Category Archives for "Creative Writing"

A Novel Idea: Constructing the Plot

The PLOT or storyline is a series of events in the order they happen for the reader. “Hook” your reader’s interest by giving them just enough information at first. They will read on because they need to know what will happen next. Tease them from time to time with another complication that must be dealt with or an unanswered question that is a necessary part of the puzzle. Pieces of the puzzle will include both events as they occur and flashbacks to the past.

As a new writer mapping out a plan for your story, it may help think back on memories that stand out in your own life. Use an event you have experienced yourself for the basis of your tale. This will give your story authenticity. Of course, you may change the time, setting, character names and ages, position, etc., to make it a work of fiction. Even as a fictional character, you may write as the narrator, exclusively from your point of view. If you choose to write in the third person and develop motives of other characters, you will need to *step back* from the limits of your own perspective and become empathetic. How would you feel if you were in their shoes, with their background experience? Why do they act as they do? What drives them?

Begin your story in the middle of a problem or impending problem. Craft the structure based on genre. The reader will identify most closely with the hero as they face an obstacle and seek to overcome it. The action rises and falls throughout the tale but the intensity should build to the climax of the story. At that point, the main character achieves their goal and all unresolved matters are satisfied. In the end, all the pieces should make sense, as the pieces of a puzzle coming together create a whole picture!

There are two ways I used to construct a story. One is outlining and the other is Plot Mapping. If a story is linear and the end is understood when the writer begins, an outline works well. You have your character facing a problem, the building difficulties, the moment of salvation and resolution. However, if you have an idea for a story and it’s characters but don’t know how it will end yet, you need to build a plot map. Have you ever watched a detective story where either the criminal or the cop has a bulletin board with photos and newspaper clippings on it, with threads connecting various parts to each other? This is a great way to get the big picture of all the back stories and how they fit together. As I’ve said in a past chapter, at first, keep it to three or four main characters as far as detail goes. But the plot at first can look a bit confusing to the reader, like pieces of tangled thread. As the story progresses, the threads need to connect and make sense. It the end all threads tie together in one conclusion. If you physically do this, with a storyboard, you can keep track of the threads you have yet to connect. This is one way you can think through the process of the unwinding tale as you write it.

One note of caution. Writers that begin a tale not knowing where it will take them often have to rewrite whole sections. JRR Tolkien did this when writing The Lord of the Rings. It is time-consuming! This may be daunting to a beginner, but it is a great exercise. Still, for someone just starting out with story writing, it will be easier to take the perspective of one of the main characters and narrate from your point of view. It will be easier to keep track of the plot and remain consistent, “keeping in character.”

A great way to practice plot development is to base it on a well-known story, such as a parable, fable, or other classic tale. Keep the characters and setting but change the starting point or the story the direction takes. You could also write from a different character’s viewpoint. This kind of parody has been successfully done in recent years in “Wicked,” a Broadway play. It is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz), telling her own story.  Also, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as Told by the Wolf” is a best-selling children’s story! Because these stories are loved and familiar, the new perspective lends itself well to humor.

After rewriting some well-known stories, you will have a better feel for how the plot unfolds. The longer the story is, the more complicated it can be. If you are writing a short story, you’ll want to limit the problems your hero has to one or two. Difficulties from without (a bad circumstance or impending danger) can be overcome at the same time as your hero faces inner flaws (such as insecurity or a bad temper) and rises above them! Struggle with them. Rejoice with them. The more you let the reader see their hero overcome character flaws that they wrestle with, the more your story will resonate. These are some of the “universal truths” I mentioned previously.

In Summary:

– Outline your story.
– Introduce the problem within the first page.
-Resolve the problem bit by bit, with some drawbacks along the way, to increase tension and keep the reader turning pages.
– Make the moment of salvation from their problem definitive and satisfying.
– End the story shortly after the pinnacle of victory by resolving all unanswered questions.

As you prepare to write it helps to read stories that delight you, and take note of how they develop their plot. What is the problem at the beginning? How did the writer “hook” your attention? How did they bring all the problems to a climax and save the main character? How are the loose ends tied up?

Be assured that while there are guidelines for writing an effective story, these are not hard and fast rules. Creative writing is called that for a reason. Just keep your audience in mind and be sure to bring them out of confusion to understanding by the end of the story. They will be coming back for more!

A Novel Idea – Crafting Characters

One mistake young writers often make, is introducing too many characters without developing their background or reasons why they do what they do. We can only closely follow a few people’s lives closely, without losing track of who we are talking about. So, it’s best to keep main characters at three or four. Have others come and go from the scenes as supporting cast – without extensive detail about them. In fact, some of the people in the background don’t even need names.

Of our few main characters, the most likely candidates are:

1. The Protagonist.
This is our hero or heroine. The protagonist is facing a problem as the story opens, and we root for them as they struggle to overcome it! We will need to know the personality, the background, the motives, strengths, and weaknesses of this main character.

2. The Antagonist. The antagonist can either be another person (in which case, he/she is the villain), an organization, an inner fear or hatred that must be overcome, or some other obstacle standing in the way of the protagonist. Depending on the sort of problem you choose for your story, the Antagonist may have motives or not. But, if not an inanimate object, the antagonist needs to be understood.

3. The Side-Kick
This character can be helping the protagonist or the villain. He/she will bring either wisdom and assistance to the hero, or make the main character’s efforts more difficult. This role is often a catalyst, not directly but indirectly causing things to occur. In the role of assistant, the side-kick can be a lovable but bumbling idiot or a quiet genius. The side-kick should not steal the spotlight from the main characters but is just as important in their role.

4. The Love Interest
This character could be the problem to overcome such as when both the hero and villain love the same person. This could also be the side-kick to one of them. Whether you use this character depends on the genre of your story.

Your plot will determine how you develop characters. Once you decide on the type of story you want to tell, your characters need to be the kind of people that will make this story happen. Their personalities can be crafted to bring about the behaviors you want in the plot.

So, choose your plot first, before designing your characters.

Once your plot is outlined, create character sketches for each of the main characters.

In your own life, you play the main character. Probably the hero. Those who step in and out of your world are either assisting in your quest or hindering you. Some come and go without much influence. But a few people in your life have a huge impact. The first stories we write often have a bit of autobiography in them. But it is important when you write a fictional story, not to retell real-life incidents too closely or use real names. That can get you into trouble! We will discuss plot more in the next chapter and address how to safely navigate this aspect.

The character sketch for your hero, villain, sidekick or love interest will include:

Full name
Age as the story begins
Era of time they lived
Family members?
Personality traits
Odd habits or mannerisms
Country of origin
Accent or manner of speaking
Who do they love/hate?
What drives them to do what they do (background for motivation).

Nobody can know everything about another person, but if you are writing about the main character in the first person… using the personal pronouns of “I” or “me” when referring to the hero/heroine, you will have full knowledge of their thoughts and motivations. So, the reader will too. You will not be able to know the inner thoughts of those around you. You want your reader to believe your character is a real person and real people don’t read minds. Of course, unless your hero happens to have this superpower… then, it’s fine.

You will want to make something about your main character, very relatable to your audience. They should find things in common with themselves, or someone they know. However, there can be aspects that are quite different or extreme. An odd habit can bring comedy to your story. A personality trait can go to an extreme, making your character more dangerous or vulnerable, raising tension or anticipation as the story unfolds. Whatever you decide, be consistent throughout the story, unless the obstacle to be overcome changes this aspect of who they are.

Next time, we’ll discuss PLOT! The driving force behind the story.


A Novel Idea – Setting

Books written in the 19th and early 20th Century often had extensive description of setting at the beginning of the story, sometimes before the plot was introduced. Today’s readers tend to leave such tomes on dusty shelves, instead choosing novels and short stories of all genres that blend description seamlessly into the unfolding of the story.  The “hook” that engages a reader will not be the way a pond looks early in the morning from the front porch. So, don’t waste your first page on it.

However, setting is still just as important as it was to the 19th Century reader. Before weaving the tale, the writer needs to understand the place it happens, the age and culture. Time of day and weather will also add dimension to the story. It may be helpful to map out the plot with setting details. Storyboarding is a good technique for this as it will help you “see” the story before actually writing it.

Storyboarding is a bit like creating a comic strip, with the general outline of events. It shows mood and environment. It is difficult to say which should come first, setting, character, or plot. You have to have a bit of an idea about all three to proceed very far. As you are writing, you may wish to change one aspect and rewrite it, to make sense of your story. Stories do evolve in the writing, so don’t be afraid of that! But we need to begin somewhere.

Is your story a mystery or horror story? The setting should reflect the mood you want to create. Perhaps a deserted house, a dark woods or deep pond with strange noises coming from it. Things are out of place or not as they should be. Show the reader what seems wrong instead of telling them something seems wrong, using your descriptions and the character’s reaction (widened eyes or turning suddenly pale, etc.). Use changes in the setting to build suspense and set the mood for what is coming. Sometimes a tense setting can lead to comic relief if you find the thing you feared was really a cat whose head got stuck in a can and is bumping into the wall.

Perhaps you want to set your story for a romance or adventure. The setting will create an expectation from the reader, building the mood. Like violins in an orchestra, the setting will not draw attention to itself, distracting from the story, but support the whole by giving fullness and support to the players.  It is important to note that the actual time and place do not have to be mentioned in the first paragraphs of the story. We can meet the main character first and discover his problem, then find as he begins his journey, whether he is poor or rich, in his hometown or traveling abroad, and what era he lives in. These details can be mentioned in passing to help create the picture in the reader’s eye.

“Show me don’t tell me.”  You will often hear this quote used in creative writing instruction, and rightly so.  “It began to rain hard.” only tells me the weather.

Take the rain experience through your five senses. What does it sound like? Is it like the erratic tapping of fingers on the table or a soft rhythmic drumming that soothes you to sleep?  Does it smell like clean grass or does the dampness bring out the smell of old books (musty)? Is it washing away dirt or creating mud? Does the rain surprise you with a cold smack on the face or perhaps it’s a welcome, cool mist after a heated argument – as you breathe in peace and sweet silence?  Maybe it whips against you driving you to the next destination of the story, or causes you to pull over on the road, after nearly hitting another car.  Here is an example of adding setting to action, and showing instead of telling.

      “I can’t see!” she cried as the semi passed –  too close – spraying her overworked wipers with another wave. Marilyn gripped the wheel tightly, heart pounding with the torrent as her tires lifted from the pavement, sliding toward the ditch.

Look through some of your favorite stories. How do they use setting to set a mood? How does it enhance the action or bring out another aspect of the character’s personality?

What if you could change the setting of a familiar story? Would it necessarily change the actions of the characters? It certainly could! Some characters do not fit easily into certain settings. It is possible, though. Sherlock Holmes seems to belong in an atmosphere of tension and suspense, in London, England. But what if he was at a children’s party with clowns? That could actually be quite terrifying to a man who seems so in control, all the time.

What if Hansel and Gretel lived in Maine, by the ocean and ran away to sea instead of into the woods? Why not try to experiment with a story you know well, and play with the setting. The possibilities are endless!

When thinking about setting, answer the following questions, not just for the beginning of the story, but each “scene.”

1. What era does this take place?
2. What time of year?
3. What is the exact location?
4. Time of day – or range of times.
5. Economic/status situation the character finds himself/herself in.
6. Weather conditions
7. Is this scene happening now, or is it a flashback? (Since flashbacks are a memory, it will only contain the images seen by the character having it. It may have a different perspective than someone else who was also there.)

In my next post, I’ll deal with the creation of main and supporting characters.