I give advice on writing fairly often, sometimes on writing forums, sometimes at group workshops. There is one piece of advice I find myself giving out far more often than anything else, which is “You need to know your place in the story. You need to establish your role as the narrator.”
What this means is that you need to determine your emotional stake in the piece. If a character within the work is the narrator, you need to understand their emotions. This is vital to the writing process, and so many good things stem from it. Relevant information becomes obvious, and needless information can be thrown out, making your story tighter and cleaner. Dialogue becomes more natural, syntax falls into place. I won’t say that knowing your role is the most vital part of writing, but it is up there.
I once wrote a short story about going hunting with my father for the first time. I went hunting that weekend to impress a girl, and so I started off the story with that information. I didn’t refer to that ever again for the rest of the story. I didn’t need to. She wasn’t on the hunting trip with me, she wasn’t necessary to the story in any way. In my head, as a person, I felt that that information was significant, but as a narrator how does it help my story?
That is the first trick, realizing why you are telling the story. The difficult thing is that this realization doesn’t always come before the story is written. For that particular piece, it came when I was nearly finished. The story, which I thought was about impressing a girl, was about my immersion into the sub-culture of hunters within my own family. Can you have multiple goals within a piece? Yes. But they need to be clear and defined. The more you write, the easier it is to define those goals. The more emotionally invested you are in your story, the more powerful your writing will be, and your readers will be able to relate to your writing that much more.
During that short story I wrote about my dad a lot. My dad is a big guy, always has been. That was one of the first pieces of information I revealed about him. And it didn’t matter. His weight never affected the story.
Trick number two, know where you’re going. In creative non-fiction writing, it can be easy to include insignificant information. We are so invested in our family and friends in real life that some information just seems natural, we see it as part of who that person is. In pure fiction, we have these pure ideas of who our characters are, but is that information relevant? Know where you’re going. Think of trick one as the “why” and this trick as the “how”. By knowing your world, you also know what should be in the background and what the reader needs to know. I am not saying don’t include details, but make sure those details are relevant.
Establish your roll in the story, and good things will happen. The cliche of “showing not telling” will become the past, and you will feel less like your story is something that is a part of you, and more like you are a part of your story. Be invested.