18th Nov: We've switched servers and will be updating the old code over the next couple months, meaning that several things might break. Please report issues here.
Principle Number One
A quick word: 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 eyeteeth to make sure no one ever sees. But if you keep at it, you're going 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. Perseverance is far more important than perfection. But don't take my word for it: Extra Credits has some inspirational thoughts for you right over here.
Necessary TropesMost stories have: 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). Your Settings 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:
Choices, ChoicesThe Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Where do you stand? 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). The Sliding Scale of Silliness Versus Seriousness: Where do you stand? 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. Number of characters? Number of locations? 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 our own. 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. Similarly, save the globe-trotting for a time when you've already proven you can write. For now, stick to a few relevant locales.
PitfallsMost 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 is angsty, incomprehensible, 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.
Potential SubversionsWhatever theme you can do can be subverted in either way. The most common form to do that is the Deconstruction, analysing the theme and dissect it until the last consequences. Another way to do this is by adding Hidden Depths to seemingly archetypal characters. But please, for the love of all that is holy, don't abuse the Twist Ending gimmick.
Suggested Themes and AesopsOkay, 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.
Potential MotifsThere'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:
Suggested PlotsIn 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 to Tragedy 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 ScoutThis 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.
Props DepartmentAny 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.
Costume DesignerMany 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:
Casting DirectorBecause 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:
Stunt DepartmentBe 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: 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.)
The GreatsJust search any Literature Classics section in the bookstore/library, or ask the old man under the bridge who sells second-hand books.
The Epic FailsMost of the works listed here as being So Bad Its Horrible got there for a reason.note Read or watch one to get a good idea of what not to do.