First of all, I want to make it clear there are no rules for writing or story-telling. These are simply my rules, or perhaps more accurately ‘preferences’, that I have adopted for my own purposes. They worked for me and helped me publish four novels. If you’re starting to write for the first time, maybe they could help you or you could modify them. But there is no doubt that there are many successful writers that have adopted different preferences.
- Know your story premise.
All stories are about a main character, or group of main characters, that want something desperately and something big or difficult stands in their way. This is the story premise. Finding a story premise that is new and exciting is half the journey towards success. If the main character’s story problem were easy to resolve, the story would be over quickly. To work, a premise has to be difficult, problematic and capable of escalation.
- Understand who or what is the main story driver.
Many writers believe the main character is the story driver, but this is rarely the case when the story commences. And in the first half of the story, the main character is usually in a reactive mode. The main story driver is usually an external force that places main character or characters, into difficult circumstances and continues to frustrate them. It could be an antagonist or group of antagonists that creates the circumstances, such as in Star Wars. But it could also be forces of nature. For example, an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth. But you need to understand who or what is driving the story forward.
- Understand your main character or characters.
All main characters have a past and come with emotional baggage. They have desires and needs, and hopes and fears that will complicate the story. No one is perfect. They don’t have to be nice, but they need to be relatable to in order for the reader to connect with them. They will also need learn and develop during the course of the story.
- Understand the story structure.
I like to have an overview of my story structure: the big plot points along the story trail. There are many different plot templates you can use here, which I have covered in earlier blogs. But in its simplest form these plot points are the difficult dilemmas the main character has to face and decisions and outcomes that flow from them. This is also the starting point for a preliminary outline scene plan from which you can delve deeper into to the story as you write. I am by nature a planner, rather than ‘pantser’. But all the planning doesn’t need to be completed before you start to write. You can plan-write in smaller scene chunks as you proceed through the story provided you know the direction in which the story is moving. And the scene plan can evolve as you add more scenes and detail to the process. Remember the words of one general: “No plan survives past first contact with the enemy.” My plans always evolve as new ideas enter the mix.
- Escalate the tension
A pre-requisite of all stories is that small problems will escalate into bigger problems and eventually reach a crisis point. But at the same time there is a need for small interludes for the reader to recover before being thrown into the next escalation. Pacing is therefore also important. Understanding the pattern of scenes in terms of their tension is therefore important. A story is like a roller coaster with up and downs escalating into bigger ups and downs until the story is resolved.
- Writing method – Consistent use of POV/ tense
In all my stories so far I have adopted past tense and limited-third-party point of view in each of my scenes. That means the reader only sees what the point of view character for that scene sees. That process works for me. Of course other writers might prefer first person point to view and current tense. Other writers, often romance writers, might change point of view character during a scene. And other writers may adopt an omniscient point of view, where you see the story through multiple points of view. But that is not my style. So I adopt a rigorous process of one single point of view character per scene.
- Write fearlessly, and edit ruthlessly.
Never be afraid of the blank page. Just dive in. If you wait for the perfect opening prose you will never get started. Editing is where you polish that prose.I have a tendency to under-write descriptions and over-write dialogue. Dialogue is hard since it has to sound like natural speech, but it is anything but natural. It has to be succinct. Remember that a silent response can be as insightful as any statement, and that characters often obfuscate and lie under pressure.
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