Some writing tips are cryptic.
When I first came across writing advice that said, “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant 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 although “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so, it also has a broader meaning. We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, if doing so improves our work.
That’s solid advice, and I agree with it.
Some writing tips have more than one meaning. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just about being true to a story you’re writing insofar as you’re willing to put your most beloved characters to death. What it means, in the broadest sense, is that we have to be willing to let go of any element of our writing that is not essential or beneficial. Killing off characters is the most obvious way to “kill your darlings,” so let’s look at that first.
Kill Your Characters
Every so often, I read a story and think that either too many characters were unnecessarily killed off or certain characters should have been killed off because it wasn’t believable that nobody died.
Like many readers, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous violence. If the story calls for violence, then I’m fine with it, and I do think that literature needs to explore themes like violence because it’s a prevalent problem in our culture. But when violence is glamorized or when it’s inserted into a scene without having any relevance to the story, it annoys me. Gratuitous violence is often used to kill off characters and sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated — like somebody wants me to be sad about a character’s death so I’ll forge a deeper emotional connection to the story. If it’s all done without relevance to the story or in a way that is unbelievable, it has the opposite effect. It kills my connection with the story because the story becomes formulaic in a negative way.
The same is true when characters die by means other than violence. If I feel like the author is just having fun killing off characters to get a rise out of me, I get irritated and find something else to read.
Having said that, death is universal. Everybody dies eventually, so I think death is an important topic to explore in fiction. Stories that deal with death in ways that are effective and meaningful resonate with me and deepen my emotional connection to a story. When I’m reading a war story where bullets are flying and bombs are blazing and the five main characters, all of whom are fighting on the front line, manage to survive with a few minor injuries, I find it unbelievable. A story like that calls for the death of a darling because that’s the truth of the story.
Killing Scenes and Chapters
But let’s get away from killing off characters because “kill your darlings” goes beyond characters.
We all have paragraphs, scenes, and chapters that we’re proud of. For whatever reasons, we get attached to these parts of our work. If we realize that a favorite scene is not moving the story forward or doing anything for the story whatsoever, we have to contemplate cutting it. We might try to revise it and work something important into it so we can save it, but some scenes can’t be resuscitated. They must be cut in order to maintain the integrity of the manuscript.
The same is true of sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters. They may contain some of our best work — dazzling turns of phrases, vivid imagery, and compelling ideas. But if these portions of our work are not relevant or even essential to the larger body, then they are dragging us down, even if they are brilliant.
And that’s another way that we sometimes must kill our darlings — by snipping or radically revising some of our best work. It’s unfortunate. It’s a bummer. And it hurts to highlight huge swaths of text that we labored over and loved, and then press the delete button. But if these excerpts are weakening the larger piece, they’ve got to go.
Putting Substance First
I believe that in fiction, the story has to come first. In an essay, the thesis has to come first. In a poem, we have a little more wiggle room, but even then, the intent of the poem has to come first.
When I cut 40,000 words of a manuscript, I felt relieved and unburdened. I had to let go of some good stuff — characters, scenes, chapters, words, and sentences that represented some of my best work. A little of everything got cut. I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew that it would make the story one hundred percent better. I also knew that I could save that material and reuse it if the opportunity ever arises.
It’s hard to let go. It’s especially hard to let go of something we’re proud of, something we’re attached to, worked hard on, or something we love. That’s the lesson of death — when death occurs in fiction and is carried out well, in a meaningful way, it’s almost always about letting go. That’s something everyone has to do, not just writers.
We writers have to learn to let go of our darlings. Whether they are characters, scenes, or sentences, we have to expunge pieces of our work that we admire because they do not speak truth to the story we’re trying to tell.
Have you ever killed off a favorite character, eliminated a great scene, or deleted a snazzy sentence? Was it hard? Did you save it? Share your thoughts and experiences with killing your darlings or share some of your favorite writing tips by leaving a comment.
When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.
Maybe you’re like me and find it difficult to write a really good villain — I mean — a really bad villain.
The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.
That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.
Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me — as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life.
Villains Are Everywhere
Customer service would forget to return my phone call, and I’d imagine a self-absorbed boss who overworked employees and neglected customers. I’d see a story on the news about road rage and I’d imagine a crazed, angry egomaniac. Dirty politicians, people who committed heinous crimes, and generally creepy individuals all became infinitely more interesting once I stopped viewing them as a consumer of the news and started looking at them through the lens of story.
I would notice people’s flaws, mistakes, and bad moods, and think about what people would be like if those flaws were embellished and magnified to outweigh the person’s good qualities and positive traits. Suddenly, my villains were born, one after another, like a little herd of evil trolls.
Film, television, and books also became sources of villainous inspiration. Instead of cringing at them, I started examining them closer. I found some villains were bland and shallow. A villain driven to power for power’s sake lacked depth. A villain driven to power out of revenge for something terrible that happened to his or her family was compelling. Villains whose motivations were understandable, even if they weren’t acceptable, were the most interesting and the most believable.
Tips and Ideas for Creating Villains
I make up characters in my head all the time. Sometimes I write down my ideas, drafting character sketches. Most of them never make it to a story, but the really compelling ones do. Now that I’ve found a surefire way to harvest villains from the world around me, the character sketches have really started to pile up.
If you want to write good fiction, you need a character who creates tension and who is at odds with the forces of good. Even for poets and nonfiction writers, the ability to write a complex villain will improve your writing and help you better understand the subjects you write about.
Here are some tips and ideas for creating complex villains for your stories:
- Choose a model for your villain: an ordinary person, a celebrity, or a notorious criminal from the news; examine that person’s flaws and weaknesses. How have they wronged others? Discard their positive traits, magnify their negative traits, and write a brief character sketch. What’s the character’s name? What does he or she look like? What is going on in the character’s head that allows him or her to treat others with disregard?
- Give your villain a shady past: what terrible things has your villain done throughout his or her life? What terrible things were done to him or her? Some villains are just troublemakers; others are deranged psychopaths. How extreme is your villain?
- Identify the source: what happened to your villain to turn him or her so evil? Was your villain born that way?
- The most interesting villains are not completely evil. They have a soft spot for puppies or they write cheesy love poems. Contrary personality traits add depth and realism to all characters. Describe your villain’s positive traits.
- Put your villain in a scene: make sure you include dialogue so you can work out how the character speaks. Give your villain a distinct voice. Is your villain disguised as a benevolent character? Does he or she spend every waking minute committing evil deeds?
Most importantly, have fun! That’s what fiction writing is all about. Villains are the characters we love to hate because they are the harbingers of obstacles and challenges through which the heroes of our stories prove themselves. Whether you write totalitarian villains like Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame or more subtle, complex nemeses like Catwoman from the Batman comics, give your villains plenty of color, character, and complexity.
Art Begets Art
A compelling story speaks to us much the same way music does, communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas in ways that go beyond concrete language.
Something clicks. When you hear a song or read a story that resonates in this manner, you connect with it on a deep level. It almost feels like the author or songwriter was speaking for you, about you, or to you.
Some say that truly great art communicates directly with the subconscious. That’s why the arts coexist so naturally. Where you find a buzzing music scene, you can be sure a booming literary crowd is nearby. And where filmmakers toil with scripts and cameras, you can bet dancers aren’t too far off.
Creativity breeds creativity, and we are like magnets, drawn not just into our own passion, but those that complement and support our passions. Music, film, and art all enrich and inform one another. So do the musicians, filmmakers, artists, and of course, writers.
Fiction Writing Exercises
Some people say that everything has been written, every story told. But that’s not true. There’s always another angle, a different perspective that can be explored. And writers have all the tools they need to grab that perspective and run with it. You just need a starting point, and these fiction writing exercises can help you find it. Try starting with a song.
Before you get started, here are a couple of tips to help you work through these exercises:
- Make sure you aren’t familiar with the song’s video.
- Pick a song you like, something you can tolerate listening to several times. In fact the more you enjoy the song, the greater the chance you’ll have fun with this experiment.
- Bonus if you know the lyrics by heart.
Exercise 1: A Story for a Song
Some of the greatest stories of all time have been told through song. Remember Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee?” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane?” What about Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff?” Each of these songs tells a clear and distinct story.
Choose a song that tells a story and write the story behind it. This is kind of like traveling backward and trying to find those one thousand words that represent the value of a picture.
Exercise 2: Ambiguous Tales
On the flip side, we have ambiguous lyrics, like “Hotel California,” by the Eagles or “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. Tunes like these have inspired lively debates that ask, what are these songs about, anyway? And if we don’t know what the songs are about, why do they succeed at speaking to us? How do they become enormous hits?
Choose a song that tells a vague story and write about what really happened. Your goal is to take a hazy story and make it clear.
Exercise 3: Who Needs Lyrics?
This is the biggest challenge of all: choose a piece of instrumental music (with no lyrics) and find the story in the melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Music and Fiction Writing Exercises
Throughout history, great artists have collaborated and mixed media to come up with fresh takes on ancient truths. These fiction writing exercises provide a new source for inspiration, get you working in collaboration with other artists (musicians), and give you creative license to put a new spin on something that’s been around for a while.
You can write a paragraph, a few pages, or an entire novel. You could also write a script for film or stage. If you’re strapped for time, just write an outline or a few character sketches. And if you don’t feel like writing it down, just work it out in your head. Find the connection between music and storytelling and let it capture your imagination.
If you have any fiction writing exercises to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.
Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of story writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.
These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer.
Writing a novel is an ambitious endeavor, never mind editing, publishing, and marketing it. Hopefully, the fiction writing tips below will help make the first part of your momentous task a little easier.
The writing tips below focus on the technical and creative writing process rather than the business end of things. You can take a few of these writing tips or take them all. And add your own fiction writing tips by leaving a comment.
- Read more fiction than you write.
- Don’t lock yourself into one genre (in reading or writing). Even if you have a favorite genre, step outside of it occasionally so you don’t get too weighed down by tropes.
- Dissect and analyze stories you love from books, movies, and television to find out what works in storytelling and what doesn’t.
- Remember the credence of all writers: butt in chair, fingers on keyboard.
- Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
- You can make an outline before, during, or after you finish your rough draft. It will provide you with a road map, which is a mighty powerful tool to have at your disposal.
- You don’t always need an outline. Give discovery writing a try.
- Some of the best fiction comes from real life. Jot down stories that interest you whether you hear them from a friend or read them in a news article.
- Real life is also a great source of inspiration for characters. Look around at your friends, family, and coworkers. Magnify and mix the strongest aspects of their personalities, and you’re on your way to crafting a cast of believable characters.
- Explore the human condition.
- Make your characters real through details. A girl who bites her nails or a guy with a limp will be far more memorable than characters who are presented with lengthy head-to-toe physical descriptions.
- The most realistic and relatable characters are flawed. Find something good about your villain and something dark in your hero’s past.
- Avoid telling readers too much about the characters. Instead, show the characters’ personalities through their actions and interactions.
- Give your characters difficult obstacles to overcome. Make them suffer. That way, when they triumph, it will be even more rewarding.
- Cultivate a distinct voice. Your narrator should not sound warm and friendly in the first few chapters and then objective and aloof in later chapters. The voice should be consistent, and its tone should complement the content of your book.
- Give careful consideration to the narrative point of view. Is the story best told in first person or third person? If you’re not sure, write a few pages in each narrative point of view to see what works best.
- Is your story moving too fast for readers or are they yawning through every paragraph? Are the love scenes too short? Are the fight scenes too long? Do you go into three pages of detail as your characters walk from point A to point B and then fly through an action sequence in a couple of short paragraphs? Pay attention to pacing!
- Infuse your story with rich themes to give it a humanistic quality. Examples of themes include sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, life and death, faith, destiny, etc. These are the big shadows that hover over your story.
- Make sure you understand the three-act structure. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Use symbols and imagery to create continuity throughout your story. Think about how the White Rabbit kept popping up when Alice was adventuring through Wonderland or how the color red was used in the film American Beauty. These are subtle details that give your story great power.
- Every great story includes transformation. The characters change, the world changes, and hopefully, the reader will change too.
- Aim for a story that is both surprising and satisfying. The only thing worse than reading a novel and feeling like you know exactly what’s going to happen is reading a novel and feeling unfulfilled at the end — like what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Your readers invest themselves in your story. They deserve an emotional and intellectual payoff.
- Focus on building tension, then give it a snap.
- Enrich your main plot with subplots. In real life, there’s a lot happening at once. While the characters are all trying to get rescued from the aliens, romances are brewing, traitors are stewing, and friendships are forged.
- There is a difference between a sub-plot and a tangent. Don’t go off on too many tangents. It’s okay to explore various branches of your story when you’re working through the first or second draft, but eventually, you have to pare it down to its core.
- If you write in a genre, don’t be afraid to blur the lines. A horror story can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
- Make sure your setting is vivid and realistic even if you made it up.
- If you didn’t make up your setting, then do your best to get to the location and see it for yourself before you finish your manuscript. If that’s not possible, get busy researching.
- Memorize the Hero’s Journey. Use it.
- Don’t underestimate your readers. Assume they are as smart (or smarter) than you.
- Give the readers room to think. You don’t have to tell your story in minute detail, including each minute of the plot’s timeline or all of the characters’ thoughts. Provide enough dots, and trust that the reader will be able to connect them when your story makes time jumps.
- Let the readers use their imaginations with your story’s descriptions as well. Provide a few choice details and let the readers fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
- Don’t focus exclusively on storytelling at the expense of compelling language.
- Appeal to readers’ senses. Use descriptive words that engage the readers’ senses of taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell.
- Apply poetry techniques to breathe life into your prose. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
- When rewriting, check for the following: plot holes, character inconsistencies, missing scenes, extraneous scenes, accuracy in research, and of course, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- As you revise, ask yourself whether every paragraph, sentence, and word is essential to your story. If it’s not, you know where the delete button is.
- Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
- Before your final revisions and before you send your manuscript out to any agents or editors, find your beta readers: join a writing group, take a fiction workshop, or hire a pro.
- Do not send out your rough draft. Go through the revision process at least three times before handing it out to your beta readers. The stronger it is when you bring in editors, the stronger those editors will be able to make it.
- Collect and use these and other writing tips in a file or in your notebook. When something about your story doesn’t feel quite right or if you sense there’s something missing, your notes and other resources might provide you with a solution.
- Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing, then maybe it’s not for you. If you’re not enjoying fiction writing, try something else, like poetry, blogging, or screenwriting. Be willing to experiment and you’ll find your way.
Did you find these writing tips helpful? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment!
Today I’d like to share a selection of fiction writing prompts from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, which includes 500 fiction prompts plus prompts for writing poetry and creative nonfiction.
Writing prompts are ideal for when you’re feeling uninspired because they provide you with ideas for your writing sessions and projects.
But prompts are also useful for those times when you’re not motivated to write. I’ve found that the sheer act of reading through a few good fiction writing prompts gives me the impetus to stop procrastinating and start writing.
These fiction writing prompts cover a range of genres, including literary, suspense, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult.
Fiction Writing Prompts
Using the prompts is simple. Just choose a prompt that resonates with you and start writing. There are no rules. You can write a short story, a novel, or an outline. Want to write a story with lots subplots? Choose two or three prompts and weave them together in a single story.
- There’s an old man sitting in a rickety wooden chair, fishing through a hole in the ice on a frozen lake. A loud cracking sound reverberates across the lake’s surface, and he feels the ice shift beneath him. He scurries, but the hole expands too quickly, and he goes into the icy water. What happens next?
- When his or her commanding officer is found dead, one young soldier goes AWOL and launches a personal investigation to find out who did it.
- At the height of human technological development, a special child is born who can communicate telepathically with computers and other mechanical and electronic devices.
- Two ambitious coworkers want the same promotion, and they’re both willing to do just about anything to get it. Then they fall in love. Does the competition heat up or die down? Will their romance survive office politics?
- Choose a period of history and a place that interests you, and write a multi-generational saga about a family that lived during that era.
- Write a comedy about a rural, salt-of-the-earth family moving to a big city and trying to get along with city folk who are sophisticated and refined.
- While shopping in a department store during the holidays, a child is separated from his or her parents and discovers a portal to a winter wonderland.
- When marriage becomes a living hell, the protagonist attempts to kill his or her spouse by bringing on depression and encouraging overeating and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.
- Scientists discover that the galaxy itself is a living organism.
- In the 1970s, someone started putting rocks in boxes and selling them as Pet Rocks, complete with care and training manuals. The business made millions. Write a story about an inventor or businessperson who comes up with a ridiculous product.
- Children love to pretend and play grown-up. Write a story about a child playing grown-up and pretending to have a particular career: teacher, veterinarian, artist, etc.
- In the midst of a natural disaster, a classroom is locked down and everyone inside is trapped until they are rescued three days later.
Did any of these fiction writing prompts inspire or motivate you? Do you have any fiction prompts to share? Leave a comment!
Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope so why did Han, Leia, and Darth Vader get all the attention?
When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s utterly forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.
All the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters, and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories?
Plot vs. Characters
Not all stories call for an iconic character. The Da Vinci Code has been criticized for its relatively uninteresting characters, but the story is not about the characters; it’s about an ancient conspiracy, a puzzle. The characters are supposed to take a backseat to the plot, and an iconic character might have distracted readers from the story.
We can compare The Da Vinci Code and its protagonist, Robert Langdon, to Indiana Jones, whose quests are fun but not nearly as deep or complex as Robert Langdon’s. We want to go on Indiana Jones’s adventure because we want to hang out with Indiana Jones — he’s an iconic character! We take the Da Vinci Code adventure for the sake of the quest itself; any character could serve as a guide.
If you’re thinking about developing an iconic character, first ask whether it’s appropriate for your story. For example, skilled detectives might be interesting and likable, but they’re rarely iconic, because in the mystery genre we’re reading to solve the mystery more than we’re reading to spend time with a particular character. For example, I like Harry Bosch just fine, but I didn’t read Michael Connelly’s books so I could spend time with Harry. I read to find out who did it.
That doesn’t mean big, riveting, plot-driven tales can’t include iconic characters. But it’s worth considering whether you want your character to overshadow your plot or vice versa. Sometimes the best stories are a good balance of compelling characters and plot. They may not be what we’d consider iconic, but they’re riveting enough.
Studying Iconic Characters
In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts — characters from Peter Pan to Katniss Everdeen became more famous than the authors who created them. So what is it that makes some characters unforgettable? Let’s do a brief study of a few iconic and popular characters from film and literature:
Peter Pan (Peter Pan): Everything about Peter Pan is iconic from his personality to the way he looks and the way he lives. Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. He’s all about fun and adventure. He lives on an otherworldly island with his friends, the Lost Boys. But consider Peter Pan’s image, particularly the one popularized by the Disney movie: he wears a green cap with a red feather in it, a green tunic and leggings. He’s got a knife on his belt and brown, pointy shoes. This ensemble is distinct and immediately recognizable.
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind): People keep telling me she’s an anti-hero, that she’s wicked and unlikeable, but I adore Scarlett O’Hara. Remember, she’s only sixteen years old when the story starts. Keeping her age in mind, her envious, arrogant nature is more understandable. She goes on to do whatever she must to survive, take care of her family, and maintain her material comfort. Surrounded by war and famine, Scarlett doesn’t have much of a chance to mature, but eventually she thrives. She becomes an aggressive, independent woman who takes charge of her own destiny in a time and place when women were generally submissive, passive, and dependent on men. What makes her iconic is that she goes against the grain, and in the film, she boasts a striking wardrobe and memorable catch-phrases (fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow).
Dorothy (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz): Dorothy is one of the most iconic characters of all time, thanks to the 1929 film based on L. Frank Baum’s books. Let’s look at the movie for this one. Dorothy is a teenager but decidedly girly with her blue frock and braids. She carries her little dog Toto around in a basket. And she’s wearing those sparkling red slippers! Dorothy’s ensemble is one of the most recognizable in popular culture. But despite her girlish appearance, Dorothy displays the kind of heroism that was rare to see in female characters back in those days. She liberates almost everyone she meets, kills the villain (the Wicked Witch of the West), unmasks the corrupt leader (the wizard himself), and in the end, learns that she’s had everything she needs to find her way home all along. Not only does this story feature an iconic character — it’s got adventure, iconic sidekicks, and was way ahead of its time.
Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark): I already mentioned Indie, so let’s look at what makes him so iconic. Like many other iconic characters, he goes against the grain. By day, he’s a handsome, refined professor in a tweed suit and spectacles. The rest of the time, he’s a daring adventurer who risks life and limb for ancient archaeological artifacts. His iconic status gets a lot of help from his banged-up brown fedora and trusty whip as well his trademark wisecracks.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games Trilogy): Everyone else depends on a corrupt government system for sustenance, but Katniss jumps the fence (figuratively and literally) to hunt and gather for her family’s survival. Her iconic status is boosted by the mockingjay symbol she wears and the bow and arrow she carries. Her status as an icon is cemented when she plays the hunger games in a way that fits her moral standards rather than playing it to pacify the government.
Iconic Characters Share Similarities
I once heard that the best stories are either about extraordinary characters in ordinary situations or ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. I’d say that most iconic characters break the mold; they are extraordinary and so are their situations.
We can observe similarities that make these iconic characters memorable. They all deviate from social norms and expectations. Most of them have distinct clothing or accessories and memorable catch-phrases.
We can learn even more about iconic characters by asking questions and further studying them:
- Why is Batman more iconic than, say, Aquaman? Why is Catwoman more iconic than Poison Ivy? Come up with a list of super iconic characters and characters who are well known but not as iconic, yet comparable. Compare and contrast!
- Who is your favorite character (iconic or not) in film or literature? What was it that made the character so compelling to you? Was it the character’s looks? Attitude? Backstory?
- There are popular characters, like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), and then there are truly iconic characters like Batman, Harry Potter, and Mary Poppins. What’s the difference between a popular character and an iconic character? What makes one character popular while another becomes iconic?
Do you prefer larger-than-life, iconic characters or do you like characters that are subtler and more nuanced? Are your favorite stories plot-driven or character-driven? Can you think of any other iconic characters? What other similarities do iconic or popular characters have in common? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
It always seem like there are too many writing ideas or not enough.
When you don’t have time to write, ideas come hurtling out of nowhere. Sometimes they come so fast, you can’t even write them all down. But when you sit down, stretch your fingers, and lean over your keyboard to start typing, nothing happens. Where did all those ideas go?
Chances are, you’re not really out of ideas; you’re just not in the mood to write. Sometimes, that’s okay. Take a break and do something else. Give yourself a day off. But other times, you need to dig your heels in, make those ideas flow, and get busy writing.
Where to Find Story Writing Ideas
Luckily, ideas for writing a story are all around you. As long as you can force yourself to get focused, you should easily be able to overcome a bout of writer’s block.
1. Start with a character. Don’t worry about the story yet. Make a character sketch. Don’t think about whether the character is a hero, a villain, or some secondary character. Start with the character’s name, age, and occupation. Then describe the character’s personality, beliefs, and backstory. See if a story emerges.
2. Turn to your favorite fiction. All your favorite books, movies, and TV shows are laden with ideas for writing a story. That’s not to say you should re-purpose or regurgitate an existing story. Look for details that you can work into your own story. Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a tornado sweeps a girl from Kansas to the fantastical land of Oz. In The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a storm sweeps Morris (and his trusty journal) to a land of books. And yes, the author officially recognized The Wizard of Oz as an influence.
3. Brainstorm with a mapping technique. What happens when you’re in the middle of writing a story and find yourself at a standstill? This recently happened to me: I didn’t know what my character should do next. I fretted about it for a few days, and then I made a list of all the possibilities — all the choices she could make. Then I stepped away from the list. In the hours that followed, one of those ideas stuck with me. That’s the one I went with.
4. Cull ideas from your own life. If all you need is a story starter, look back on your own life. After you graduated high school, did you think about spending a year hiking around Europe but instead got a job and went to college? Is there someone in your past, someone you almost married, but didn’t? A job you were offered but turned down? An invitation you declined? Use the crossroads from your past as a starting point for a story. Bonus tip: you can do this with other people’s lives too. Remember that story your grandma told you about how she won a dance contest when she was a teenager? Start with that!
5. Write outside the story. Forget about story and plot. Just write something, anything. You can start with a scene, a character, or a situation. Maybe what you write will become backstory or maybe it will be the epilogue. Maybe some tangent will carry you into a new story that you want to fully realize.
6. Turn on the news. You can get the news from television, the Internet, or a newspaper. Whatever source you choose, it’s sure to be packed with excellent ideas for writing a story, from a double homicide to a neighborhood do-gooder or a corporate conspiracy, you’re sure to find something that will spark your muse into action.
7. Ask a friend. Whether you’re struggling to start a new story or are stumped with a story you’re working on, you might want to try turning to friends and family for a little direction. Even your non-writer friends will have tons of great ideas to help you out. Bonus tip: friends and family are also great for bouncing ideas off of, especially when you’re working on a complex concept.
8. Freewriting. It’s the all-purpose writing activity. Use it for daily writing practice, brainstorming, problem solving, clearing your head, and getting ideas to flow. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Take out your notebook (or some sheets of paper) and write whatever comes to mind (no matter how wild or crazy) for the allotted time period. Don’t stop, don’t think. When you’re done, see if there’s something in there that could prompt a story.
9. Writing prompts. There are oodles of writing prompts right here at Writing Forward, and if can’t find what you’re looking for here, just do a Google search for “story prompts” or “fiction writing prompts.” You’ll be confronted with more story starters than you’ll know what to do with.
10. Turn to your notebook. If you’ve been diligent about jotting down your best writing ideas, then your notebook should prove to be a valuable resource when you’re feeling uninspired. If you haven’t filled your notebook with ideas for writing a story, then crack it open and use the tips above to start your own idea journal.
What kind of stories do you write? Do you ever have trouble starting a story, or are you more likely to get stuck somewhere in the middle? When you need ideas for writing a story, where do you turn? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.
Wikipedia defines narrative as “any report of connected events, actual or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images.”
Put simply, narrative is story — a sequence of events with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Narrative can be true or fictional. It can be relayed in writing, through photographs, in film, and even in song.
Narrative comprises a huge segment of creative writing, so let’s take a look at narrative in action and examine some key traits of narrative writing.
What is Narrative?
The word narrative is often thrown around by the media, politicians, and commercial enterprises, especially advertisers. These folks understand the power of narrative, which can be used to spread a message, cultivate emotional connections, and control a story.
Consider Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head at age fifteen because she wanted to go to school. Malala survived and went on to become a world renowned advocate for girls’ education, focusing on regions of the world where girls are deprived of education. Malala’s story, or narrative, was instrumental to her ability to step upon the world stage and broadcast her message to the masses, and in 2014 she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Celebrities excel at using narrative to build their brands and cultivate emotional connections with their fans. Watch any music competition show on television and you’ll see the contestants sharing their life stories, often emphasizing the difficulties or conflicts they’ve experienced. It’s been said before: conflict is story. When audiences see these contestants’ struggles, they want to root for them, and a fandom begins to blossom. Throughout a celebrity’s career, the narrative continues, as we watch their highs and lows: they go through relationships, struggle with drugs, get married, have kids, and get divorced. It’s a long, ongoing narrative, and it keeps the fan base tuned in and buying books, movies, music, and magazines.
Politicians also use narrative to forge an emotional connection, but they are often more invested in controlling the story than sharing it. As they reveal their life stories to us, they pick and choose which parts to include, forging a selective narrative that emphasizes their strengths while downplaying their weaknesses.
And we can watch any commercial on television to see narrative being used to sell products and services. We see exhausted but devoted moms and dads looking for better ways to keep their kids healthy and the house clean. There are hipsters searching for the latest and greatest gadget, which will surely make their life funner and easier. Commercials are overrun with people who want to be beautiful and attract a mate. These are narratives that a target demographic can relate to, which is why commercials sell millions of products ranging from food and cleaning supplies to computers and makeup.
Why We Love Narrative
Whether we’re buried in books or ogling at a screen, we love to immerse ourselves in narratives.
Why is that?
An article on Wired titled “The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?” delves into the science behind why we love stories so much:
Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.
Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.
So how do we find meaning in stories? How do we use stories to make sense of our world? Let’s look to fiction and personal narratives for the answers:
Nonfiction (personal) Narratives: Storytelling is used in memoirs and documentaries to convey true stories. When we hear about a devastating natural disaster on the other side of the world, it’s difficult for many people to put it in context. But when we hear firsthand accounts of survivors who describe what it was like to witness and experience the disaster — when we hear their narratives — we can better relate to the events that transpired. We begin to understand what it was like to be there, and our empathy engages.
Fictional Narratives: Fiction, however, is probably the most beloved form of narrative writing and story consumption. Books, movies, television shows, and even video games give us made-up stories. Whether a historical novel that carries us into the past so we can gain insight on what it might have been like to live in a world without technology or a science-fiction film that takes us far into the future where technology has surpassed our wildest imaginations, fictional narratives, like true narratives, give us access to experiences that we’ll never have and allow us to gain better understanding of the world we live in, and in some cases, the world we might someday live in.
Whether we write prose or scripts, narrative writing is a useful tool for sharing our thoughts, experiences, and ideas with others. We can use narrative to pose questions, like What will happen when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than humans? What was it like to be aboard the Titanic? What is it like to climb Mount Everest?
There are several key elements that we find in successful narrative writing:
- Characters: They can be made-up characters or real people. Audiences develop relationships with characters; it is through this bond that we connect with stories.
- Conflict: All the best narratives are built around a core conflict or story question. We stay tuned in because we want see how the conflict gets resolved. We want to find out the answer to the questions that the story poses.
- Plot: Plot is action and dialogue, the rising and falling of tension, the arc of a story. Plot is what happens. We engage intellectually with a narrative’s plot.
- Setting: The backdrop of a narrative sets the stage and helps the audience enter a story world. Setting is crucial, even if it’s minimal.
- Point of view: Who’s telling the story? Who’s it about? Who does the camera follow? The narrative point-of-view is the point of connection between a story and its audience.
As you pursue narrative writing, ask whether you’re including these essential elements and whether they’re woven into the narrative seamlessly.
Are you a storyteller? How do you use narrative writing? Do you aim to educate and inform, share your thoughts and ideas, or entertain audiences? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing narrative!
There are a million ways to approach writing a novel. You can outline your plot. You can create a series of scenes and use note cards to organize them. You can use a tried and proven formula from any number of plotting resources. Or you can create a couple of interesting characters and just start writing.
In 1999 Chris Baty rounded up twenty-one friends and together they set sail on a journey like no other. With no map and no compass, they each set out to write a novel in just one month.
Some of the crew got lost at sea. Others survived the voyage and reached dry land with scrappy but completed novels in hand.
The result? One of the most celebrated writing events in the world: NaNoWriMo.
“That [we] were undertalented goofballs who had no business flailing around at the serious endeavor of novel writing was pretty clear. We hadn’t taken any creative writing courses in college, or read any how-to books on story or craft. And our combined post-elementary-school fiction output would have fit comfortably on a Post-it Note.” — Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
Despite their lack of talent and experience, and despite the fact that more than half of the original crew went overboard, Chris Baty and his friends had unlocked one of the secrets of novel writing, and with that treasure in hand, Chris went on to found one of the most beloved and exciting writing events in the world.
National Novel Writing Month
Today, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. In 2007, the event’s ninth year, over 100,000 participants signed up from all around the world, and over 15,000 reported that they finished their novels. By 2010, over 200,000 people were participating, and the numbers continue to grow.
National Novel Writing Month has been expanded with Camp NaNoWriMo, which is basically NaNoWriMo in months other than November.
Some NaNos (that’s what participants are called) have even gotten book deals and published novels they wrote for NaNoWriMo. Others found that writing a book wasn’t as hard as they thought and went on to pursue a career in writing. A few discovered that writing a novel wasn’t the dream they thought it was and moved on to other endeavors.
But every person who signed up and went through NaNoWriMo came away with a valuable experience and new wisdom about what it means to write a novel.
Writing Resources Can Be Fast, Fun, and Functional
I read No Plot? No Problem! in one night. It only took a couple of hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The book is straightforward and easy to read, but it’s also packed with humor. I found myself laughing out loud as I made my way through the chapters. More importantly, the book proved to be a useful addition to my ever-growing collection of writing resources.
Chris takes you through his own journey to becoming a novelist and then dives into the lessons he’s learned and techniques he’s discovered. Much of his advice centers around plot development (which is no surprise, considering the book’s title), and I was ecstatic since plot was the one wall I kept crashing into every time I attempted to write a novel. I had plenty of characters, settings, and scenes. But no plot.
Chris Baty solved that problem for me. Oh sure, he touches on character creation, finding time to write, and why you shouldn’t EVER revise while you’re still plowing through your first draft. But more importantly, Chris revealed ideas for tackling plot that I’d never before considered (or even heard about).
A couple of weeks after I read the book, I diligently signed up for NaNoWriMo (2008) and hopped aboard my own ship. The voyage was sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky, but in the end, I reached the far shores as a novelist. And while I’m the one who wrote that novel, I have to thank Chris Baty not only for founding the event that led me to write my first novel in just thirty days, but also for his funny, insightful, and informative book on novel writing and plotting.
Believe it or not, there is a plot lurking around somewhere inside that muddled imagination of yours. There are also characters, scenes, themes, and a whole lot more. No Plot? No Problem! will help you dig through the muck and unearth the novel that’s waiting to be written.
Get Your Novel Off the Ground
Whether you plan on participating in NaNoWriMo this year or if you just want to write a novel at your own pace, this is one of the best writing resources for starting and finishing your novel. My own experience with this book is proof that by changing the way you approach novel writing, you can also change the outcome and finally succeed. Next time you have an idea for a novel or start a novel project, you’ll actually finish it!
Get your copy of No Plot? No Problem! today.
Good fiction is comprised of many parts: plot, characters, setting, scenes, and dialogue. But we rarely talk about theme, even though it’s critical to good storytelling.
There’s no clear and easy way to define theme. It has been called the worldview, philosophy, message, moral, and lesson within a story. However, these labels, taken alone or together, don’t quite explain theme in fiction.
We can think of a theme as an underlying principle or concept. It’s usually universal in nature. Some common themes include redemption, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, greed, justice, oppression, revenge, and love.
Themes can be philosophical; they can ask questions or pit two ideas against each other: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, why are we here and what happens when we die?
Themes in Storytelling
You need look no further than some of your favorite stories to explore and identify themes. Keep in mind that most stories have multiple themes. For example, in Harry Potter, I would say the most significant themes are good vs. evil and the power of love. However, there are also themes of friendship, sacrifice, and redemption. One theme might stretch across an entire series while other themes appear at the novel or chapter level.
And themes are not unique to fictional literature. Any form of storytelling can (and should) contain thematic elements, including movies, television shows, songs, and poetry. Themes will also be present in nonfiction, and in some cases themes will drive a work of nonfiction, whether it is a memoir or documentary. For example, a documentary about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will focus on the theme of justice in the context of a woman’s right to vote. Such a documentary won’t look closely at their personal lives but will focus on their founding of the women’s suffrage movement, keeping to the theme.
Today’s fiction writing exercises encourage you to explore themes by identifying them in some of your favorite stories.
Fiction Writing Exercises: Exploring and Developing Theme
Once you understand theme and have learned to identify it, you can start bringing it into your own work. There’s a good chance that themes will manifest even if you don’t put any special effort into theme development. Themes are so closely tied to human nature that it’s almost impossible to tell a story without a theme of some kind. But if you approach theme with intent (even vague intent), your work might have greater depth and meaning.
Exercise 1: Study in Themes
If you and I both watch the film Titanic, we might identify different themes in the film. I might identify wealth disparity or materialism as a theme, and you might say liberty is a theme. In this case, we’d both be right. For this exercise, you will choose one of your favorite stories and identify its themes.
- Choose a favorite book, movie, or television show (for a TV show, you should just choose one episode). Make a list of all the themes you can identify in the story. Try to find three to five themes. Go over your list a few times to make sure you’re identifying themes (big, sweeping concepts) rather than conflicts or plot twists.
- Next, determine one key theme that is woven through the entire story. You might find there are two or three major themes. List them all but choose just one to explore in the next step.
- Finally, explain how the storyteller presented this theme through plot, character, and scenes. Make a list of events and situations from the story that embody the theme.
As an alternative, choose one of your completed poems, stories, or essays. The exercise will work better with a story, but poetry and essays will do. Now go through the steps above to list all the themes in your piece, identify the main theme(s), and examine how you executed the themes. If you’re already working on a story, try to identify a few themes that are appearing in your work and elaborate on them. Look for ways to integrate the theme with your plot, and ask how your main conflict can be connected with a primary theme.
Exercise 2: Starting from Theme
Choose three themes and for each, sketch ideas for how you could make the theme manifest through character, plot, or scenes. Here’s an example using revenge as a theme: A thieving woman is fired because a co-worker reported her for stealing. Instead of accepting responsibility, she blames the co-worker and frames him so he gets fired too, even though he is innocent.
Exercise 3: Theme Master
Now that you’ve learned how to identify themes and integrate theme in your own work, make a master list of themes that can be used in storytelling. Whenever you come across an interesting theme, add it to the list. You can refer back to your list whenever you need a theme for one of your writing projects.
A Few Final Tips for Bringing Themes into Your Writing
Theme is not cut and dry, and it shouldn’t be overly obvious. If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to show your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.
Since themes can contain messages and morals, make a conscious effort not to force your personal beliefs and values onto your readers. There’s a difference between making a statement and being preachy. Most readers don’t like novels that preach at them. In fact, some themes work best when they work as questions and the reader gets to experience contrary viewpoints. For example, we all accept that stealing is wrong, but we feel differently about it when it’s done by a small child who is starving.
Finally, have fun with theme. You can go through your outline and make notes about where themes are addressed. Or you can look for opportunities in your story where theme could be expanded. You can do these exercises over and over for various stories until you get a good handle on theme, and then you can use theme to enrich your own writing. You might also use the Internet to look for other people’s ideas about theme for any given story.
Let’s Talk About Themes
How do you approach themes in storytelling? Do you purposefully develop themes, or do you let them happen naturally? Did you find today’s fiction writing exercises helpful in understanding and exploring themes? Got any theme-related resources or ideas to share? Leave a comment!
And keep writing.
Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.