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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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....