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Neopia's Fill in the Blank News Source | 17th day of Collecting, Yr 19
The Neopian Times Week 43 > Articles > So You Want to Become a Good Writer: Part One

So You Want to Become a Good Writer: Part One

by scriptfox

DEEP CATACOMBS - Ever since my stories first started getting published in The Neopian Times, I can count on a trickle of Neomails asking for advice on how to write a good story. Often I refer them to Achilles81's pet page, which has several tips from his owner, Tdyans. Shidi, Muas, and geesh72 have had good articles of tips and techniques published in here as well. I have decided to add my own set of advice to let others read and use.

There are two basic ingredients to writing a story. The first part is creativity. This part is where you think up your character, plots, and other ideas. In effect, just what is this story, what is it about... and what is its point? The second part is technique. Once you get that neat idea, how do you describe it to others? Let's cover the creative part first.

Characters:

As I already mentioned, there are two basic parts that detail a story: characters and plot. Usually, with me, a character determines a plot. You get to know that character intimately, you know their strengths and weaknesses. If you're unsure of yourself, don't hesitate to exaggerate isolated character traits. They're always good for a laugh, if nothing else. Besides, it gives you a start for further development later.

So ask yourself: just who is this character? One technique among writers is to compose a personal profile. Try writing down the following questions and filling them in about your character: Gender? Species? Colour? Age? Dislikes? Likes? Most fervent desire? Hobbies? Family members? Vocabulary - how extensive is their vocabulary, and do they have any pet phrases or words? How would they react if they were happy? Sad? Scared? Do they know what the mood melancholy is? Morose? Anticipatory? Paranoid? What do they think of "good" and "bad"? Do they perceive themselves as good? Bad? Indifferent? And are they really? What sort of past experiences have shaped their attitudes about life?

These are just a few samples of possible character traits. Remember, the more detailed your answers, the better your character will be to others. If you aren't sure of what you're describing, odds are good no one else will either.

Keep in mind that the more unique a character is, the more memorable they will be. If your answers are "likes eating popcorn and watching Poogle races" then you may not have much for people to remember. But what happens when you add "likes gas-passing contests with friends, has a secret dream of torching the Art Centre, and can't ever figure out how to pronounce the letter R when they're scared"? Another word for unique is different. The trick to a good character is to make them different enough to be memorable, while at the same time being normal enough to be believable.

Plots:

Now that you have one (or more) main characters, the plot comes next. Another word for plot could be "problem". How many times have you gotten online, seen a friend, and said "How was your day?" only to have them reply, "Fine, no problem." Ever notice that basically ends the conversation? But if they say, "man, my science project is killing me. I've got to figure out how to wire up this model generator and someone managed to lose the instructions..." you've got something to talk about!

A story which can be summed up as "another boring day" is a boring read. A story is about something happening. Something changes, and the more important the change, the better the story. The best stories are the ones in which your character faces not just a little problem (hmmm should I wear my coat today or just go with my windbreaker?) but a huge problem (how do we keep from being evicted and having our lives go to pieces?) As one well-known writer summed it up, "the name of the game is 'hurt the hero'".

One thing to remember when you create a plot is that the problem must relate to your character. That's where your character profile comes in. If your character doesn't even know what a first edition book is, then they're not going to care about someone forging them, and if you say they do, people will tend to pick up on the lack of connection, if only subconsciously. Another mistake is to make it relate to them by making it a huge, "general" threat. Everyone is scared of being pulverised, so if that's what your pet is trying to run away from, it may fall a bit flat. But what if they're trying to deal with their personal fear of spiders?

The best stories are the ones in which your plot is both external and internal. The external problems help focus light on the internal conflicts in your character. The inner conflicts drive your character in how they handle the external problems. By the end of the story, one or more conflicts are either resolved or understood in a different way. This new understanding has been called "the moral of the story". A nice example of this is a story by Muas in which she has two characters who learn that sometimes fun can be work, and work can be fun.

You might come up with a plot so neat that you have to create characters to fit it. That works as well. Just make sure that not only do your characters fit the plot, but that they stand out in their own right as individuals. The main exception to this are "bit characters"--ones who show up only briefly to interact with the hero(es) as they go about their task of handling the problem(s) of the day.

Creating your outline:

So now you know what your character's flaws are, and just what their problem is going to be. How do you make a story out of it? The next step is a 'plot outline' or 'story outline'. There are three main areas:

1. Introduce your character and their characteristics. Be careful to highlight the ones you're going to use.

2. Introduce the problem(s) into the situation and have the character struggle with it.

3. Have your character reach some key understanding or insight--whether it be internal or external--that lets them solve the problem(s).

Scene Vs Narrative:

The plot outline will describe each of these steps in terms of "scenes". A scene is a set of events that takes place at one time in one place. It might be helpful to relate it to movie scenes. Watch a movie sometime and write down a brief description of what happens. Split up your notes into scenes. You can usually tell when a scene ends by the way it moves to a different time or place. For example, getting into a car will make the actor leave one scene, and the next starts when they get out at a new place.

For a short story, you're going to have room for roughly three to five scenes, so you'll have to make them count. Another trick here is to connect your scenes by "narrative" in which you simply tell your readers what happened. This is a good way to shorten or lengthen your story as need be. Should it be longer? Change a piece of narrative into a new scene. Is it getting too long on you? Don't write a detailed scene, use a shorter narrative.

For example:

Narrative: "Lily searched frantically through her room for several minutes, trying to find her lost comb, but finally had to admit to failure."

Scene: "Lily darted into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. She leaned against it for a minute to catch her breath while her eyes roamed around the room frantically looking for that lost comb. She had to have it! Her bright red hair flew out behind her like a loose flag as she dived under the bed and scraped the floor swiftly with her paws. Nothing except a few dust bunnies. She sneezed as she crawled back out, then jumped up and ran to her dresser. She opened the lowest drawer and tore through her Usuki sets, but the only combs in that drawer were for her dolls...."

Remember: a scene shows something happening. A narrative tells you that something is happening. Showing is much better than telling, when possible. If you can see the action happening in your mind, then what you're writing is a scene. If you can't, then what you're writing would probably qualify as narrative.

Episodes:

So far, I have not mentioned any difference between short stories and series. The reason is that they both undergo the same process, with the only difference being length. A short story should be 1,000 to 2,000 words. If you need much more, you'll need to split it into episodes.

When you do this, try to break the action up into several equal parts. Remember to make the cuts between scenes when possible. The only time you don't want to do that is when you want a "cliffhanger" ending. Leave the hero hanging onto the cliff edge, with it crumbling between their paws, and have your readers hit that "To be continued...." line.

The last line or two of your episode should leave a hint of something happening--a brief description of another problem(s) looming in the near future, or a possible solution. To take examples from my own work, try these episode endings:

----------------------
The End, as I thought of it, had a postscript the next day when I found out what sort of big trouble I was really in.

It seems that those in the know had been watching the whole thing, and to say that they were displeased was an understatement....
-----------------------

But I knew that wasn't what Dot wanted to hear, and besides, I'd give him a last chance... even when that chance meant taking the words of a pet slowly being destroyed at the hands of Dark Faeries.
-----------------------

This was going to be a stakeout, and missing most of a night's sleep was a cheap price to pay to stop another avalanche from wiping another village off the map... and taking innocent lives with it.
-----------------------

In each case, you're left hanging with a description of action taking place or about to take place. That is key!

But exiting your episode is only half of it. The other half is to enter your next episode in such a way as to remind your readers what has already happened in the past. Movies will sometimes use the simple trick of repeating several seconds of the show when they come back from their commercial break. That sort of "repeating" trick can be done when you write a story, but often you'll want to make it a bit more subtle. Make sure you mention your key plot problems and situations within the first couple of paragraphs. Ask yourself the following question: if someone started reading my story starting at this point, what do they really need to know in order to understand what is happening?

When I write about MonoKeras, my pet Uni, I like to throw in references to his sex, species, and colour, although not always directly. It helps to set the scene each time, and you have to redo it at the beginning of every episode. Within an episode (or short story) you only need to mention the changes between scenes. If MonoKeras is a gold Uni at the beginning of scene one, we can safely assume he is still one in the second and third scenes as well, unless we're told otherwise. But when you split your story into episodes, you can't trust that your reader even knows who MonoKeras is so you have to repeat yourself.

Write it!

You know your characters. You know what the action is supposed to be--in broad outline, at least--and you have a definite scene in mind. Now comes the actual writing! The very first thing to do is to get rid of all possible interruptions. If need be, get offline, shut the door, and unplug the phone! Whatever it takes to shut out "outside noise". Now, let that "inner voice" in your mind start talking, telling about the scene and what is happening. Write down what it says. If it stops to fumble for words, stop writing (or typing) and hold the mental image in your mind--just like a film on pause--until you can continue. If it seems stuck, give it a mental jiggle, backing up a bit and bouncing around possible moods or directions for it to go in next. You'll find that actual writing will almost always be a case of brief periods of quick writing with periods of silence while you sit and wait for more words to come. Everything you've put together so far has been research and construction--this is when you let it live in your mind.

Now, save it! At this point and from here on out, the rest of the process is technique. And that will be the subject of Part Two....

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