I once volunteered as an assistant editor at Leading Edge Magazine, a semi-professional, student-run science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. My job was to read what we called the submissions “slush pile,” providing the authors we reviewed both highlights and constructive criticism while also hunting for stories we thought would work well for the magazine. This was a very good experience for me as it taught me how to give feedback to other writers and how to improve my own work. As we’re well into National Novel Writing Month, and I have a number of friends endeavoring to complete a novel for first time who have asked me for advice, I’ve put together this list of twelve tips addressing challenges common to new writers.
- Every story uses three basic elements: Plot, Setting, and Character. Knowing the elements of story is the first step to building one. Plot is the tension-driven structure or scaffolding of event sequences that drives the story forward. Setting (sometimes called milieu) is the physical backdrop that grounds your world spatially and temporally, and provides atmosphere. Characters are the human element, the agents we attach or respond to emotionally who make the plot and setting relevant, providing us with a reason to care about what happens next. Many new writers have a tendency to neglect plot or setting in particular. They may show characters doing mundane tasks in meticulous detail without any tension to move things forward, or put characters on the run without enough details about the setting to help the reader visualize or connect to where that character is going or why it seems important. More rarely, some writers will describe their magical world in textbook terms without giving us a character to connect with. You don’t have to have each element of story figured out perfectly before you begin writing, and you don’t have to flesh them all out completely as you go, but all three are essential ingredients that make stories tick. Knowing the elements of story will make it easier to assess where your story lacks concreteness and what you might do to make it more coherent.
- Begin your story with a scene. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell,” this is exactly what scene creation is all about. It’s common for beginning authors to write summaries about their world or about things the character does, “telling” their readers what happens instead of “showing.” Writing, like other art, is about capturing and exploring emotions. While figuring out the mechanics of your magic system and deriving background on your character may be important for you to map your story, the ultimate presentation needs to provide readers with a rich emotional experience rather than a mechanical one to feel engaging and satisfying. In accomplishing this, you will likely not present every detail of your planning explicitly.
- Use the five senses and internal emotions to describe the scene as the main character interacts with it. This is how you “show” instead of “tell,” how you go about painting an emotionally rich scene. When we read a phrase like “the boy leapt from his family’s sedan and bounded barefoot through the soft, warm grass, chasing the bitter-sweet fragrance of his uncle’s orange grove all the way to the front door,” the parts of our brains associated with moving our feet, and the physical sensations of touch and smell or taste literally activate as though we are actually running through that orange grove ourselves. Within the physical descriptions are other layers of emotion that reveal things about this boy’s personal feelings and relationships in the moment, as well as what conflicts we might expect to encounter as the scene and story progress.
- Explore a conflict rather than an idea. Conflict is the core aspect of a plot, and the engine that drives a story forward. If there ain’t no trouble, there ain’t no story.
- Have both tangible and intangible conflicts. Some authors call these “external” and “internal” conflicts respectively. My sciencey brain sometimes trips up on these terms because someone with a bullet lodged in their gut or a bad case of indigestion is actually experiencing an “external” conflict despite the fact their wound or suppressed flatulence is technically a physically internal issue. Tangible (external) conflicts might include hunting for buried treasure or rescuing a child who has fallen in a river. Intangible conflicts deal with emotions and relationships, and might include resolving bitter differences with an enemy or overcoming one’s fear of drowning. Good stories need and use both to create a) an interesting plot (the tangible aspect) and b) an emotionally interesting journey (the intangible aspect).
- Decide what your characters want and why they can’t have it (until the end). Every story boils down to one central plot or “main plot.” Main plots, and lesser, diverging subplots which provide contrast and depth in conjunction with the main plot, consist of some combination of intangible and tangible conflicts that persist throughout the story. Many authors like to think of their main plot in terms of one, and only one, central goal or thing their protagonist wants, and the obstacles or conflicts that will arise to keep them from getting what they want until the climax. You don’t have to begin your story with your main conflict or plot sequence, but you certainly can. In the three-act structure, the main plot conflict is usually sparked toward the end of Act I, signaling a shift that sets your character on their journey to change, answer, or achieve that one thing. While most stories will have only one main plot, short stories will usually have only one subplot in addition (or none if it’s really short), while novels might have two or three, or more, in addition to the main plot.
- Use try-fail cycles. I consider try-fail cycles the basic mechanism of compelling plot structure. After the main conflict has been initiated in Act I, and the main character’s goals have switched gears to focus on getting what they want that they can’t have because something has gotten in the way, he or she should make multiple attempts to solve the problem or overcome obstacles before he or she finally succeeds. After each try-fail attempt, the problem should grow, expanding in scope to affect more people, compounding in its effects, raising the stakes, and putting more strain on you characters. Having at least three try-fail cycles, climaxing, and resolving the story after the third attempt, works best. (See this article for a great discussion on the Rule of Three).
- Make your characters proactive. Assess whether your hero or protagonist is being chased from plot point to plot point by one bad circumstance or incident after another, or whether he is actively making choices and compromises that get him into deeper and deeper trouble until the story climaxes. Characters feel more realistic and dynamic when they are proactive agents of their plight rather than passive puppets of fate and other people’s actions.
- Open your scene with two or more characters interacting with each other. I gleaned this advice from David Farland at a conference where he talked about what he looks for in the stories that he picks to be finalists in the Writers of the Future contest. Because characters provide the emotional attachment (or distance) between the audience and the events of the story, it’s much easier to create conflict and to make a scene emotionally relevant if two or more people are proactively engaging with each other in some situation. Avoid an opening with one person sitting alone, eating her serial, and thinking about how sad, happy, bored, amazing, etc. she is until some outside force stimulates her to take action.
- Make the weirdness in your world relatable. This is another place the five senses can help make your fantasy world both imaginative and comprehensible as well as emotionally relevant, although any creative combination of the familiar with the strange image or character you’re trying to create will work well. Have an alien creature you want to describe? In Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he uses a variety of familiar analogs to describe the alien things replacing people in town, including seed pods, minted coins, and wax figures. What about a steampunk airship battle? A little research on the environment and culture aboard an eighteenth century European sea ship would probably work quite well–just substitute the motion of the sea for fighter-jet turbulence and you’re set.
- Let your characters act natural. Take a close look at the actions and especially the dialogue of your characters. Ask yourself whether this is what you’d expect someone to say or do in real life, or how you’d expect them to reasonably act given the circumstances. Even if they’re living in a bizarre world that works very differently from our own, your characters are still human (this includes the non-human characters we personify in some way). Readers will be disappointed if the characters who already know the backstory describe past events to each other like actors in a TV commercial trying to get you to buy some weird new brand of bleach that will change your life for just $19.99 plus shipping and handling, or they do something the plot requires but is totally out of character for their previously demonstrated personality.
- Avoid purple prose. Beginning writers will sometimes focus on making descriptions pretty and ornate, or pretentiously poetic, rather than on telling a good story. This is called “purple prose.” Purple prose distracts the reader from the story by making all the story elements feel contrived and over the top. Remember that having good plot structure, an interesting character, and a well-suited, well-integrated setting are what make stories meaningful and entertaining. Focus on what’s important. Keep descriptions simple and real.
To finish today’s post, here is a list of my favorite books and websites on writing, plotting, and story craft.
- Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper
- How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
- Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
- Write Like Your Brain Works by Dene Low
- Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel by Cathy Yardley