Hello Interwebs! Interested in writing a story? Well here’s a a handy dandy (though not comprehensive) guide to help you along.
For all the TL; DR people out there…
QUICK STEPS TO WRITING A STORY:
-Begin with a concept.
-Invent characters, an event or a world surrounding that concept
-Create a plot around those characters, worlds or events
-Structure that plot
–Write an Outline/ treatment
-Rewrite the treatment until plot is cohesive, tight –little to no pointless excess–, and engaging
-Cut out vague descriptions and write your dialogue/ prose in its place.
–Mull over everything and throw it all in the trash once you realize it’s not good enough, then start the whole process from scratch…
Once you’ve done all that, I offer my congratulations! You’re officially a writer!
Now onto the actual article:
My Ethos on Concepts
For some people (myself included) brainstorming a solid concept can be the hardest part of screenwriting. Ideally you think of something good, but not derivative; fun but not pointless; thought-provoking but not boring, etc. I genuinely believe there’s no such thing as a bad idea. It’s all about execution. And any idea has potential to be executed well. Full disclosure: there’s no magical technique for generating good concepts, but I’m here to aid in making your concepts the best they can be. I want you to have a well-constructed foundation for your concepts from which something special might be built.
Where to Begin
Open up a blank page on a screenwriting software, text document, or notebook and stare at it. The artist has a canvas; you have a page. It’s blank and lifeless, and you have the ability to fill it with whatever you want! But where to start? This blank page is filled with possibilities so endless it may feel daunting. Don’t despair. There are many paths ahead that you can take, but three in particular that will lead in promising directions:
First, you might choose to begin with the path of character. Create a protagonist we will follow through a journey. Don’t just think of this character in terms of what they do. Who are they? How do they think? What are their hobbies, their ideals, their general outlook on life? And how are they flawed? Most importantly: what do they want? And what will they do to get it? The best characters have agency in their own stories. They make things happen rather than have things done to them. Also, no matter how low stakes a character story is, the events of said story must REALLY matter to the people involved, or else it will feel inconsequential.
EXAMPLE 1: A princess, raised from birth to be loyal to her kingdom, must marry a ruthless King whom she hates in order to bring peace to the land. Before the wedding can take place, she runs away. This is where our story begins in earnest. This princess’s main struggle is of duty vs personal happiness. Will she marry the man she hates for the greater good of her subjects and the region? Can she make that sacrifice? Meanwhile, her family and the rival kingdom seek to track her down and force this wedding to take place.
You might not feel too strongly about any particular characters to begin a story. So maybe path 2 is more up your alley: begin with an event. Now, this could really be anything, but big events are more fun than small ones. An event is something which affects many people and may forever change the world of your tale. I feel like “event” stories are the rarest kind to begin with but they’re still a valid option.
EXAMPLE 2: A natural disaster strikes a part of the world. The whole story is about the fallout from that event: the first responders, victims, relief efforts, etc.
Finally, you might decide to base your story around a “world”. This is where most sci-fi/ fantasy writers begin. However, a world doesn’t necessarily have to be fantastical or entirely fictional. A world is simply an intriguing place where the story is set. Sometimes characters venture outside the primary world, but the world’s history/ culture are integral to the narrative. In other words, if your story could be set ANYWHERE else, the world isn’t that important.
EXAMPLE: A story set around an apartment building tracks the lives of the most interesting tenants and the mini-society they’ve created amongst themselves. This building was built in the mid-20th century in a big city, but its status has shifted with demographics over the decades. Once located in a rich part of town, the apartment and surrounding neighborhood have seen better days. But some of the older tenants remember how things used to be. Horrific and beautiful things have happened here, people have lived and died in these walls, and the majority of their experiences couldn’t have occurred quite the same anywhere else.
NOTE: World might be the hardest path to start with because a world requires intricate rules and societal structures and history to feel alive.
Once you have characters, an event, or a world to start with, it’s time to create a story around them. Here are some key elements which will help you build your tale:
World-building and setting are integral to stories, yet may barely come into play. In my experience, it’s best for a writer to come up with more lore, history, and other world-based information than they actually use. That way they’ll always have a well of inspiration to draw from if they get stuck.
One common advice to writers is to “write what you know”. Coming up with a whole world might seem daunting, but it’s actually easier than you might think. I’m going to create a vivid picture of a world right now. It’s called Alliston (and it’s my home town):
Alliston is a suburban middle-class town of largely western European descent; we have a population of approximately 30,000; Many of those 30,000 are either retired or young families; Protestant is the dominant religion; our politics tend to lean conservative; our main exports are potatoes and cars; We have the only Honda manufacturing plants in Canada, and they employ much of the town (everyone I know has at least one relative or friend who works there); Many of our businesses are still locally owned; We have a world-class golf resort with the Nottawasaga Inn; Sir Frederick Banting, the scientist who co-discovered insulin, was born in our town and owned a homestead here; There’s a yearly parade/ weekend-long celebration called Potato Festival where we celebrate our farming heritage and local talents; We have 2 public schools, a catholic school, and one high school. Etc.
That’s a LOT of information about this place off the top of my head. Would I use most of that in a story? Unlikely. However, knowing all these things about my town might help inform me about what people from the town are like, what they believe in, and how my protagonist would react to them. All you have to do is take details like the ones I provided above and fictionalize them.
What if you’ve never been to a town like this? Use your imagination. I’ve never lived in a big Canadian city, but the basic societal structure as my small town is similar. Demographics, ideologies, histories, and local circumstances are just unique details. It’s your job to make those up. As long as it makes some kind of believable sense in the context of your tale, you can do whatever you want.
Of course the more experiences and cultures and world-views you’ve been exposed to will give you more information to draw from, but using what you know as a jumping-off point never hurts. Sometimes you might have to do research or ask around if you’d like a more accurate perspective though. Or just invent a whole new culture if that sounds more fun. It’s up to you. Knowing how real-world cultures work is a good start though.
This section will contain the outline of a classic 3-Act Structure. I want to note upfront that I’ll be explaining this structure in terms of screenplays because that’s the medium I know, but the principles work in other forms of creative writing as well. In essence, a 3 act structure is the typical grade-school understanding of stories. The first act is the beginning, the second act is the middle, and the third act is the end.
In a screenplay, the first act encompasses about ¼ of the story. For a screenplay 120 pages long, this would make the first act about 30 pages (approximately 30 minutes). The first act introduces the audience to the primary characters and the “ordinary world”, showcases the inciting incident (which, in this 120 pg. structure ought to be at about the end of pg. 1 if possible), and comes to a close by sending the protagonist in a new direction.
Your inciting incident is the thing which launches your story forward. In Star Wars: A New Hope (I assume many people have seen this one), the inciting incident is Darth Vader boarding Princess Leia’s ship to search for the Death Star plans. Everything else in the movie occurs as a direct consequence of this moment.
Star Wars then spends its first act on Tatooine, introducing us to Luke Skywalker (a farmboy whose one goal is to get off this world to bigger things), his family, the mysterious old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the cocky smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca. This is the “ordinary” world for Skywalker. He’s lived his whole life on this planet and probably would have continued to do so had he not received a “call to adventure”. The first act ends when he decides to leave Tatooine and travel with Kenobi to become a Jedi.
A story’s second act comprises the majority of the tale (60 pages, if we’re following the 120 pg example). In this act, the protagonist encounters a variety of obstacles to their goal, each more harrowing than the last. The midpoint of this act (the midpoint of the narrative as a whole) ought to be the character’s darkest moment. This is the crisis point from which the character emerges a changed person, for better or for worse.
Most writers struggle with pulling off their narrative’s second acts because they don’t know how to connect the initial premise to the end. Often, writers come up with the concept first and then the conclusion but neglect to consider how one will flow to the other in a natural and compelling way. I’ll give you some Second-Act tips in the next section.
So the action of Act 2 continues until Act 3, where all conflicts come to a head (the final quarter). The action heats up until it reaches a climax: the point of most tension followed by a sudden release of said tension (oftentimes this is where the protagonist and antagonist/ antagonistic forces clash). Following this conflict is the falling action, featuring a return to the ordinary world (or perhaps the ordinary world of the new status quo) and the final resolution of the narrative.
NOTE: You don’t need to follow this structure all that closely. There’s totally different story structures out there, such as the 5 Act narrative. The 3 Act structure, however, is a tried and true formula for writing. It gets extremely detailed at points if you care to research further.
NOTE 2: For further research, consult Joseph Campell’s “Hero’s Journey” template. That’s where I picked up on a lot of this structure.
How to Keep a Story Engaging
The primary way I create narrative involves putting myself into the heads of my characters. I do my best to not artificially throw my characters into situations I’ve thought up for arbitrary reasons (“wouldn’t it be cool if __”). Instead, I come up with a premise, and often an ending, and I let my characters make the story for me.
I take character A- the protagonist- and ask myself what it is they want more than anything else. What is their goal? And what are the logical steps for them to achieve their goals? And what sort of natural roadblocks might be placed in their way to impede the quest for their greatest wishes? Once these roadblocks are determined, how does the character get around them? It’s these moments which test the character the most. These are the challenges from which they learn and grow and advance. Your character’s wants and needs will write the majority of the story for you.
If your character would not do a particular thing at any point in the story, don’t write them as doing that thing. For example, your character is established as a by-the-books police officer, and you write them as committing first degree murder with no narrative reason. In essence, keep your characters consistent. Only have them do the things they would actually do. How will you know this? Get to know your characters! You need to know how they think!
One thing I feel like a lot of writers forget is that their protagonist isn’t the only character with motivations. Each and every character, from the protagonist to the antagonist and every single person introduced, no matter their role, ought to have a motivation. These motivations don’t always matter, nor should they all be explored, but a writer must keep them in mind, particularly when these motivations come into direct conflict with the protagonist’s goals. Remember: Conflict is created by characters of equally strong convictions and ideals who disagree.
A healthy cast of characters with their own motivations is also a great way to get subplots going. Besides your protagonist and antagonist, what do the other characters want? Their individual ideals and goals have the potential to keep the story lively and fresh.
EXAMPLE: Maybe your hero has a best friend, but the best friend’s brother is in the badguy’s evil army? There’s potential for multiple types of conflict there: some between the hero and the friend, the friend and his brother, the brother and the badguy, etc. The hero wants to defeat the badguy and their supporters by any means necessary, but the best friend wants to redeem his brother. The goals of the hero and their friend are similar but not necessarily aligned. And who knows how the brother feels about this whole situation? Subplots, when well written, can be a sneaky tie-in to the main plot later. In my little example: the hero’s best friend’s brother might decide to betray the badguy and ultimately be the one to vanquish him in the end!
Use Your Story-Space Wisely
NOTE: Most of this is, once again, about screenplays. The general ideas still apply to other writing though.
A writer’s job is to tell the story in as clear a language as they can muster. Unlike a novel, a screenplay is not the place for flowery prose or vivid descriptions of action, blocking, acting choices, lighting, audio, etc. Most of these things will be up to the director and actors or will be found in the shooting script (a separate script from the main one detailing all these directorial choices).
Therefore, a screenplay is a place for short, concise language. Only write the relevant details to a scene. Absolutely EVERYTHING you write should only serve to move the narrative forward. Every line of dialogue, every action the characters undertake, every scene needs to serve a greater purpose. Nothing should be put to waste.
Think of it this way: people want to see your character’s lives upended and put back together (or not). If there are scenes or moments or lines of dialogue that aren’t moving the story forward, they’re keeping it in one place. And keeping a story in one place is uneventful. And uneventful is boring. It doesn’t matter how interesting something was to you. If there’s no development there’s no point.
This is possibly the most important tip I can give you! Before you write anything, make a treatment/ outline. I know you’ll probably just want to dive into the story but, take it from me, that’s a bad way to go about writing. I mean, if you’ve got inspiration, go ahead and write it down! I don’t want to stop you. But I suggest you don’t write the whole story all at once. If your first attempt at writing focuses on prose and dialogue, you’ll probably lose sight of the story itself.
In order to prevent this, take all the ideas you’ve come up with about lore, characters, events, and structure, and develop a clear, prose style document which describes the entire story through action alone. Once again: use little to no dialogue or descriptions. Just roughly say what will happen from scene to scene. This process helps to gain a sense of how the story flows, what works and what doesn’t, and subsequently where to improve. Think of it this way: you could write a 300 page novel which sucks and THEN try to find the structural flaws, or you could have a 1-30 page outline for that novel which tells the exact same story in a simpler way. It’s a lot easier to find and cut the bad scenes when they’re more condensed.
NOTE: There’s no ideal length for an outline. Just write the story in a way that can give you or others an essence of your plot.
Once you have a treatment, rewrite said treatment until your story is the way you want it: cohesive, tight –little to no pointless excess–, and engaging. Then take your treatment and add in all the fancy prose and dialogue in its place (unless you’re writing a screenplay, in which case, avoid the fancy prose). And then re-write all that again until you’re satisfied with all the elements.
Now a little bit on dialogue. I think this is the hardest story aspect to explain because it’s a somewhat instinctual thing… To reiterate an earlier lesson: everything you write ought to further the story in some way. Dialogue should also fit the characters, be appropriate to the moments, and not be filled with clichés. Don’t feel the need to be witty or clever. Not every character is smart enough for such exchanges. In writing, as in life, a variety of characters are what make the world interesting.
For example, if you want to load the screenplay with expletives and/ or comedy, try relegating most of those things to one or two characters. If everybody is vulgar and/ or funny, the shock value and/ or novelty of such things wears off pretty fast.
I believe that dialogue ought to flow naturally. That’s not to say it can’t SOUND choppy on the page, but this has to be an intentional choice. It’s for this reason I tend not to overthink my dialogue. I just write it. I know my characters’ internal voices enough to be sure what they would say to –and in response to– each other. Just let the words flow from your head to the page. For a time, become the characters you’re writing. When you try too hard to edit dialogue it often ends up stilted and comes across as unrealistic. Of course editing is a must to clean things up, but I find the first pass often yields the most usable results. Though this instinct for writing as characters takes practice to hone.
NOTE: Read your dialogue aloud, or have others read it. This helps determine if your characters sound natural or not.
So, this has been my non-comprehensive guide on how to write a story! It’s hard to condense years of practice, trial, error, and education down to one article, but here it is anyway. There’s probably a lot I’ve left out (either things I was taught and didn’t think to include, or stuff I willfully left out for space).
If there’s something else I neglected that you really want me include, leave a comment below and I might update the article. Any other questions? I’ll be happy to answer them. Happy writing!
Till next time