Want to Become a Better Writer? Read Roald Dahl
Start with his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood
Roald Dahl is an incredible writer. Obviously.
Most of us have read—and cherished—at least one of his timeless classics. He’s a master of compelling and complex character development, vivid, unique world-building, and rewarding, memorable storytelling.
But if all you know of Roald Dahl is Willy Wonka and a giant peach, you’re missing out. Especially if you’re a writer.
Dahl’s two-part biography, Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo — should be required reading for anyone that wants to become a writer. Not just because it’s a fantastic example of how to write an autobiography (it totally is), but because Dahl reveals some of the most simple, yet poignant tips and techniques for how you can become a better storyteller
If you want to be a better writer you need to read more Roald Dahl. But don’t believe me. Here’s what Roald Dahl has to say about writing. (Any emphasis is my own).
Roald Dahl’s advice for writing an autobiography
Don’t make it boring:
“An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography.”
Little moments can be the most important part of a story—or even an entire life:
“Throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten. None of these things is important, but each of them made such a tremendous impression on me that I have never been able to get them out of my mind.”
Don’t be afraid to tell the truth:
“When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful. Truth is more important than modesty. I must tell you therefore that it was I, and I alone, you had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot. We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.”
Roald Dahl’s advice about finding story ideas
The most important part of writing is to just start writing:
“I didn’t have to search for any of them. All I had to do was skim them off the top of my consciousness and write them down.”
Show, don’t tell like Roald Dahl
This is how you do it:
“The loss of an arm, he used to say, caused him only one serious inconvenience. He found it impossible to cut the top off a boiled egg.”
How Roald Dahl uses better analogies
Juxtapose when you can:
“The sweet shop in Llandaff in the year 1923 was the very centre of our lives. To us, it was what a bar is to a drunk or a church to a Bishop.”
“Homesickness is a bit like seasickness. You don’t know how awful it is till you get it, and when you do, it hits you right in the top of the stomach and you want to die. The only comfort is that both homesickness and seasickness are instantly curable. The first goes away the moment walk out of the school grounds and the second is forgotten as soon as the ship enters port.”
Roald Dahl loves a good simile
C’mon. Now you’re just showing off, Roald:
“…and like most pencils, it had a lot of sides to it.”
Roald Dahl relies on vivid imagery
It’s impossible not to see a sinuous line of schoolboys marching into the woods when you read this:
“At ten-fifteen we put on our caps and coats and formed up outside the school in a long crocodile and a marched a couple of miles into Weston-super-Mare for church.”
Roald Dahl and the importance of writing letters
Starting at school, Roald Dahl wrote letters to his mother every single week for the rest of his life. She saved every single one, which actually gave Dahl, the initial material to write the book Boy:
“Church-going never became a habit with me. Letter writing did.”
Roald Dahl and the importance of mystery and discovery
Nothing worthwhile is easy, and only fabulous things are worthwhile:
“Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more. But it was a very different matter in 1934.”
Adventure and exploration are the keys to growth. Try something new—you might just learn something:
“Above all, I learned to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilization.”
Over the past few weeks, Roald Dahl has become my writing guru. This unassuming WWII fighter pilot created some of the most imaginative children’s stories ever written. Stories that still shape the way we talk about childhood, imagination, and chocolate.
Better yet, Dahl provided a simple blueprint for how you can create better stories. You just have to do this:
- Be more observant
- Open yourself up to adventure
- Write more letters
- Use vivid, specific descriptions
- Always pursue the fantastic
I highly recommend reading, Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl with a journal handy. He’s got a few more tidbits of wisdom tucked in those pages—especially if you want to become a better writer.
Shawn Forno is a freelance copywriter, content manager, travel writer, poet, and blogger. He loves talking about himself in the third-person.