Layman’s Guide to Storytelling
To many up and coming writers, getting serious crit seems impossible, and asking a more experienced writer for advice can be daunting. In lieu of tracking down every single person who may need help, I’ve compiled a hopefully all-inclusive guide to writing better prose. I’m assuming you have a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax, but I may make another guide completely devoted to higher level syntactic devices. Keep in mind, these are my opinions, and as such, should be taken with a grain of salt.
A beginning of a piece of prose can do two things: force the reader to eject your writing in disgust or beckon them to keep reading. A chunk of imageless narration does not entice the reader. The first paragraph, nigh, the first sentence should reflect the on look of the entire story. Writers use beginnings to introduce the main character, the central theme, or the key conflict. If your first sentence doesn’t do any of these things, consider revision.
Point of View
One thing a beginning must accomplish is a point of view from which the story is told. This doesn’t mean that you should start a story with a pronoun, but it does mean you should establish time, setting, speaker, and tone.
There are three basic branches of point of view:
1. First Person: “I skipped through the garden.” This point of view gives a personal feel to the story, but the narrator does not necessarily have to take part in the immediate action. They can be the main protagonist, a peripheral character, or even an inanimate object. Also, this can be told from the first person singular “I” or the plural “we”, depending on the situation. However, this point of view can and should harbour some sort of bias toward the events of the story, making their narration not always reliable. This is called an unreliable narrator. First person narration, in my opinion, is a great vehicle for characterization of the speaker. When you talk to someone long enough to get a story the length of a novel, you get to know them, which happens between the speaker and the audience.
2. Second Person: “You skipped through the garden.” Don’t discount this point of view. When used carefully, second person can draw the reader into the story on a whole new level. They see themselves in the situations. They smell the perfume. They feel the carpet. So to speak. This said, don’t go overboard. Second person is great for short stories which employ common emotions felt by the populace if put in that situation, but when you get into telling the reader how they feel, then you’ve crossed the line. Second person is difficult to keep up for an extended period, but if you want a challenge, I say go for it.
3. Third Person: “Fred skipped through the garden.” (we shant judge) There are many options for third person, but the two most basic are limited and omniscient. The best description for limited omniscient I’ve ever heard said that if you take a first person account and switch out all the first person pronouns for third person pronouns and names. This prevents “head hopping”, where the POV skips around from character to character. Now, you may be thinking: It’s important to know what ALL my characters are thinking ALL the time! In a way, you can do that even in first person. Body language cues make up a significant part of communication. Use these to convey emotions of peripheral characters. Omniscient allows the reader to delve into the thoughts of all the characters. Use this sparingly. I advise sticking to one per scene or chapter.
4. Breaking the fourth wall: Hello, darling reader, I’m breaking the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t a point of view, per se, but it is a method of narration. This is when the speaker acknowledges the presence of an audience, as the term is taken from theatre when the audience makes up one wall of a set. Breaking the fourth wall decreases believability at times, because it acknowledges there is a reader and therefore the action is in a book. This can distance the reader and allow him to make judgments upon the action more freely. (But I’ll try not to dig myself too deep into theory.)
5. Stream of consciousness: Ever heard of Jack Kerouac? He wrote on a long roll of typing paper, as the legend goes, with whatever came to mind. Stream of consciousness can be organic as a mode of story telling, but has a tendency to digress. However, adding a hint of this mode can bring the actions of your story to life, if not muddle and confuse them. Just be careful.
Time and Tense:
Once you have a mode of narration, you must choose from what direction it’s coming.
1. You can tell the story as if looking back on memories, which would call for past tense: “I plucked weeds.” This can be accompanied with complete clarity or the narrator can be unsure because her memory is fading. There are so many things you can apply to your speaker in the past tense. I like to have a point from where the story is coming from, but in the third person, there may not necessarily be a point in time from which there narrator is looking back on events. That being said, past tense is the most common due to its reflective nature and the ease of telling. How many people do you know that you their anecdotes in the future tense? (I’d like to meet them.)
2. A second, less widely used tense is the present. “I pluck weeds.” Proponents say it gives the story a sense of immediacy, as if the actions are happening right before the reader’s and/or speaker’s eyes. I, for one, find this form to be a bit list like, but if you can make it work, go for it.
3. I’ve never heard of anyone who writes primarily in the future tense. “I will pluck weeds.” I suppose it adds a sense of the unknown to the story, but I get the feeling this would annoy the reader to no end. Someday I will write a story in the second person future tense as if the protagonist is a fichus. That’ll roll ‘em in the isles. Right. Not.
My all time favorite way of telling a story is using all sorts of tenses, just like the way people talk. Not forcing it, just a flow, like the computer was taking dictation of a great storyteller or just an ordinary José.
Don’t run a stake through my heart or anything, but I have to say it: show, don’t tell. Actually, I lied. Tell. This has to do with pacing. Show your heart out for the major scene where your hero and heroine finally share a kiss, but for the love of god, do we need to know every detail of how they brush their teeth the next morning? I think not. You can just tell me he brushed his teeth. I like my heroes sans halitosis. The same goes for many other meaningless activities. They don’t make good fiction, so you can speed things up by editing them down to a few sentences, rather than pages and pages of personal grooming and cab rides. Keep pacing in mind with these things to help determine how much imagery you need for a specific scene. I’m pretty sure important scenes need more. Remember subtlety goes a long way, and small details provide more texture and reality to a scene. If you’re having trouble describing something without hitting the reader over the head with it, try describing the object through movement. Bad example: “She tossed her brown hair,” is better than “Her hair was brown.”
Most times, less is more on character descriptions. Their importance lies inside, or should, rather than a strange hat or crazy hair. That’s false characterization. Real characterization can be found in personal intricacies, the kind best friends will find out about each other. This kind of characterization makes the characters seem more real rather than cardboard cutouts with overblown emotions. A major example of characterization is motivation. Every character should have a motivation, even if it’s not readily available for the audience. Inner conflict is characterization. I would provide an example, but I know you’ve cooked one up for yourself already. Many times, motives change and pile up or conflict. This is what makes our characters human.
On the subject of characters, we must touch on character purpose. Every character must have an overarching purpose for your story. If they’re purposeless, ctrl A + delete. It must be done. Cut the fat. Anything that doesn’t serve a purpose in your story, whether it a character, a sub plot, a scene, you must sever your ties. You’ll thank me later.
Plot and Conflict
Plot is conflict. It is your protagonists’ motivation and goals versus forces often beyond their control. These include: Character versus Self, Character versus Character,
Character versus Society/Environment, and at times Character versus God(s). I hope these are self explanatory. The best stories incorporate more than one type of conflict.
In fiction, or any writing for that matter, word choice is your friend. Word choice contributes to tone in order to convey your message. Children’s writers don’t use words like amoxicillin, while horror writers don’t talk about lovely tea parties. The words must fit the context. (unless, of course, you have a comedic purpose or some such rot.) And keep your audience in mind, though, in general, you shouldn’t use a 25 letter word when one a fifth the size will do.
Steer clear of dead verbs. Lively verbs and nouns say volumes more than a pack of lazy adjectives and adverbs. The biggest culprits: to be and to have. These are often accompanied by an adjective and are telling words. They slow down your writing. A little goes a long way, and they often reiterate what has already been said. Ha. Like that. I could have stopped that sentence at “reiterate”. Go through your writing and cut out words like these that aren’t pulling their weight.
Theme: the overarching message of the story. Lesser forms of figurative language should tie into this.
Motif: The vessel for theming, but hard to define. Often includes repetition in leitmotif.
Similes and metaphors: You know what they are by now, but use sparingly and make them fit the theme! (seeing a pattern?)
Poetic devices: Use these, too! Since this isn’t a guide on poetry, I won’t and can’t go over them for the sake of space. A little assonance here and there can spice up your writing.
In dialogue, I found that my earlier work is too wordy and all that characters sound the same (unless they stopped pronouncing a particular letter and I left an apostrophe just for kicks). Don’t do that. For the love of god. Even if when you read it aloud it sounds exactly like people talking, that doesn’t make it good dialogue. Dialogue should have aspects of real speech, but abbreviated and deciphered for your poor reader.
Most people speak differently. I’m southern. I say ain’t and ya’ll. It happens. But I also have a large vocabulary, so I may say I’m going to cogitate over things or that something has permeated my membranes. What I’m trying to say is that dialogue is a fantastic way to characterize. So have different quirks, sentence lengths, and vocabulary choices that reflect your characters and their surroundings.
“While on dialogue, we must discuss the dialogue tag,” she said. That is a proper dialogue tag. Note there is no adverb in sight. The tone of speech can and should be implicit in the words, so any adverbs are just redundant and silly. Dialogue tags can go on the front of a sentence, or break it in the middle. Shake things up.
Some writers tag dialogue differently, such as in Fight Club, where the narrator’s speech isn’t always in quotes. Dialogue in Cold Mountain is set off by dashes. And she said: it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce dialogue with a colon. Heck, be creative with it, just make sure your reader knows what’s going on.
First off, make sure there is a logical progression and continuity. If the main character all of a sudden has a broad sword, I better damn well know where he got it.
Second, make sure your story doesn’t fizzle out half way. To do this, you need momentum, the events of the story snowballing against themselves to create a bigger force according to cause and effect. Building odds help keep the reader interested. This doesn’t mean the bombs should get bigger and the villains should get more over the top. Far from it. The consequences should get bigger and have more specific repercussions for your character.
Readers love neat endings. They know what happened to all the main characters, and nothing is left hanging. You can do one of these endings, which is fine, or you can do a more true to life ending. A little unsurity makes them think. Make sure you have foreshadowed your ending, otherwise your readers will feel cheated. The best kinds of endings are so subtly foreshadowed that the reader looks back and kicks himself (in a good way) for not getting it. Just know your audience, and know what they would want to happen.
The all important title. Titles serve to introduce the work, the major themes, or the conflict. Good titles are not simply the name of a character unless that name is of dire importance. Good titles can often by plays on words. My own rule of titling is to go to amazon.com and type in your potential title. If it shows up as a book, choose something else. Many people title their work as a last step, which is why this is last. However, I can’t work right unless I have a working title. Remember, nothing is set in stone. If you need to change anything to make your work function, don’t hesitate for a second.
Be inspired. Be original. Be prolific.
Now, sit down, shut up, and write.