socks looked against his pale white shins. People want to know the titles of the strange and eclectic books lining the walls of his study. People want to know the sounds he made while snoring, how he looked while concentrating, the way his glasses pinched the bridge of his nose, leaving what appeared to be uncomfortable-looking ovals of purple and red discolored skin when he took those glasses off at the end of a long day. Even if those lumps make the mixture less smooth, less pretty, even if you don’t quite know what to do with them, even if they don’t figure into your chemistry–they don’t have a place in the reaction equations–leave them there. Leave the impurities in there.


Let It Bloom

George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series divides storytellers into pre-planning Architects and Gardeners. “The Gardener just sort of digs a hole and plants a seed, and then he waters it with his blood and sweat before waiting to see what will come up. It’s not totally random, because obviously the Gardener knows what he’s planted; he knows whether it’s an oak tree or a pumpkin. If he’s not taken totally by surprise by further inspiration he has a general idea of what he’s doing … I lean very much to the side of the Gardener.”

Finish the Thing

Early in his career Martin produced reams of unfinished story fragments. He learned to appreciate Robert Heinlein’s Four Rules for Writing. Martin says “The first one was ‘you must write, but the second one was ‘you must finish what you write. A lot of young writers somehow get stuck, or it goes awry and they don’t finish those stories. Heinlein was right: You have to overcome that.”

Deform the Familiar

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz says his first-person narratives demand that he push past personal autobiography. “I’ve never been able to write directly about things that happen to me,” he says. “I need to deform them in ways to make them strange to me … if I’m playing the court stenographer, then there isn’t going to be room for play, and if there is no room for play the work sits on the page lifeless. It’s during the play that I come up with all the weird connections, when my subtle structures come to life, when what’s best about the book starts to unfold.”


Talk to Strangers

Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Lauren Beukes, a white South African, created a black Ugandan ex-junkie as the hero of her critically lauded sci-fi noir novel Zoo City. Beukes says “I don’t have a lot of patience for [authors who are] too lazy to do any research … culture and race and sexuality and even language are all lenses that shape our experiences of the world and who we are in it. The only way to climb into that experience is to research it, through books or blogs or documentaries or journalism or, most important and obvious, through talking to people.”

Images courtesy Abrams Image.


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.