Legendary author Toni Morrison has died at 88, according to The New York Times. Morrison’s books are regularly heralded as essential to American literature. Although writing is full of pitfalls, we can learn how to avoid them.
Toni Morrison was the winner of many prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her works included the striking debut The Bluest Eye; the Pulitzer-winning Beloved; and her final release, a nonfiction collection called The Source of Self-Regard. Her voice and her understanding of life in the United States—especially the unique experience of being a woman of color in America—cemented her as one of our greatest living authors. Fortunately enough, we’ve learned some of the traps to avoid in order to write great fiction.
Don’t Write What You Know
In a lecture for The Great Courses, award-winning novelist James Scott Bell, J.D., quoted an interview with Toni Morrison about writing. She was talking about busting popular writing myths and said the following.
“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ First, because you don’t know anything, and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”
Instead, Morrison said, think of someone you don’t know. Think about things far outside your wheelhouse and create that. Bell agreed with her, adding, “Let your imagination guide you, but be prepared to do the necessary research, especially if you have a character from another culture.” It may seem obvious, but stereotypes abound in bad fiction. “When you first picture a character, your mind grabs the most familiar image it can,” he said. “Always stop at that point and switch things around. Give the character a quirk, a skill, a passion, something that you wouldn’t expect.”
Flashbacks are another writing trope that can go very well or very poorly. Many writers fail to utilize flashbacks properly, to the detriment of their books. “The first question to ask about a flashback scene is, ‘Is it necessary?'” Bell said. “Does the story information have to come to us in this fashion?”
According to Bell, flashbacks almost always tell us why a character acts a certain way in the present, so it’s better to drop that information in the present if possible. However, if you choose to use a flashback, Bell warned against starting in the present and using flashbacks too soon in a book. “If the flashback is important, you should consider starting with that scene as a prologue or first chapter,” he said. “But your baseline instinct should be to hold off flashbacks for as long as possible. Now, if you’ve decided that a flashback is necessary, make sure it works as a scene—immediate, confrontational. Write it as a unit of dramatic action, and not as an information dump.”
Getting out of one’s comfort zone, but reining in drastic tools like flashbacks can help turn around a struggling manuscript. Toni Morrison leaves the world a rich library of wonderful novels, ready for the enjoyment of any reader and for the study of any aspiring novelist.
James Scott Bell, J.D., contributed to this article. Bell is an award-winning novelist and writing instructor. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and his J.D. with honors from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.