So You Want To / Write a Story
Principle Number One
When you write a story, don't make it boring.
The rest of this article addresses how to accomplish that.
No story ever springs from the writer's pen fully formed and in perfect condition. Do not let that stop you.
You're gonna start with stupid ideas, shallow characters, pointless conversations, and in general the kind of writing you would give your eyes and teeth to make sure no one ever sees. That's fine; the truth is that every published author, every titan of literature, even the "geniuses", started this way. (And succeeded at making sure nobody ever saw their early crap, too!)
If you keep at it, you'll inevitably start to work out the kinks until it becomes something worth reading, and then keep going until it becomes something worth telling other people to read. Again, every published author started this way. Every
author was bad when they started. The successful ones just kept doing it anyway, until they weren't bad at it anymore.
The same is true of individual stories, not just an overall body of work. Keep writing
, even if it feels like you're going nowhere. It's much easier to polish a turd than it is to polish nothing at all; and, believe it or not, there is much to be learned from turd-polishing.
Perseverance is far more important than perfection.
But don't take our word for it: Extra Credits
has some inspirational thoughts for you right over here
Most stories have:
- One or more characters.
- A setting.
- Conflict or change.
Whether you want it or not, your story will also have structure, theme/premise
, mood/tone, and style. These become especially important if your story has no conflict, or if the plot is related in non-chronological order, or if you've otherwise decided to subvert one of the most basic assumptions about how stories work. If you are a beginning writer, you'll want to regard this kind of subversion as a learning exercise, rather than expecting that your character-less novel will be a bestseller and a classic for the ages.
You'll want to Make Interesting Characters
, develop their personalities
, and consider their roles in the story (Characterization Tropes
, Characters as Device
may be based on your research
or completely made up
A plot is a sequence of events that ensue
when there is conflict. Most stories have conflict:
- A character, usually The Protagonist...
- ...wants something badly...
- ...and is having trouble getting it.
Typically, The Protagonist
is opposed by an antagonistic character
, or else to achieve their goal they must struggle against society, an object, a natural disaster, etc.
The qualities of your story as mentioned above — characters, setting, motivation, conflict, plot, resolution — are perhaps best described as the "contents" of your story. What we are now going to consider is the "tone
" of your story. If the contents are what you tell, the tone is how
you tell it. This is more important than it sounds.
Let's take an example. Let's say you have a heroic man who is good at what he does, but wants to be more. Additionally, he's blind to his own limitations. So he bulls his way into a position of power he's not ready for and ends up ruining everything. Does this plot belong in a tragedy
or a sitcom
The answer is that it literally depends on whether you have a Laugh Track
or not. The plot just described is the story of a lot
of sitcoms (The Office (US)
, The Simpsons
, about half the episodes of Frasier
)... and is also a very accurate, if somewhat generalized, summary of one of the greatest tragedies of all time, William Shakespeare
. The only difference — the only
difference — is whether the audience is supposed to laugh at it or not.
So let's take a look at what you might decide, and how to implement that decision.
Do you wish to portray a world in which karma works in favor of the virtuous, and villains get their comeuppance? You might choose this path to inspire your readers to do good in the world, or simply because it feels good to read a happy ending.
Or would you prefer to portray a world in which random chance harms the good and helps the evil, all without any rhyme or reason — where it's better to be self-centered or even evil, because the good don't get rewarded for their goodness?
You can place your story anywhere between the two extremes. Maybe some good characters get hurt or die despite their virtue, and some villains go Karma Houdini
in the end, but most of the characters get what's coming to them, one way or the other.
In fact, you can also make the story look
like it's idealistic, but ends with cynicism (suddenly the good characters die and the villains escape). Or, make it look
cynical, but end idealistically (the ending makes you look at all the bad events from a different point of view).
We started with this distinction between Comedy and Drama, and nowadays some of the strongest series are Dramedies, drama with a strong sense of comedy, the two forces working together, waxing and waning as appropriate to the story of the moment. Still, it's a good idea to know which one of them you plan to focus on, especially since you can exaggerate either of them, from absurd surrealism to unrelenting grimdark
The Sliding Scale of Scope
How many characters do you want? How many locations do you want? The sky is the limit — except for how we have stories set in outer space now, so, no, the sky is no longer the limit.
Some of the greatest classics have drummed up a cast of dozens, even hundreds of characters
, and ranged over a world almost as intricate and detailed as Real Life
. That said: Don't bite off more than you can chew. It's best, in the beginning, to work with only a few major characters - perhaps half a dozen mains, half a dozen minors. By choosing a judicious number of characters
that suits a (compact) plot, you can avoid a scattered tale with a dozen dangling plots that never seems to tie down all the loose ends, something even experienced authors have trouble with.
Similarly, save the globe-trotting for a time when you've already proven you can write. For now, stick to a few relevant locales
The Sliding Scale of Comfort vs Challenge
There are works of fiction that are meant to shock a society to its very core, to make its viewers question their values and whether they should hold them anymore. And then there are works that are meant to act like a cup of hot cocoa: soothing, reassuring and even escapist-oriented. You should decide which of these you want to focus on, as it's difficult to do both at once.
Most people don't care to read about Flat Characters
. They want to read about characters who seem like people. People have desires and fears, strengths and flaws; they are sometimes unpredictable, sometimes act on whim, but they usually
have reasons for everything they do, consciously or unconsciously.
Now, this does not mean your character needs to evolve
. Character Development
is useful, but it's not the only way to run a story; sometimes
the Protagonist is the only character
who does not
grow. So it's perfectly okay to have a Static Character
- as long as that character is not flat
(and not in the way you're thinking, either
Also, you may hear that True Art
, offensive and such - take this with a pinch of salt. Whilst it is true that great stories have been told in ways that can be painful, complex or challenging to our core beliefs, true art often cannot be summed up so simplistically, and it is often a sign of a certain degree of pretentiousness when people insist that art is 'only' one thing or another. Great art can just as often be optimistic, simple and inoffensive - and the greatest works of art generally tend to acknowledge both sides.
Finally, remember that list from up above? 1) A protagonist
who wants something
and can't get it
? Other people list it this way: 1) What do they want
, 2) why can't they have it
, and 3) why do I, the consumer, give a [Precision F-Strike]?
We have plenty of tropes on the idea that the audience simply won't hook into your story, from the Eight Deadly Words
to the Audience-Alienating Premise
, and it might be a good idea to review them. You could be the finest writer in history, but that won't help you if your audience gives up after the first paragraph because what you're writing about is objectionable, poorly communicated or irrelevant. The idea cannot be interesting to only you; it has to be made interesting to everyone
Many themes and tropes can be subverted in interesting ways. One of the most common forms is the Deconstruction
, which is about analyzing the themes and how they would play out if painfully
realistic consequences were applied to them. Another good tool is to add Hidden Depths
to seemingly archetypal characters.
But please, for the love of all that is holy, don't abuse the Twist Ending
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Okay, go back to the sliding scales. What do you really believe? Do you align yourself with Rousseau Was Right
, or are you on the side that thinks that Humans Are Bastards
? Once you define that, you can build the moral scale of your history.
There's a wide range of motifs to choose from when crafting a character, a story, a world. But you need to make the motif serve your story, not the other way around. If you find you're bending the characters to suit the motif, you're probably going to end up with something simple and flavorless, hardly standing out from its fellows. And readers who recognize the motifs are going to guess your plot twists a mile off.
But as far as potential motifs, there are, among others:
- Animals: Each major character gets an animal "totem" that shows off the basic feel of the character. ElfQuest did this with Cutter, Leetah, Skywise, and Rayek: a bantam rooster, a cat, a fox, and a snake. But this was never the be-all and end-all of their characters; even Rayek, despite going fairly dark in many places, was never merely the "snake" of the series.
- Colors: Each character gets a color, which usually informs some aspect of their personality. White might indicate an All-Loving Hero, yellow The Ditz, pink The Chick (or perhaps a more macho type), blue The Smart Guy and red The Lancer, green or brown the guy who's close to nature, silver The Dragon, etc., etc., etc. There are plenty of ways to play with this (offhand: why is purple listed under villains or at best neutral?), so don't be tied down to what others have done just because others have done it.
- Moral Codes: Trigun took a central thesis of (not at all technical) pacifism and how it might work in a dangerous Wild West desert world — the unwillingness to harm or kill others, even villains (though not to passively accept them hurting others either) — and managed to pull off an entire series. The two male leads clashed on this topic, coming at it from completely different worldviews. When is it right to use force? When must we accept a less-than-ideal solution to the threat at hand? If you take care to avoid The War on Straw, you can really make a series shine by assigning certain characters ethical stances that clash with those around them (even if it's just All-Loving Hero vs. the guy who'll Shoot the Dog).
In general there aren't really suggested plots in works outside "conventional genres". Just open your arms and let the plot come!
One way to find plots is listening to people. In the bus, in the subway, in the wall before the dentist, in the restroom, everywhere people talk, and chit-chat, and lament. Everybody believes their lives could make a book, or at least a good chapter of a Soap Opera
. Of course, this is not true, but from anecdotes from strangers the embryo of a good story can born. Even from family you can get inspiration; there is fountain of inspiration on familiar anecdotes. Many authors have met fame and fortune writing disguised versions of their family exploits.
Aside from picking up plots at random, you can start with an archetypal plot and go from there. Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots
outlines, well, seven archetypes, from The Quest
to classic monster-slaying to Rags to Riches
and even Rebirth (the Tragedy plus a Heel–Face Turn
in time for it to matter). There are others who classify the archetypal plots in different ways
and with different numbers, from two (every story is about Love or Death) to 42 or even more.
Another tactic: Design your main character and center your story around what he or she does. Just remember: A plot happens when someone wants something badly
and is having trouble getting it
. If Bob, your hero, wants a job at a nearby Pizza Hut, make him really
want it, and let us in on the reason he does. Maybe he's desperate for money. Maybe the girl of his dreams works there too. Maybe he needs a job, any job, before his great-uncle shows up and drags him off to something worse (or his parents send him to That Camp). But if he really doesn't care whether or not he gets the job, we're not going to care either. And if he just walks in and applies, and they accept him on the spot, then maybe the job turns out to be not all he dreamed of
. Otherwise, if he gets his wishes immediately ... what was the story again?
Set Designer / Location Scout
This is never easy as you think. Besides the whole "created world" versus "some version of our world" choice, there's a bigger concern: putting the reader there.
The trip up is, of course, this is a balancing act. Under do it, and your readers will have no idea of setting at all. Over do it
, and other things suffer. And this balance is different depending on the story— sometimes, simply saying your two characters are in a small room is enough. Other times, to properly set up a thwarted storming the castle
, you may need the Chekhov's Gun
of the super cool defense set up in the first chapter. Then you need to decide how much of a surprise you want it to be.
Another issue is one a lot of writers miss. Even if you supposedly set your story in "our" world, you often end up bending things
to suit the narrative. You never truly set your story in reality. The Chicago in The Dresden Files
isn't real; neither is the LA in Black Dahlia
The issue, rather, is how to invoke your version of a place in the story. If it's a real place or one spawned in your head, the drive is the same. Put the reader there, and don't look foolish to those who've been there. If you set your story in Toronto, it's all well and good to mention Kensington Market and "The King of Kensington"— but if you set your story in 1974, someone's going to realize Al Waxman didn't start playing the King until the year after.
With a whole-cloth setting, this is still true— except the only resource you have to start is you. Meaning you
are the only one to blame if a Plot Hole
related to the setting comes up. Contradict what you established on page one without setting up something properly for it, and you'll have the reader shouting "Ass Pull
" and throwing the book against the wall.
The elements of setting aren't just maps and scenery, or even grand cultures (though those can help). The setting is revealed in something as simple as daily routine— if you go to a well whenever you need water, you likely don't have indoor plumbing. And the says certain things about the technology of your setting. Likewise, if someone addresses the lone female in a group as if it's natural she'd be in charge, that says something, too. People and things are both products of and have an effect on how your setting is revealed to the reader/ viewer. Realize this. Use it.
Of course, if your story is set in a specific location, then you should know your setting
- Visit the place yourself. If your story is set in London, then you're more likely to be able to vividly, accurately and effectively recreate it if you have some experience of what it's like to be in London; not just where the famous landmarks are, but how the streets are planned, what the weather's like at particular times of the year, even what it smells like in certain regions. Most people have seen a picture of the Houses of Parliament, but if you actually visit it then you can get a sense of what the surrounding area is like, in order to describe it.
- If you can't directly visit the place yourself, then find other ways of experiencing it. If you live in Brisbane and your novel is set in London, then it might not be practical to visit London regularly; however, you can still access a large amount of literature and text about London — read stories and watch films set in London, read travel guides and memoirs based on London, talk to people who have been to London, etc. This even applies to more fantastical realms; if your story is set in an alien jungle, then obviously you can't go to an alien planet but you can go to a nearby Botanical Gardens and visit the tropical plants house to get a sense of what it's like in that part of a biosystem.
- Base your settings closer to home. Walk the streets around your house, visit local places, get a feel for it. You can just as easily set your story in your hometown as anywhere else, or extrapolate a more fantastical setting based on your hometown.
Any props that you use should be established as early as possible
. If it's important for the climax of your work that the hero bests the villain in a sword fight, then you're going to want to give him a sword and experience in using it as early as possible; if he just produces a sword and the ability to use it out of nowhere
at the end, the reader will feel cheated. That said, you don't have to be too obvious or clunky about it; try not to give away too much too soon.
Many amateur authors go to great lengths to describe what their characters are wearing. This can work better in some genres than in others, especially when the story is going to a visual medium, but in most cases an über-detailed description isn't needed. Especially when the time of the media leap/adaptation arrives and the director designates a costume designer with his or her own ideas.
If you don't give any
description of clothing, then people will assume the character is clothed in a manner that makes sense for the time, place, and the reactions of those who interact with the character. (Don't worry, they won't assume he's naked unless he's at a nudist colony.) If your character is a caveman, a pioneer, a sailor, a pirate, an astronaut, a bank teller, a CEO
, a surgeon, a journalist, a harried mother... each of these carries with it some stereotype
that makes you think of a certain level of clothing. You probably saw the CEO in a business suit - that's good. But since we do
make assumptions about the visuals, you as the writer have the chance to toy with us a bit, subverting our expectations in a fun or dramatic fashion.
If you decide that your characters' outfit must be described, or at least pointed out, you have to ask yourself the following questions before:
- Is it appropriate for the character? How can a real person in a similar situation move in this outfit?
- Can the attire in question be congruent with the historical period the story is placed? If not, is there a believable reason for that?
- Are the clothes really representative/appropriate/useful for my character, or I just cramming any kind of Author Appeal on them?
- Do the clothes say something about the character? What, exactly?
- Does the description of the clothing contribute somehow to the characterization or the plot?
- Does the public really have to read/watch a paragraph/2 minutes of zooms and pan/a large 2-pages spread depicting the cute fashionable dress/the kickass armor my protagonist is wearing?
Because of the Mary Sue
backlash and the rise of "more realistic" stories, there is an increasing amount of writing about average-looking people. While this is generally good and applauded, this could deviate in several ways:
Don't be ashamed to write about pretty people. Just don't indulge in endless sour grapes wangst
, and your public will forgive you. Mostly.
If you want to avoid these problems, the recommendation is not avoiding physical descriptions entirely, but instead characterize with few elements. In fiction, a character's actions and attitudes shape their appearance; if you have a character do an evil thing and then touch their facial hair, The Reader will automatically picture a Snidely-Whiplash mustachio or a Beard of Evil
. This goes for positive / good-guy characters too: you can have a character be a nice person and then let The Reader's imagination do the rest. Seriously, who's better at envisioning a character The Reader finds attractive: you or The Reader? So, give only the pertinent details, avoiding purpley adjectivation
, and then leave it alone. It's better if your readers have their own mental images. Let them be
the Casting Director.
Be keenly aware of the medium you are writing for when putting stunts into your story. Many impressive physical feats only work in the movies (and other visual media) because describing them with words commonly ruins the timing and pace. One of the reasons is that most action scenes in the movies have several things happening at the same time:
Notice how the time you need to read through that sentence is much longer than the actual actions it describes. A text is linear (you can only read one word at a time) while a motion picture is holistic (you notice or can notice many details at once), therefore, just like with the clothes and appearances, avoid describing in great detail each move that a character makes in your book, because it simply won't be as interesting as it is in the movies.
If you don't believe us, try writing down the highway Chase Scene
from Matrix Reloaded
in literary language and
maintaining the dramatic tension. If you succeed, you are either an experienced thriller novel writer or a literary genius, and either way this article can't help you — you should be writing
it, not reading it. (So get cracking! The Edit button's at the top of the page.)
Just search any Literature Classics section in the bookstore/library, or ask the old man under the bridge who sells second-hand books. Read an awful lot. Read in your chosen genre, of course, but try to sample something from everywhere. Reread the books and stories you love best (or, if you like film, rewatch the films you love best) and spend some time figuring out why
they work so well.
The Epic Fails
Most of the works listed here as being So Bad, It's Horrible
got there for a reason.note
Read or watch one to get a good idea of what not to do.
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