Writing Advice From The Man Behind Pulp Fiction

My friend Steven is a movie nerd.

If you love movies, you’ll love him. He’ll tell you who shot the movie, the inspiration behind the film, the nitty-gritty dirty-fingernail-scandals onset (so and so slept with who?), and if you’re lucky, he’ll do all this while offering to share his famous, buttery popcorn.

He’s a Hell of a guy.

The other week, we were watching a movie by my favorite director, Quentin Tarantino. Now Quentin is an interesting cat. Aside from the fact that his fingerprints are firmly cemented on pop culture, he has a phoenix story; he rose.

After starting off as a virtual nobody, through sheer talent, passion, and will, he transformed his life from behind the counter of a video store to being the man who wrote, directed, and acted in some of the best movies ever grace the silver screen.

What I like most about Quentin Tarantino is he’s a writer. He’s written his own movies, dreamt up his own characters, and created stories worth sharing. Considering that you’re reading this on Medium, the hub for writers, I wanted to explore his philosophy to see if Quentin had any insights we can use to improve our writing.

Success leaves clues.

This is particularly useful for someone like me, (the smartass who’s trying to write an article about his clues). After a lifelong Tarantino appreciation, I’d like to share some of his wisdom on finding success and becoming a better writer.

Grab some of Steven’s popcorn; the show is about to begin.

Raise The Stakes

“I Had To Get Out Of Loserville” — Quentin Tarantino

Even though Aunt Florence and her trademark tapioca pudding really dig your writing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you made it. When I started writing, I made a personal blog (That my Aunt Florence fucking loved!), and over time I decided that this is how I want to make money. However, it donned on me, although I’m doing well in my corner of the internet, if I want this writing idea to work, I need to become vulnerable, risk rejection, and get my name out there.

So slowly, I did what must be done: improve my writing, apply to more prominent gigs, get rejected, swear, dust myself off, and apply again. Over time, I made some money, and that, to me, is the coolest thing ever. This all happened because I decided to raise the stakes.

Medium is a platform that is filled with established and emerging talent. If you have a knack for writing, this is the park you want to play in. What I’ve learned (as I’m still new to this platform) is to humble myself and ask how can I become a better writer? What are the things that the well-read writers do, and how can I learn from them? I can tell you one thing they all are doing. They raise the stakes.

Actionable Advice: Challenge yourself to submit to larger publications. You’ll never know how high you can climb if you’re afraid to take the first step.

Be Observant

“I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it — other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge. I listen to what everyone says, I watch little idiosyncratic behavior; people tell me a joke, and I remember it. People tell me an interesting story in their life, and I remember it.” — Quentin Tarantino

The best writers are wallflowers, except instead of listening to your father curse out the telemarketer who’s one errant call ruined dinner (like the kitchen wallflowers did at my house), we use our free time to write. It’s weird, it’s beautiful, it’s frustrating, it’s relaxing; it’s us.

I personally believe the single best way to improve your writing is to be aware. Be aware of the conversations you hear, the books you read, the shows you watch, and the music you listen to. By simply looking out for new words, new ideas, new expressions, well, (Spoiler Alert)– you’re going to notice them. Be present; it allows you to see life for what it really is — a gift.

Actionable Advice: Make a list or document of the phrases you hear in day-to-day life that stir your emotion. Later you can use this list in your work.

Work In a Flow

“Oh, very much so. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.” — Quentin Tarantino

Most writers appreciate the idea of outlines. They are our guard rail providing comfort as we scale the giant, swaying, bridge from our mind to our keyboard. However, the nasty little truth about outlines is they can be restrictive. To me, this goes against the whole appeal of writing — freedom.

While I admit it’s useful to know where you want to go, magic happens when you have a thread, and you pull it to see how it unravels. The creative process is not knowing where you’re going and ending up with a better story because of it. It’s allowing yourself to get lost, so you can be found. Without a firm outline, it gives you the space to learn more about the characters, discover unseen motivation, and let your intuition take over.

As Steven King, the Sultan of Scare, phrases it: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

Personally, I do a mix of both — I start off with a rough mental outline but let the story flow from there. It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s frustrating, it’s fulfilling — it’s me. You should do you, but no matter what approach you take, let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

Actionable AdviceFigure out your story as you’re writing it. This will allow the creative process to bloom as it seems fit.

Be Passionate About Your Craft

“You don’t have to know how to make a movie. If you truly love cinema with all your heart and with enough passion, you can’t help but make a good movie.” — Quentin Tarantino

Passion is the cheapest insurance policy you can buy to improve your writing — It’s free. Here’s how the policy works: passion breeds discipline. Discipline breeds practice. Practice breeds mastery. If you want to be great, start with passion, it will keep you motivated enough to do the work.

In my opinion, the best writers aren’t the ones with the natural talent, (yes that helps), but it’s the passionate writers. They wake up early, stay up late, and put words on paper. Much like muscles growing on a body that regularly exercises, the writing quality improves with those who write. This idea reminds me of a universal truth. Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

Simply put, if you’re passionate about becoming a better writer, then you’re likely to put in enough work to will it into existence.

Actionable Advice: Work on projects that you’re passionate aboutPut passion in your lunch pail and bring it to work.

27 thoughts on “Writing Advice From The Man Behind Pulp Fiction

  1. Another key to improve your writing to keep writing 🙂 If you don’t get words on the page no amount of passion is going to sell the book/move/play you haven’t written. ‘Writers write, not wait, for inspiration.’

  2. “Success leaves clues,” I like that.

    While this is about the process, it had me reminiscing about an old friend, Dana, who would be so animated and entertaining acting out a movie, that the original would pale in comparison so that you would come away disappointed.

  3. Excellent post, Tony. Great advice. I love Stephen King’s quote about outlines. Fiction is so much harder to write than the average person (writer) thinks it would be. Thanks for stopping by my blog, Always Write. I hope you’ll add a post and play with WQWWC. 🙂 Marsha

  4. Quentin definitely masters script-writing. This makes me want to binge watch his movies again but with a notebook and pen in hand. All night. All morning. And I haven’t been watching anything for months! Thank you.

  5. Excellent stuff, I love it. Personally, I prefer writing without an outline and allowing the story to flow. recently I’ve been writing a prequel to my main series, and having to make sure things line up properly for continuity is pretty stifling. I’m doing it, though!

    Thanks for your recent like on my blog. Glad it helped me discover yours. 🙂

  6. As I was reading the part about outlines I was thinking to myself, was it Stephen King who said outlines were a waste, and there it was! Ha, so inspirational, and I love love Quentin Tarantino movies. And my husband remembers EVERYTHING in a movie. He is my movie nerd. 😉 I love hearing that I am not the only one doing this crazy writing thing. And I love it! Great read. Thank you.

  7. [As Steven King, the Sultan of Scare, phrases it: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”]

    This. I’m done reading yet but I just had to ask you something. I’ve had this idea for years, and I hear the characters’ voices but I’m afraid to dive in, not knowing where I’ll end up because I’m afraid to mess it up. I keep thinking I’m not good enough yet, like this is the big one I don’t want to regret doing wrong.
    But I’ve found that I get lost in this unending planning phase with nothing to show for it.
    How do I do that, abandon myself to writing without a tether?

    1. For me – I think you just start and build the process and remove all judgement until the first draft is done. You’ll discover the story as you write it. Then when it’s done it’s all about editing. The key is to put words on paper every day, it won’t feel like much for a while but after a few moments you’ll finish a book. The worst that can happen is, you edit what you don’t like. That’s the power of writing

      1. You got it man – just know the way you feel is how every writer feels – it’s normal but also know, you can edit everything. The hardest part is just getting the rough draft done. Try to remember it’s fun and write it with love – you’ll have something great, I promise.

Leave a Reply