Today’s post is an excerpt from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter seven: “Action and Dialogue.” Enjoy!
Action and dialogue are the wheels that carry a story forward. The easiest way to imagine action and dialogue in written narrative is to think of a movie. When characters onscreen do things, that’s action. When they talk, that’s dialogue. Most of a story’s momentum is contained in action and dialogue.
You may have heard the old writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” It’s one of those sayings that becomes blatantly obvious once you get it. Readers want to see what’s happening. Characters walk and talk. They kick and punch and scratch. They cry and laugh, run and hide. They do things and say things. That’s how story happens: through action and dialogue. Read More
Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter six: “Narrative Point of View.” Enjoy!
The terms story and narrative can be used interchangeably, meaning a sequence of events, real or fictional, that are conveyed through any medium ranging from prose to film. However, when we talk about narrative, we’re often referring to the structural nature or presentation of a story, the manner in which it’s told. Read More
Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter five: “Narrative Style, Voice, and Tone.” Enjoy!
Literary style is the aesthetic quality of a work of literature—the distinct voice that makes each author unique. It’s the way we string words together, the rhythm of our prose, the catchphrases that pepper our language.
Literary style includes every element of writing in which an author can make stylistic choices from syntax and grammar to character and plot development. Read More
Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter four: “Theme.” Enjoy!
What is the Theme of a Story?
Theme is one of the most difficult story elements to understand. Often confused with plot, theme is actually a worldview, philosophy, message, moral, ethical question, or lesson. However, these labels, taken alone or together, don’t quite explain theme in fiction. Read More
Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter three: “Setting.” Enjoy!
Setting may not seem as critical to a story as character or plot, yet it is a core element of storytelling and for good reason. The setting of a story helps us understand where and when it takes place, which gives the story context. If the audience doesn’t have a sense of setting, they’ll feel lost and confused (sometimes that might be the author’s intent).
The Setting of a Story
A setting can be big or small. It can be a made-up world—a massive galaxy with multiple star systems and inhabited planets—or it can be a single room—four walls and a ceiling. Read More
Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter two: “Plot.” Enjoy!
What is a Plot?
A plot is a sequence of related events in a story.
Plot usually centers around the protagonist’s primary goal or challenge, the central story problem. Each event in the story pushes the protagonist toward a climax where they either succeed or fail to resolve the story problem. In a mystery, the challenge might be to solve a crime. In a romance, the goal is to find true love. Read More
Today’s post is an excerpt from the book What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing. This is from chapter one, “Characters.” Enjoy!
We see ourselves in a story’s characters. We see people we know—people we love, people we hate, people we fear, and people we want to emulate.
We love characters, loathe them, judge them, take their sides, or stand in opposition to them. We cheer them on and boo them. We celebrate them, and sometimes we mourn them. We form relationships with them, even though they’re just figments of some storyteller’s imagination.
Characters are the heart and soul of a story. We care about a story only to the extent that we care about its characters. In order for us to connect with characters, they need to do more than move the plot forward. Characters require depth and complexity. Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? What’s standing in their way? Realistic characters come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They’re not just names on a page; they have pasts and personalities, and each one is unique. Read More
Writing a novel is no small task. In fact, it’s a momentous task. Some writers spend years just eking out a first draft, followed by years of revisions. And that’s before they even think about the grueling publishing process.
In other words, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your novel. So you better love it. No, wait — loving it is not enough. You have to be in love with it. You have to be obsessed with it.
And obsessions cannot be forced. It’s normal to lose interest when you’re on your tenth revision, but if you’re losing interest in your plot or characters while writing your first or second draft, the problem may not be you or your novel. The problem may be that you tried to commit to something you didn’t love. That’s never a good idea.
For many writers, the trick to sticking with a novel is actually quite simple: find an idea that grips you.
Get in Touch with Your Passions
Before you chase every crazy idea into the ground, stop and take a breath. Think about what moves you: books you couldn’t put down, movies you’ve watched dozens of times, TV shows you couldn’t stop talking about, and songs you played so many times, you’re sure they have bonded with your DNA.
By identifying your passions, you can figure out what makes you tick, and that’s a great start to your quest for novel writing ideas that you can really sink your teeth into.
All your past and present obsessions hold the clues to your future obsession with your own novel. Pay close attention to your preferences for genre, theme, setting, style, character archetypes and above all — emotional sensibility. Make lists of what you love about your favorite stories and soon, you’ll see the shape of your own novel start to emerge.
Generate and Gather Plenty of Novel Writing Ideas
Once you’ve made some general decisions about the novel you’re going to write, it’s time to start generating specific ideas.
Of course, the best novel writing ideas come out of nowhere. You’re on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor and suddenly that big magic bulb over your head lights up. Or maybe you have so many ideas, you don’t know where to start. It’s even possible that you’re aching to write a novel but are fresh out of ideas. Your mind feels like a gaping void.
Actually, story ideas are everywhere. The trick is to collect a variety of ideas, and let them stew while you decide which one is worth the effort. Here are some quick tips for generating ideas:
- Hit the bookstore or library and jot down some of your favorite plot synopses. Then, rework the details to take these old plots and turn them into new ideas. Try combining different elements from your favorite stories. And use movie synopses too!
- Load up on fiction writing prompts and develop each prompt into a short (one-paragraph) summary for a story.
- Harvest some creative writing ideas from the news.
Create a stash file for your ideas. It can be a folder on your computer or a box you fill with 3×5 note cards. You can also write all these ideas in a notebook. Just make sure you keep them together so you can easily go through them.
Let Your Novel Writing Ideas Marinate
Some ideas are so enticing, you can’t wait to get started. If you’re writing a poem or a piece of flash fiction, then have at it. If things don’t work out, you’ll lose a few hours or maybe a few weeks. But imagine investing years in a novel only to realize your heart’s not in it. Try to avoid doing that by letting ideas sit for a while before you dive into them.
The best ideas rise to the top. These are not necessarily the best-selling ideas or the most original ideas. They’re the ideas that are best for you. Those are the ones that will haunt you, keep you up at night, and provoke perpetual daydreams.
These are the ones worth experimenting with.
Experiment to See Which Novel Writing Ideas Can Fly
There’s a reason people test drive cars and lie around on the beds in mattress shops. When you make a big investment, you want to feel right about it. You can’t know how a car will drive until you actually drive it. And you can’t know how a bed will feel until you relax on it for a while. And you definitely can’t know what your relationship with your novel will be like until you experiment with it.
In truth, the experimental phase is when you start writing the novel — just like the test drive is when you start driving the car. But you haven’t committed yet. You’re still open to the idea that this is not for you. This might seem like I’m nitpicking over semantics, but you’ll find that discarding partially written novels wears on you after a while. If you play around with your story with the understanding that you’re experimenting, and if things don’t work out, you can always walk away without feeling guilty or like you gave up. Go back to your idea stash, and start tooling around with the next one.
How do you experiment with novel writing? I’m so glad you asked. There’s a lot you can do. Start by brainstorming. Sketch a few characters. Poke around and see what kind of research this novel might require. Draft a few scenes. Write an outline. If you keep going through these motions and can’t shake your excitement, then you are finally . . .
Writing Your Novel
At this point, you’ve already started writing your novel. But suddenly, you’re not just writing a novel. You’re deeply, passionately, obsessively writing your novel. If a couple of weeks go by and you haven’t had time to write, you miss your characters. When you get stuck on a scene, you simply work on some other part of the story because you’re so obsessed. You have to fight the urge to tell everyone about how the story is coming along. Your trusted buddy, whom you bounce ideas off of, is starting to think you’re taking it all too seriously. “Maybe you should watch some television a couple nights a week,” he says, looking concerned.
This is a story that’s captured your full attention. And that’s a good sign that it will capture the attention of readers.
Many (or most) of your novel writing ideas might end up in the trash or in a bottom drawer. But every one of them will be worth it when all of that idea generating, planning, and experimenting finally pays off. Every idea that doesn’t work will pave the path to the idea that will set you on fire.
So no matter what, no matter how many ideas come and go, no matter how many drafts you discard, never give up. Just keep writing!
Today I’m excited to share a sneak peek at my forthcoming book on storytelling. It’s the first book in the Storyteller’s Toolbox series, and it’s titled What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing.
This excerpt is from the introduction; it talks about the magic of story and what you can expect from the book. Enjoy!
What’s the Story?
What’s a story? Is it character? Plot? Conflict? Change? Why do some stories fall flat with audiences while others sweep the globe, captivating people in every corner of the world?
Humans throughout history have used stories for a variety of purposes. Stories entertain us, taking our minds off the rigors of daily life. But stories do more than entertain. They comfort us with warmth and joy; they frighten us with horror and terror; they woo us with romance and dazzle us with adventure. They make us laugh when we’re sad or make us cry when we’re happy. Whether true or made-up, stories help us feel connected to our fellow humans. They keep us company when we’re lonely. They foster empathy by showing us what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They challenge our world views with fresh perspectives that force us to think in new ways.
We use storytelling, both as speakers and as listeners, to understand ourselves, each other, and the world we live in. And rarely do we acknowledge the power that stories hold over us. Stories can change people, cultures, even the world. We love stories. We celebrate stories. We need stories.
People will stay up all night reading a page-turner. They’ll neglect their responsibilities to marathon-watch a television series. They will stand in line—they will even sleep on the street—to see their favorite movies. Entire subcultures have been built around stories—just ask the fans who attend Comic-Con every year, fans who shell out hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to gather with fellow story lovers and honor their favorite films, television shows, books, video games, and comics, many of them costumed as their favorite characters. That’s dedication to story, and it’s a testament to the power of storytelling.
What to Expect from the Book
Writing stories comes easily to the lucky few, but for most writers, it’s hard work that requires an elaborate set of skills. After all, stories are comprised of many moving parts: characters, plots, settings, and themes are the core elements of stories. But there’s also dialogue, action, description, and exposition, as well as a host of literary devices and storytelling techniques that we can use. Not to mention structure, point of view, tense, and voice. Understanding each of these elements and how they function together within a story empowers us to be better storytellers.
To master these building blocks of stories, we need to develop a vocabulary and aptitude for the many components that comprise stories.
When I first got serious about writing fiction, I searched bookstores for a basic book on storytelling. I wanted a simple primer that would help me learn and master the various components of a story, especially terms I needed to know as a storyteller. I’d hear authors talk about things like deus ex machina or the turning point at the end of act one. One expert would say, “Story is conflict.” Another would say, “Story is character.” Every time I thought I had a handle on all the elements of storytelling, I’d come across some new term that I’d never heard before, or I’d be reminded of a concept that I’d forgotten about.
I found books on character creation or plot development and even more on structure and formulas. There were plenty on writing in genre. I even found some that promised to show me how to write a story—step-by-step instructions for producing a novel. But I never did find a book that simply gathered all the elements of story in one place, a book that said, “Here are your tools and materials. Now go build something.”
After years of studying stories, writing stories, coaching fellow storytellers, and editing a range of written works, I finally decided to write that book—a primer for fiction writers who want to master the building blocks of storytelling.
What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Writing Fiction is designed to provide you with a basic but comprehensive understanding of those building blocks—the elements that work together to form a story. Using a range of stories from books, films, and television as examples, we’ll examine the components of good storytelling and explore how they fit together.
My hope is that you will come away with a broader understanding of stories, what they are made of, and how they are developed. And I hope you gain strategies that will help you tell the best story possible while exploring your own creativity and developing a storytelling process that works best for you. But most importantly, I hope this book will inspire you and motivate you to finish the stories you’ve started, begin exciting new stories, and get your stories in front of readers.
What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Writing Fiction will be available in a few weeks. To find out when new books on the craft of writing are released and to get creative writing tips and ideas delivered to your email every week, subscribe to our weekly digest.
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.