Sunday, August 15, 2010

How to Write a Story

In order to write a story you must create a good main character or protagonist. This character might be based on someone you know or a composite of several people.

Besides having an identity, this character must have needs or desires or goals. He may want to win something. She might be desperate to escape a situation. He needs to stop something from happening or she must retrieve something lost. As your character struggles to reach that goal, you will put obstacles in the way and therefore create a plot.

Think short, not long. Put only two or three obstacles in the way. Concentrate on making this a short story or flash fiction. How about 500 words? That's two pages.

Get to know your protagonist or main character by jotting down characteristics in your journal. Cut out pictures of people who look like your protagonist. Figure out how your character talks; decide what his weaknesses or her strengths are. What about hobbies? Skills, talents, fears? What’s in his pocket? What does she carry in her backpack? Know how your protagonist will react in different situations. Let your imagination roam free.

Analyze what other authors do to make their characters real. Your protagonist must be sympathetic and likeable and in some sort of jeopardy so the reader will identify with him or her and feel tense when there's trouble and joy when there's success. If you spend enough time thinking about this protagonist, you will begin to hear his or her voice in your head. You'll know exactly how he or she talks, what makes her angry, what makes him cry. Your character must be strong enough to drive the plot forward or you won't have a story.

Once you have your protagonist firmly set in your mind, create the plot. That will be easy because you already know what your main character wants or needs or must have and you will send him or her on a journey, either external or internal, to achieve that goal.

Of course, your story will take place in an environment of some sort. It will have geography, a time and place. You, the author, create that world as you go along. Don't stop your story right in the middle to explain it all to us. As your protagonist goes about winning the prize, you can have the fun of making it difficult. What's the worst thing that could possibly happen to your protagonist?

Okay, you play God and make it happen. Then when he or she gets up and dusts off the grime of that brutal encounter and is just about to reach the finish line, toss in another even obstacle or circumstance that's even worse. Don't let your character get what he or she wants too easily. Watch lots of movies and you'll know exactly what I mean.

It helps to outline your story. Have a compelling opening so that right away we know who your protagonist is and what he or she wants. Know how the story will end. The in-between middle part is the hardest to write, but if you think of the story as a journey with mountains to climb or rivers to cross or broken glass to walk through to get to the end that will make it easier.

Figure out what's going to keep the protagonist from getting what he or she wants. Is it another person? His or her own mindset? A burning building? An earthquake? A mean stepmother? Analyze what happens in other stories, in movies and novels you've enjoyed and you'll get the idea.

Okay, your story is finished. Now go back to the beginning and delete all adverbs (i.e., "quickly, loudly, silently," etc.) Make sure you don't have too many adjectives when describing something. Make every noun and verb count. Verbs should be active, not passive. If you have the word "was" over and over, then you're most likely writing in a passive voice. Rewrite those "was" sentences. You want to use an active voice. You want to show, not tell the story. ("Jane was tired" is not as interesting as "Jane fell asleep at the wheel of her car.

Delete all clichés, all trite words, all those words and phrases we hear over and over. Make sure the dialogue rings true. Every character should sound differently. Avoid dialogue tags whenever possible or use only "he said" or "she said." Don't use "he pontificated" or "she yelped."

Read your story aloud to yourself. Set it aside to cool a bit. Then read it aloud again. Now take it out in public and read it to the real world. You will get feedback and if you really want to write fiction, you will be tough enough and determined enough to listen. You will not defend your work or try to explain it to those who give you an honest critique. This is important. Feedback will allow you to see what needs to be done during rewrites; and revision is what makes fiction good.

Here are some things to remember:

The protagonist is the main character or "good guy" in the story. The protagonist reacts to what happens in the story.

The antagonist is the "bad guy" in the story and doesn't have to be a person. It might be a storm or a bum knee and mountain that must be climbed. The antagonist drives the story forward and forces the protagonist to react.

The plot is the string of events in the story, the obstacles in the way, all those things between the beginning and end the cause conflict.

The setting is the place and time in which the story takes place, the environment or geography of the story.

The dialogue is the talk or what the characters say. Every character speaks in a different way. Every time a character says something, make it be in a new paragraph.

The point of view (POV) is the viewpoint of the narrator in relation to the characters. First person or "I" POV, third person or "he-she" POV, or omniscient or a God-like POV are the three main and most commonly used points of view.

The premise is the main idea or meaning behind a story, i.e., "good conquers evil" or "home is where the heart is." The theme is broader and might be a topic like "war" or "love" or "friendship." So the theme might be "friendship," and the premise might be "a strong friendship can change two lives," or perhaps "a friend can be better than medicine."

The style is the way the author uses the language, the voice that comes through in the story.

Remember to be specific. (Write "Porsche" or "Hyundai" instead of "car," "rose" or "gardenia" instead of "flower").

Show, don't tell. (Use an active voice). Make every word count. Every line should move the story forward.

Avoid clichés and overused trite phrases. Analyze your words. Remember you're an artist and you are painting with words.

Don't take criticism personally. Separate yourself from your story. A real writer writes and rewrites and rewrites again and again. Your first draft is a lump of clay you've dug from the ground of your imagination. With feedback you will know just how to sculpt that clay into something significant and beautiful.

If the reader can relate to your main character, if you can hook us right at the beginning and hold our interest until the end, you've got a story.

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