Before this gets started and I am absorbed in my own genius or whatever, I just want to say that everything here is either stuff I’ve discovered from writing a bunch of stuff, or things I’ve inferred from reading a bunch of stories. So know ahead of time that the words below are like potatoes: you gotta take em with a whole buttload of salt because they soak that shit up. If anything that follows sounds authoritative, it’s only because I’m too lazy and/or proud to sprinkle qualifiers between every other word. So here goes.
If you’re reading this, it is probably too late to convince you not to write a story. The best I can do is make sure the story you write doesn’t suck. If we’re both lucky, what’s written here will actually result in your story being good, but let’s not get our hopes up. Hope has no place in good writing. Dogged persistence, yes. Hope, no.
So the very first thing to be sure of when attempting to write a story is that you are, in fact, writing a story. A story is a very particular type of thing, and it is not to be confused with a character study, a detailed snapshot, or an expression of pure feeling. There is nothing less interesting than your feelings, except perhaps the feelings of your characters. They are the means to an end, and a currency yielded from and gained by the events in your story, and as such only interesting as a product of more interesting things.
See if you can recall a time when someone told you a story that totally amazed and enthralled you, despite the fact that the person speaking was an awful storyteller. Maybe they stuttered, maybe they mumbled and forgot details, but you still found yourself intent on knowing what happened next. The strength of the story itself trumped all other factors. What you are trying to do, at the core, is construct a story so compelling that good writing cannot help but follow from it. Bad word choice and grammar are much much easier to revise than a bad story.
Ok so to be simple with it, what I think separates a STORY from all those other stupid things I mentioned above, (and this is a pretty wide definition. Maybe I’ll come up with a more narrow one later to suit my purposes) is this:
A story is an account of change.
That’s basically what you’re doing in any good story. Frodo Baggins changes from unassuming hobbit, to adventurer, to scarred veteran. Not only that, but the setting changes, the immediate goals change, et cetera. An easy way to spot a bad “story,” (really more of a soapbox for the author to try and cram their shitty useless feelings down your face) is that NOTHING CHANGES. A character feels a certain way at the beginning, and the text serves only to play out an illustration of those feelings. Or, one thing happens, and then another thing happens, and then another thing happens, with no coherency or overall arc. Or, something is going to happen, we know it is going to happen, and then it happens, with no deviation from what we know and expect from word one. Another useful distinction, on that subject, is that in a non-story, for the most part, things HAPPEN to people. In a story, people DO things.
But this is too abstract to help you write a story. Hopefully it WILL help you to identify shitty ideas when you see them or (more importantly) when you come up with them. To help you on a more immediate level, let’s try an example. Why the hell not. We’ll see how this works.
Okay so first you need an idea, obviously. This is not hard. Everybody has ideas, all the time. They are a product of our restless brains that do not turn off. Let’s take a stupid idea I had last week and use that.
Robots are stealing and smuggling diamonds in order to manufacture high-quality machine parts.
Okay. This is a good place to start. Already, we can start asking ourselves questions: Who, if anyone, is controlling the robots? Who made them? What do they want? But notice that my idea here, while interesting, is not particularly intriguing. Or more accurately, there’s nowhere for it to go. Robots are stealing diamonds. That is what is happening, and you have no reason to believe that that will stop happening or lead to anything else in the near future. In fact, there is no future, explicit or implied, and so there is no story. Okay. So how do we make it a story? It needs something to change over the course of it, or at least present the threat of change. Try:
Robots are stealing and smuggling diamonds to manufacture high quality machine parts. They are building a giant robot to take all the gold in Fort Knox, and thus seize political power for themselves.
Awesome. Better, right? Now we’ve got something to look forward to: Will the robots be successful? Also, notice that the complication of the premise here comes as a direct result of answering one of the questions I asked in the last paragraph: What do the robots want. This is probably the most important question you can ask about any of your characters in any of your stories. Figure out what your characters want, and you can more efficiently and effectively keep them from getting it. Keeping characters from getting things they want is one of the main things that makes stories awesome. The best storytellers are adept at letting their characters get within inches of their goals and then swatting them deftly away.
So back to my robot shenanigans. What I’ve got here is still basically just a premise, mainly because of the lack of any obstacles. I need to add some other forces to oppose the robots in order to generate tension, and facilitate a satisfying conclusion.
I don’t necessarily believe in knowing how a story will end when you start writing it, but what you DO need is to provide at least two competing forces from the getgo. While gold-stealing robots are pretty cool, this story won’t be much fun if the robots pull off their heist without a hitch. So let’s add an obstacle.
ForeverCo, the world’s largest diamond importer, notices a string of mysterious heists and hires private detective Bod Nevada to look into the case. What Bod discovers will fling him into a world of machines and megalomaniacal schemes, ultimately implicating an army of robots … and ForeverCo itself.
Guys, do you want to read this story? Of course you want to read this story. It is awesome. It has gold, robots, private detectives and evil corporations. Not only that, but all of these things are in more or less direct opposition with each other.
Notice, I still don’t have an ending, but I have a general idea where it will go. It will have something to do with ForeverCo being responsible for the existence of the evil robot army; after all, if the robots needed diamonds to make their parts to begin with, who supplied the diamonds? But we’re getting off topic. Basically what I did here is I took a silly idea about robots, I made it a threat by giving it a goal, and then I created an opposing force (actually two: ForeverCo and Bod Nevada) to oppose the threat. How did I do it?
I hinted at this before, but basically my whole story-forming process amounts to asking myself questions and then answering them. Who made the robots? Foreverco. What do they want? Autonomy. Who is controlling them? No one. They are totally out of control. Will they succeed? I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m writing the story.
A good story is (usually if not always) internally consistent. The way you get an internally consistent story is by asking yourself these kinds of questions and making decisions, allowing your story to develop organically. You’ll find that it’s usually impossible to answer every single question before you start writing, that you have to “unlock” certain answers by putting words on the page.
Now let’s be clear. I don’t advocate any kind of formula for coming up with stories. This is not a story template or a creativity machine. Hell, you might try to write a prose story adhering to the keyword format of a sestina, or because you came up with a character name you really really like. What I’m giving you here is basically just the collection of processes I use to generate a traditional story, or to tell if what I’m writing is actually a story or just a mushy bag of words.
You may groan at the word “traditional” but this stuff is traditional for a reason. It works. It entertains people and they like it. If you want to get all avant-gardey on me, you go right ahead. But remember (to use a trite example) Picasso was a goddamn realist before he started putting people’s noses on the sides of their heads. The surrealists render all their melty clocks and disembodied boobs with photographic accuracy. And those guys who take canvasses and paint them orange and sell them for thousands of dollars? Fuck those guys. They are useless. If you’re going to try something new, make damn sure you can already do something old. And well.
With that rant out of the way, we can move into the writing of the story itself. Logic would dictate that we start at the beginning with the first sentence. But the first sentence is hard, and sometimes you won’t know what it ought to be (or what the title should be, either) until you’ve written at least a few paragraphs. You might even need to get through the whole story before you know how to start it. The first line is also the hardest because each word you put on the page is a limiting factor on the words you can follow it with. Without any words on the page, you’ve got nothing but possibilities, and possibilities are scary. So I’m going to do you a favor. I will write the first sentence of your story for you.
If you are stuck, copy this sentence into your empty document:
Fuck the sanctity of the first sentence. The important thing is that you start moving your fingers on the keyboard, and putting some black things on your white page. Then go ahead and write the second sentence of the story. Without the pressure of capturing the reader’s attention with a well-crafted opening, feel free to launch directly into a description of what is going on as your story begins. This sentence can be as boring and straightforward as you want. No pressure. You may find that your second sentence is really destined to be your first sentence after all!
Speaking of which, I suppose a word is in order on when to begin your story, in terms of the overarching narrative. Some famous writer guy once said: Your story should start just after it begins and end right before the end. People are smart. At least, you want to believe the people reading your stories are smart. They can stand being thrown into the middle of shit. If you find yourself dutifully plodding along, doing all kinds of boring work to get your characters to the place where the first “interesting” thing happens, you have started your story too early. Good place to start your story:
Two ForeverCo employees kicked down my door right as I was choking down my stale coffee. “We’ve got a job for you,” said the fat one.
Totally lame place to start a story:
I woke up too early, left my apartment without shaving or brushing my teeth, got some shitty coffee from a street stand, unlocked the door of my decrepit apartment building, climbed the six flights to my office, and sat down to collect my thoughts. Without warning, two ForeverCo employees kicked down my door …
It won’t always be that obvious. You’ll often need someone else to tell you you’ve started your story too late. But stay aware of that kind of thing. Try to start the action at the last possible second. And err on the side of too late, rather than too early. A lot of good sci-fi, for example, hurls us into the middle of a storm of jargon and unfamiliar tech, and expects us to catch up. Imagine having to read the origin of every bionic arm and superdrug before we even got to the plot!
Okay, so we’ve started the story. We should be going along at a pretty good clip now. Obviously, I can’t write your story for you, so the actual writey parts of it are up to you. Honestly the best way to get better at writing is to read the authors you like, and figure out why you like them, and then do those things. I can, however, give you some tools and point out some things you might not have considered.
Characters: People will decide how good of a writer you are based largely on your characters. As mentioned before, you want to make sure your characters mainly DO things, as opposed to having things happen to them. However, don’t make your characters remote-control dolls whose sole purpose is to do things you have decided they should do. Ideally, your story will actually be driven by your characters, and you may find yourself in a situation where your tale must diverge from your plans because your character simply refuses to do the thing you want him to. The trick is creating living characters and dropping them into the world of your story. Easier said than done? No. Very easy to do.
Here’s what you do: give your character an eyepatch. Or a pegleg. Or even something less piratey like a Mohawk or acrylic nails. Now, some say that this is a silly and shallow way to identify a character, but I’m not saying that your character should begin and end at the parrot on his shoulder. No, no. Picking some colorful detail, however, will give you a starting point for coming up with meatier aspects of the character’s personality. Instead of saying “oh, he’s got huge ears” and leaving it at that, try and imagine the kind of personality produced by years of ear-mocking. Just like with plot, these tiny decisions about appearance yield a wealth of questions, and answering them is what produces depth in your story. Lemme show you how this works:
A man walked into my office. “What do you want?” I said.
“I don’t want, I need” said the man. “I need you to solve a case for me.”
Boring. He has big ears now:
Into my office came a guy with ears so big I thought he was gonna have to turn sideways to get through the door. “What can I do for you, Dumbo?” I said.
“You can find some manners, first of all.” He scowled, finger-combing his hair down over his ears, “And then I need you to solve a case for me.”
I’m not even going to ask which was more fun to read. All the slight differences in the second version followed from my decision to give this unnamed man a pair of massive ears. In real life, people are responding to what they see, hear, feel and smell all the time. If you don’t give your characters stuff to look at and play with in your story, their dialogue is naturally going to end up boring. Put a pack of cigarettes on the table, have the smell of bacon waft in through the window. Distractions, nonsequiturs, jokes and tangents are what make conversations sound realistic.
What’s more, distinguishing traits give your readers an anchor point in their mind, from which to start constructing their own picture. If I say, “A man walked into my office,” I’ve got no idea what kind of an image you’re constructing in your head, if any. But if I say “A man with massive ears walked into my office,” I’ve got a ballpark idea of what you’re imagining.
As a general rule, the better picture I’ve got of a character in my head, the easier it is for me to write dialogue for him or her. When I’m writing dialogue, I’m trying to listen in to what the character would realistically say next, given who they are and what they want. Also, the more dialogue I write – obviously – the easier it gets. Other things you can do to make your characters distinctive: Pick an animal they are similar to, give them a slang, a nickname or a strong smell (smell is the strongest sense associated memory. Use that to your advantage.)
The inciting incident/disorganizing event: This is a term for some crucial event that happened a long time before the part of the story you’re writing about. Every good story has one, pretty much. In our robot story, the inciting incident might be an AI experiment by ForeverCo which produced self-replicating machines with diamond parts just before the funding was cut. In Superman, the inciting incident is the destruction of krypton. We may hear about the inciting incident during the course of the story, or it may be something that all of the characters simply know about and never mention. Think of it as extremely concentrated backstory. An inciting incident is important because it means that stuff is already happening by the time we start reading. The plot is in motion. It also gives the impression of a larger world outside of your story. If I write a story called “I woke up this morning and now there are dragons,” people are going to wonder where the dragons came from. Whether or not I explicity mention it in my story, knowing that the dragons were cloned by a mad scientist in a volcano thirty years ago will add depth to my (unbelievably shitty) premise.
If you think about your story, you may find that you already have an inciting incident. If you don’t, then you should come up with one or start your story later.
Information management: As the author, you are in possession of 100% of the facts of your story basically at all times. Except in certain special cases, your audience does not want this. If they already knew all the facts like you do, they wouldn’t be reading the story, would they? Part of the fun is discovering things as you go along. Uncertainty and anticipation is what makes readers jump the gap between chapter 1 and 2. And 3 and 4. Et cetera.
But it’s not enough to just keep random things secret. Your reader has to want to know the thing you’re hiding. And the best way to make your reader care about your cool secrets is to tell them other cool secrets. The technical term for this is dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is basically just when the reader knows something that the characters in the story don’t. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus swears to find his father’s killer, when any contemporary audience would have known it was Oedipus who killed his father. Dramatic irony is the impulse that makes people shout “Don’t go in there!” at horror movie heroines. There is no better way to get your readers involved in the story.
Dramatic irony is a tough trick to pull off. Like a lot of writing, you’ve really just got to get a feel for it by experimenting and reading other writers’ work. Try to become conscious of opportunities for dramatic irony in your stories. Whenever you’re setting your character up for a surprise, ask yourself whether your audience will be more effected by the shock of the big reveal, or the unbearable anticipation of watching the character stumble blindly along.
Speaking of the big reveal, a sudden shock is always more shocking if it isn’t quite so sudden. What I mean is that to truly blow your audience’s minds, it’s a good idea to plant clues to your plot twist throughout, so that your reader can smack their head and go “DAMMIT! Why didn’t I see that coming? It was right there!” A surprise without any foreshadowing is bound to feel unearned.
Other aspects of information management include placing clues in mysteries and deliberately withholding information to force people to fill in their own or to strengthen a particular narrative voice, but frankly I’m no expert on any of this and so I won’t make this longer than it has to be. Once again, your best bet is to read with a critical eye, and watch exactly when you’re being told things. Kurt Vonnegut is good for this.
Okay so those were some things you should try to do. Here are some things you shouldn’t do. Like I said, since I can’t write your story for you, and I can’t comment on your specific weaknesses without one of your stories in front of me, I’m going to cover common mistakes and ways to resolve them, mainly to do with language and description. Here goes.
Laying it on too thick: We know you know adjectives. You do not need to prove it to us. There are very few situations where you will need to use more than one adjective to describe something. And whenever possible, don’t use adjectives at all. Try and replace them with visceral images or clues in the behavior or characters that communicate the same information. Example:
He smelled wretchedly horrible.
He leaned towards me, and I wrinkled my nose. He smelled of cigarettes and Brussels sprouts.
All too often, writers use adjectives and adverbs to tell the audience how they should feel. And yet they often have the exact opposite effect. Compare:
He brutally stabbed the hooks through her quivering flesh and suspended her painfully from the ceiling.
He put hooks through her skin and hung her from the ceiling.
Allow your readers to see what’s actually going on, and respond to it as they naturally would. Don’t put a bunch of adjectives in the way. And adverbs just suck. Before you use an adverb, make sure you couldn’t say what you’re trying to say any other way.
Passive Voice: Passive voice refers to a sentence like this:
The package was intercepted by the FBI.
Passive voice separates the action from the actor. We could rewrite that sentence as:
The FBI Intercepted the Package
Passive voice adds unnecessary words and makes your sentences less snappy. Don’t do it if you can avoid it.
Description: I can’t give you any advice on this. You’re better off imitating the writers you like to read. I personally hate long descriptions, but some people really get off on them. For me, anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the story gets usually gets left out, although irrelevant details can be useful for setting the tone. Actually, hold on, there’s some advice I can give. Keep a tiny notebook with you and try and write down cool similes whenever you come up with them. It’s unwise to rely too heavily on simile, but if you come up with a really tight way of conveying an image, you need to save that.
The rest is just style, something you develop by reading things you like, and reading things you hate, and writing just about anything. At least to start, you will probably produce the best stories when you write how you talk, because you will be most at ease and you will have the largest base of experience to draw upon. As you become more comfortable you can base your authorial voice on those of your idols, or attempt to create a whole new voice from a collage of people you’ve met in your life. Word choice, sentence construction, and all that crap is something best left to an editor after the fact. I can’t give you a lot of hard and fast rules to govern those things a hundred percent of the time. The best advice I can pass along in that area is what Mark Twain said on the subject: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
And finally I guess I owe you a word or two about revision? So here they are: If you’re writing a story and you’re not having fun, stop. If you’re rewriting a story and you’re not having fun, take a break, but keep in mind that that probably means you’re doing it right. I’d advise letting a story sit untouched for at least a couple of weeks after you write the first draft. Let the words become alien to you so you’re less precious about tearing them apart. Send your story to as many other people as you can, but make sure you always have specific questions for them. If you don’t, you’ll usually get comments like “I liked it” or, “You sure had some characters.” And please, please don’t ask people questions like “what did you think?” or “what was your favorite line?” Those are questions geared towards stroking your ego, not helping your writing. Also, and PLEASE remember this, if you are in a writing workshop, and people are criticizing your story, KEEP YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH SHUT. If your readers didn’t understand that the main character was a psychic werewolf the entire time, it is your fault that they did not understand that, and interrupting to explain it now is not going to help anyone. Just smile, take notes, and maybe make violent doodles in the margins.
There are some people for whom rewriting is their favorite part of the process. I am not one of those people and if you are you are super lucky and I envy you a little.
Everything I’m telling you pretty much boils down to one thing: You want to put some effort into setting up your world, picturing your character, answering your own questions about your story. For me, story writing is an extended interview with myself, in which I gradually uncover what turn out to be the only possible solutions to the dilemma of the tale I’m telling. That’s how you get believability, by building the story upon itself. There are lots of dos and don’ts for writing, and a lot of them are directly contradictory. Ultimately, if you’ve put in the time developing your story and characters, creating real people in a real scenario (note: do not confuse “real” with “realistic”) you will naturally avoid a lot of the plot problems that come up in amateurish writing. Good writing is like grass, growing from the soil up. Bad writing is like Astroturf.
I’d love to get all practical here and walk you through how I write a story step by step, but that would require an article longer than the story itself, and frankly I don’t think it would be particularly helpful. If you choose to seriously pursue writing, you’re going to end up doing bad imitations of a lot of people before you find a style you’re comfortable with. You’re going to read a lot of writers writing about writing, and you’re going to hear more or less the same thing from all of them: You need to write. You need to write a lot. And you need to read. So go do that.