I have a lot of friends named Sarah. Each one is charming and talented in her own way. This particular Sarah, Sarah Warren, is a writer. We met in the dorm freshman year at Baylor. There was a shared interest in Jane Austen and Thai food. A brilliant friendship followed. She has her master’s degree in professional writing. I thought I would ask her to inform us on How To…Write A Story.
Since working to be a published author doesn’t pay the bills, I work telling the story of an engineering college at a major university, and I do custom invitations and corporate branding on the side. So that’s my street cred. I’m not the world’s expert on writing, and I don’t know everything, but I hope to pass on some helpful tips, which of course, you are free to ignore.
First, let’s talk about why you want to write a story. Do you need to tell the story of your business to clients? Are you 15 years old, and it seems there is no other (or less destructive way) to work out your angst? Is Josephine March your hero, and to not write would squish your soul?
No matter what you’re writing, I think this blog post will be helpful because even though techniques vary in genres and mediums, telling a good story well is foundational to novels, blogs, movies, documentaries and non fiction books. Even Christ meets us in our humanity by telling us the ultimate good story.
I’m going to talk about story telling under the umbrella of fiction. But non-fiction writers, don’t leave! Understanding fiction and story telling is helpful to everyone.
I’ve heard it said before that to write a novel, you stick some characters in a tree and throw rocks at them for a few hundred pages. It’s a pretty good description of a story. Stories have three basic elements:
Under the tree analogy, you’ve got characters who should be interesting, dynamic and sympathetic. You need the readers to care that they’re stuck in the tree being pelted by rocks. The tree is the setting, and the rocks are the conflict. Ask yourself – what tree is going to make the story interesting, the characters vulnerable, and put the conflict in proper context.
Let’s look at Harry Potter. I know some of you may not like those stories, but JK Rowling was a poor, single mum when she starting jotting down notes about Harry Potter. Now she’s richer than the Queen. She’s done something right.
Characters: Harry, the protagonist, is flawed, courageous and destined for greatness – something he accepts and dreads. He’s surrounded by his friends who bring their own charm and skills to Harry’s fight against evil. Then, like all well-written antagonists, Voldemort is stronger, smarter and better equipped than the protagonist. He cuts corners and is not bound to the protagonist’s ethical code. Your story will fail if your protagonist is a vague sense of evil. Good guys can’t fight non-existent bad guys, so remember your favorite Disney movies and make a real bad guy.
Tag your characters to help the reader remember who they are. Professor Snape is described every time as having greasy hair and looking like a bat. Hermione is always identified with book smarts, bushy hair and buck teeth. I read a novel once with no character tags. Half-way through the book, I still didn’t know who was who.
Introduce your characters meaningfully – doing what they do best. Introduce an argumentative character arguing, a bully bullying, and an artist painting.
One of the most powerful tools when creating characters is to reveal the truth about them after the reader has already met the character. I still consider one of my favorite moments in fiction to be the when Atticus Finch reveals he’s a perfect shot. Suddenly, a whole new complexity to his character is revealed.
Setting: The setting is interesting, cool (especially for kids), but it also causes Rowling’s “rocks” to hit Harry where it hurts. Hogwarts is the only place he’s ever felt at home. The magical world is a connection to his parents.
Rocks: Once the setting is established and the complex characters created, the rocks become natural. Rowling uses rocks to hurt Harry, take away his friends and home. Create rocks that cause ethical dilemmas. Hit him where it really hurts.
Rowling was so good at crafting those rocks that fans downright worried about their fictional friend Harry. Here’s what JK Rowling said in defense of her writing to worried fans:
“I can do to him whatever I like. I’m allowed to torture him as much as I want. He’s mine.”
Next, you need to think about plot. The plot is most simply the character’s journey in meeting the goalThroughout the book, there are other ongoing goals or unanswered questions. These are called plates. (Think about the circus guys who spin a lot of plates on sticks. They have to keep spinning the plates or they will fall. You keep returning to spin the plate. If you forget to tie up this plate, at the end you’ll have a broken plate and an unsatisfied reader)
The plot is an uphill battle because the protagonist will have to struggle through out. He will have successes and failures. Ultimately, he’ll have a major failure, sacrifice himself and then will win against the villain who had the upper hand the whole time.
So that is the basics of writing a story. Now here are just some writing tips:
- · Fear not! Half the battle that comes with writing is overcoming self-doubt. I work on my writing all the time, and still my husband will come home to find me curled up on the floor saying, “I’m not a real writer. I can’t do it.”
- · Work hard but don’t be a perfectionist. If it’s 90 percent perfect and in the world reaching people, it’s better than if it’s 100 percent perfect and sitting in your desk drawer. (Wisdom complements of Jon Acuff).
- · Read, read, read! Read what you like. Read in your genre.
o I write young adult fiction. When I was having a hard time with painting the proper setting, I read the Harry Potter books because Rowling does a great job with quick, vivid descriptions. When I was having a hard time with quick dialogue, I reread the Sisterhood of the Traveling pants books because Brashares does a fabulous job with dialogue. I learned from those books but maintained my own voice and style.
- · Know your genre.
o Sequel: There’s something called sequel (not as in Lethal Weapon 4 or Pirates of the Caribbean 8). In the world of writing, sequel refers to the character thinking, rationalizing, emoting or mentally reviewing the previous scene. Each scene is composed only of action and then usually followed up by sequel. The sequel in Rambo could be a short as: Man that was tough, he thought.
o Know how to phrase things for your genre. Imagine a young adult story about a girl trying to ace her math test. The author writes: “It was so complicated, she worried that her head would spin off.” Now take that sentence in put it in a sci-fi or fantasy book. The rules have changed and in this genre, her head might actually spin off. Think about what you’re saying in each genre. If you’re writing a period piece, you better make yourself an expert on period words, phrases, clothing, slang…everything.
- · Know your voice. Write the way you write. Not the way someone else writes, even if that someone else is your favorite writer.
- · Hang out at the bookstore and look at what sells and why.
- · Don’t write long, complicated sentences to make yourself sound intellectual and important. Usually you just sound like a poser. Write simply and succinctly.
- · Don’t exaggerate. Say what you want to say. CS Lewis said it best:
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
- · Don’t set out to write a story about a cause. Write an honest story with dynamic characters, and you will end up with a stronger story and deeper message.
- · Write! Writing is 10 percent talent and 90 percent dedication.