Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Writing a Story, a How-To

So, You Want to Write a Story?

These days, there are more and more people wanting to learn how to write a good story. Some want to write for their family or friends. Others want to write a story for strangers or internet acquaintances to read on forums. A good few even want to write stories professionally. 

Whatever your reason for wanting to write, as an author I applaud you. Writing a good story is a severe exercise in both creativity and logic.  

Writing is fun, yet telling a good story is a skill. Everyone who writes develops their own style, or way of telling their tales. One thing that must be remembered is that all tales one might wish to tell have certain creative writing skills that must be learned and mastered. 

As a writer of fiction stories, you must:

  1. Have good grasp of basic grammar, sentence, and paragraph structure.
  2. Understand basic story structure. 
  3. Effectively write dialog between two or more characters at a time.
  4. Describe events and objects clearly and succinctly.
  5. Impart emotion through the written word.
  6. Understand the difference between first, second, and third person.
  7. Understand the concept of story "flow" and dynamics as applied to writing.
This list comprises the very basics of the writing art used to tell a story. Failure to use these basic fundamentals of writing appropriately will ruin the best story ever conceived, or at least seriously degrade the reader's experience. Your desire as a writer is to tell your story in such a manner as to grip the reader, drawing them into your story, immersing them into your world that you create with the written word. Words are your paintbrush, grammar is your toolbox, the rest is your ability to paint upon the story structure which is your canvas. Let us get down to business and discuss the points above.

1.) A good grasp of basic writing structure and proper grammar is a must for a prospective writer. It does not matter what your end goals are, you need to understand these things to be a good writer. Every time your reader encounters misused punctuation, misspelled words, sentences which are hard to read or understand, or other basic writing no-no's it is like someone dashed them with cold water. 

Such boo-boos effectively yank them out of the story. The more the reader has to interpret your writing to understand what you are trying to say, the less they will enjoy it. If too many problems with grammar are encountered, they will become frustrated or bored, quit caring about the story, and then stop reading altogether. No writer desires that end result.

2.) Most everyone understands the concept of a title and chapters, but that is not what I meant by story structure. Every piece has a beginning, middle and an end, or at least it should. That is the most basic conception of structure as applies to a story. The structure of a story is actually:

Set up.
Defining event.
The quest.
Build up to conflict.
Resolution of conflict.

The set up is where the main character is introduced along with the supporting cast, and is where the universe these characters live in is described. Sometimes this section is called the back story. The defining event is an event which happens that forces the main character to make a choice and then react. The quest is the section of the story where the main character must do something to achieve a goal connected to the choice made. This incorporates most of the actual story. During the quest, the conflict must build up gradually into a crescendo. The last part of the story is the resolution, where the conflict is overcome or the hero is defeated in the case you are writing a tragedy.

There are different ways to define story structure. Some use four points, others as many as eight. You do not have to write according to a structure, but instead check your story as you write according to structure. This will help you keep the story in check. Another thing to consider is that each chapter should have a reason for its existence. It should also have a defined structure, with smaller events and minor conflict and resolution.

3.) The bane of many beginning writers is crafting proper dialog. The mechanics of good dialog is actually straight forward. Below are some examples in the form of a super-short story.

   I walked up to the porch and saw old man John Brooks rocking back and forth in his rocker. The brown wood of the deck squeaked as curved wood rolled over the red cedar below, a loose nail in the rough boards singing its merry song as the wood moved up and down.
   "Hey John," I said as I walked over to the old porch, and then leaned on the railing. "How is it going for you on this fine day?" 
   "Hello Bill," John replied, the old brown pipe hanging from the left corner of his mouth throwing puffs of blue smoke, faintly smelling of cloying cherry.
   John smiled, and pointed his pipe at me. "You look tired!" The old man sat forward with an expectant look upon his haggard face, short gray hair emphasizing his sunken brown eyes.
   "I know, John. I am extremely tired today," I replied.
   "What did you do today to make you so durn tired?" A friendly female voice asked from beside me, causing me to jump.
   "You startled me there Mrs. Brooks, I didn't see you come out."
   "You didn't answer my question young man. Why are you so tired?" She asked, a look of concern pulling the corners of her mouth down; the worry clear in her blue eyes.
   "Madam, I am tired because I got out of bed," I replied with a grin, trying to ease her concern but earning a reprising scowl instead.

The ending punctuation should be within the quotes, as you notice in all cases. The quoted section of a dialog is part of the overall sentence, and should follow proper grammar as if the quotes were not there. If multiple sections of dialog are used within the same line, the overall usage should be like any other paragraph. Try to avoid using too much dialog within a single paragraph. 

For instance:

I walked up to the porch. "Hello John," I said as I climbed the stairs. The old man looked up at me and smiled. "How are you doing, old man?" I asked jovially.

The paragraph above is okay, but for clarity it is best to keep multiple sections of dialog on their own lines. 

Never do this:

I walked up to the porch. "Hello John," I said as I climbed the stairs. The old man looked up at me and smiled. "How are you doing, young man?" He asked jovially.

Only include the dialog from one person in any particular sentence or paragraph. It can rapidly become quite confusing.

4.) Description is easy for some people and hard for others. When writing a story, remember that plain description is boring by itself and should be used like salt and pepper on your food, sparingly and to taste. It is meant to accentuate the situation or describe events, and makes a poor substitute for action or dialog, Some people insist on the concept of "show don't tell". However, show don't tell often leaves a story only half told and is comparable to whipped cream in that it has the appearance of substance but is all fluff, leaving you wanting more details. For those not familiar, show don't tell is a concept of writing in details by indirect reference only. Tell uses detailed description. Good writing in my book actually uses both methods, putting the whipped cream on the cake, so to speak. I call it show and tell.


Tell - The wooden stick George held was six foot long by two inches thick. With his six foot frame, he easily swung the staff in a figure eight. His long reach combined with the long staff easily knocked the five foot staff out of his opponents hand.

Show don't tell - George swung the staff in a figure eight as he looked down into the eyes of his opponent and easily knocked the staff from his opponent's hand.

Show and tell - George swung the rough wooden rod in a blindingly fast figure eight. His greater height and reach along with his longer staff gave him a huge advantage over his opponent. He looked down into his opponents eyes and then struck with lightning speed, easily knocking the staff from his opponents hand.

No-one really cares about all of the details. Enough should be present to clearly place the moment and enhance the story. Without it, the story loses -- something. Too much and the story loses that same something. However, too much emphasis in detail is often applied to what you see, and ignores the other senses. Remember, you have five senses; sight, smell, taste, touch, and hear. The best authors I have read were capable of drawing the reader in with several senses at once.


George swung the rough wooden rod in a blindingly fast figure eight. The smell of sweat and blood burned in his nostrils as he circled his opponent on the hot yellow sand. His greater height and reach along with his longer staff gave him a huge advantage over his opponent. He looked down into his opponents blue eyes and then struck with lightning speed, easily knocking the staff from his opponents hand with a loud 'clack'.

As you noticed, each sense invoked make the scene clearer and more realistic. Colors, textures, weight, smells and sounds all combine in any real situation to form the total human experience. Everything in your arsenal that can be used to draw the reader in deeper will make your story more realistic and your scenes more vivid in their mind. In this conversation, only one more thing is lacking -- emotions.

5.) The ability to impart emotions well using the written words takes some practice, but is not as difficult as it first appears. Emotions are as much a part of the human experience as the senses, and good use of them takes a good story to even greater heights.

Using the example from point four:

George swung the rough wooden rod in a blindingly fast figure eight. The smell of sweat and blood burned in his nostrils as he circled his opponent on the hot yellow sand. His greater height and reach along with his longer staff gave him a huge advantage over his opponent. A feeling of supreme confidence flooded through his mind washing away any hint of uneasiness. The feeling suddenly combined with a raw wave of aggression that sent a hot jolt of adrenaline pumping through his veins. He could smell the acrid scent of the other man's fear. With a smile, he looked down into his opponents blue eyes and then struck with lightning speed, easily knocking the staff from his opponents hand with a loud 'clack'.

As you can already see, the combination is powerful, drawing the reader into the scene as if they were there.

6.) First, second, and third person are different forms of narrative point of view used within a story. A narrative point of view is comparable to a camera in a movie. What is described is seen through the eyes of the point of view, or narrator. Only one narrative type should be used in any given story, or it becomes confusing in the extreme. 

First person narrative places the narrator (the person telling the story) as a character in the story. For instance: "I walked into the room and sat down. George came up to me and smiled." This is an example of first person narrative. What can be revealed in the story is directly limited to the experience of the character. The first person is easily distinguished by reference to the main character(s) as I, or in a group first person as we.

Second person narrative places the reader as the (a) character within a story. It is easily distinguished by the use of the word "you", as in "You walk through the woods and find..." It is almost exclusively used in such works as which way adventures, etc. It is never used in regular fiction, though it is common in how-to or self-help type works.

Third person narrative is the most flexible of the writing viewpoints and is the most commonly used narrative modes in writing fiction. When the main character is referred to as he or she, then third person narrative is being used. The narrative in this case is an unspecified entity (the author) and is not connected to the story. As such, information not available to the characters in the story can be conveyed to the reader. 

Both first and third person are usable to write good fiction. However care must be taken if using first person to weed out accidental usage of the 'god's eye view', in that what that character knows cannot be omniscient, unless the character is supposed to be clairvoyant or something. A good character can easily become an unbelievable one in this case. With the third person narrative, you can describe someone sneaking up behind the main character without the main character knowing. This is impossible in true first character narrative. I have seen a few hybrids using first person dialog with third person descriptive sections, but they tend to be confusing.

7.) Story flow and dynamics can be compared to the flow of a fluid. Your story should not be jerky, jumping from place to place or from scene to scene at a whim. One paragraph should flow naturally into the next with the plot of the chapter, and one chapter should flow naturally with the next toward the main plot of the story. Random jerking from scene to scene tends to break the reader story connection, unless such is actually necessary to the story. Before you attempt it, remember that it is almost never necessary. You want smooth progression from one scene to the next, and one character to the next. 


I hope that this short tutorial has helped you in some small way, and that you have found your time here well spent. Good luck on your writing adventure. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment below. 

Paul Andrulis