Tag Archives: story ideas

9 Quick Fixes For Short Story Writers Who Run Out Of Ideas

It is Short Story Africa Day on 21 June each year! It is the shortest day in the southern hemisphere.

To celebrate, we’re sharing ways to find ideas for your stories. If you are a short story writer and you’re looking for a quick fix, try one of these.

1.  Find Out What Lies Behind The Lyrics

Choose a date. What song was number one on that day? Do some research about the song. Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who inspired it? Use what you find out as inspiration for your short story.

2.  Use A Writing Prompt

Sign up for a daily writing prompt. Follow people who share them on social media. ‘A prompt can be anything. A word, a line from a poem or a song, a name or even a picture. Anything that gets you writing. Find ones you enjoy.’ (via) Your daily prompt could inspire your short story.

3.  Rewrite A Fairy Tale

Take a fairy take and write it as a modern day story. Change the sexes of the main characters. Choose a random setting. If the tale is too long for a short story, write the beginning or ending as your short story.

4.  Rewrite A Myth

A myth is an ancient story involving supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes. It is used to explain aspects of the natural world or to show the psychology, customs, or ideals of a society. Examples: The Myth of Creation, Arthur and Camelot, The Rain Queen. Write a myth using one of our 20 Myth Prompts as a short story.

5.  Obsess Over Details

Find one thing that interests you. Keep a file and save these items in it. It can be in a photograph or something you’ve heard. Research it and use it as inspiration for a story. Use this random first line generator to start your story.

6.  Hashtags On Instagram

Choose a topic that interests you. Visit Instagram and click on a hashtag related to the topic. Look at the posts and choose an image that inspires a story. Use this ‘What if?’ generator to enhance your scenario.

7.  Ask Your Followers

If you have a social media following, ask your fans what they want you to write about. Create a poll of some of the ideas you get and write about the one that gets the most votes. Use easypolls or pollcode or pollmaker. Use the embed code to share it on your blog or link it to your social media platform.

8.  Use A Holiday

Which public holiday is next on the calendar. Write a short story about someone who is planning for this holiday, or a story that centres around the holiday in some way.

9.  Write About The Day Your Parents Met

Rewrite the story of your parent’s first meeting. Write it from the perspective of a stranger watching them. Change names, swap the sexes of the characters, change locations. Go!

By Amanda Patterson
Source: writerswrite.co.za

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Should Your Story Have a Happy Ending?

Once upon a time my wife and were doing our second-favorite thing, sitting up late at night reading. Suddenly she yelled something like ARRGH or UGH and threw the book across the room, where the poor thing bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. The cat wisely jumped up and took off for parts unknown, while I was thinking, “She’s between me and the kitchen where all the sharp objects are.”

“Uh, honey, is something wrong?”

“At the end, an atomic bomb went off and they all died.”

“Uh, why did the bomb go off?”

”No reason. Just because.”

She wasn’t kidding. The End. And they all died unhappily ever after.

And I know how she felt because when I was in Junior High I read a novel about hot rodders where, at the end, the hero drives off a bridge, his head collides with his girlfriend’s with a “bone-shattering crunch.” The End. I felt cheated. I went back and read the end again. Yep. Dead as can be. Let that be a lesson to you kids — no racing around in souped-up jalopies.

Let’s talk about what most of us do, and that’s genre fiction. Let’s talk about “. . . and they all died.” Maybe indulge in a little compare and contrast between tales that do not end with everybody dying, that say, yes, Virginia, happiness is possible.

  • Popular memes about genre fiction and how to fight them

Meme Number One — grim stories about the futility of modern life are more true-to-life and realistic because the world is going to Hell in a hand basket.

Meme Number Two — stories about miserable characters trapped in meaningless lives who stay miserable and do nothing about it are somehow more important than a series of paranormal romances.

At their dark, bleeding hearts these memes would have you believe that a happy ending is easier to write, and therefore less worthy. “He stood over the heroine’s body, holding the knife, laughed maniacally and went back to the castle.” That Stephanie Plum is less valuable to readers than the woman at the heart of Gone Girl.

Don’t you believe it.

  • The world is going to Hell In a hand basket

If it is, people have been saying that for generations. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) starring Kevin McCarthy, the hero talks to a psychiatrist about the people in Santa Mira who believe their friends or family members have been replaced by doubles. The shrink replies, “It’s mass hysteria. Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” That was 1955 and we’re still here. Remember the kids driving their hot rod off a bridge? First it was juvenile delinquents, then hot rodders, followed by surfers, then hippies and later, slackers, each iteration of youth marking the end of civilization as we know it. If anything, the Jayne Ann Krentz ending, with relatively happy protagonists, is more realistic because we’re still here; Charon is still waiting to take that hand basket across the River Styx.

  • Dark and brooding is more important 

Oh, really? Okay, sales numbers do not always relate to quality — Valley of the Dolls was a huge seller — but you want meaningful numbers? Romance novels account for 29% of all titles sold.1

That’s right, almost one in three books, including e-books, has a lady with cleavage, or a guy on the cover who makes me feel inadequate. Add in thrillers and mysteries and it’s over half of everything sold. That number has held steady for years, and to me that says something. It says that a good story can end happily, and that such stories fill an important need. Note that here I am including a typical Stephen King ending where victory is obtained, but at a cost. This attitude isn’t new, either. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Guns of August was praised, sort of, by scholars as “popular history.”2 It was an instant best seller and continues to sell to this day.

I believe in Story. I believe in laughter. For my money there’s not enough of either one in the world.

First, Story, with a capital S.

The world around us is often chaotic, we humans have a hard time figuring out why things happen and often the answer is simply, “because.” The cliche of the woman holding the body of her husband and shrieking at the heavens, “Why? Why?” is constructed like a flawed pearl around a pebble of wisdom, because often the answer is — just because.

Art, Story, provides a respite from the unrelenting randomness of real life. “Just because” doesn’t work in a novel. How random is life? The chain of causality that led me to writing this essay goes like this: I was in high school, headed for UCLA with my best friend Mark. When he was killed I lost interest in UCLA, went to Cal State Long Beach instead, where I met my wife (the book-thrower) and through her the lady who invited me to contribute to WITS. But is that a story? Of course not. It’s “just because.”

Our job is to layer on structure, to remove the extraneous. (And as a side note, wouldn’t that be a good topic for one of these essays? Do we as storytellers create the structure, or is it always there, waiting for us to reveal it? In a possibly apocryphal story Michelangelo once said the statue was always in the piece of marble; he just had to chip away the part that wasn’t David.) We either make or reveal the structure, and provide a tale to entertain.

Humor, happiness, is hard! You want tragedy? Just open your AP news feed.

Jerry Lewis said in the documentary “No Apologies,” “I see people all over the world desperate for laughter.”3 He was right, and I would add to that they are desperate for simple joy.

He described a plaque given to him by John F. Kennedy that reads:

There are three things which are real:
God, human folly and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension
So we must do what we can with the third.

Here’s the point. It’s important how you feel about your work, and if you’re writing a series about a shape-shifting alien prince, or a detective who indulges in self-deprecating humor, you may feel a nagging sense that literary writers are somehow “better.” Fight it.

In the final analysis, what I’ve always wanted to do is what Don McLean says in, “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” — “maybe they’d be happy for a while.” What I’ve learned, no, what has been driven home to me recently, is just how important that is.

Source: writersinthestormblog.com

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Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Human beings are built for story.

Story is how we perceive the world around us and how we understand ourselves and other people. Through story, we learn and make connections. We use stories to map the future and study the past.

Stories are the single most effective tools for education, communication, and persuasion, which is why they are prevalent in advertising and political campaigning. Marketers know the power of story.

Stories are powerful because we see ourselves in them. We put ourselves into the stories we read and experience things we could never otherwise experience.

Put simply, stories transcend. 

Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories is, foremost, a book on the craft of narrative journalism, which is the art of telling true stories while adhering to the standards of journalism. It’s a dense book (the paperback is 317 pages) filled with essays about reporting and writing, but its greatest value is the experience and wisdom shared by its authors:

“Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.” — Jacqui Banaszynski, Telling True Stories

This collection of essays features some of the most successful and prominent journalists and nonfiction authors who gather every year for Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories offers their best insights from finding the right topic to structuring a story, from ethical considerations to building a career.

Insights from Telling True Stories

In my experience, reading books on the craft of writing that are outside my form or genre is one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the craft as a whole. If you’re a fiction writer and all you do is read fiction (and books on fiction writing), you’re missing out on the many nuances of writing that are not addressed in the realm of fiction. I have found that my studies of poetry have greatly enriched all my other forms of writing, from copywriting and blogging to fiction writing.

So I wasn’t surprised to find that, even though I’m not a journalist, there were plenty of wonderful nuggets of writing advice and insight that I could apply to my own writing. Some insights were new; others were welcome reminders:

  • The ending must bring a payoff. (p. 28)
  • Every deep story involves a subjective person slamming into an objective world. (p. 35)
  • The first draft takes the longest and is the most painful. (p. 53)
  • You start with an unformed, fuzzy idea, throw it into a funnel, and out comes a focused, purposeful story. (p. 55)
  • Writing is like scraping off a piece of yourself; people can see beneath your skin. (p. 100)
  • Every detail you select should help communicate your story’s theme. (p. 147)
  • The editor is the reader’s professional representative. (p. 197)
  • Successful rewriting requires a fierce sense of competition with yourself, not anyone else. You must be dogged in reaching for your personal best. (p. 205)
  • When a good editor or another reader gives you feedback, listen hard to everything he or she says. This isn’t a time to protect your ego; it’s an opportunity to re-explore your story and force yourself to delve even deeper. (p. 207)
  • One way to attract readers is to create an irresistible central character, one the reader truly cares about. (p. 219)
  • Every story contains an engine: the unanswered question that keeps the reader going. (p. 220)

This is just a small sampling of the wit and wisdom that I discovered while reading Telling True Stories. But this isn’t one of those books that you can’t put down. I found that I needed to read it in small chunks, which is unusual for me since I usually either inhale a book or cast it aside after the first few chapters. With Telling True Stories, I wanted to read a few essays, then chew on what I’d read.

It also made me want to write. Sometimes I had to put the book down so I could work on my own story, (which is not a true story, by the way). Like I said, I’m not a journalist, but I learned a lot about my craft from the narrative journalists who shared their expertise and experience in this wonderful collection of essays.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for writing resources that you can use to strengthen your writing skills or inspire fresh ideas. Telling True Stories will be a valuable addition to your collection.

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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Stumped for Story Ideas? Try This One Tip

In a recent episode of Jane the Virgin, the main character, Jane, is stumped for story ideas. She already published one book, but that was inspired by her dramatic telenovela-like life. She’s convinced that she has no other story to tell.

one tip 2

When she shares her dilemma with her fellow writing-class students, they assure her that what she described is not a problem at all. She doesn’t need new story ideas. Why?

Because she can retell the same story.

Follow the Heat

Cheryl Strayed calls this “following the heat.” Her most famous book is Wild, a memoir about the hike that help her deal with her mother’s death.

But she wrote about that period of her life and the loss of her mother repeatedly. She wrote personal essays about it and fiction inspired by it. She told and retold her story as many times and as many ways as she could.

That’s following the heat.

There are so many examples of authors rehashing the same story ideas and telling stories about the same thing over and over again. Philip Roth is one of the most prolific American writers ever—somehow Newark, NJ manages to find its way into most, if not all, of his books. In the show, Jane’s fellow classmates astutely point to Jamaica Kincaid and John Updike and their tendency to return to the same themes or characters.

Tell and Retell

So, do you feel like you’ve already told your one great story?

No problem. Tell it again.

Tell it from a different perspective (e.g, a side character). Zoom in on a specific moment or zoom out to show how it fits into something bigger. Try telling your great story in a different format: perhaps a personal essay instead of a novel, or vice versa.

It’s OK to take the same story ideas and tell your story again and again and again.

Can you think of other writers who have told and retold the same story? Let us know in the comments.

By Monica M. Clark
Source: thewritepractice.com

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Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another. 

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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How to Develop Story Ideas Into Amazing Stories

I often hear practicing writers ask, “What if I can’t think of anything to write about?” Sometimes they even have notebooks full of observations, but they feel like none of them are good enough for a full story, and they’re not sure how to develop story ideas into amazing stories.

I’ve felt the same way, but there are more opportunities or seeds for story ideas in our notebooks than we think. It might be an image, a snippet of a conversation we overheard at lunch, or a social issue that grates against us. Once we have the seeds, how do we take those seeds and develop them into stories?

How to Develop Story Ideas

I love hearing the different ways writers develop story ideas into full length projects. It’s one part of the writing process that often remains cloaked in mystery. Sometimes, a writer isn’t sure how an idea develops, so they’ll say, “Oh I just write,” which makes the rest of us feel like failures when we sit down and nothing comes.

Sarah Gribble shared a great way to outline fiction in a post earlier this week, but what do you do in the space between “I noticed this thing” and “outline the story”?

Some might say, “Oh that’s the magic. You can’t teach that. It’s too formulaic. It just happens.” That might be true, but I can’t have my classes of fiction writers sitting around waiting for the magic to happen. I have to teach them how to make magic. (Do I have an amazing job or what?)

Here’s one way I help my students develop a story idea into an outline and draft.

Choose Something Specific

When students begin trying to find story ideas, they inevitably pick something too big.

“I want to write a story about the way technology makes us less human!”

“Global warming!”

“True love!”

“Space opera!”

These are all topics and themes that could yield great stories, but they are too broad and too general. We need to get much more specific to capture the humanity of these themes.

As I search through my notebooks, I look for a vivid image, event, or conversation. Here’s an example I found recently:

So good to have my sister here. Odd conversation tonight that stuck with me. She said her kids might not need to learn to drive the way self-driving cars are advancing. She said, “They use information from satellites, traffic cams and even other cars to minimize user error and fatalities.” It’s hard to imagine.

The thing that interested me was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash? I pulled the idea of self-driving cars along with that one phrase from our conversation: “Minimizing fatalities.”

Find the Heat

Once you choose a specific idea, find the hot spots in it or create one. A hot spot is a place where the temperature is higher or “a place of significant activity or danger.” It might be the inherent conflict in a conversation or the oddity in an image that could lead to or expose disaster.

Again, specificity is your friend. Some examples:

You overhear a conversation: “So help me if you leave with the hamster and espresso machine, I’ll …”

Or a headline from the news with an odd (and heartbreaking) image: “Woman who gouged out her own eye found standing next to church.”

Both of these moments hold immense potential for stories because they prompt us to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” The emotions behind these small hot places can be great places to develop an idea. If you can capture the emotion behind a moment, you can build any world you like around it.

A Character as a Hot Spot

Maybe your idea isn’t an image or event, but a person. If you start with a character, you can follow the same process by asking a few specific questions.

What does this character want from the moment we meet him?

How far is he willing to go to get it?

How can this character’s fears, anger, or insecurity get them in trouble?

You can short cut this by building from someone you know or using an actor or type. Then get specific. I can start with my Uncle John, because he is curmudgeonly and outspoken against technology, but I’ll need to change it up and give the character some details that belong only to him.

Also, remember you aren’t writing about a character’s life, you are writing about his or her problem. Specific, vivid details will make the character leap off the page.

An Example

The thing that interested me most in the conversation with my sister was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash?

I asked some questions: Who is responsible in a car crash involving a self-driving car? The driver or the car company? The tech company who built the algorithm? The satellite company reporting the data?

What if a new IT graduate buys a self-driving car and her grandfather disapproves? What if that same girl is in a fatal accident?

There are a number of hotspots in this idea that could create conflict, because there are so many emotions surrounding a crash and the element of responsibility. From here, I’m ready to outline the goal of my character, the conflict, and the climax that will guide my story.

Once you’ve explored the possibilities, you can outline the main beats of your story and get to drafting.

Do you have a method for getting from seed to draft? Do you have any tips for how to develop story ideas? Let us know in the comments!

By Sue Weems
Source: thewritepractice.com

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How to End a Story With a Brilliant Twist

Don’t you love a great twist ending?

Often appearing in the middle or at the end of a story, a twist can completely transform the reading experience into a wild ride where anything can happen.

But executing a twist isn’t easy, and if done improperly, can leave your reader feeling deeply disappointed.

And that’s just what many writers unsuspectingly do.

The Wrong Kind of Twist

A “twist” is the revelation of crucial information that radically changes the reader’s understanding of the story. And to work properly, the twist must be related to a major choice made by the protagonist.

Many writers fail to make this connection. Rather, they think that a twist ending simply needs to withhold any important background information until the end of the story. And then, upon revealing it, they will somehow have reached a surprising and satisfying ending.

But this isn’t the case.

I found this to be true as a judge of the 2017 Fall Writing Contest, hosted by The Write Practice. The theme, “Let’s Fall in Love,” yielded many stories where characters simply “remembered” things that happened long ago. Perhaps they were visiting a cemetery where a loved one was buried, or a residence from childhood. The memories came back, and bits of information were revealed throughout the 1,500 word allotment. Then the story was over.

Nothing happened. Little changed.

Sure, surprising information appeared here and there, but it didn’t arrive in the context of choice. 

The revelation of surprising information is not climactic action. Information doesn’t do anything; it just explains.

Yet when that information accompanies a surprising, climactic choice, it enhances the complexity of the choice.

A bad twist is information posing as a choice. But a great twist reveals a choice that the reader usually can’t see coming, and why it is so impactful.

That’s the kind of twist you want.

The Right Kind of Twist

The best twists focus on Choice, and reveal one or two things:

  1. A contradictory motivation behind a major choice
  2. A hidden, contradictory major choice

Take Toy Story 2. 

The heart-wrenching song “When Somebody Loved Me” is a slow, painful twist that reveals the seemingly contradictory choice that Jessie the Cowgirl is making: to go to a museum, rather than entrust herself to another owner. Why? Because despite the nature of a toy (to be loved by a child), Jessie has been deeply wounded by her previous owner, and is too scared to make herself vulnerable again.

Tell me that scene didn’t rip your heart out! 

Or think of The Shawshank Redemption. The protagonist, Andy, has been making a very important (and methodical) choice during his 19 years in prison. The twist reveals it, completely changing the characters’ (and the viewer’s) understanding of Andy’s choices throughout the whole story. His secret choice has been contradicting his visible choices the whole time.

Tell me that moment didn’t change your life!

Both of these twists accompany and complicate a major choice made by a character. They also reveal something contradictory about the character’s nature.

That’s the stuff of a powerful twist!

How to Write a Great Twist

Executing a powerful twist ending isn’t easy. It takes lots of planning, drafting, and revising. And it won’t always work the way you expect. Here’s how to do it:

1. Plan Choices

When you outline and draft, focus on the big, high-risk choices your characters can make. Experiment with a variety of choices, some that are outside your plan or even your comfort zone.

And as your characters solidify in the world of your story, focus on one to two choices that will truly surprise your reader. Hone in on choices that seem to contradict outward appearances or add deeply empathetic context to their difficult choices.

2. Don’t Keep “Secrets”

Unless you’re in the Mystery genre, try not to keep secrets. Sure, be intentional and sparse with your exposition, but don’t buy into the lie that secret background information qualifies as a satisfying twist.

In fact, you should write versions of scenes where you intentionally reveal crucial information (those would-be secrets)! You may find that the scene works better with the truth on the table. It will certainly force you to focus more on character choice, rather than character backstory!

And even in the Mystery/Thriller genres, the best secrets are tied to choices as well. Usually these big secrets are wrapped up in lies, which qualify as character choices — especially when you show them in action.

Keep the focus on choice, and you’ll find yourself in a great position to start executing a twist.

3. Wait Until the Perfect Moment

The best way to identify the perfect moment is to answer this question: “When are the stakes the highest?”

It’s at that moment that you should unleash your twist, as it complicates the high-risk choices made by your character.

I relished the opportunity to do this when I wrote a murder-mystery play. After the “false” ending, just when the characters and audience believe that the evil has passed, the killer reveals his true nature in a deeply personal and shocking way, murdering someone very close to him. It altered every choice the audience had seen him make for nearly two hours, and was even a complicated choice in and of itself, motivated by anger and a thirst for revenge.

But it took a ton of planning, drafting, and revising to finally get right!

Do the Twist

A great twist ending is worth the effort. It sits atop the storyteller’s Mt. Olympus, right alongside eliciting a full-bellied laugh from your reader, or a puffy-cheeked cry.

Few stories are able to deliver it in a deeply satisfying way. Will yours?

Remember: These take lots of practice. You’ll hardly ever get a perfect twist right on the first or second, or even third, try.

But it’s totally worth it. For many of us, great storytelling twists motivate us to tell our own stories. We long to recreate the catharsis of an unpredictable twist.

So do it right. Focus on choices, and the seemingly contradictory reasons why characters make them. Don’t simply hide backstory, but use it to complicate the difficult decisions every character has to make.

So write on, fearless storyteller! And have fun planning and writing great twists that will thrill your readers every time!

What are your favorite twist endings? How do you surprise your readers with a brilliant twist? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford
Source: thewritepractice.com

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Archetypal Characters in Storytelling

The hero, the mentor, the sidekick. We’re all familiar with archetypal characters in storytelling. We’ve seen them before. We know the roles they play.

Archetypal characters shouldn’t be confused with stock characters or stereotypical characters. Although we’ve seen all these characters before and will surely see them again, stock and stereotypical characters are based on character traits; archetypes are based on the characters’ function or purpose within a story.

Characters’ Function in Story

Archetypal characters fulfill a specific function a story. The herald signals change or the beginning of an adventure. The mentor imparts gifts, skills, or knowledge to the hero. The threshold guardian tests the hero or blocks the path forward.

Stock characters feel familiar because they embody a personality type — behaviors and attitudes that we’ve seen in similar characters before. The tough guy, the girl next door, and the wise old man or woman are all examples of stock characters. They may serve a purpose in the story (somebody has to serve the main characters at a restaurant), but what stands out is their personality, which sometimes feels cliché.

Stereotypical characters reflect social stereotypes, which are widely held and often inaccurate or misleading beliefs about groups. Stereotypes occur when traits, behaviors, and attitudes are assigned to an entire group. They often based on race, religion, gender, or geographical origin, and they are usually negative. Stereotypes make irrational assumptions about individuals based on the group to which they belong.

How can we tell the difference between an archetype, stock character, or stereotype? Let’s use the Knight in Shining Armor and a Damsel in Distress as examples. The damsel functions as a plot device, providing the hero with a goal (to save her), and the knight functions as a hero whose primary goal is to rescue the damsel. But the function these characters perform within a story (to save or be saved) need not be assigned to a damsel or a knight. A child could save a puppy. A witch could save a wizard. Or a lifeguard could save a swimmer.

If we remove the personality traits, we’re left with the function: give the hero someone or something to save, i.e., an archetypal function.

Archetypal Characters from The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell discovered archetypal characters that exist in stories throughout time and across space. He presented his findings in the Monomyth (or Hero’s Journey), and Christopher Vogler later adapted Campbell’s findings in his book, The Writer’s Journey. Let’s take a look at the eight archetypes of the Hero’s Journey:

  • Hero: Protagonist who undergoes a meaningful transformation over the course of a story and who often changes the conditions of the story world for the better.
  • Herald: Signals that an adventure (or change) is imminent.
  • Mentor: Teacher and guide.
  • Threshold Guardian: Blocks a threshold that the Hero must pass; tests the Hero.
  • Shadow: The villain and other characters that stand in the Hero’s way; often they embody the Hero’s negative or undesirable traits.
  • Shapeshifter: A character or entity whose motives or intentions are unclear.
  • Trickster: Comic relief; Tricksters are often catalysts for change.
  • Allies: The Hero’s friends and helpers.

You’ll often see these archetypes in various combinations in storytelling. Some stories may not use a shapeshifter while others might have more than one trickster. A single character can embody multiple archetypes. For example, the character that performs the function of the Herald might also be a Trickster. The Mentor could act as the Threshold Guardian.

Other Archetypal Characters

The Hero’s Journey isn’t the only source of archetypal characters. There are other types of stories and other archetypes in fiction. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Anti-hero: This is an inverted hero, the protagonist is not likable or engages in despicable or immoral behaviors.
  • Audience surrogate: A stand-in for the audience, to inject questions and thoughts on behalf of the audience.
  • The Chosen One: A type of hero who is destined for greatness or tragedy rather than earning it.
  • The Cynic: This untrusting character often provides skepticism or challenges the status quo.

This is just a small sampling of archetypes you might find in fiction. You can have a lot of fun identifying archetypes, but make sure each one performs a function rather than represents a behavior or personality type. A common archetype I’ve noticed is The Oppressor, a character who uses their power to rob other characters of their rights, freedoms, and justice. The Misfit is a character that doesn’t fit in with mainstream society and either learns to fit in or eventually learns to be true to who they are.

Using Character Archetypes

Character archetypes can come in handy during the story development process. You might write a draft or outline and feel that it’s missing something. Maybe your story needs one of the character archetypes to mark the stages and progress of your protagonist’s journey.

Have you ever intentionally used archetypes in your stories? Are there any character archetypes you’ve noticed in fiction that aren’t mentioned here? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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Story Ideas: How to Beat Shiny-New-Idea Syndrome and Actually Finish Your Projects

Authors often get asked where they get their story ideas. It’s one of the most common questions my student writers wish they could ask their writing heroes. They think, “If I could just find a way to come up with the next best-selling story idea like [insert famous author], then I’ll make it as a writer!”

But they misunderstand one critical truth: the magic isn’t in the ideas. It’s in the execution.

We need the ideas to get started, but many writers don’t have a system for capturing the ideas around them daily, and they don’t develop ideas consistently in practice.

We all have files full of unfinished projects and story ideas spread across notebooks and online platforms. Why do ideas lose their luster the moment we start writing them?

The Problem with Chasing Story Ideas

I had a student who was a few days away from his deadline for his final fiction project and he came to see me.

“I found a better idea and want to change my project,” he said.

“How much have you written on this new idea?” I asked.

“Well, you see, it’s about this guy …”

I interrupted him. “No, how much have you written on it. How many words?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “None, yet.”

I shook my head. “Write it down in a sentence in your journal, and finish the original project first.”

He sputtered a bit about how great this new story idea was compared to the thousands of words he’d written on his current project.

I had to give him the talk I give many students and myself when we feel stuck and get caught up chasing a new shiny idea instead of getting in the chair and grinding out the work.

“Ideas are nothing until you execute them. Your desire to chase something else is resistance. You are close to finishing the longest piece of fiction you’ve ever written. Finish it.

“The idea will still be there. You’re afraid the current work won’t be as good as it seemed in your head, when it was a shiny new idea like the one you’re courting now.

“But the magic isn’t in the idea. It’s in the way you execute it, which means you need a first draft. Then we’ll revise it into the work you want it to be.”

It wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, but he ultimately finished the original project.

A System for Managing Story Ideas

A system can minimize shiny-new-idea syndrome, because you will have a plan for what to do when a new idea appears in the midst of your current project.

I always have a notebook with me, but sometimes I capture story ideas online. I used to bookmark interesting articles, until I had so many stored that I never looked at them. Since then, I’ve transitioned online links to Evernote with tags to easily search my ideas.

I know writers who love to use Pinterest to keep character boards, settings, and history research in a visually organized way. Others love spreadsheets. Some keep idea boards in their writing spaces.

Find the method that you are most likely to use, and it will save you time as you collect and use your ideas. Then, when you are in the middle of trying to finish a project, you know exactly where to put that idea that keeps interrupting your work.

Revisiting Notebooks for Idea-Mining

Whether you keep your ideas on paper or online, build time into your writing year to revisit your stash.

I used to dump all my notebooks in a jumble in a big bin when they were finished. Now, I put dates on the bindings and keep them in two boxes in my huge bin. Each summer, I make time to scan through the notebooks in one of the boxes, pulling one or two notebooks that have especially promising ideas to develop. Sometimes I just read through them and put them all back.

Online, I tag story ideas in Evernote by genre or fiction element (character, setting, conflict, interesting problem, etc.). When I’m looking for a fresh story idea, I can open Evernote and scan through a tag’s contents quickly.

The Most Important Step

As I shared with my student who was chasing a new idea, the most important thing to do is simply pick an idea and follow it through to completion, one idea at a time, over and over again. A system can minimize those distractions, because you can tell your inner squirrel that the idea is safely lodged in your notebook and will be revisited when it’s time.

Of course there may be times when abandoning a project is necessary, but don’t let your reason be “Oooo, look at this shiny new idea!”

Where do you like to record your story ideas? Share in the comments.

By Sue Weems
Source: thewritepractice.com

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Setting of a Story: 3 Ways Going Outside Can Improve Your Writing

Our job as writers is to transport our readers into our stories. A high-octane plot and three-dimensional characters are obviously necessary to accomplish this goal, but so is an immersive setting of a story.

The setting of a story is often overlooked when describing a scene. We all want to move on to the next plot twist and wasting important space on what trees look like will just bore the readers, right?

Wrong.

To draw readers fully into a scene, we need setting. We want them to forget they’re reading and make them experience everything our characters are experiencing.

Sometimes, you can get away with building the setting of a story straight from your imagination. Sometimes, you can’t.

The Argument for Going Outdoors

I’m what you would call an “outdoorsy person.” I love being outside in any weather, at any time of day. Nature inspires me, clears my head, and gets me out of my desk chair for a little while.

You don’t have to be a nature person to get the benefits of absorbing your surroundings. And you don’t have to live in the middle of the woods to write about the outdoors. Even sitting on your porch or taking a quick jaunt around the block can infuse you with new energy and enthusiasm.

3 Ways to Be More Present

Okay, you’re outside, standing on a hill, looking at the sunset. Now what?

We’re constantly surrounded by everything we need to build a great setting of a story, but we often ignore all that in our rush to the next thing.

Pay attention to your surroundings. Immerse yourself in your own experiences, and you’ll be able to draw on them later.

NOTE: I’ve used a rural setting as an example, but this applies to urban settings as well.

Here are three things to think about while outdoors:

1. Your Senses

You already know the importance of using all five senses to improve your writing, but it can be hard to notice anything deeper than the obvious.

Let’s take our sunset example from earlier. It’s obviously gorgeous, and you can probably describe the colors of the sunset quite well.

Look deeper.

Close your eyes. Can you hear someone crunching through the woods in the distance? Songbirds? Traffic? The woman walking her dog across the field: Is she slumped from cold or fanning herself from heat? Young, old, talking on her cell phone? Is she attentive to her dog or zoned out? What does the air smell like? What does the ground feel like?

Pay attention to the less obvious and you’ll draw in your readers.

Remember: You don’t have to use all five senses in every description. Select the most useful senses for the scene.

PRO TIP: Try observing the same setting at different times of day or during different seasons.

2. Similes and Metaphors

Similes and metaphors add layers to your prose, allowing the reader to experience a deeper understanding of the setting. They also allow you to enhance character description and plot, establish mood and tone, and can cut down on overly verbose descriptions.

When you’re observing your surroundings, don’t just note the sensory details around you, but think about comparisons.

Right now, I’ve got a pile of snow outside my house that’s mid-melt and looks like a Smurfs hat. See, I didn’t have to describe the shape and curve of this particular pile of snow in order for you to get my meaning.

Back to the sunset on the hill. You’ve noticed the sunset is purple and yellow. That’s all well and good, but boring. What do those colors remind you of? For me, it’s a bruise, which enhances other aspects of my story, as my main character has just been betrayed by a friend.

The sunset swirled with varying shades of purple and yellow, spreading like an angry bruise across the horizon.

The “bruising sunset” is a bit overdone anymore, but you get the point.

Don’t just go with the obvious (aka, cliché) similes and metaphors. Think deeper. Get creative. Have some fun with it.

3. Spying

We don’t all have access to that hill at sunset, and we don’t all want to write about nature. (Though plenty of nature resides in cities as well.) If you or your characters prefer a more urban environment, pay attention to the people around you.

Yes, I’m giving you permission to spy.

I once encountered a middle-aged man decked out like a hippie browsing outside an antique store. Long gray hair, bellbottoms, bandana, smelled awful. He was so out of place, I just had to linger near him for a moment. He was chatting on an iPhone about his investments while thumbing through art prints. The whole situation stunned me.

To this day, he is still the most fascinating person I’ve ever seen. I possibly would’ve noticed him without consciously spying, but I wouldn’t have moved closer to hear his conversation.

No matter what you’re doing, pay attention to the people around you. What are they doing? How do they walk? Noting mannerisms can add layers to your characters. Are they talking to someone? What are they saying? Snippets of conversation can spawn an entire chapter idea, and introduce you to better dialogue.

Try not to be creepy, though.

Immerse Yourself

The setting of a story is just as important as other aspects of your writing. In order to establish an immersive setting for your readers and not rely on overused descriptions, you need to go outside and experience your surroundings. Observe. Take note.

Be present in your setting and your readers will be, too.

Any other tips to immerse yourself in outdoor settings? Let me know in the comments.

By Sarah Gribble
Source: thewritepractice.com

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