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A Comprehensive Storytelling Guide: Part Two


by phadalusfish

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Welcome back! I hope you managed to put last week’s guide to good use in your latest Storytelling endeavors. This week we’re going to dive head first into the more complicated aspects of storytelling

Progressing the Story

There are two "sides" to progressing the story. An FAQ answers explains them rather well:

"How long does my entry have to be? I found a pretty good way of judging if an entry is long enough: in the text box below, as you type, a grey rectangle appears if you "overflow" the text box. When that grey bar reaches about the height of your cursor, you've probably written enough to progress the story. :) Occasionally, however, I will choose slightly shorter entries if I feel they are the best entry and also progress the story."

There are two things going on in this answer. First, sections have to be at least a certain length. Second, length isn’t the only factor considered when the Storyteller picks an entry.

Length is the simpler of the two concepts, so I’ll address that first. I, for one, don’t type my entries in the grey box; I use a word processor so I can save my work if something goes wrong or I want to look at it later, so the tidbit about the scroll bar isn’t the most useful tidbit I’ve encountered. So, I’ll give you a target word count: 500.

Remember how most of the Storytelling rules aren’t set in stone? This is one of them. 500 words is about one page that isn’t double-spaced (depending on how your formatting is set up, it may be different). Your section should be about 500 words in order to be long enough to progress the story. 350 words is also okay; so is 600 or 700. Much less than that probably won’t cut it, because you don’t have enough space to move things along. Depending on what’s happening, more than that could work (just remember that parts have to come after yours, too!).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could tell you "Your entry has to be exactly 500 words in order to work?" Your entry has to be exactly as long as it takes you to progress the story.

So. The question then becomes "What progresses the story?" Ah, at last we arrive at the crux of the Storytelling Contest. "What progresses the story?" Savor the question, because you’re going to be asking it, or at least thinking about it, quite a lot, and it’s very hard to answer. I can, however, provide a few general guidelines.

Something has to happen. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Something has to happen in order for the story to progress. The characters sitting around talking amongst themselves is (generally) not something happening, regardless of how witty the dialogue happens to be. They have to do something. With verbs. Twigs snapping and the characters turning around in the middle of conversations also does not count as something happening, unless they then do something about it (or something happens to them).

I like to think about it this way: if there’s not some sort of twist, revelation, or major action in your part, you probably didn’t progress the story. The last part of the week is often an exception to this, as it can just be the falling action (the wrapping up of loose ends, the explaining of things that didn’t get explained before), so there’s not a dramatic shift in some aspect of the story.

Cliffhangers

This ties in to progressing the story, but is also a large enough concept in Storytelling to get its own section in our Comprehensive Guide. If you look at just about any not-end section, you’ll find a cliffhanger, that is something that dangles without an answer. This gives the writers of the potential next sections something to start their action with, sort of like a question they have to answer. It’s another good way to gauge whether your section progresses the story.

The check here is twofold: did you address the cliffhanger your predecessor left and did you leave one of your own?

If the section before yours ends with "There’s just one problem. That artifact has a hidden power. You see, it...." the beginning of your section should explain what the artifact’s hidden power is. After your section has taken its course (and something has happened!), you should leave a cliffhanger for the next section to answer (you’ll notice that I use "write about" and "answer" interchangeably; creative writing is about posing questions and exploring how characters and environments answer those questions).

Unique Answers

Creative writing is all about answering questions in interesting ways. If your section does all of the things we’ve run through so far (stays true to character, setting, mood, etc., progresses the action, leaves a cliffhanger), you’re not guaranteed to win. "Why?" you ask. Well, your answer might not be as interesting as someone else’s, who also did all of those things.

When I first started entering the Storytelling Contest, I read a bunch of guides and the FAQ... basically everything I could get my hands on. For the life of me I can’t remember where I found this morsel of advice (if I did, I would surely credit it), but it went something like this:

"The first idea that pops into your head is also probably the first idea that popped into everybody else’s head."

If you enter a section that is similar to someone else’s section, the Storyteller will have to decide which entry is better on other merits (like the actual writing... yikes!). If two people submit entries that follow all of the above guidelines and are very similar as far as events are concerned, but you submit a good entry that gives a different answer, guess what? The Storyteller doesn’t have to choose between two very similar entries! She can just pick your unique one instead.

I’ll give you an example. You want to enter the Storytelling Contest and the last line of the section before yours is "A twig snapped in the woods. Mike spun around and, peering through the darkness, saw...."

The first thing that pops into my head is "Nothing." It’s dark: he can’t see anything. And, nothing being there makes the snap mysterious and foreboding. It’s an interesting enough answer to the question "What does Mike see?" How many people are going to think of the same thing?

I’m going to admit that this is probably not the best example because it’s a cop out, so to speak. While it’s interesting, it sort of dodges the question. We could address the question head on instead:

"He saw a faerie, sneaking away."

"He saw a shadow."

"He saw a Halloween Lenny bent double to pull his long stockings back up."

So, seeing a shadow isn’t that exciting either, but I think my illustration stands. If you take a moment or two to get past your initial thoughts on what should happen next, you can come up with answers that are far more interesting.

I just can’t stress enough how important this is. Indulge me a story, and I’ll try again.

I entered the Storytelling Contest dozens of times before I ever won, probably about forty in total. I gave up on it entirely at least three times, out of sheer frustration. After reading the advice of some Storytelling regulars and chatting briefly with them, I realized that I was making two mistakes. One plagued about half of my entries: I had talking heads, characters that didn’t do anything. The other plagued just about every single entry: I always wrote the first thing that popped into my head. I started saving the sections I entered and comparing them to the sections that won and it immediately became obvious that I needed to think about my answers a little more. I did, and a week later I had my first Storytelling trophy.

Yes, being interesting is that important. It’s what will make your entry stand out from all the rest.

Final Thoughts

These are things that, while not necessarily unimportant, are quick and easy.

--You can only win the Storytelling contest twice in the same week. Rarely you may win three times, but only if your third section is absolutely amazing. Don’t count on it. In fact, I don’t recommend entering after your second win unless you have something... absolutely amazing. You could write a poem or a Times article on winning the Storytelling Contest instead!

--Don’t contradict previous parts of the story. Obvious examples of this are changing character names or species/color combinations. Or saying there are eight keys when there were nine a second ago. Make sure you take time to read what’s already happened. Go back if you need to and double check.

--Use items, characters, and places that are familiar to readers. If you want to mention a desk, go ask the Shop Wizard what kind of desks exist in Neopia and use one of those. If you want to name a street, check the classic Neohomes for street names. These solid details can push a story over the top.

--On the subject of description (which is covered so well and in so many places that I decided just to touch on it here)... plenty of people will point you to a thesaurus for vivid adjectives and adverbs. It is my opinion that you should avoid the thesaurus like Neezles or the NeoFlu. Too many adjectives and adverbs, especially colorful and obscure ones, will bog down the story. Instead, focus on colorful nouns and verbs. Not "cup" but "mug" or "glass". Not "walk" but "stride" or "shuffle". The other problem thesauruses have is that there aren’t any real synonyms: each word means something slightly different and picking the wrong one, especially if it’s a word you’re unfamiliar with, could destroy the tone of your story. In the "walk" example, you’ll notice that the two alternatives I gave have vastly different meanings, though both are often listed as synonyms for walk. Be careful!

--For winning the Storytelling Contest, you get a neomail you’ll cherish forever, 2,000 NP, a trophy for your look up (with a number telling visitors how many times you’ve won) and a rare item. Rare item can mean "codestone" or "Pirate Paint Brush". These things obviously aren’t synonyms. As of this article, my best prize has been a Shadow Paint Brush. I’ve also gotten an assortment of petpets and... codestones and dubloons. It really is random.

And that about wraps it up! There are a few things that I didn’t cover in much detail here, such as description, because space is an utmost concern and description isn’t as specific to the Storytelling Contest as some of the other topics covered here. If you’re interested in more, good information on creating compelling description, search the Neopian Times for articles about... well, getting published in the Neopian Times! You’ll find a wealth of information and tips on all sorts of writing topics.

I hope this guide has proven useful to you and your attempts at tracking down that elusive Storytelling Champion! trophy. Best of luck!

 
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