So You Want to Write a Story
You're sitting at your computer, dutifully or perhaps even enthusiastically poking at your keyboard. You are Writing A Story.
And then a little abstract worm wiggles into your brain much the way he would an apple, and tells you that your plot is terrible, that you're using the wrong form of a word, that you have zero likable or sympathetic characters, and/or are suddenly suffering from writer's block with no apparent cause.
You may also just not be a great writer.
But that's okay! In this article we're going to go through some types of stories, how to write them, and what sorts of literary devices and rules to use.
Hint: the rules are more important, sorry. But you can break a lot of them!
The Pace of Writing
If you're anything like me, you have a glimmer of an idea in your head and just start writing. This can lead to some fun, spontaneous ideas, but it's also an easy way to write yourself into a corner or realise halfway through that your story is kind of awful and you just spent several hours of your life on it.
It's also hard to maintain a steady pace this way; you have your mental outline, but you haven't plotted everything out or thought through all of your characters' actions. This definitely does have some upsides, but it's also easy to become disillusioned and write at an erratic speed.
On the flipside, you can outline your story. Think about what kind of story it's going to be, what your primary characters are after, where it's taking place, how long you want it to be, and any lore or mythology that might be involved.
By doing this, you can plot out each chapter or part and make sure your story is doing something and going somewhere. This only goes so far, so you can still run into problems, but wondering "now what happens?" isn't one of them.
Storyboarding can definitely be useful for longer, more involved stories: if you really wanted to write a six part story for the Neopian Times about a Cybunny who finds a magical sparkling carrot that grants her four wishes, two of which must be for the good of Neopiankind and two of which must harm Neopiankind, you'll probably want to do some thinking beyond "oh! A magical carrot!"
Otherwise your story might go off the rails and wind up being about Sloth and Fyora in an alternate universe frolicking through Meridellian farms.
Commas, Correct Use Of
Before you sit down and say to yourself, "self, today I am going to write", make sure you know how to. Spelling correctly goes a long way in written works, as does decent grammar.
I don't mean that you need to dig out your old English textbook from primary school and follow every rule in it to the letter. A lot of them are defunct and serve no real purpose for writing fiction and some rules you can break to impact your work.
For example, you can start a sentence with the word "because". You can often substitute "since" or "given that" for it, and nobody ever tells you not to start sentences with those. But don't necessarily think that breaking a grammatical rule automatically makes you awesome or your writing more palatable.
You also want to make sure that you're using punctuation rightly. Semicolons in particular trip a lot of people up, but I also see people who don't seem to know how to use commas, apostrophes, hyphens, or parentheses.
A SHORT GUIDE TO PARENTHESES
Putting a remark in parentheses is a great way to include extra information, a relevant thought, or other similar statement in a sentence without breaking up your thought or turning it into a run-on.
"He grabbed his cane and hat, and walked out the door. He did not put his hat on." These are two related thoughts. Instead of making them separate sentences, we can turn it into, "He grabbed his cane and hat (but did not put it on), and walked out the door."
If your sentence ends with a statement in parentheses, put an ending punctuation outside of it, even if there's one in your enclosed remark: "Randy always seemed to be yelling at somebody ('Put that blazing map down!')." The reason for this is that there are technically two different sentences and thoughts here.
If you're not sure how to use a particular form of punctuation, don't use it at all. Find a different way to phrase what you want to say, even if it does take up more space. It can save your reader the trouble of trying to figure out what you were trying to say.
In a very similar vein: use the correct forms of words, please. "Their" is not the same as "they're", no matter how identical they sound. "Whom" sounds more distinguished than "who", but you can't just swap them willy-nilly.
A VERY SHORT GUIDE TO 'WHO' VS 'WHOM'
If your subject can be swapped with 'him", use "whom".
If your subject can be swapped with "he", use "who".
"Alot" is not a word. "A lot" is probably what you're looking for, used to describe many things. "Allot" might also be what you're after, and it means to give out or assign something.
You'll have to be careful about instances like these, since spellcheckers won't catch most of them. "Whom" is an acceptable word, after all.
That's Not Actually Ironic
So once you know that owls are not always asking their questions properly, "alot" is not a word, and other grammatical diktats, it's time to think about literary devices.
Literary devices can be a great way to make your writing more interesting, both on a surface level and in regards to the story you're telling. There a lot of literary devices out there, but you don't need to use all of them. In fact, there are some that you should typically avoid.
Deus ex machina is one of them. This resolves a conflict in the story through means unrelated to the plot or characters. It was popular back in the days of ancient Greece, when playwrights would solve the problems their characters were facing through the act of a heretofore unseen god appearing and magically making everything okay.
If this works for your story, go for it! But in most cases, it's just lazy and unfulfilling. Your story is probably about your characters, so they should be the ones dealing with the conflicts. It's a good way to help show your character's growth.
Popular literary devices that are pretty easy to write and understand while reading include alliteration, allusion, Chekhov's gun, foreshadowing, plot device, red herring, hyperbole, imagery, and personification. You probably use a lot of easier literary devices in your writing without even realising it.
"But what about satire and irony?" you say. "Aren't those popular literary devices?"
Yes! Yes, they are!
But you don't use them right!
Satire is often used to draw a contemptuous reaction from your reader. It frequently uses some form of irony or exaggeration to ridicule something. The result? Readers have a strong opinion about what is being said. Success!
But it's hard to write sometimes. We all have unpopular opinions or snarky moods when we just want to grimace about everything, but so often we want to use irony to get this across, and sadly irony is tough to get a handle on.
"What do you mean? My Lupe growing up in a family of Kougras is totally ironic!"
How? Because Lupes are canines and Kougras are felines? Doesn't cut it. That's just a coincidence unless you can write it otherwise.
A SHORT GUIDE TO IRONY
Verbal irony is the simplest, and every time you utter a sardonic remark about oh, that totally boring activity sounds thrilling, you're using it. If you're saying something but mean the opposite, it's ironic.
Dramatic irony is when something happens that a character doesn't understand the significance of, but the reader or a different character does. Shakespeare used this extensively in many of his plays. In Macbeth, nobody seems to understand why Lady Macbeth is constantly washing her hands, but the audience does.
Situational irony is the most subjective form of irony. Typically it's when you expect a certain event to happen, but the exact opposite occurs. People often mistake this for an unfortunate coincidence. For example, living in a bubble to avoid outside contact but getting sick from your own germs would be situational irony. Needing a fork but only finding spoons would not.
You can use a certain literary device only when a character speaks to give the reader a better idea of what sort of individual the character is. A character who only speaks in rhymes will stand out from the rest of your characters.
The bigger, more encompassing literary devices like foreshadowing and Chekhov's gun should be used for developing your story. Certain literary devices are better-suited for tragedies, and others for comedies.
A Plot is Not a Vegetable Patch
Your myriad language arts teachers, literary professionals, and English textbooks will tell you that the plot involves your character in conflict with his surroundings, other characters, or himself, and is the most important part of a work of fiction.
It's up to you whether or not you want to believe and/or abide by this. I don't.
Longer stories should definitely contain this sort of plot, but shorter stories that are focused on your characters or mostly observational don't always need an big epic dilemma.
Plot can also be referred to as the events that happen in your story. Things happen that thread your story together, to move it from scene to scene, to put it in order and produce a main outcome.
This is the type of plot that is important, but it's interesting events that need to occur in order for your story to go anywhere. A story about your magma Kyrii going about his boring day and not doing anything interesting or exciting is just going to be monotonous. Yes, people's lives are actually like this, but that's not fun to read.
Fascinating characters can help a lot in this case. A character who does a lot of death-defying activities or who only speaks with words containing five letters is practically begging to get into Something Interesting.
He Said, She Said
Most of your stories are going to contain dialogue. You can explain your character's reactions to his surroundings or other characters without it, of course, but it's often way more effective to have him actually express his reactions himself.
So it's important to know how to write dialogue! To signify that a character is speaking, you probably already know that you should enclose his statement in quotation marks. Some of your characters might have very interesting or complex speech patterns, so you can break quite a few rules to get this across, but you still need to make sure your reader can understand what your character is saying.
If your character speaks a certain way, be consistent about it unless something has happened to change his speech pattern. An accent is not going to just go zap into the night, but might change slowly over time if the speaker's surroundings have changed. Your character might speak in rhymes normally, but abandon this custom when he is stressed out.
If your character has an accent, it's perfectly okay to write out your words phonetically (like your character has an accent similar to a British one in real life, so he might say "leftenant" instead of "lieutenant") for this, but you should have some context so we still know what he's talking about.
A SHORT GUIDE TO DIALOGUE VS EXPLANATION
Susie came up to Jack and asked him if he could please fix her window tomorrow. It broke because her brothers were playing Gormball and have terrible aim. Jack said that he could and would be by in the afternoon with his tools.
"Hey, Jack! Would you mind coming by tomorrow to fix my window, please? I think my brothers broke it playing Gormball - they have the worst aim ever," said Susie.
"Sure, Susie. I'll stop by after lunch with the toolbox. Tell your brothers to be more careful in the future," said Jack.
While we understand what is going on in the exchange without dialogue, we get quite a lot more out of it when the characters are speaking. This also gives us a better idea of what Jack and Susie are like: Susie is polite, shares just enough information to not seem shady, and is friendly with Jack. Jack seems a bit more serious and stoic.
You don't always have to write "he said" after your character has spoken his piece. If there is some clarification before the dialogue that implies that he is the one talking, you're good. Similarly, if your exchange is between two characters, alternating the dialogue back and forth without interruptions does not need to be a "he said and then she said" scenario.
In a weird turn of events, sometimes I wonder whether "he said" or "said he" is more appropriate. You might wonder whether to insert your identifier in the middle of your sentence or at the end. Or maybe you might be thinking of shafting the word "said" altogether and using "cooed" or "shouted" or "stated".
AN EXTREMELY SHORT GUIDE TO 'HE SAID' VS 'SAID HE'
It really doesn't matter. Use whichever reads better to you.
A SHORT GUIDE TO IDENTIFIER LOCATION
Your identifier can break up your dialogue in a way to make it more interesting to read or flow better, but there are times when it should simply stay at either end of your statement.
If your character is speaking a shorter sentence, your identifier should be at the beginning or end of the dialogue. There's no sense in breaking up your few words and lose the impact. "He said, 'The pineapple smoothies are good today.'" is much better than "'The pineapple smoothies,' he said, 'are good today.'" There's simply no point.
On the other hand, you can benefit greatly from taking a break in your dialogue to put your identifier in the middle if whatever your character's saying is long, particularly if you want to describe your character's state of being as it goes on. "'Oh yes, really, it is a wonderful day to do all of these things you want. Let's go to the park! Let's visit your mother! Let's hand out candy to children on the street! Let us,' she said, her voice rising in volume, 'spend all day out in the rain!'"
A SHORT GUIDE TO CREATIVE IDENTIFIERS
A mistake a lot of writers make, especially beginner writers, is to think "said" is boring and transparent and start using "shout" or "cry" or "drone" instead. After all, it paints a better picture of how your character is speaking, yeah? It does, but it also detracts from your story and your reader.
It should be pretty obvious what frame of mind your character is speaking in. You shouldn't need to be constantly using creative identifiers to say so. The same thing goes for "he said belligerently". You should cut back on adverbs to begin with anyway, but especially in a dialogue setting. To get a mood across, use your punctuation. An exclamation point might signify excitement or anger, using "..." implies hesitation or stuttering, and a question mark is going to make it clear that your character is making an inquiry without having to use "he asked".
Using creative identifiers takes away from your reader too! Your reader wants to be able to interpret the story her own way, not the way you're forcing it to be. "He threatened angrily" makes it very obvious that whatever he said was an intimidating threat, but maybe your reader would like to imagine that it was a soft-spoken voice of danger.
All of this said, sometimes you can take liberties. To get a better idea of when, flip through some of your favourite books and take note of when the authors are doing so and under what circumstances.
Your identifier should primarily not be there to tell your reader how your character is speaking, but which character it is.
Creating Complex Characters
Speaking of your characters, you should make sure that they're interesting. They don't have to be conventionally likeable, but you should write them in a way that people will want to read them.
The easiest way to create a multifaceted character is to give him a few little quirks and throw him into a situation that forces him to do something other than his normal routine. Giving him a good name can also help ("John" has little personality, while "Sir John the Fourteenth of Meridell" already has an identity).
Conventionally, your primary character should be sympathetic and relatable. Forget about this. Your characters don't need to be likable, they just need to be compelling. They should still have their good points, in order to be dynamic and to avoid crossing the line into too unpleasant. Think along the lines of Scarlett O'Hara or Charles Foster Cane, or in Neopian terms, Jhudora: they're interesting and you want to know more about them, but you couldn't stand to know them in real life.
The biggest mistake you can make with your characters is making them perfect and inoffensive and boring. Your characters should should be weird! Everyone has defects and brilliancies and deals with uncomfortable situations - your characters shouldn't be any different.
Similarly, you don't want to make all of your characters the same. They should all be special snowflakes!
If you're writing a story that deals with a group that has something in common - say, a support group for purple pets that miss their orange spots - do little things to distinguish them. They don't all have to be complainers with an unpopular opinion. One might have a nervous tic, one might be an agent of the Sway, and one might secretly not miss his spots but attend the meetings for the camaraderie.
Melpomene and Thalia
Way back in the days yonder, a story was either a comedy or a tragedy. Comedy was rather loosely interpreted, being that a play in which at least one primary character was triumphant at the end of was considered a comedy, even if everyone else died a terrible and fiery death.
Most other plays, reasonably, were classified as tragedies.
While comedies these days are funny no matter how many characters live or die or become undead, the same standards more or less still apply. Comedies are light-hearted and silly, with more flexibility and complexity than tragedies, which are narrower in perception and more serious.
A SHORT GUIDE TO COMEDY
Comedy is funny.
As such, you can bend language to suit the story, like using Capitals For Emphasis and run-on sentences to illustrate a character's thinking process.
While typically the main character of a comedy is a run-of-the-mill denizen of whatever the setting is, your character should have a lot of flaws and quirks and face ordinary problems. 'Normal' for your character will be defined by his surroundings. It could be a brown Lupe living in Neopia Central trying to get a limited edition slice at Pizzaroo; it could be a spoiled royal Shoyru throwing a fit over the dessert options for a banquet he's hosting.
The best part about comedy, in my opinion, is that it doesn't have to be tidy. You can have fun and make a mess and be as ambiguous as you want. Comedy is extremely adaptable!
A SHORT GUIDE TO TRAGEDY
Tragedy, or modern drama, is more on the serious side.
Your writing should reflect this. While you can still mold the language to make your points, it should be done in a less conspicuous manner.
Good is good and bad is bad, and Truth, Honesty, and Justice are rich in value. Your main character is probably going after one of these rather abstract ideals instead of dealing with an everyday life. Your character himself is probably not an everyman. Maybe he has superpowers and wears a cloak! Na na na na na na na na PREMIUMBAT!
While tragedy is more often than not simple and streamlined, it can be messy, but it should be neatly resolved by the end of your story. It doesn't necessarily have to be rigid, but A leads to Z no matter what. You can't stop at Y.
Your story will probably mostly be one or the other , but true to the world's ability to mess everything up, a lot of stories these days are a blend of the two, sometimes referred to as a 'tragicomedy' or a 'dramedy'. A story that can be called such is usually a tragedy with comedic elements that ends in a happy manner, but is also sometimes the reverse.
I write a lot of comedies, in case that wasn't abundantly clear. I try to do serious stuff sometimes and then it all dissolves into pop culture jokes and two of my characters having a ridiculous argument about something trivial. It's just the way my brain works.
The Monster Named Writer's Block
You type away for hours on end with few minor problems and then all of a sudden the progress halts. Your fingers hover over your keyboard, your eyes are trained on your screen, but your brain gives you a big load of absolutely nothing.
Congratulations! You've got writer's block!
Okay, it's not cause for celebration. It's a somber condition, and it can seriously impact your ability to produce new work. I've lost entire stories to writer's block, and even as I type this I'm thinking about the many half-finished stories sitting in folders on my computer begging to be finished.
So how do you overcome it?
It depends on the cause. While the main outcome is the same, there are a few different types of writer's block, so you should first identify which one(s) you're affected by before you can squish it like a bug on the sidewalk.
Probably the most common is simply failing to think of a decent idea. You feel like writing, you open up a document or your notebook, but nothing comes out. You look around and hope for inspiration to strike, but alas!
In this sort of instance, it's best to put aside what you originally wanted to do and work on little writing exercises. Think about something in your life that impacted you, and put a spin on it. Write about the outcome if you had chosen to make a decision differently. Pick your favourite character from a plot and imagine him in a totally different setting - say, King Altador vacationing in Mystery Island. What would he do? What might he wear? Would he enjoy a rousing game of volleyball?
Basically you want to pick a topic and ask questions. If you're so far gone that you can't pick a topic, open up the nearest book, go to page 34, and look at the second to last word. Now write about whatever comes to mind when you see it.
The second most common form of writer's block has a lot of corollaries. It's the kind I described at the opening of this section: you're writing, la de da, and then bam, nothing!
A SHORT GUIDE TO WHY YOU'RE SUDDENLY STUCK
You have no idea what happens next. This is common if you're like me and don't do much, if any, planning. If you were writing with the speed of an alien Aisha's laser beam, chances are you just need to recharge. Read over the past few paragraphs and see if you can get into the groove again within a couple days. If not, you'll need to throw something new into your story, get it moving in a different direction. Add a new character, have an existing character make a stupid mistake, or make pie.
You have a sinking feeling that you made a mistake somewhere... a long time ago. If you really enjoy and believe in what you wrote up until a certain point, delete everything after that and start again, free of the burden of your wrong turn. If that sounds like way too much effort or if you were only okay with your start, you probably want to scrap the entire thing.
You're having trouble getting to a certain point. A goes to B goes to C. If A and C are both awesome points in your story and B is just boring but you know what'll happen, feel free to skip it and go back when you're in a less action-star mood. If B is tripping you up because it doesn't make sense in the context of A and C, you'll simply need alter what happens in B to get to C.
You don't enjoy your characters or the space they're in. Ctrl + A, backspace. You're welcome.
Basically you just want to think of writer's block as a temporary lack of inspiration, instead of something scary like a hurdle to your livelihood, and look at your story from a different angle.
Some people say that writer's block doesn't exist, that it's just an excuse to get out of your work because you don't know what you're doing. If I'm feeling particularly cantankerous, sometimes thinking about this will be enough to get me back on track.
I don't know what I'm doing, really, but I like to pretend otherwise.
Closing the Book
After you finish writing your story, you should ask the nearest person or cat* for a hug. You deserve it!
*not responsible for angry scratch marks if cat is uncooperative
If you're writing your story for Neopets, there are a few things you should do to make sure it's up to snuff. Mostly you just want to stay within the rules of the site itself. If you couldn't talk about it in your guild, it's also a no-no for your story. Real-world technology turns into clouds in Neopia.
Nigel's toys are an anomaly.
For the Neopian Times specifically, you'll want to make sure you're within the word limitations! Also make sure your primary characters have clear identities: species and colours, and usually you'll need names as well.
Once you submit your story, it will usually take two to six weeks to hear back from TNT. You'll get one of three responses:
A: a held-over notice. Again hug the nearest person or cat! You'll likely receive another mail from TNT within a couple of weeks telling you you've earned a shiny trophy and will be published in the upcoming issue.
B: a rejection notice, in the form of "there were too many good entries this week". Your story was basically acceptable, so submit it again! If you get a few of these, you might want to make some little changes to your story to make it more appealing.
C: a rejection notice, in the form of "please do not reference this or that, or be offensive or forget pivotal characters' names" - you'll want to fix the problem, and then submit your story again.
Stories don't seem to get as much of an audience as the Editorial or the comics or even the articles: if you get published, enjoy it, but don't expect to become "famous". That shouldn't be the goal of your writing! Writing is actually a lot of work and it's not all fun and games, so if you're only doing it for recognition you're going to be miserable.
And on that cheerful note, happy writing! :)