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
Fiction writing exercises can help you discover storytelling techniques and provide ideas and inspiration for your fiction writing projects.
These exercises provide practice and experience for young or new writers. For more experienced writers, these exercises offer inspiration and can help you see a story from a fresh perspective.
Today’s fiction writing exercises are carefully chosen to help you develop some of the most critical components in a story. If you can create a few characters; identify a conflict, climax, and resolution; and choose a theme, you’re well on your way to writing a short story or novel that will resonate with readers. 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
Today’s post comes from my book 101 Creative Writing Exercises. This is from “Chapter 5: Fiction.” Let’s take a look at symbolism in fiction.
Symbols and Symbolism
In Alice and Wonderland, a white rabbit appears, and Alice follows him down the rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. The white rabbit is a herald — a character archetype that signifies the first challenge or the call to adventure. This is the change in the main character’s life that marks the beginning of the story. Read more
Fiction writing prompts are a great way to stimulate creativity when you’re in the mood to do a little writing but need some fresh story ideas.
Prompts and other creative writing exercises can trigger your imagination. Sometimes, prompts and exercises help you come up with new ideas for projects you’re already working on, and other times, they give you ideas for projects you haven’t started yet. They’re also a great source of motivation.
10 Fiction Writing Prompts
The fiction writing prompts below are story starters. Try starting the first sentence of a new piece with one of the prompts and run with it, or write a story that includes one of the prompts somewhere in the text. As an alternative, use the prompts to generate story ideas and plan a story around a prompt (you don’t have to include the actual prompt anywhere in the story). You can even use one of the prompts as the final sentence in a story and use your imagination to fill in what happens leading up to it.
Feel free to alter any of the prompts to your liking. Use one or use them all. Have fun.
- She rolled over and felt her body push up against something hard.
- My wife disappeared on August 28, 1998.
- Sonny jumped up against the chain-link fence, wagging his tail furiously.
- Mom says it happens to all girls, but I think she’s just trying to make me feel normal.
- I’ve been to nine planets in twelve years and it’s starting to show.
- They say Old Weezie’s been reading palms out of her run-down shack for a hundred years or more.
- Acronyms give me a headache in general, but PBRT gives me a migraine.
- Ashley stared at the fruit, so lost in amazement that she didn’t think to comment on its size.
- Every day the sun comes up and every night it goes down again.
- When the elven guard put out a call to action, their plea went unheard and what followed was sheer terror.
Bonus challenge: Write a story that includes each and every one of the ten prompts above. That would be quite a feat!
Looking for more fiction writing prompts and story starters? Some of today’s fiction prompts appear in 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, available in paperback and ebook.
Setting is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know where the story is taking place, they’ll get lost and confused, and it will be hard for them to enjoy your tale.
Some stories have simple settings based on real places. You can use your hometown or a major city. A setting can also be completely dreamed up, which is often necessary in speculative fiction writing (Wonderland and Never Land, for example). You can keep a setting in the background, referring to it only when necessary, or you can bring it to the forefront and allow it to function as a character in your story.
Some authors go to great lengths to take the reader through a story’s setting. Just last year, I read a book in which the character drove around Los Angeles. The author took us down L.A. streets, past parks, and into real neighborhoods and establishments. It was a bit much, but I’m pretty sure if I were a resident of L.A., I would have gotten a little thrill out of the familiarity.
Today, we’ll take a deeper look at setting with a few fiction writing exercises designed to help you establish the settings in your story.
Fiction Writing Exercises: Place and Time
There are two sides to setting: place and time. If you’re writing a contemporary novel, the time in which your story is set is relatively straightforward. However, if you’re writing historical fiction, futuristic fiction, or a story that includes time travel, you’ll need to make sure readers always know what time it is.
Setting it Up
For this exercise, you will choose several settings and write short, opening descriptions that tell the reader when and where the action is taking place. Contemporary readers aren’t crazy about lengthy descriptions, so keep it simple: a couple of sentences or a short paragraph of description will suffice. Here are a few prompts to help you get started:
- A ghost town in the wild old west.
- A contemporary metropolis.
- A medieval household.
- A made-up fantasy land.
- Aboard a vessel, such as a spaceship, in the far-off future.
Setting as Backdrop: Too Much vs. Not Enough
For this exercise, you’ll write a short scene that kicks off the story and establishes the setting. Instead of presenting a snapshot of the landscape before moving into your story, you can bring readers right into the setting by combining the setting’s description with action and by using active language rather than passive:
- Instead of describing busy streets packed with shoppers, show readers that shoppers coursed through the streets like rats in a maze.
- You can bring characters into the setting: Kate craned her neck and spied a tiny patch of sky amidst the towering skyscrapers.
- In establishing time, you can simply state the date (the year was 2012) or you can place something in the setting that identifies the era: A brand new 2012 Porche sped by and Kate whirled on her heels just in time to see it disappear around the corner of Lexington.
Setting as Character
Places that have a life of their own are hugely popular. Many science fiction and fantasy stories are set in places that function as characters: the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek and Pandora from Avatar are two good examples. But cities, towns, and rural landscapes can also have personality. For example, New York has been called the fifth main character in Sex and the City. Houses, vehicles, cities, planets, nations, and rooms can all have personalities of their own.
For this exercise, write a character sketch for a place. Make a list of its traits: personality, style, attitude, class, and philosophy. Is it relaxed and laid back or dark and dangerous? Does it swallow people or lift them up? Is it friendly to newcomers or is it exclusive?
If you’re inclined, go ahead and write a scene or outline to show off your setting’s personality. Remember: just because the setting is functioning as a character doesn’t mean it’s the protagonist or antagonist. It can be a minor character and still largely function as the story’s backdrop (rather than forefront). Make sure you keep the focus of the story on the plot and characters.
How Do You Approach Setting?
Some writers don’t think much about setting. They know exactly where their story takes place, and the setting emerges naturally through the writing. But sometimes, a poorly established setting is unclear or confusing. Do you pay heed to setting? Do you work it out before you start your first draft? If you know of any other great fiction writing exercises that focus on setting, be sure to share them in the comments. 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.
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!