Liar's League regular Niall Boyce offers his perspectives as a writer to others considering writing for the League
What works for Liars' League? I’m not entirely sure. I can only say what works for me. None of these points refer to other authors I’ve heard at the League. This is a list of the mistakes I’ve made that have really annoyed me. The final edit, as Russell T. Davies said, comes during the performance.
Yes, the performance: these stories are going to be read aloud. They will also be up on the website, of course, but the most important thing is the reading. Assume that this is the first and only time the audience will come across your story. So a clear narrative is vital.
There shouldn’t be too many characters, and the ones you use must be clearly defined with distinctive voices. And by this, I mean realistically different ways of talking: I have heard a fine variety of accents used by the talented actors of the League, but accents will only take you so far.
Whilst I’m on the subject of dialogue, stories with too much chat risk losing momentum. People need to do something too: I love the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, but one reason the snappy dialogue works so well is that we’re aware a bank raid is imminent...
It’s also tempting, when facing a restricted word limit, to go for huge information-dumps in the dialogue, but this risks sounding flat and artificial. I prefer a simple concept that I can grasp intuitively to something smarter which requires someone to say, ‘As you know, Professor...’ and then deliver four paragraphs of background detail.
A few other pointers:
- Literary techniques that work on the page can be incredibly annoying when read out loud. Alliteration risks sounding childish; too much repetition makes the story read like a hypnosis tape.
- Long sentences can mean the audience’s attention drifts, and the thread of the narrative is lost. Be careful.
- Obscure references will similarly throw the audience off-kilter and distract from the story.
- Flipping back and forth in time and space is possible, but the various locations should be labelled clearly.
- Remember that everything you write is around ten times more interesting to you than it is to the person who has to listen to it.
These points are, I know, a mixture of the overly prescriptive and the maddeningly vague. All I can say is that they work for me, and I hope some of them work for you, too.
One last thing: the most important skill in writing, any writing, is to not be afraid of failure. Samuel Beckett got it right: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
I like that, but I prefer the way Quentin Crisp put it: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.’© Niall Boyce 2010