12 Basic Writing Tips

I once volunteered as an assistant editor at Leading Edge Magazine, a semi-professional, student-run science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. My job was to read what we called the submissions “slush pile,” providing the authors we reviewed both highlights and constructive criticism while also hunting for stories we thought would work well for the magazine. This was a very good experience for me as it taught me how to give feedback to other writers and how to improve my own work. As we’re well into National Novel Writing Month, and I have a number of friends endeavoring to complete a novel for first time who have asked me for advice, I’ve put together this list of twelve tips addressing challenges common to new writers.

    1. Every story uses three basic elements: Plot, Setting, and Character. Knowing the elements of story is the first step to building one. Plot is the tension-driven structure or scaffolding of event sequences that drives the story forward. Setting (sometimes called milieu) is the physical backdrop that grounds your world spatially and temporally, and provides atmosphere. Characters are the human element, the agents we attach or respond to emotionally who make the plot and setting relevant, providing us with a reason to care about what happens next. Many new writers have a tendency to neglect plot or setting in particular. They may show characters doing mundane tasks in meticulous detail without any tension to move things forward, or put characters on the run without enough details about the setting to help the reader visualize or connect to where that character is going or why it seems important. More rarely, some writers will describe their magical world in textbook terms without giving us a character to connect with. You don’t have to have each element of story figured out perfectly before you begin writing, and you don’t have to flesh them all out completely as you go, but all three are essential ingredients that make stories tick. Knowing the elements of story will make it easier to assess where your story lacks concreteness and what you might do to make it more coherent.
    2. Begin your story with a scene. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell,” this is exactly what scene creation is all about. It’s common for beginning authors to write summaries about their world or about things the character does, “telling” their readers what happens instead of “showing.” Writing, like other art, is about capturing and exploring emotions. While figuring out the mechanics of your magic system and deriving background on your character may be important for you to map your story, the ultimate presentation needs to provide readers with a rich emotional experience rather than a mechanical one to feel engaging and satisfying. In accomplishing this, you will likely not present every detail of your planning explicitly.
    3. Use the five senses and internal emotions to describe the scene as the main character interacts with it. This is how you “show” instead of “tell,” how you go about painting an emotionally rich scene. When we read a phrase like “the boy leapt from his family’s sedan and bounded barefoot through the soft, warm grass, chasing the bitter-sweet fragrance of his uncle’s orange grove all the way to the front door,” the parts of our brains associated with moving our feet, and the physical sensations of touch and smell or taste literally activate as though we are actually running through that orange grove ourselves. Within the physical descriptions are other layers of emotion that reveal things about this boy’s personal feelings and relationships in the moment, as well as what conflicts we might expect to encounter as the scene and story progress.
    4. Explore a conflict rather than an idea. Conflict is the core aspect of a plot, and the engine that drives a story forward. If there ain’t no trouble, there ain’t no story.
    5. Have both tangible and intangible conflicts. Some authors call these “external” and “internal” conflicts respectively. My sciencey brain sometimes trips up on these terms because someone with a bullet lodged in their gut or a bad case of indigestion is actually experiencing an “external” conflict despite the fact their wound or suppressed flatulence is technically a physically internal issue. Tangible (external) conflicts might include hunting for buried treasure or rescuing a child who has fallen in a river. Intangible conflicts deal with emotions and relationships, and might include resolving bitter differences with an enemy or overcoming one’s fear of drowning. Good stories need and use both to create a) an interesting plot (the tangible aspect) and b) an emotionally interesting journey (the intangible aspect).
    6. Decide what your characters want and why they can’t have it (until the end). Every story boils down to one central plot or “main plot.” Main plots, and lesser, diverging subplots which provide contrast and depth in conjunction with the main plot, consist of some combination of intangible and tangible conflicts that persist throughout the story. Many authors like to think of their main plot in terms of one, and only one, central goal or thing their protagonist wants, and the obstacles or conflicts that will arise to keep them from getting what they want until the climax. You don’t have to begin your story with your main conflict or plot sequence, but you certainly can. In the three-act structure, the main plot conflict is usually sparked toward the end of Act I, signaling a shift that sets your character on their journey to change, answer, or achieve that one thing. While most stories will have only one main plot, short stories will usually have only one subplot in addition (or none if it’s really short), while novels might have two or three, or more, in addition to the main plot.
    7. Use try-fail cycles. I consider try-fail cycles the basic mechanism of compelling plot structure. After the main conflict has been initiated in Act I, and the main character’s goals have switched gears to focus on getting what they want that they can’t have because something has gotten in the way, he or she should make multiple attempts to solve the problem or overcome obstacles before he or she finally succeeds. After each try-fail attempt, the problem should grow, expanding in scope to affect more people, compounding in its effects, raising the stakes, and putting more strain on you characters. Having at least three try-fail cycles, climaxing, and resolving the story after the third attempt, works best. (See this article for a great discussion on the Rule of Three).
    8. Make your characters proactive. Assess whether your hero or protagonist is being chased from plot point to plot point by one bad circumstance or incident after another, or whether he is actively making choices and compromises that get him into deeper and deeper trouble until the story climaxes. Characters feel more realistic and dynamic when they are proactive agents of their plight rather than passive puppets of fate and other people’s actions.
    9. Open your scene with two or more characters interacting with each other. I gleaned this advice from David Farland at a conference where he talked about what he looks for in the stories that he picks to be finalists in the Writers of the Future contest. Because characters provide the emotional attachment (or distance) between the audience and the events of the story, it’s much easier to create conflict and to make a scene emotionally relevant if two or more people are proactively engaging with each other in some situation. Avoid an opening with one person sitting alone, eating her serial, and thinking about how sad, happy, bored, amazing, etc. she is until some outside force stimulates her to take action.
    10. Make the weirdness in your world relatable. This is another place the five senses can help make your fantasy world both imaginative and comprehensible as well as emotionally relevant, although any creative combination of the familiar with the strange image or character you’re trying to create will work well. Have an alien creature you want to describe? In Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he uses a variety of familiar analogs to describe the alien things replacing people in town, including seed pods, minted coins, and wax figures. What about a steampunk airship battle? A little research on the environment and culture aboard an eighteenth century European sea ship would probably work quite well–just substitute the motion of the sea for fighter-jet turbulence and you’re set.
    11. Let your characters act natural. Take a close look at the actions and especially the dialogue of your characters. Ask yourself whether this is what you’d expect someone to say or do in real life, or how you’d expect them to reasonably act given the circumstances. Even if they’re living in a bizarre world that works very differently from our own, your characters are still human (this includes the non-human characters we personify in some way). Readers will be disappointed if the characters who already know the backstory describe past events to each other like actors in a TV commercial trying to get you to buy some weird new brand of bleach that will change your life for just $19.99 plus shipping and handling, or they do something the plot requires but is totally out of character for their previously demonstrated personality.
    12. Avoid purple prose. Beginning writers will sometimes focus on making descriptions pretty and ornate, or pretentiously poetic, rather than on telling a good story. This is called “purple prose.” Purple prose distracts the reader from the story by making all the story elements feel contrived and over the top. Remember that having good plot structure, an interesting character, and a well-suited, well-integrated setting are what make stories meaningful and entertaining. Focus on what’s important. Keep descriptions simple and real.

To finish today’s post, here is a list of my favorite books and websites on writing, plotting, and story craft. You can also find links to the websites on my sidebar.


Online Resources:

H. P. Lovecraft’s Grotesque Penguins

H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, sketched 1934.

At CONduit in May, I had the opportunity to contribute to a panel discussion about the influence of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories on modern fiction and culture. Both the man and his work make excellent fodder for a variety of interesting topics, from historical and literary racism; to an ideological shift of exploring fear through a secular or scientific, rather than supernatural, lens; to phobias and mental illness; to video game and movie industry trends.

For those who may not be familiar, Howard Philips Lovecraft is regarded today as one of the most influential American pulp horror authors of the 20th century, though his stories were little known during his lifetime. Lovecraftian horror is widely considered a subgenre of its own. It is often characterized by fear of or influences from unknown, outside forces; aliens as oppressive gods or apathetic invaders; people losing their minds and their physiological humanity as they turn on each other; and cephalopodic terror (i.e., monsters sporting tentacles). The movie Alien; the TV show Stargate SG1; a variety of games like Call of Cthulhu (video/computer); and, some might argue, even documentaries with interesting individuals who claim that aliens are responsible for our advanced technology, among other things, all have drawn influence to some degree or other from concepts in Lovecraftian fiction.

Lovecraft’s writing is dense and intricate, relying on a sense of mounting dread and vague descriptive qualifiers without as much in the way of plot and mechanical details to escalate tension. Thanks again to good old Audible, I’ve listened to a number of his best-known stories. What fascinates me most is the author’s depth and vulnerability in laying bare a lot of personal anxieties and phobias in his fiction. Both of his parents eventually died in a mental hospital, and he seemed to harbor a deep dread of losing his mind to forces beyond his control, which is a major theme in his stories. His fiction also betrays an obvious disgust for just about anything associated with the sea, be it fishy, scaly, slick, clawed, winged, or tentacled. In At the Mountains of Madness, his characters even describe the penguins they encounter as “grotesque.” Further still, the malevolent Night Gaunts in a poem he wrote by the same name, presumably inspired by imaginary figures he perceived in his own night terrors, are afraid of flying over water.

As someone interested in the psychology of writing horror, I find both the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and his life story fascinating. To learn more about the author, this Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start (They even include references to biographies for further digging): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft.

If you’re new to Lovecraft’s fiction, I also recommend reading Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and Shadow over Innsmouth for starters. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are widely available in all media forms, and may even be found fully narrated and posted by loving fans and audiobook pirates alike on Youtube. Don’t feed the pirates…but do check out this classic horror author! If you choose to listen, get a text copy and read along with the narrator or separately if you can. The prose is a different experience in different formats.

Measuring Success

I’ve been on panels with some amazing authors at Utah conventions the past couple of years–national bestselling authors who have had incredible success and a lot of experience working with major publishers, negotiating contracts for advances on their manuscripts, and teaching the craft of writing. I love learning from these people about their writing processes, their experiences, and their strategies, and have copious notes on their nuggets of wisdom stowed away. These people are brilliant. They work hard at their craft. They get people, and they know how to spin the stories their audiences want to hear. They also seem to recognize they wouldn’t be where they are today without somebody–a publisher, an agent, people they’ve never met browsing the shelves of a tangible or virtual bookstore–deciding to take a chance on them. For anyone, putting our work out there is a gamble, and that gamble doesn’t always pay off in the way we hope or expect.

Something I think is important for new and veteran authors alike to recognize is that everyone’s path to success is going to be unique. Major bestselling authors can describe their own journey to fame and fortune inside and out, but they can’t fully translate that success into an exact formula that will turn you into a bestseller too. It isn’t for lack of trying. Like I said, a lot of them teach professional workshops and actively reach out to new writers who may be either looking for someone to point them in the right direction or who may be discouraged. They have a lot of great insight to share. They make a concerted effort to foster creativity in others, advocating the power of learning and the value of perseverance. Somebody else taught them about craft and business somewhere along the way, and they want to pass it on.

Tenacity, skill, and networking to build both a fan base and a peer-support base are all essential to a writer’s growth and success. Taking classes, reading, attending professional writing conferences, working hard, and learning from the pros are almost guaranteed to make your writing solid and sellable. People who study the publishing market, however, have a hard time identifying exactly what makes one product soar up the charts seemingly overnight while another flounders and flops, or does “just okay.” It’s a weird combination of timing, of making something that is good enough quality to resonate with people, marketing it properly, and hitting just the right nerve with the masses at just the right season.

Most of the time, writing fiction is a labor of tough love fraught with rejection, stagnation, confusion, isolation, and meager successes that build credentials but can’t pay the bills. I was talking to a really nice man back at Steven Peck’s release party for Wandering Realities who’s published a heck of a lot of short stories. I won’t name him, and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing his story because it struck a cord with me. He said he tends to be self-conscious about his writing abilities and carries a feeling of inadequacy around with him, even to this day. He has never reached his goal of making it into a Writers of the Future anthology (despite being a finalist FOUR TIMES), or finished a novel. This made him so discouraged he gave up writing for many years because, despite his incredible track record, he felt like a failure.

He assumed he wasn’t a very good writer, so he withdrew from doing what he loved–and what he was, in fact, good at. His very beautiful and earnest advice to me was this: don’t undermine your successes because you’ve failed to meet your goals.

When I was in high school, I received my first ever C-grade taking a calculus class my junior year. A friend of mine in the same class, who was on track for a D that term and was a lot less stressed about her grade than I was about mine, communicated a similar sentiment when she told me, with an amused and reassuring grin, “After the first one [C-grade], you get used to it.” I consider this some of the best life advice I’ve ever been given.

Success does not appear to be a simple equation with obvious outcomes. Your success will not be my success, and my success will not be Tracy Hickman’s, or James Dashner’s, or Jack Horner’s (I might as well throw in a famous paleontologist while I’m at it). We may not achieve exactly what we’ve dreamed of, hoped for, worked for, or expected, but we have likely accomplished far more than we give ourselves credit for.

In the words of a scripture I love, in LDS Doctrine and Covenants 58:3-4, “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings.”

Whatever you may feel and wherever you may be with various accomplishments and milestones in your life, hang in there, and don’t sell yourself short. We’re all making more progress than we may think we are.

A Cool Interview I Found On The Song/Story Creation of Disney’s “Frozen”

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted something here. I’ve been busy [vegging] over the holidays–as good of an excuse as any to explain why I haven’t blogged, I suppose. 🙂

For want of a discussion topic, I’ve been watching some great movies that have come out since November. I’ve fallen in love with one particular movie almost to the point of embarrassment: Disney’s “Frozen.” The music and songs are wonderful, the storyline is lovely, and I can’t get the characters out of my head.

For writers/story-makers out there, I found this cool interview with the songwriters for “Frozen” about how that story came to be and how they decided what songs to include. I think it’s very insightful, not only into Disney’s process for creating fabulous animated films but also for the general toil and process of story creation. Whether you’re on a tight-nit professional team or a lone first-time artist, a lot of the process and sweat required to create something beautiful is the same. And a lot of what is created may not end up in the final product!

This interview also appeals to the musician side of me, reminding me that there are many mediums through which a story can be told. In a multimedia project, each medium plays a significant part in conveying the mood, flow, and message of that story. I’ve always been particularly fascinated with the role sound plays in movies and stage productions of all stripes, and how much emotion can be communicated from the simple tone in which words are said to the background music to sound effects. Many movie segments and dance sequences would be pretty boring without music. Even documentaries need good background music. Music is an emotional experience. Stories are an emotional experience. Art is an emotional experience. Yeah. Good stuff.

What stood out to me in particular from a story creation perspective in this interview was the discovery process it took to find that anchor point in “Frozen’s” story–that central thing (which in this case culminated in a song) around which the rest of the plot pivoted, where the characters and their conflicts finally fell into place. It also gave me a lot of courage to hear that even Disney crews don’t feel like their product is completely finished until their work is finally out with the public on release day.

Keep writing, and keep creating!

Also, happy New Year! Looking forward to all that 2014 has to bring. 🙂