On Writing the Opposite of What We Know

The solution, or at least the one I prefer to promote, is, at least in the beginning, to take what you know and try to write the exact opposite.

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When it comes to writing about family, I almost never write about households that include two parents, two siblings and a pet. This may be the typical setup for many (but certainly not all) people – it was for me, growing up (and still technically is, now that I’m living at home again). It’s for that reason, I suppose, that I try my hardest not to portray that setup in my stories.

We often fall into the false notion that we should only write what we know, because apparently that makes writing easier and more credible. I don’t buy that. It’s not wrong, necessarily – many writers will dish out this advice to help aspiring writers get started, and that’s a fine place to begin. Eventually, though, that gets old and tiring, and I fear that is why many newer writers struggle, or stop writing entirely.

The solution, or at least the one I prefer to promote, is, at least in the beginning, to take what you know and try to write the exact opposite. When I was 16 I wrote a novel about a married couple in their 20s. Did I know anything about that? Obviously not. But it was new and exciting and to this day is still one of my favorite original stories.

This isn’t to say you can’t incorporate themes and events you do know about. I’ve written about cancer and mental illness too, both things I’ve had people in my life go through and therefore know how to portray fairly accurately as a result. I just think we need to train ourselves to branch out, to do some research, to reach out to people and say, “Hey, I want to write about this. I don’t know much about it, is there anything I should know that you can tell me from your experience?” Within reason, and respectfully, of course.

Finding a healthy balance between writing in the unfamiliar and sprinkling in familiar elements is hard. I’m still learning how to make it all fit together. It’s a process. If you tend to stick to only writing what’s familiar to you, because that is what is most comfortable to you, that’s fine – for now. If it gets you writing, if it keeps you motivated, not a problem. But as you grow as a writer, and your skills and confidence develop, don’t be afraid to go a little “out there.” I’m doing it more and more and this year is probably the most fun I’ve had writing fiction since I was in high school.

If you ever start feeling bored or like you’re writing the same old story over and over again, try this technique. Think of something you’ve experienced in your own life and just completely flip it around. It’s a great tool for developing dynamic characters and writing stories that are just the right amount of dramatic (without overdoing it, maybe).

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

2 thoughts on “On Writing the Opposite of What We Know

  1. That’s funny, I do the same thing with nearly all my characters’ families, even though I grew up with two parents and a succession of cats. Oddly enough, the mother’s usually absent for some reason, which might tell you a thing or two about my relationship with the woman who raised me. So far for sprinkling in the familiar, heh.

    Which, I think, works best if it’s unconscious in the beginning, during character creation and plotting, even first draft, perhaps. Yet at the same time it’s important to use it with purpose eventually, lest those characters end up the author in disguise.

    And I completely agree with starting out with the familiar. I did that a lot for my early stories, even though they were fantasy. A lot about them was familiar, the characters, the types of settings I knew from other fantasy books, etc. It’s great for practice. But the really interesting thing happened when I moved to writing the unfamiliar. I stopped turning in circles reiterating the same old story and started following my characters around while they did things I didn’t see coming, because they no longer were so much like me, even if most still share a fair amount of traits with me.

    Well. That’s my personal experience, anyway. Thank you for yet another insightful post! That’s a pretty interesting topic I haven’t given nearly as much thought to as I probably should.

    1. Thanks for reading :) I had family on the brain because of Father’s Day and that was just the starting point of this post haha. It’s strange, a lot of my stories leave out the mom but I have a great relationship with mine haha. Definitely, the more I venture into things that are less familiar to me, the more diversified and ‘interesting’ my stories become. I realized in starting my most recent draft of a book that I was tired of featuring the same characters. I like the change.

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