November is coming.
You can write ANYTIME, of course, but National Novel Writing Month is a good excuse to start. The problem is, there are so many questions ahead of time. How do I write a story? What should it be about? What if I want to write about [insert literally anything here]? I have, as the poets say, got you. Fam.
You are Frodo, taking the ring to Mordor though he doesn’t know the way, and you’re Merry and Pippin, going along for the journey with no idea what to expect. You’re Rapunzel, leaving her tower to follow her dream, and you’re Alice following the White Rabbit. You’re done with waiting for the right time, done thinking you can’t or shouldn’t write certain things, you are done NOT telling the stories inside you.
But where do you start?! Writers write. That’s the way of it. And stories - well, they’re ridiculously flexible and accommodating. They can be as long or as short as they need to be. Hemmingway famously wrote a heartbreaking story in just 6 words: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” Stephen King points out in “On Writing” that two words is technically enough, in the format of “noun(s) verb.”
My favorite, of course, was “Plums deify,” because that already sounds like a speculative fiction story - but you can play with your own. They may not be complete stories in and of themselves, but they could be a start - an idea. “Moose multiply.” “Fangirls protest.” “Demons crochet.”
Some people have no ideas. Some have too many. Everything starts somewhere, and ideas can come from anywhere: an overheard scrap of conversation, a misheard lyric, a picture on Pinterest, or an exercise specifically designed to generate ideas. Here are some of MY favorite ways.
1) The Idea Generator (use notecards for a more kinetic experience.)
- List 100 things you know and have experience with.
- List 100 things you’re interested in, are willing to research/explore.
- Generate random number pairs on truerandom.org (or shuffle each deck of index cards) and start combining!
2) Roll the Bones (that means dice) Depending on how many sides your die has, list that number of qualities or possibilities for character, setting, genre, conflict, etc. Then just start rolling.
3) Generators (the automatic kind, not the ones you make.) Seventhsanctum.com is the generator capital of the intertubes. Characters, names, taglines, what-ifs, themes, you name it - as sparse or as intricate as you want. You’re welcome. Also check out Fantasy Name Generator.
4) Cruise Pinterest for “writing prompts” (don’t forget to come up for air) Technically, everything on Pinterest could be a writing prompt or an idea (my own board, Like a Magpie, is an ongoing, growing collection of random things to combine or use as inspiration.) But you can also specifically search for writing prompts, and have hundreds at your fingertips in under a minute.
5) Pick a trope you hate - then write a story that defies it. Think about mechanics or character stereotype that annoy you. Think about why. Think about how you could turn it around. (One of my favorite parts of Frozen is how everyone reacts to Anna when she says she’s going to marry a man she met 3 hours before.)
6) Go backwards. Decide the ending first, then figure out the least likely way to get there. (Aka the Origin Story.) Back story makes any story more powerful, but it’s usually not explored. So why not start there? How DID the villain lose his eye? What transformed the powerful, driven business woman into the silent priestess at the temple?
7) “What if” is a crazy powerful tool - use it wisely. What if Atlantis didn’t sink? What if there were no stars? What if you could unlock all the dead DNA just floating around in your body?
8) Tarot / Oracle I’ve been a Tarot reader for more than 20 years - there are stories in those cards, and not just predictive ones. If you speak the language, or even if you don’t, you can create entire worlds with those 78 cards.
Holy Crap that's a lot of words and we haven't even started writing yet!
Seriously, though. Ideas are EVERYWHERE. We had to do an exercise in a writing class once where we went home, turned on the TV, wrote down the first complete sentence we heard, and turned it off again - then wrote a story based on the sentence.
I shit you not, my sentence was:
“What I want to know is where do the squid come in?”
The thing to remember is that ideas are pure, and words are clumsy.
Your story will never be perfect straight from the pen. It will be a draft, but drafts have a power all their own - a power akin to a slab of clay waiting on the wheel to be formed into something exquisite, or functional, or both.
TELL ANY STORY WITH TWO MAGIC WORDS: "and then"
Dude who lost his car and just wants some Chinese food might hate it, but: I. LOVE. THIS. PHRASE.
This is the phrase that gets you from idea to draft, one repetition at a time.
I'll show you. Take your idea, and pick a starting point - preferably nice and vague, involving a single character.
- “Lost human finds cave containing ITEM” Great. Perfect. And then?
- “Human must touch/use ITEM because reasons” And then…
- “ITEM is special, affects human in some way” And then?
- “Human becomes power-hungry and bent on revenge” And then?
- “Original owner of item wants it back” And then?
- “Shenanigans. Human loses item but survives” And then?
- “Human realizes ITEM was causing need for revenge” And then?
- “Human vows to save original owner from cursed ITEM” And then?
- “Original owner knew ITEM was cursed, wanted it anyway” … You get the idea.
AND THEN will get you far. It will get you many places.
But not every place.
Because AND THEN is just Plot. Plenty of other things combine to make a story - an engaging one, anyway. The key to ALL OF THEM is asking questions.
- Like … characters. Those are important. Who is the lost human? Why are they lost? Are they looking for someone else? Do they find them? Who is the item’s original owner? How did they lose the item? Why do they want it back?
- Or World-Building - is a cursed item standard or unusual in the world you’re writing in? How does the rest of the world react to a power-hungry psycho with said item? Is there a language barrier between the human and the item’s original owner? Political differences? SPECIES differences?
- Tension … for each “and then,” add some difficulty. Human finds cave after being chased through briars and outrunning a bear. Human wants revenge, so provide obstacles to achieving that - like humanity, or guilt, or being a 48 lb. weakling…. Etc.
- Tone - HOW you tell the story. Where is your focus, what is your method? Is it a lyrical bard’s tale, epic and flowing and maybe a little over the top, or is it a terse, unflinching, warrior’s account of events?
- Setting - Where is the cave? What’s in it besides the item? How close is the nearest civilization? Where do the shenanigans happen? What props are naturally in that location to help/hinder the shenanigans?
- Flow … how quickly does the story unfold? How many stories are being told at once, and how are they woven together? Do the “and thens” happen in order, or are you Tarantino’ing this bitch?
“Plums deify” has NONE of those things, while Game of Thrones has 48 versions of each of them and it’s still not over.
Which Brings Me To This: Stories End
I’m still having some trouble with the concept of a series so long that the author passing away didn’t bring it to a close, someone else just picked up the notes and kept going. (Hairy eyeball at WoT… but kudos to Mr. Sanderson.)
I am personally NOT in the endless series camp - sure, if I’m a fan of your work I will stick with you for 24 books … IF you’ve told me at book 1 that there will be 24, and you never release a 25th. (See also, Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files.) Don’t get me wrong. The “one book that turns into three or four or twelve or sweet mercy is that another one don’t you have any other characters to write about??” which I feel is a giant time and money suck — it works for some people. (Readers and writers alike.) I am not those people, so I will advocate for a story to END.
This is also why I advocate for telling the whole story BEFORE you decide how many books it will be. (And not just “oh, don’t worry, I have an outline for books 3 through 40”) I’m also a big fan of not putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse. So the logical conclusion to a series of AND THENs is … NO AND THEN.
Wrap it up.
Make sure your character has changed since the beginning of the story, and then just … stop doing AND THEN.
If the character wanted a thing, and is now in a state of either having the thing or no longer wanting the thing, then change has happened, congratulations, you can call it a day. (Has that not happened? Write it.)
The change is important. That’s what makes things interesting.
Here is a person/situation, here are things that happen, and here is that person/situation afterwards - without development or change in one direction or another, you run the risk of the dreaded “…yeah, and?” No one wants to reach the end of a story and think “…yeah, and?” Even if it wasn’t a very satisfying story, it should still be the record of a transition, not the diary of a goldfish.
The fallback for us as writers is to know what we find satisfying when we read, and try to incorporate that into our writing - audience or no, we write as we read. No reading equals awkward writing. Hate cliffhangers? Don’t write one. Love when all the loose ends are tied up neatly with no room for misunderstanding? Write it so, Number One.
Human leaves original owner to their cursed life and appreciates their own humanity? Human still addicted to cursed item, lives unsatisfying half-life? Human teams up with item’s original owner, splitting the curse burden so they can each retain more of their humanity? Whatevs. Tie it up, type “the end” (although I always type “no and then”) and call it a draft.
Helpful Advice Often Isn't
Before I head out, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the three most popular pieces of writing advice that even non-writers will dispense as Divine Truth, but which really just gum up the works for Writing Writers.
1) Write What You Know: Writing what you know, in a literal sense, is the surest way to bore yourself to death before you write even a thousand words. Because you already know it. Writing ONLY what you know is zero fun. Writing what you know in a broader sense, with the added bonus of what you don’t know? Well, that can give solid ground to an otherwise fantastical tale. This is where that first idea generating exercise comes in - the one where you list what you know, list what you want to know, and then smash them together. The point is not to get a hundred great ideas, it's to spark a few compelling questions. All stories answer questions. GOOD stories answer INTERESTING questions.
2) Show Don't Tell: The minute you start getting caught up in presentation is the minute you lose sight of the point. Trying to figure out how to show a thing is can be a gigantic waste of time in the first draft. If it's not leaping into your brain as fully-formed as a Michael Bay movie, just note what happens and keep writing. You can dress it up and send it to Prom later, the key is to get the bones and flesh of it assembled.
Telling can also be a good way to side-step that Inner Critic, the voice that tells you every word is crap and you'll never succeed, so why start in the first place? Here's a trick: start your document with the words “I want to write about…” and then write. It removes ALL the pressure to do anything the “right” way, and opens the door to a stream of consciousness that can be a wellspring of amazing ideas. Why does it work? Because you’re not actually trying to write it - you’re just writing about wanting to write it. It’s surprising how quickly a fully developed story idea can develop when you tell yourself about it instead of trying to do it cold.
3) Kill Your Darlings: I HATE this advice, because death is permanent. What if your darlings still have something to say, or were saying it ahead of their time?
Never kill them. File them. Archive them. Tag and label them for posterity, but do not kill them. I guarantee you will regret it when somewhere down the line a story you’re working on needs that ‘certain something’ that you remember almost using that one time but got rid of because it didn’t fit.
Almost as true as “Writers write” is “Writers collect.” Ideas, characters, locations, items, ideas, conflicts, conversations - like a magpie we bring it all back to our nest and eventually it all starts to assemble into something. To kill your darlings is to purge your collection, and rob yourself of either inspiration or compost for new ideas. Let them live.
I mean, I get it. As intended, the advice warns you to not let your own attachment to something get in the way of the larger story, don’t be the self-indulgent author leaving in something awkward just because you liked it. But as you first create a story, self-indulgence is often the hastily constructed rope bridge that gets you to the finish line.
When you’ve reached that peak, THEN you can look back and see where the path could have been different. But you have to get there first. Do what it takes to get to the first version of the end. Build the bridge, introduce the convenient character, leave the clue out in the open, just tell the damn story.
To quote Sixteen Candles, "I won't be able to sleep tonight unless I think this little talk has helped you, so ... be a sport and lie to me?"
(or just share this page. That's cool too.)
Honestly, though, I do hope this has helped. I wish for you all the ideas, all the inspiration, all the questions and the impossible bravery to write everything down - all the words, your words, right there outside your head.
Also, I wish for you freedom from Shoulds. May you never stifle yourself or your process on the advice of anyone. Even me.