Tips for Story Writing

If you’ve ever read a book, or had one read to you, then you already know what makes a good story. Think about a story you’ve enjoyed. It probably had a catchy beginning, interesting likeable characters, lots of exciting action, and perhaps a surprise at the end? Maybe it was set in a faraway magical land? Maybe there was a terrible battle? Perhaps the hero had special powers? Whatever your story was about, you’ll find that it had three key elements:

  • A main character or characters
  • A problem to sort out
  • A resolution (the problem gets fixed) and in the process the character learns or changes.

 

Character

Stories start with characters. Sometimes the main character of your story is you. If it is, then that makes things easier because you already know all there is to know about your character! But if not, then you have to start using your imagination. Here are some tips for creating characters:

  • What does your character look like? Can you find a picture in a magazine?
  • What does your character like? Or dislike?
  • How would you describe your character’s personality?
  • Does he or she have a secret? Or special powers? Or a terrible ambition?
  • Does your character have any unusual mannerisms?
  • Where does your character live, and with whom?
  • What happened in your character’s past?

There are two types of characters: main characters and minor characters. In a movie, the main characters are the stars. They have the biggest parts and appear in the most of the scenes. They also have the most to learn. The minor characters just pop up from time to time to help move the plot along. The same is true when you are writing a story.  

Problem

Every story needs a problem or conflict. A camping trip with Dad is all very nice, but it’s not a story. But if the car breaks down and while you’re away phoning for help someone steals your camping gear, then things start to get exciting. Conflict moves a story along. Here’s another example. The tale of Snow White begins, ‘Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess.’ We have established the main character is a beautiful princess. Ho hum. But as soon as we learn that Snow White’s evil step mother is plotting to kill her so she can be the fairest in the land, then we have the makings of a pretty dark story.

Sometimes, conflict can be between the characters, as in Snow White, but sometimes it’s a personal struggle. Writers call this internal conflict. An example might be a shy person having to overcome their fear to perform on stage. On the other hand, you could have your character battle the elements. Imagine, for example, an adventure story in which a group of kids have to survive on their own after a devastating earthquake.

By the time your story ends the problem should be fixed, ideally using your character’s skills. You can add a twist or a surprise at the end, but if you do remember it has to be satisfying to the reader. Nobody wants to read, “and then I woke up!”

Plot

A plot is the series of actions that your character has to go through in order to solve the problem and get to the end of the story. For example, in Star Wars soldiers of the Empire murder the family of a farm boy named Luke Skywalker. Devastated, Luke runs away to join the Rebels where he learns the ways of the Force and becomes a Jedi warrior. Eventually, Luke shoots down the Death Star, defeating the evil Empire and gaining a new kind of family. In this story, the problem or conflict facing Luke is the evil Empire. How he deals with the conflict is the plot: he joins forces with the rebels, learns the ways of the Force, and shoots down the Death Star. In the resolution, the Empire is defeated.

A good way of coming up with your plot is to ask what if and then brainstorm for ideas. Here are some to get you started:

  • What if your character got lost in the bush?
  • What if the bullies were armed with water bombs?
  • What if every time he talked to her he stuttered?
  • What if everyone saw him picking his nose?
  • What if her teacher was a werewolf?
  • What if the spaceship didn’t turn up?
  • What if she discovered something vital in the garage?
  • What if nobody believed them?

 

Setting

The setting is where your story takes place. Go crazy. Set your story under the ice, deep in the jungles of Africa, in medieval England, on one of Saturn’s moons, on a floating city, in the future, behind a wardrobe, or in some new imaginary world that you’ve made up. Even better, make your setting part of the problem that your character has to overcome. 

Beginnings

Everyone agrees. Beginnings are hard to write. The best stories start with punchy intriguing beginnings. Here are some good ones:

  • Tony stepped off the bus and ran to the shelter of the porch followed a moment later by his mother. (From: Frog Whistle Mine, by Des Hunt).
  • The Patrol as walking back to the cliff-ringed village of Bassorah when one of the party stopped and looked back. (From: Dogs of the Hinterland, by Tina Shaw).
  • The huge dog shot across the road in front of him. (From: The Wolf in the Wardrobe, by Susan Brocker).
  • A boy was lying on his stomach on the topmost tower of a small square castle, basking like a lizard in the sun. (From: Thornspell, by Helen Lowe).
  • From above the gardens that stride in wide stairs up the hillside, I look out over the wreckage of a world I’ll never know. (From: Ebony Hill by Anna MacKenzie).

Can you see how the writers of these stories hook us in from the first sentence? They force us to ask questions. Where did Tony and his mum get off the bus and why? What did the Patrol stop to look at? What happened when the huge dog shot across the road? Why was the boy lying atop a castle? And what happened to the world so that only wreckage remains? These beginnings make us want to read on and find out what happens to the characters in those stories.

First sentences often carry clues, too. For example, Tony and his mother haven’t come by car and wherever they are, it’s raining. In Dogs of the Hinterland, the story is set in a cliff-ringed village where there is danger and menace, enough to warrant a patrol. The boy basking like a lizard lives in a castle rather than a house, so perhaps this story is set in a far away land, or in ancient times.

Lastly, beginning sentences tell us about the mood of the story. When the huge dog dashes across the road, we know straight away that this is going to be a story with lots of action. And in the last example, a new world is arising out of the wreckage of an old one.

Read your first sentence. Does it make you ask a question? Does it give the reader clues about the story? And what sort of feeling do you get about the story when you read it? If you can answer those questions, then you’re probably on the right track!

And finally, here are some writers’ tricks!

  • Write something every day.
  • Write about things you love.
  • Read, read, read.
  • Look and listen – make your characters as real as possible.
  • Do some research – make your settings as real as possible.
  • There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Write ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ until you think of something more interesting – once is usually enough.
  • Write some more.
  • Check your work.