Elvis was the king of rock and roll. Michael Jackson was the king of pop. And Stephen King is the king of horror.
He’s one of the most successful authors in the world, the recipient of numerous honorable awards, and certainly one of the wealthiest and most recognizable writers alive.
While I’m not crazy about horror stories, I do appreciate the creativity and artistic merit that goes into writing good horror fiction. Maybe the fact that I’m bonkers over sci-fi and fantasy will redeem me. Maybe Stephen King will forgive me. Read More
Many of the writing exercises I had done over the years were fun or interesting, but few of them imparted practical writing skills. I wanted to develop exercises that would convey constructive writing techniques that writers could apply to real-world writing projects.
I also wanted these exercises to provide hours and hours of creative writing practice, because practice is the only way to develop mastery of any craft.
Check Out What People Are Saying About 101 Creative Writing Exercises
Some academics argue that poetry is an intellectual pursuit, but that’s only partially true. Poetry is also artistic and emotional. Anyone can enjoy poetry, but studying it closely will help you better appreciate its nuances.
Learning various poetry writing techniques and literary devices (which are often taught in the context of poetry) can bring your writing to a more sophisticated level.
Whether you write fiction, memoirs, or blog posts, reading and writing poetry will equip you with language skills that make your writing stronger, more vivid, and more compelling. Read More
This is one of my favorite writing resources of all time. It is subtitled “An Introduction to Poetry,” but it’s full of concepts that can benefit any form of writing.
Whether you write fiction, articles, essays, or blog posts, Perrine’s Sound and Sense will enhance the way you perceive and use language to communicate an idea, a scene, or information.
After all, language is a writer’s medium. How do we choose words and string them together? What makes one sentence so vivid while another is practically impossible to visualize? How can we play with the meaning of words in a way that is meaningful? How do we craft prose that is musical?
These, of course, are questions that poetry actively asks and explores. Storytellers spend a lot of time on plot and character. Article writers spend a lot of time on research. Bloggers spend a lot of time under the hood. Poets live and breathe in language.
And language — or rather, a writer’s use of it — is what elevates a piece of ordinary prose to something regal. Through a light study of poetry, you will expand your vocabulary, learn simple techniques to make images out of words, and understand the deeper secrets of language — secrets that make your writing extraordinary.
Perrine’s Sound and Sense
This book is a delightful and comprehensive romp through the intricacies of poetry and language. It’s a perfect introduction to poetry because it’s liberally populated with fantastic poems that will satisfy a range of personal tastes and preferences, making it a veritable anthology that teaches concepts alongside each poem (or that uses poems to beautifully illustrate and illuminate various concepts).
Sound and Sense starts with the basics. The first two chapters are respectively titled “What is Poetry?” and “Reading a Poem.” If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss was about poetry and why so many successful writers advocate poetry, these chapters will show you the light, both through their discussion of poetry and presentation of poems.
Later chapters deal with increasingly complex concepts. These concepts are taught in the context of how they are applied to poetry but they are applicable to any kind of writing. The chapter on “Denotation and Connotation” explains how we choose words based on their meaning, particularly when we can choose between two (or more) words with the same meaning:
The words childlike and childish both mean “characteristic of a child,” but childlike suggests meekness, innocence, and wide-eyed wonder, while childish suggests pettiness, willfulness, and temper tantrums. (p. 41)
We’ve all heard that imagery is critical to our writing, but many writers don’t quite understand what show, don’t tell actually means. Master writers refer to similes, metaphors, symbols, and allegories, all effective literary devices in any form. Sound and Sense helps you understand the importance of these devices, shows you how to identify them in a piece of writing, and therefore gives you the knowledge you need to apply those devices in your own work.
The insight doesn’t stop with meaning and literary devices. The book goes on to explore tone and dedicates a significant portion of its final chapters to musicality with chapters such as “Musical Devices,” “Rhythm and Meter,” and “Sound and Meaning.”
Everything that we do naturally and gracefully we do rhythmically. There is rhythm in the way we walk, the way we swim, the way we ride a horse, the way we swing a golf club or a baseball bat. So native is rhythm to us that we read it, when we can, into the mechanical world around us. Our clocks go tick-tick-tick but we hear tick-tock, tick-tock. (p. 187)
So if you’ve ever wondered how to make your writing sing and dance, if you’ve ever gotten a phrase stuck in your head and wondered what made it so catchy and then wondered how you could craft writing that is just as memorable, this book is for you.
Sound and Sense features tons of wonderful poems by some of the best known and loved poets of all time, including Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Andrew Marvell, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Sexton, Shakespeare, and far too many others to list here.
And it’s all capped off with a handy glossary and comprehensive index, which makes revisiting its contents quick and easy. I’m telling you, this is a resourceful little book!
This gem of a book doubles as an anthology of poetry and is useful for both readers and writers of poetry. But writers of all forms will reap great benefits by investing in this book.
Mostly used as a college textbook, it’s loaded with treasures packed in a dense landscape of writing concepts, some of which are practical and others that are whimsical, plus a bunch of writing concepts that are just plain magical.
Sound and Sense will transform the way you think about writing and will improve your writing at the levels of words and sentences, sounds and phrases. Want to make readers hungry? Want to make them think and feel and swoon and dance? Then get this book, because it shows you how to do just that.
Got any writing resources that you’d like to recommend? Do you find that studying one form helps you improve another? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment. And keep on writing!
I know some writers are diligent about keeping their journals pristine. The pages are crisp, the lines straight and legible, and every word is thoughtfully selected. The theme is consistent — a dream journal, an idea journal, a diary. It’s an orderly affair done up in a tidy fashion. And that works for some people.
But it doesn’t work for me.
If I’m going to be creative — if I’m going to let my creativity flow — then I need to let things get messy. I need to dig my toes in the mud, bury my fingers in the clay, and splash paint across the walls. I can’t be confined by order or logic. I need to write sideways and upside down. I need to doodle. Jot down song lyrics. Make smudges. I need to be free.
And I’m not the only one.
Keri Smith created Wreck This Journal with the same understanding that when we allow ourselves freedom to make a mess, we also free ourselves to be as creative as possible, unchaining hidden ideas that refuse to come out for fear that they’ll be destroyed by our linear and conventional thinking:
By forcing ourselves to wreck it on purpose, the “journal as an object” loses its preciousness, and allows us the feeling of completion.
Wreck This Journal is a great way to get your creativity out of the box. As you work your way through the journal, you actually wreck it. You’ll cut, tear, and generally thrash this book (you’ll even be asked to tie it to a string and drag it around on the ground). You start letting go of constraints, allowing yourself to make mistakes, create poorly crafted prose, or senseless art (because you’re going to wreck it), and this gives your creativity the courage it needs to take risks.
25 Ways to Journal
I’m not going to ask you to wreck your journal, but if you think it might open your creative floodgates, I say go for it. When we want to be more creative, we have to be willing to try anything. What I am going to do is give you a list of ways that you can use your journal. You’ll find that if you open your journal to more possibilities for material, media, and subject matter, you’ll start to build interesting connections. And that is one sure path to better writing!
Since Writing Forward’s inception, many readers have left comments sharing brilliant ways that they use their journals. Here are some of the ideas they’ve shared mixed in with some of my own:
- Forget about lines. Turn your journal sideways or upside down. Write in the margins or on the spine. Write in a spiral. Draw a shape and fill it with words. This was one of the first creativity techniques I ever used and it really got the ball rolling.
- Ever come across mind-blowing imagery in a magazine or online? Print it out, cut it out, and paste in in your journal for inspiration.
- Write with colored pens, crayons, or Sharpies.
- Paulo Campos commented about how he uses his journal: “A habit I learned while reading about Virginia Woolf: she regularly copied passages she liked from books she was reading into notebooks.” Brad Vertrees also keeps a reading journal where he write his thoughts about the current book he’s reading. And Deb keeps a log of books she’s read in her journal.
- Write down words. Not sentences — just words — words you like, words that evoke intense emotions or strong imagery or words that simply resonate. Randomly fill the blank spaces in your journal with these words. Write them big, write them small, and write them in all different colors!
- Make lists of names and places (make up some place names!). List foods, song titles, and sensations. List nouns or list adjectives. Or simply list random, short thoughts that pop into your head.
- Doodle, doodle, doodle, and draw. Or try writing and sketching in your journal with chalk or charcoal. See what happens when you smudge and smear your words. Maybe you’ll make some pictures or abstract art!
- Use stream of consciousness, also known as freewriting. Rebecca Reid shared her experience: “I kept a journal for about 10 years: it was combination train of thought and ‘diary’ of my day. I think a train of thought journal would be nice now too.”
- Dreams are a popular source of inspiration, and ideal for journal writing. You can get story ideas, imagery, and bizarre notions from your night visions. Write down your most interesting dreams in your journals. When I mentioned dream journals in another post, Trisha from Marketing Journeys responded, “Journaling my dreams has been on my list for quite a while – you’ve given me a jumpstart and the inspiration to get going!”
- Use journal writing to engage in dialogue with people who are inaccessible. Write letters or short notes to people you’ve lost touch with, people you’ve broken up with, and people who have passed away. Chat with your characters. Converse with your heroes (dead or alive).
- Deep Friar told us that his mom (who is very wise) suggested a “Happy Compartment” journal: “When something nice happens, you put it in your ‘Happy Compartment.’ Then, whenever you feel bad, you just open up your Happy Compartment, and relive the happy time and make yourself feel better.”
- Monika Mundell mentioned in a comment that she keeps gratitude and travel journals. She added, “Come to think about it though, I do have a lovely creative journal from years ago. I used to draw, stick pictures in there and sketch. Loved that thing.”
All-Purpose Journal Writers
As I searched through the comments across this site to find out what readers had shared about their journal writing habits, I discovered that lots of writers already use all-purpose journal writing creatively and freely:
- Karen Swim has journals “for life, writing, dreams, ideas, notes, and prayers.” She mentioned all these journals more than once while visiting Writing Forward!
- T. Sterling Watson kept a journal that “contained funny quotes I overheard, random ideas for future poems or scripts, doodles, and general thoughts.”
- Michele Tune, who writes the cyber highway, commented, “I draw, write poetry, document the day’s events, or whatever I feel like putting on paper. I’ve written in pretty journals, on scratches of paper that I’ve tucked into journals…”
- Milena uses her journal to “paste images, cartoons, photos, write stuff, even jot down grocery lists (these can be interesting to come back to sometimes), impressions of any sort or anything that comes to mind and which I fear forgetting.”
That’s what I’m talking about!
Of journal writing, Amy Derby once commented, “Those paper journals of mine are priceless.”
Treasure your journals! Let them them get wrecked up and messed up.
And keep writing.
Do you have any fun, unusual, messy, or liberating journal writing tips to share? Interested in trying any of the ones listed here? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment.
Journal Writing Resources:
Part memoir, filled with poetry exercises and activities, and sprinkled with poems, Poemcrazy is sure to inspire anyone who wants to delve deeper into the art of writing poetry and the lifestyle of a poet.
Poemcrazy is a delicious read with bite-sized chapters that give you a creative boost and a flash of inspiration before any poetry writing session.
The combination of Wooldridge’s stories about her life as a poet, her suggestions for poetry practice, and the poems she shares (written by herself and others) combine brilliantly for a fun and engaging yet practical read.
Live, Practice, Poetry
It’s not often that we get a glimpse inside the life of a poet. Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge is a poet and teacher who provides writing and creativity workshops around the U.S. In Poemcrazy, she shows us how her life and her poetry are intertwined, each feeding the other. From quiet moments walking alongside a creek to monumental events, such as the impending loss of a parent, we see how a poet finds inspiration, words, and a voice.
Each chapter shares a quick scene or story from Susan’s life followed by some suggestions for poetry practice. One of my favorite practices from the book was collecting interesting words and writing them on “word tickets.” You can stash your word tickets in a container or leave them around the house for random inspiration. Your collection of words form a wordpool, a body of words that you can dip into whenever you want. This is a practice that can truly expand your vocabulary, which is essential for poets. She also offers tons of prompts and other ideas that will both inspire your poetry and refine it.
There are poems and excerpts throughout the book. Some of these are Susan’s own poems, but she also shares the work of well-known poets and examples from pieces her students wrote during workshops. All of these serve as examples that show how Susan’s experiences, ideas, and exercises can be put into practice.
Writers who are diligent about studying the craft often immerse themselves in books that focus on writing tools and techniques. Sometimes we forget to look at authors who have gone before us by reading memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. These works can provide valuable insight into what it means to be a writer. Poemcrazy shows us what it means to be a poet.
This is a book I recommend to anyone who’s interested in exploring poetry or refining their language skills. It’s fun, inspiring, informative, and will breath fresh life into your poetry and writing practices.
If you read only one book on storytelling, make it The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books on writing fiction. Many have been helpful, but some have left me feeling disappointed, especially those that promise their methods will result in a successful story or make grand claims that their way is the only correct way to write a story. I’ve seen these claims made in books on the writing process and in books on story structure.
The Writer’s Journey makes no such claims, but it does provide us with a story structure that was discovered, not created. It’s based on universal patterns in storytelling that are flexible yet proven. As you read through it, you’ll immediately recognize these patterns in almost every story you’ve read or watched.
A Little History
“The pattern of the Hero’s Journey is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time. It is as infinitely varied as the human race itself and yet its basic form remains constant.” — Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who discovered recurrent patterns in myths, legends, and folklore. These patterns occurred in stories throughout human history and all around the globe. He recorded these observations in a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is the book that gave us the Monomyth, which is more commonly known as the Hero’s Journey.
Although it was brilliant, Campbell’s work was dense, highly academic, and spent a lot of time on the connection between psychology and mythology (as well as stories from scripture and religious traditions). It identified common patterns in storytelling, but it focused on myths, legends, and folklore, leaving out other genres. It was also rooted deep in the past, because it was based mostly on ancient tales. Human culture has since evolved, and so has storytelling.
Enter Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood script analyst who studied Campbell’s work and produced a seven-page memo for his peers to help them improve the stories in the films they were making. Vogler had reworked Campbell’s discoveries into a simple model for storytellers — a model that was applicable to all stories, not just myths and ancient legends. The memo became legendary in the storytelling world and was eventually expanded into a book called The Writer’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey
“The self-conscious, heavy-handed use of this model can be boring and predictable. But if writers absorb its ideas and re-create them with fresh insights and surprising combinations, they can make amazing new forms and original designs from the ancient, immutable parts.” — Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
You’ve probably heard of the Hero’s Journey. There are hundreds of articles, videos, and blog posts about it all over the Internet. Many authors have created their own variations. I’ve studied many incarnations of the Hero’s Journey over the years, but nothing is as clear or useful as the book itself.
The Hero’s Journey is a structure for storytelling — a form, not a formula. It was observed, not invented, so it already existed and had a proven track record long before Campbell unearthed it or Vogler refined it. The pattern can be observed in stories such as The Wizard of Oz, which was created long before Campbell or Vogler came along.
The Hero’s Journey can be used to write stories, troubleshoot stories, or analyze and study stories. It also provides us with language for discussing common elements in stories, like the Herald, the Mentor, or the Call to Adventure.
I’ll provide a brief overview of the Hero’s Journey, but you’ll only get a fraction of what it’s all about if you don’t read Vogler’s book, which, by the way, is a fun and delightful read.
“The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation.” — Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey starts with eight archetypes. They are often characters, but archetypes are better viewed as functions or energies in a story:
- Hero: Protagonist who undergoes a meaningful transformation through the story.
- Herald: Signals that an adventure (or change) is imminent.
- Mentor: Teacher and guide.
- Threshold Guardian: Blocks a threshold that the Hero must pass.
- Shadow: The villain and other characters that stand in the Hero’s way; often they embody the Hero’s negative or undesirable traits.
- Shapeshifter: A character or entity whose motives or intentions are unclear.
- Trickster: Comic relief; tricksters are often catalysts for change.
- Allies: The Hero’s friends and helpers.
Each of these archetypes has a very specific job to do in a story. Some characters may perform the functions of multiple archetypes, and some archetypal roles may fulfilled by events or objects (such as when a book provides the function of a mentor).
Stages of the Journey
“The model only shows the most likely place for an event to occur.” — Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey then delves into twelve stages of a story. This is not an outline or formula. The stages can occur out of order, and they can overlap one another. This is a very loose guide that we can use to assess a story’s structure and identify its core beats:
NOTICE: This section includes spoilers for The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, Harry Potter, and Titanic.
1. Ordinary World: We see the Hero’s world before the story really kicks in. In The Wizard of Oz, this is Dorothy in the gray world of her family’s Kansas farm.
2. Call to Adventure: Something (usually a Herald) signals that change is afoot. A classic example is the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.
3. Refusal of the Call: The Hero refuses to answer the call to adventure, often citing excuses. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker insists he can’t accompany Obi-Wan Kenobi because he must stay and help his uncle on the farm.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: The Hero encounters a Mentor, who will provide guidance and bestow necessary tools and skills. In Harry Potter, Hagrid (and many other characters) provide Harry and his friends with guidance and magical objects that will be essential in overcoming the series of challenges they will face.
5. Crossing the First Threshold: The Hero passes the first Threshold, leaving the Ordinary World and entering the Special World of the story. In the film Titanic, Rose boards the ship with her mother and fiance. This is an example without a Threshold Guardian, but often the Hero must pass a test and get past a guard to cross the threshold into the Special World.
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The Hero acquires allies (often building a team), faces tests, and establishes enemies. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy finds allies in the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. The Wicked of the Witch issues a threat, becoming Dorothy’s enemy. Dorothy and her friends overcome a series of challenges as they journey toward the Emerald City.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The Hero (usually accompanied by Allies) approaches the story’s central Ordeal. In Star Wars, this is when the Millennium Falcon is being sucked into the Death Star.
8. Ordeal: The Ordeal often occurs underground or inside the enemy’s lair. The Hero (and team) face their biggest threat and undergo a metaphorical death and rebirth. In some stories, this is a love scenes, such as in Titanic, when Jack and Rose consummate their relationship in the vehicle storage section of the ship.
9. Reward: The Hero is rewarded for surviving the Ordeal. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gains possession of the Wicked Witch of the West’s broom after she successfully kills the witch.
10. The Road Back: There’s one more big challenge ahead. In Star Wars, Luke and his team are going to attempt to take out the Death Star.
11. Resurrection: This big challenge includes another metaphorical death and rebirth. In Titanic Rose almost drowns but wakes up and swims through the freezing water to grab a whistle and get herself rescued.
12. Return with Elixir: The Hero has successfully completed the journey and can now return to the Ordinary World, often bringing an elixir, which can be something that saves the people of the Ordinary World but can also be personal improvement. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns to Kansas with a new appreciation for home and family, and having integrated and balanced the three traits of kindness, intelligence, and courage.
The Writer’s Journey is a Must-Read for Anyone Interested in Storytelling
The Writer’s Journey is a guide, not an instruction manual, for storytellers. And while the overview above will give you a broad sense of how it works, the book itself delves deep into each archetype and stage of the Hero’s Journey, providing clear yet detailed descriptions along with examples from well-known films, so you can easily relate the concepts to real-world examples. There are also in-depth analyses of films like The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, and Pulp Fiction to show how the Hero’s Journey works in some of the most successful stories of all time.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. And I’m glad it’s available in paperback, because I marked it up with notes and highlights, and I’m sure that I will return to it again and again, both in my work as a storyteller and as a writing coach.
Poetry is the music of language, the fine art of the written word. It demands a broad vocabulary and creative thinking. It promotes rhythm and meter, and it invites imagery. Poetry triggers the imagination, engages the intellect, and touches the heart.
Reading and writing poetry are excellent practices for any writer. Through poetry, we learn the nuances of language, the power of showing rather than telling, and the necessity for clear and succinct wordcraft.
Basically, poetry reading and writing improves all other writing.
So, whether you are a poet or not, as a writer, a basic understanding of poetry will improve your writing exponentially. Can you succeed without it? Of course. But with poetry skills in your writer’s toolbox, your writing will soar. Read More
“It’s the scene where we meet the hero, and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Save the Cat has been on my radar for several years; it’s one of those books I kept meaning to read but never got around to, until now. And I wish I’d read it when I first heard about it. This book is packed with goodies for storytellers!
But Save the Cat offers more than just insight on storytelling. It’s an inspiring and entertaining read. I constantly found myself wanting to set the book aside so I could go write, but I also wanted to keep turning the pages so I could absorb more techniques and ideas.
Technically, Save the Cat is a screenwriting book. Along with Syd Field’s Screenplay, it’s a Hollywood staple — not just for screenwriters but also for directors and producers. But Save the Cat goes beyond screenwriting and delves into the art of storytelling. Therefore, most of the concepts in the book are applicable to all kinds of storytellers, including novelists.
Warning: Save the Cat is very much about writing screenplays that will sell and doing so efficiently. Therefore, the book takes an approach that is more commercial than artistic, but Snyder leaves plenty of room for artistry.
Before the Draft
“All of this is intended, of course, to ultimately save you time…It’s a lot easier to see and move cards around on a board than chunks of your own writage that you’ve fallen in love with.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder spends considerable time on planning and preparation, what many of us call pre-production. This is all the work we do before we sit down to write the draft.
One of my favorite tips from Save the Cat suggests writing a logline before you write your story. A logline is a summary of your story in one or two sentences, an elevator pitch. It’s supposed to entice people to watch the movie (or read the book, for us novelists). Composing a logline forces you to figure out the core essence of your story before writing it, and this brings it into focus.
Writing a polished logline is no small exercise. It must be short, concise, and convey key details about your story, giving people a sense of what it’s about without spoiling the ending. As you work out your logline, you will undoubtedly discover flaws in your story ideas. Therefore the practice of writing your logline first allows you to fix those flaws before you spend weeks or months hammering out a full manuscript.
But a logline isn’t all you should figure out before you tackle your first draft. Snyder also recommends deciding on a title and coming up with an idea for the movie poster (for us novelists, that would translate to a book cover), and you should also identify its audience. All of this preliminary work is designed to help you crystallize your story before you write it, and this will save you time later, because you’ll need to do fewer revisions. It will also minimize the risk that you’ll end up with a draft that ends up in the trash.
Plot Types and Planning
“True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Another section I liked covered Blake Snyder’s ten genres. I have to admit that I had some trouble with his use of the word genres. What Snyder offers up are actually plot types, but this is just a matter of semantics. Plenty of story scholars have come up with lists of plot types, but I found these intriguing. Here’s a small sampling:
- Monsters in the House: Jaws, Tremors, Alien, The Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, and Panic Room.
- Golden Fleece (a hero goes on a journey in search of one thing but ends up discovering something else): Star Wars; The Wizard of Oz; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Back to the Future, and most “heist movies.”
- Rites of Passage: Every change-of-life story from 10 to Ordinary People to Days of Wine and Roses.
Once you’ve nailed your logline, audience, and genre (or plot type), you can start outlining. Snyder refers to outlining as writing beats or “beating it out.” He provides a very detailed formula for you to follow, titled “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” or BS2 for short. Here’s a taste of Snyder’s beat sheet (numerals in parentheses refer to the pages of the script):
- Opening image (1)
- Theme stated (5)
- Set-up (1-10)
- Catalyst (12)
Snyder’s beats include fifteen distinct plot points that occur in a story and even specify which pages of a screenplay these points should occur on (page numbers wouldn’t be applicable to novelists). Within these beats, I found several that I thought were useful reminders of good, strong storytelling practices, like starting with a clear and vivid opening image and then using a closing image that is an inverse of that image, emphasizing the change that has occurred (most great stories are about change).
A Note on Formulas
“I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur).” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder’s beat sheet is very much a formula. Keep in mind that this formula is designed to help screenwriters write screenplays that will sell — it may strike you as a little too formulaic.
Storytelling formulas are tricky. Al the great stories do seem to adhere to a clear formula. In movies, we can easily plug films like Star Wars or Titanic into the Hero’s Journey. And as I read through Snyder’s formula, I could see dozens of movies swirling through my head; I believe this formula can serve a screenwriter well. However, many artists think formula writing is a form of selling out, and we’ve certainly all seen utterly predictable movies that were formulaic to the point of being annoying. But since the greatest stories and movies of all time can also be matched to basic story formulas, they obviously work when applied correctly.
I think this and other formulas are useful as a kind of checklist for including certain beats and plot points. It would also come in handy as a tool for figuring out what’s wrong with a story or determining what’s missing. I would suggest exploring Snyder’s system and experimenting with it, adapting it to your own needs and working style.
“Most of all, you must try to find the fun in everything you write.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder’s section about The Board was one of my favorite parts of the book. I started using a similar method while writing my third novel (the first one I published). It involves putting various bits of your story on note cards and putting them on a board (I use a huge magnetic white board). This is by far the funnest part of writing a story because it’s where all the ideas happen. It’s also tactile, because you’re working with paper and pens and using your hands, all of which is creatively stimulating.
Snyder goes into some really deep-level instruction here, laying out a system for organizing the cards on the board and insisting that when your board is done, you must have forty cards, each representing one scene. There are four rows (the first is Act One, the second and third are each half of Act Two, the fourth is Act Three). The specificity here is not for novel writing, but the gist of the board is one of my favorite tools for story development.
Get it Now
“What you are saying in essence is: This story, this experience, is so important, so life-changing for all involved—even you, the audience—it affects every single person that is in its orbit.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Save the Cat is packed with tips and ideas that will benefit any storyteller. Most of us won’t use it as an instruction manual, but we can use the strategies in the book to improve our own story writing processes. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to master the art of storytelling, for film or the page. Save the Cat is available at fine bookstores everywhere, including Amazon, where you can pick up a Kindle version or a paperback.
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.