PART 1: BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Before you begin writing, there are a few things you ought to know about your story: The story premise, your characters, the setting and the genre.
Unlike what you see in movies and TV shows, you don’t just sit down at your computer and begin typing, not even, I think, if you’ve given what you want to write a lot of thought. Personally, I outline anything over a few thousand words, and sometimes even works shorter than that. Even if I don’t strictly need to – I can write a short story from scratch with just a few plot points in my head – I find that my work is better when I have a plan beforehand; I’ve worked out little plot devices and details that I would probably miss by just writing off the top of my head. Writing is one endeavor where the more thought you give it, the better the end result will be.
Of course, you have to know what your story will be about. This is probably where you’ll normally -- thought not necessarily always -- start. What is your story about? Story ideas are easy to come by; your story could about anything that interests you -- a machine that can do something interesting; a friendship or romance between two people; a battle; etc. You should be able to describe your basic story idea in a sentence or two.
One thing you need to do at this time is decide the scope or boundaries of your story, though this may actually change once you really begin thinking about things. For example, not every World War II story is about the entire war; some are about a small group of people in a particular place over a short period of time. That brings us to Setting.
Setting is the where and when of the story. This might be determined by your story idea, but maybe not. Some ideas will fit in many places or many times. It is important to pick a setting that you can write convincingly about; this makes your story more realistic. You can learn about settings through personal experience (places you have been); movies or books that you liked (a Western, for example) or by research. For an authentic flavor, read something by someone who was at the setting you want to write about, if possible. For example, if you want to write a story about the moon landing, read accounts of people involved in that. This is not crucial, but sometimes it is helpful. You don’t necessarily want to copy their account, as it may not be very interesting; writing styles have changed over time, and you are writing for people who are living and reading now. The advantage of fiction is that you can add or delete information to make your account more interesting.
Of course, you have to know who is in your story. Events happened to or because of people – individual people. Telling the story of a town that was wiped out by a flood is so much more interesting if it is told from the perspective of one person, or a small group. People are as interesting as events. I can’t overstate how important that is to remember. So many stories would have been less interesting with uninteresting characters.
Characters have: personality traits (habits they have or things they like or dislike), history (what did they do before the story?) and relationships (friends, family, etc.). And don’t forget names. Some writers give their characters that mean something. For example, lawyer Perry Mason parries attacks against his client while building a case. Other authors choose names based on how they sound.
Genre is something to think about once you get used to writing, I think. In the beginning, just write what interests you. A genre is a broad subject of setting: Western, Science Fiction, Romance, etc. When someone tells you that they have Western, you expect certain things: Cowboys or gunfighters or Indians, in the U.S. in the 19th century. If you ever write seriously, hoping to sell stories, you must be conscious of genres. Each genre has its own conventions, what a reader expects when reading a book in that genre. For a (traditional) murder mystery, a reader expects to have all the suspects introduced early in the story, and a meeting at the end of the book where the detective names the murderer. In James Bond (or many action-adventure hero stories), the villain doesn’t kill Bond when he has the chance to -- instead he keeps the hero around and explains what his scheme is. These are just two examples -- and simple ones -- of genre convention.
PART 2: PLOT
As I said, it is fairly easy to come up with story ideas. The hard part is turning them into stories. After you’ve decided on setting and developed your characters, the next step is plot: What happens when, and to whom. One event leads into another. The longer the story, the more complex the plot. In a short story, plots can be very simple.
Stories are composed of three parts: Beginning, Middle and End. In the beginning, you introduce all the characters and the situation that they must deal with. In the middle, they deal with the problem -- that is the essence of a story, people dealing with problems. How does your original story idea cause or solve a problem? The problem is solved in the end, all the questions answered; readers should not be wondering about anything in the story once they reach the end, generally speaking. Of course, there’s an exception to almost every rule, but let’s stick with the basics for now.
A lot of plotting is choreography – figuring out who is where and what they are doing – which leads to later actions in the story.
PART 3: STYLE
Everything in a story must serve a purpose: It must either advance the plot or must tell the reader about the characters. Not every story does this in equal parts. Some stories have very little happening, but we get to know the characters very well. This describes the so-called “women’s movies”, or “chick flicks” (also known as “dramas”). In this type of story, it is expected that a character is changed by events of the story. This is sometimes called “serious” fiction.
Other stories are almost all action -- one event quickly leading into the next, each one a step towards solving the problem of the story -- with very little characterization. Do we ever know much more about James Bond at the end of a movie than we did at the beginning? Sometimes a little, but usually not much. This is what I was saying about character: Bond is an interesting character so we want to watch him do things.
NARRATION AND DIALOGUE
Writing in stories is composed of two parts: Narration and dialogue. Narration is the text that describes what is happening, and dialogue what people say.
Anyone can narrate a story; usually it is the “third person” -- an unidentified “someone” who knows everything that is happening. Some stories are told by a person in the story; this is “first-person”. This is literally as if he is telling the story to the reader.
Good dialogue is difficult for a beginning writer to write. It is common to make all of your characters to speak like you do. If you can, try to recall how different people you know speak. Some use certain words that most people don’t. Some speak in slang. Some emphasize certain words differently than others. This is not something you should expect to get right right away, so just do your best.
Characterization is essential. People want to read about interesting characters. What constitutes “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, but your characters must be distinct and predictable – by the end of a novel, readers should have a good idea of how your major characters are going to act, how they are going to respond to certain situations.
Not all writing involves narration – for example, scripts for movies or TV only need clear, unembellished descriptions of action and dialogue. All prose uses narration. Although different writers have styles that you can easily recognize, there are a few “rules” to writing:
1. Vary your sentence structure. Use some simple sentences. Start some sentences with clauses, end others with them. If you use all simple sentences, your story will sound like a children’s book. Needless to say, this not very interesting for adult readers.
2. When writing action, use shorter sentences and more simple sentences. This makes it seem as though the action is happening more quickly, because readers are going through actions more quickly due to the shorter sentences.
3. You don’t want your paragraphs too short or too long. A paragraph describes one idea. That is the rule of thumb. Sometimes you may not know what that idea is until you’ve written the paragraph and realize that you actually should have two, for example.
4. Often, you will have to describe the same person or thing over and over in a story. Try not to use the same word again and again. Find words that mean the same thing and vary them from sentence to sentence. And you want to try not to use the same noun, verb or adjective in two sentences in a row.
It is okay to write whatever comes into your mind as you write, following your plot. You have time to go back and fix things after you are done. It is better to write too much and remove some later than not to write enough and not clearly explain everything to the reader.
PART 4: PRACTICE
Practice, practice, practice! That means write whenever you can. I know it may sound silly, but practice at writing will make you a better writer. You will naturally come to find your own style as a writer, become better at plot and dialogue. The more you write, the more quickly you will become a better writer.
(c) 2013 Jeff Deischer
Jeff Deischer is a writer of adventure fiction and of non-fiction about adventure fiction. His passions are his wife, writing, his cat Gray Mouser, pulp fiction and Silver Age Marvel comics and doing the right thing ... not necessarily in that order. For more information, visit http://jeffdeischer.blogspot.com/