Today’s writing exercise comes from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises.
This book takes you on an adventure through the world of writing. You’ll explore different forms and genres while learning practical writing techniques. You’ll also get plenty of writing experience and ideas for publishable projects.
Each chapter focuses on a different form or writing concept: freewriting, journaling, memoirs, fiction, storytelling, form poetry, free verse, characters, dialogue, creativity, and writing articles and blogs are all covered.
Today, we’ll take a peek at “Chapter Three: People and Characters” with an exercise called “Your Gang.” Enjoy! Read more
Some writing tips are cryptic.
When I first came across writing advice that said “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant that we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.
Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so. That’s solid advice, and I agree with it.
It’s all about being true to the story. Read more
The Protagonist Problem: why is the hero or heroine so often the least interesting character in the book?
Please welcome David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, with a guest post that explores common problems with protagonists in fiction writing.
Catch them in an unguarded moment and many writers will confess that villains and secondary characters are much easier to write than protagonists.
One sees the problem in not a few books, some famous. Why are so many heroes—from Gulliver to Candide to Oliver Twist—the blandest character in the story?
The Protagonist as Vessel of Virtue, or the Myth of the Likable Hero
One common problem is the protagonist who plods through the story glowing with virtue like a night-light—and generating just as little heat.
This is particularly the case when the opponent is driving the action, creating the circumstances compelling the protagonist to (merely) react.
Deprive the protagonist the right not just to defend himself but to go on the attack, and all you have is a noble victim—the heir to Everyman in medieval morality plays—perhaps the least interesting character known to humanity.
The inclination to confine protagonists in a cocoon of virtue often results from the fatuous demand that they be likable. It is true that in a novel you are asking the reader to spend a great deal of time with a character, and no one wants to spend hours with an annoying, wheedling, sniveling pisspot. But neither do readers want to waste their time with a boy scout’s shadow.
It is far more important that we be able to empathize with a character than that we like him—and empathy arises from a sense of shared humanity, warts and all, not virtue.
Comprehending the Stakes, Summoning the Will
Lackluster protagonists also often result from the writer’s failure to properly understand the stakes—what the character wants, why, and what he’s willing to risk to get it.
Whatever the protagonist wants, even if at first he doesn’t know what it is, he must come to want it with his whole body and soul, so that losing it will be tantamount to death. The stakes must at some point become palpable, real, and ultimate, so that the will is irrevocably and completely engaged.
Understanding the Interconnection Between the Outer Goal and the Inner Need
Whatever the hero is trying to achieve in the outer world—capture the murderer, win the beloved, return home—the goal and the effort to achieve it speak to some inner yearning, limitation, or flaw that the character often does not even recognize until the events within the story—specifically, the conflicts endured to achieve the outer goal—reveal it.
This relationship is the machine that creates the protagonist’s reservoir of will to prevail as the conflict intensifies and the stakes escalate—otherwise, at some point the protagonist will just say to heck with it.
When the Protagonist’s Struggle is Fundamentally Internal
In stories centered on the protagonist’s battle to overcome guilt, fear of intimacy (as in many modern love stories), addiction, or even madness, there may not be an opponent per se. The role of opponent is embodied in the protagonist.
To dramatize the conflict, it’s useful to see that a choice lies at the heart of the character’s problem.
In the classic 1968 film Midnight Cowboy, what Joe Buck wants is intimacy, but abandonment and betrayal have created a profound mistrust of others. And so he has assumed the role of hustler to protect himself from the pain he associates with desire and closeness.
Joe’s dilemma creates a choice: to open himself to pain or not. And each option of that choice is embodied in a character: If Joe chooses to remain closed to suffering and hold on to his hustler mask, he can spend his life with women such as the affluent Shirley, who would pay him for sex and even enjoy his company, but never be a true companion; or he can open himself to pain and loss to care for his dying friend, Ratso.
When the Protagonist Faces a Problem, an Enigma, or a Disaster Rather than an Opponent
This is similar to the foregoing problem, but here the protagonist faces neither an opponent nor an internal struggle but an intractable situation or problem.
It’s one of the oldest story forms in existence, and examples range from The Odyssey and Jude the Obscure to The Time Machine and The Metamorphosis, to name a scant few.
The problem the character faces is not just difficult but seemingly unsolvable—so unsolvable it’s easy for the writer to get stuck, spinning wheels in the sand of speculation. Or else the hero gets lost in the specifics of various episodic problems, battling “situational opponents,” all of which can make the story seem like “one damn thing after another.”
The solution lies again in seeing the question at the heart of the protagonist’s dilemma.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, the father grapples with how to retain human decency in the midst of a living nightmare.
It’s that question—Will my son and I remain recognizably human if we manage to survive this disaster?—that defines the conflict, not just the brutalized landscape or the cannibals and brigands who inhabit it.
The Protagonist Who Doesn’t Know or is Confused by What He Wants, or is Afraid to Want It
In truth, this is less a problem in conception than execution. A great many compelling characters begin their stories being unclear, confused, or fearful of what they want.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather begins the story by distancing himself from his family. But as the threat to his father, then the deaths of his brother Sonny and his Sicilian bride, make it clear that the family’s enemies intend to destroy everyone he loves, Michael transforms not just into a family loyalist but its leader.
The same can be said for Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, and hundreds of others. In each case, the conflict of the story, by making the protagonist face repeated failure at achieving what he thinks he wants at the story’s outset, obliges the protagonist to reassess what he truly wants—even who he is.
When the Wrong Character Serves as Protagonist
In choosing which main character should serve as your protagonist, ask yourself who:
- responds most deliberately to the incident that changes the world as it exists when the story begins;
- feels the deepest impetus to action;
- has the most at stake in the story;
- arouses the deepest empathy in the reader or audience;
- serves as the focus of the story’s moral premise;
- changes the most profoundly within the story.
Whoever can shoulder the majority of those responsibilities deserves to be your hero—and reaching that decision wisely will often spare you many of the other problems addressed above.
About the Author: David Corbett’s latest book, The Art of Character is the ultimate guide to creating captivating characters. He is the author of four novels: Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running?
David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has taught online and in classroom settings and at numerous writing conferences across the US. For more information, visit davidcorbett.com.
Today’s post comes from my book 101 Creative Writing Exercises. This is from “Chapter Five: Fiction.”
Symbols and Symbolism
In Alice and Wonderland, a white rabbit appears and Alice follows him down the rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. The white rabbit is a herald—a character archetype that signifies the first challenge or the call to adventure. This is the change in the main character’s life that marks the beginning of the story.
The white rabbit became so widely known that it eventually evolved into a symbol. Because it’s white, it can symbolize purity. Because it’s a rabbit, it can symbolize fertility. But because it was the herald that called Alice to her adventure, the white rabbit is often used as a symbol to represent change. Sometimes, it’s simply used as a herald.
The white rabbit appeared in The Matrix, an episode of Star Trek, and in several episodes of Lost. In Jurassic Park, a character finds a file labeled “whiterabbit.obj” and in Stephen King’s The Long Walk, a character refers to himself as “the white rabbit type.”
The white rabbit can function as a traditional symbol or as a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Such is the case with the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
Symbolism occurs whenever one thing represents something else. For example, a book could represent knowledge. A caged bird could represent oppression or imprisonment. In a story, the repetition of a symbol (every time the book or caged bird appears) can have significance to the story. Maybe every time a character fails because he doesn’t know enough, there’s a book in the scene. Or perhaps a person who is oppressed keeps a caged bird but doesn’t recognize the irony (that he is imprisoning a living creature while suffering his own oppression).
Develop a list of five to ten symbols. Invent your own symbols rather than using ones that commonly appear in fiction. If you’re working on a story or novel, make a list of symbols that you might use in your project. Symbols are often linked to big themes: love, revenge, sacrifice, redemption, narcissism, etc.
Tips: You might find it easier to choose a theme or issue and then look for a symbol that represents it. On the other hand, if you have an interesting image (a red scarf, a snow globe), you might find a way to turn it into a meaningful symbol.
Variations: Choose one symbol and write a list of ways it can be used throughout a story. For example, a white rabbit in a story could appear in a pet store. It could be somebody’s pet. It could be in a science lab. It could be part of a magic show. Make sure you don’t give the symbol more importance than the plot or characters. A symbol is present to add depth and give the story greater meaning. It’s an accent to the story, not the central focus of it.
Applications: Symbols enrich a piece of writing, adding layers to the themes and meaning of the piece.
Please welcome author Stuart Horwitz with a guest post on writing flashbacks.
“Flashback” is a term that we are all familiar with, even if its definition has grown a little vague. We sense that a flashback is something that happened before… but happened before what? Where we are now?
In other words, what are we flashing back from? This is where I think it is useful to introduce a companion term to flashback, the reading present. The reading present is the main narrative throughline, the most commonly visited time period, the one whose beginning and end most closely mirrors the beginning and end of the book as a whole.
There are good reasons to leave the reading present: by flashing back we can deepen characterization, create suspense, or introduce other characters and events that will eventually matter a great deal to our outcome. But there are also bad reasons to use flashback, not morally bad reasons of course, just whoops-I-painted-myself-in-a-wicked-corner bad reasons.
To assist with this quandary, I offer the following five rules of writing flashbacks:
- The first rule of flashback is just that, when we flash back, we do so for a reason. And — get this — we reveal this reason to the reader. This reveal can be subtle, but readers need to be able to make some kind of connection to why we just went there or they will feel lost.
- We don’t leave the reading present for so long that readers loses their bearings upon our return. In other words, don’t fall in love with another time period and dally there, favoring it over the reading present. The reader will wonder if that is when your story really takes place, and perhaps everything else has been a flashforward, which gets confusing (see rule #5). Readers need exactly one reading present. However the narrative is framed, wherever it jumps around to, the reader’s expectation is that they will be returned to the reading present in which they feel most at home to find out what happened.
- We don’t flash back for too short a time, such as a few lines or a paragraph, which is really more like presenting a memory. It’s better to stay in the reading present in that case and recount the past events through a character’s thoughts. When we do flash back, it should be for an entire scene, with all the benefits that a scene brings: dynamic action, a change in the state of affairs, development of the theme. This doesn’t mean a flashback can be only one scene long; it can be longer provided readers aren’t lost upon their return (see rule #2).
- If you are going to use multiple timelines, present each timeline chronologically. Help a reader out: if we are flashing back from a throughline that takes place in 2002 to a throughline that takes place in 1993, at least have the events in 1993 take place sequentially: you know, June, 1993 in one flashback, July, 1993 in the next flashback, October 1993, etc. We need to feel the narrative driving forward at all times.
- Flashbacks work, but flash-forwards don’t usually work. Flashbacks work because they correspond with our psychology: when we have a problem, we think back to an earlier time when something else happened, then we figure something out about ourselves or our world (this is how therapy works, I think). Flash-forwards—jumping forward in narrative order—usually don’t work because the human psyche is not constructed that way. If someone asks about your past, you can discourse on it rather freely even though you might end up changing the subject. If someone asks about the future, all but the most reckless souls will admit they don’t know yet.
For a great example of the reading present (or the viewing present, in this case) and some fabulous use of flashbacks, watch the film Slumdog Millionaire. The reading present here is the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The main character, Jamal, answers each question successfully, much to the surprise of all involved, by flashing back to specific events in his past and coming back to the viewing present with the correct response. There is even a third timeline — a lot to ask of today’s movie-going public — of Jamal being interrogated by the police. But it works because each timeline in presented in chronological order.
When we talk about flashbacks, the reading present, chronologies, and multiple timelines, we are talking about the general category called order, right? And I say that if we’re talking about order… then we might as well have some!
About the Author: Stuart Horwitz is the author of Blueprint Your Bestseller. He’s the founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture based in Boston, MA and Providence, RI. For over fifteen years, he has helped authors revise, polish and successfully publish their work. His clients have become New York Times bestsellers and have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The Tonight Show. An award-winning poet and essayist, Stuart has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds Masters degrees in Literary Aesthetics from NYU and East Asian Studies and Medieval Japanese Buddhism from Harvard.
101 Creative Writing Exercises is a collection of creative writing exercises that takes writers on a journey through different forms and genres while providing writing techniques, practical experience, and inspiration.
Each exercise teaches a specific concept and each chapter focuses on a different subject or form of writing: journaling, storytelling, fiction, poetry, article writing, and more. Every exercise is designed to be practical. In other words, you can use these exercises to launch projects that are destined for publication.
Today, I’d like to share one of my favorite exercises from the book. This is from “Chapter Four: Speak Up,” which focuses on dialogue and scripts. The exercise is called “Body Language.” Enjoy!
Sometimes what people say without actually speaking tells us a whole lot more than what comes out of their mouths. Using body language to communicate is natural. We all understand it intuitively—some better than others.
As a writer, you can closely observe people’s body language and learn how humans speak without words so you can bring unspoken communication into your writing.
Imagine two characters, a man and woman, who are complete strangers. They are in a bookstore. Their eyes meet across the room. You wouldn’t write “Their eyes locked. They were instantly attracted to each other.” That would be boring and unimaginative. Instead, you would let the scene unfold and describe it to the reader—how their eyes met, how he gulped and she blushed, how they both suddenly felt warm, how the two of them slowly worked their way toward the center of the store until they finally met in the horror section.
Write a scene between two (or more) characters in which there is no dialogue but the characters are communicating with each other through body language. You can also write a nonfiction piece. Surely you have experienced nonverbal communication. Take that experience and describe it on the page.
Your scene can be a lead-in to two characters meeting or conversing. The scene should comprise at least two pages of non-dialogue interaction with two or more characters. Here are a few scene starters:
- A cop, detective, or private investigator is tailing a suspect through a small town, a big city, a mall, amusement park, or other public area.
- Strangers are always good for body language exercises. Think about where strangers are brought together: public transportation, classes, elevators, and formal meetings.
- Kids in a classroom aren’t supposed to be speaking while a teacher is giving a lecture, but they always find ways to communicate.
Tips: What if one character misinterprets another character’s body language? That could lead to humor or disaster. Maybe the characters are supposed to be doing something else (like in a classroom where they’re supposed to be listening to the teacher) but instead, they’re making faces and gestures at each other. One helpful technique might be to go inside the characters’ heads, but don’t get too carried away with he thought and she wondered as these constructs are basically inner dialogue.
Variations: As an alternative, write a scene in which one character speaks and one doesn’t: an adult and a baby, a human and an animal.
Applications: There are depictions of nonverbal communication in almost all types of storytelling from journalism and biography to memoir and fiction.
Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being (or non-living object) simply by discovering its real and true name? I’ve read about ten of those novels.
What do you think is more perplexing, the fact that authors continue to use this rule of magic (even though it’s tired and ready to be retired) or the astounding number of unique names that writers come up with for all the characters in these stories?
Dubworthy or Dubless?
I have been known to spend hours pondering names and wondering how a writer managed to choose a name that so perfectly fit a character, especially characters that are iconic: Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Hanibal Lechter. And they don’t all start with the letter H: Ebenezer Scrooge, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, Gollum, Cinderella, Willy Wonka, Scarlett O’Hara. The list goes on and on. And it doesn’t stop with literary characters. Remarkable character names can also be found in movies, comic books, and on TV.
Think about the most famous, unforgettable, and compelling characters. They have names that are memorable, names that resonate with the character’s energy: Bond. James Bond. How do you forget a guy like that?
But here’s a better question. How does a writer come up with a name like that?
The Name is the Game
Let me be blunt. I suck at coming up with names. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent pondering great names and trying to come up with handles for my poor, nameless characters. But names elude me. They do. So, what do I do when my fiction writing antics require me to name a character? Well, if I’m already in the throes of writing, I generally write the characters’ names generically and in all caps:
GIRL is walking down the street and freezes when she spots ANIMAL sitting in the middle of the road.
But I can’t avoid naming forever. The story is never finished until everybody is named, and I find that I can’t get very deep into the tale when I’m working with nameless characters. So, I do what any resourceful writer does. I turn to my handy-dandy writing resources.
The internet is always my first choice for research. I use an online dictionary and thesaurus. When I need a quick fact, I’ve been known to obtain it from Wikipedia (judiciously, of course) and I also use the open-source, online encyclopedia as a starting place to look for more credible research (they often have excellent annotations). And when I need a name, I’ve engaged the power of Google (a search engine that happens to have a fantastic name of its own).
I’ve googled boy names and girl names, exotic names, and androgynous names. I’ve done it in reverse too, and searched for names by their meaning. I’ve gotten lucky a few times and found just the right name for a character I had in mind. I’ve even found a nifty tool that generates a character name, which is awesome if you can use a name like Magaga Dawntracker.
But looking for a name on the web is like looking for a song in your iPod when you can’t remember the title or artist. It takes forever. And you find yourself endlessly perusing, clicking, and nodding your head (or shaking it, as the case may be). I guess the benefit is that all those names you skim through might spark ideas for other characters, but what about the character you’ve already created? The one whose lack of a name launched you into this quest in the first place?
It’s not like this was a one-time ordeal. Name searching became a major time-suck for me. And fiction writing started to feel more like climbing Mount Everest than a creative experience. I went through this ridiculous cycle more times than I care to recall.
And then one day, I was happily browsing through my favorite bookstore, a local and independent bookstore, and this book popped out at me:
A World of Baby Character Names
Okay, so technically, the title of this book is A World of Baby Names. But I’m not naming any babies. Nope. I’m strictly about naming characters.
Even though this was the first name book that I noticed, I checked out several others before buying this one. It had some features I thought might be useful. Turns out I was right. I’ve used this book a lot. A whole lot.
What I like best about it is that the names are separated by country of origin. And there are tons of names in this book that my American self has never heard before. I can look at the Hindu names and the Polish names, and then I can get creative and start combining them.
The names are also sorted by gender. That makes looking for an androgynous name a little challenging, but on the other hand, there’s a nice index, so I can scroll through every single name in a few minutes — a great method for finding a name that pops out at me. I can then navigate to the name page and find out what it means.
Each section also includes a written introduction about names in various cultures, which is pretty cool.
If you struggle with naming characters the way I do, then you should seriously consider getting this book or one like it.
A Few, Final Tips and Resources for Naming Characters
Readers have made tons of excellent suggestions since this article was first published. Here are their additions to the ever-growing list of resources for naming characters:
- Visit Behind the Name to peruse names and their meanings. You can browse by gender and/or nationality.
- Keep a special notebook (or a page/section in your notebook just for names. Make sure you jot down interesting names whenever you come across them and when you need a name, you’ll have your own stockpile!
- Do you have a smart phone or tablet? Search for “baby naming” or “character naming” apps. Tip: check the ratings and read the reviews to make sure you pick the best apps available.
- Want to choose names based on data and statistics? The U.S. Social Security Administration shows most popular names by year, decade, state, and territory!
A Rose By Any Other Name
How do you come up with character names? Do you have a name book? Is there a website you use? Do you have a knack for names using nothing more than your own brilliant imagination? What are some of your all-time favorite character names? And finally (here’s a question for the most creative souls out there), can you think of any other good uses for a baby name book, other than naming babies and fictional characters?
101 Creative Writing Exercises is a book of writing exercises that takes writers on a journey through different forms and genres.
Each exercise teaches a specific concept, and each chapter focuses on a different subject or form: journaling, storytelling, fiction writing, poetry, article writing, and more. All of the exercises are designed to be practical. In other words, you can use these exercises to launch projects that are destined for publication.
Today, I’d like to present one of the exercises to give you a taste of what to expect from the book. From “Chapter Six: Storytelling,” this exercise is called “Oh No He Didn’t!” I hope you like it!
Oh No He Didn’t! (from 101 Creative Writing Exercises)
Plot twists, cliffhangers, and page-turners. Oh my! These are the sneaky techniques writers use to keep readers captivated. And we’ve all been there: It’s late, and I’m tired. After this chapter, the lights are going out. Then there’s a cliffhanger, a shocking development in the story. Forget sleep! I have to find out what happens next.
Some writers are criticized for overusing these devices or for planting twists that are contrived or forced. But a good plot twist or cliffhanger is natural to the story and doesn’t feel like the writer strategically worked it in.
Some stories feature major twists in the middle of chapters. It’s placing such a twist at the end of a chapter that turns it into a cliffhanger. Soap operas and television dramas are known, loved, and loathed for their application of these devices. It’s how they hook viewers, and it’s a way you can hook readers.
Each writer has to decide whether to use these techniques in storytelling. You might think they’re too formulaic or rob your story of its artfulness. Or maybe you like the exciting edge that a good twist or cliffhanger brings to a story.
Write an outline for a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger. You can also use a TV episode as your model or a serialized short story. Approach the cliffhanger by building tension to the moment:
Bad guys are chasing the good guys. The bad guys are gaining on them. They’re getting closer! One of bad guys draws his gun, lifts it, cocks it, and aims right at our hero. He pulls the trigger. See you next week!
You can also plant a cliffhanger that comes out of nowhere. The chapter is winding down, everything is moving along as expected and suddenly a character walks into a room and tells her ex-lover that she’s pregnant and he’s the father. Uh oh!
Both types of cliffhangers work equally well.
Tips: The best cliffhangers leave huge questions hanging in the air. Who did it? What just happened? Will they survive? How is that possible? What will happen next?
Variations: You can expand on this exercise by writing out a scene that ends on a cliffhanger. To expand further, write the follow-up scene and satisfy readers’ curiosity by answering the big questions raised by your cliffhanger.
Applications: If you want to be a commercially successful author, you will probably find that mastering the cliffhanger is a huge asset to your writing skills. The cliffhanger is almost mandatory in horror and mystery genres, so if that’s what you want to write, you’ll need to be able to execute a good clincher.
Please welcome guest author, Dr. John Yeoman, with three steps to plotting a successful novel using a combination of outlining and discovery writing.
Or would you rather start with a strong idea, drop in some interesting characters, then go with the flow?
The Michelangelo approach is at the heart of every plotting software program.
It’s painting by numbers, though the numbers can get complicated. (Think of the Sistine Chapel.) Once you’ve invested in such programs, you’ll find that the same job could often be done using the Table utility in Word, and less expensively. But you still need to know what to put into each cell. And that’s what these programs are selling.
They have the merit that, once you’ve drafted every plot twist, character profile, scene setting, and transitional device suggested by the program, you know where you’re going. Michelangelos rarely have writer’s block. Their stories get finished.
Kandinskys despise plot schemes.
Plotting programs stifle creativity, they say, and produce cookie-cutter stories. True, they do. Such stories may head The New York Times best-seller lists, but they lack freshness, innovation, and surprise… they’re artificial.
One of the benefits of the free-flowing Kandinsky approach is that, in the hands of a gifted author, it can give a tale a fresh sensibility—and surprise—that’s exactly like real life.
Allegedly, Dostoyevsky finished The Brothers Karamazov because he had no idea what the characters would do next. He had to write the next scene to find out. That’s one reason why the novel still glows with freshness 130 years after it was written.
However, the downside of the go-with-the-flow method, for new authors, is that their characters wander all over the place. At the end, the best scenes—wonderful but irrelevant—have to be cut and months of work are wasted.
What’s the answer?
Can you really combine the precision craftsmanship of a Michelangelo with the free-wheeling creativity of a Kandinsky? Yes! Simply let a plotting formula be your guide, not your master. For example, here’s a standard plot scheme:
Our main character is faced with a challenge that threatens their life or community. They confront the challenge. They fail. They try again but things get even worse. So it goes, chapter after chapter. We might weave in a few sub-plots where lesser characters face their own big challenges.
At last, we achieve our desired word length. We can allow our main character to succeed! (Or fail heroically.) The bit players might also be granted some reward, or punishment, to the degree that the reader likes or hates them.
That’s a very long-whiskered formula. (It’s the pattern of The Aeneid.) But how can we enhance it with individuality, our own creative flair?
A three-step formula for plotting:
1. First, sketch out the structure of the scenes:
- Challenge. (The character reflects upon it.)
- Resolve. (S/he does something about it.)
- Failure. (Their remedy doesn’t work. This is a good moment to drop in a page hanger: I thought the day could not get worse but events were to prove me wrong.)
- Transition. (Link to the next scene.)
2. Second, establish the settings: a bar in Houston, a cottage garden in Kent, whatever. Equip them with props that aren’t just furniture but add meaning to the story. (The tables were so tacky that even the flies wore gloves.)
3. Third, give your characters permission to wander about, within the structure of the scene. You know you have, say, 1500 words to make your protagonist Jed insult his girlfriend by mistake. She flounces off. He chases after her to apologize (too late). He drinks too much, fights the bartender, gets arrested, and then has philosophical thoughts in the jailhouse.
As long as you get those key points covered, you can be as creative and free-flowing as you like—within the scene.
You can be both Michelangelo and Kandinsky
Do you paint each incident in glowing color, carefully structured from the perspective of an omniscient narrator (Michelangelo)? Or should you let the reader into your character’s mind and share his intimate thoughts and emotions, chaotic and free-flowing (Kandinsky)? Now you can combine both approaches.
Plot a novel or long story using this 3-step method and you can pedantically paint by numbers, scene by scene, yet still produce a work that’s gloriously original. And nobody will accuse you of being formulaic!
About the Author: Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers’ Village.
Please welcome author Devin Berglund with tips and ideas to help you avoid procrastination so you can finally finish your novel.
Do you ever feel like giving up on your novel? Does it feel like inspiration is drifting away? Has doubt grabbed you by the throat and convinced you that your story isn’t good enough to be told?
Lately, I’ve had that exact feeling. I would procrastinate from writing when the fear would whisper lies like you’ll never finish that novel or your story isn’t interesting enough or your characters are too boring.
When those thoughts enter the threshold of your imagination, it is easy to say to yourself, “My story is dying and I can’t save it.” I believe you have a story, and trust me, your characters want their story to be told. I have found tricks and tips that help writers finish what they have started. Do you want to be one of those writers that finish what they start?
Facebook Isn’t Going to Finish Your Novel for You
The writer’s temptation goes by the name of Facebook, Twitter, and all of the other online social networking sites. They can be a blessing, but on the other hand, they can also be a curse. It’s easy to sit down at the computer to work on your story, but it’s even easier to click to Internet to see if you’ve gotten any notifications. A great habit to get into is tuning out social media and the Internet for your allotted writing time.
How to write: one of my favorite things to read online are other writer’s blogs. You know, the cool ones. I end up discovering all different kinds of writing hints, but the truth is that those things will never finish your novel. You may learn tokens of knowledge that help you along the way, but to finish that book, you have to actually sit down and write. That is a huge temptation that I deal with sometimes. One reason I envy the writers of old is because they didn’t have all the technology distractions that we have today.
”I’m Late, I’m late for a very important date.”
We all remember the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, and his favorite quote about being late for an important date, but I think we (as writers) are a lot like this rabbit. We go about our lives doing all the errands and daily chores that we must do, but it seems that it’s a different story when it comes to writing. We easily say “Oh, I just don’t have the time” or “I’m too tired” or “I have to do the dishes and the laundry.” Many people don’t realize they have the time. (If someone says they don’t have the time, they usually do.) We just have to make time for our writing and not waste the time we do have—even if it’s only a little bit here and there.
- Sit down with your schedule or your iPhone calendar and figure out what times will be best for you to write. A time when you can actually get a good chunk of writing in.
- Get your seconds in: squeeze writing in whenever you get 5 minutes. For example, I usually get a chunk of writing in while on the morning commute to work (on the train; please don’t try it in the car, although if you drive a lot, keep a voice recorder on hand and whenever a story idea comes, be sure to record it).
- Change how you write: I usually write with my computer at home, but while on the train, I write with pen and paper; it helps get the writing wires straightened out again.
“Do or Do Not; There is No Try”
Yoda was known for these famous words and they stand true for writers too. When it all comes down to it, you already know the secrets and tips to finishing your novel, but the question is how bad do you want it?
There are many reasons that you should finish your novel, but it all depends on whether those reasons are big enough to inspire you to reach your dream. If you want to finish your novel, then you must sit down and finish your novel. You will be thankful that you did.
- Write as much as you can.
- Don’t give in to temptation and laziness.
- And last but not least, write because you love to write.
What are a few things that have helped you finish your works in progress?
Devin Berglund is an American writer who is living abroad in Australia. She graduated from Minnesota State University of Moorhead with a BA degree in English/Mass Communications and a Certificate in Publishing. Her mind is spinning with enough ideas for a bazillion books, but she is currently working on a YA fantasy series. You can find her at www.devinberglund.wordpress.com or on Twitter @devinberglund.