Creative Writing Articles

Better Fiction Writing

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

I'm going to assume you're reading this because you want to improve your fiction writing. Maybe you've written stories before, maybe not, but you're here now to learn more. Somewhere in your mind stories burn, characters chat, and epic scenes unfold. Maybe those stories haven't come all the way to the surface yet. Maybe you're not sure exactly what your characters are going to do, or why. That's okay. You don't have to know everything now. All you have to do now is put your pen to paper, or your fingers to the keyboard, and see what happens. It may seem daunting at first, but trust me, the more you write and read, the better your fiction writing will get. Like sports, drama, or video games; the more you practice, the better your performance.

If you already have a story written down and just want some pointers to help you finish it, by all means, skip to the parts of this paper that only apply to you. This is not written like a grammar book (thankfully, or I would have fallen asleep halfway through writing it). This is a straight-forward, easy fiction writing reference guide on how to get the most out of the words you use. If this guide inspires you to seek out more information on good fiction writing from the hundreds of books out there on the subject, it's done its job. If you use this guide as a way to avoid having to read hundreds of books on fiction writing technique, it's done its job.

Usually, creative writing can be broken down into three drafts, or the "3 Rs": Rough, Revise, Refine. There is the first stage or rough draft, where you take your random thoughts and ideas and anchor them to a solid plot, a character or two, and an order of events that makes sense. Then there is the second stage, or the revision draft. This is where the finer points of writing come in, such as point of view, grammar usage, spelling, and format. After your rough story is written, this part ensures that the work doesn't have any distracting errors, that it flows well from scene to scene, and that it has all the details necessary in order to tell a good story. Finally, the third stage, or the refining draft, puts the final touches on your story that transform it from simple words on paper to true artistic expression. This stage is where you bring in the use of metaphors, similes, symbolism (strange words, I know, but each will be explained later), further character development, and different points of view in order to add depth and meaning to your story.

Keep in mind that every writer works differently. Some writers don't worry about mechanics at all until they get to the second draft; some obsess and pay attention to every single comma during the first draft. Some plan out every scene in the story ahead of time (making an outline of the major plot points in the story can be helpful in this case); some don't plan out anything. You have to find, and be comfortable with, your own fiction writing style. Longer stories that are more complex need a bit more planning than shorter ones. Because every writer and story is different, everything covered in each of the following sections is just a general idea of how it all comes together. Feel free to explore each of the following articles in any order you wish.

Searching

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

I recently read a book on Hinduism and decided I should consider converting. This should not be too hard, because about a year ago I thought I should be a Buddhist, and the two philosophies (though Hinduism is more of a religion and philosophy mix) have influenced each other throughout the years. Of course, before this, I thought Wicca sounded appealing, but quickly changed my mind when I started meeting the people active in the Wiccan community around me. Before this, I considered being agnostic, and shortly before that I was a doubting atheist. Starting to notice a pattern?

It seems every time I pick up a book, or see a documentary, or just talk to someone with a slightly different view of the world, I get swept up in their visions, and consider trying on their view of the world for a while. I am, if nothing else, a searcher. A searcher of wisdom, of facts, of yet more questions to ask. And why do I search? Because I am a writer.

The two may not seem connected, at least at first, but they truly are. What else is writing but a search? A search not only of oneself, but of the world we live in, the circumstances, the nuance of life. Even if you are not writing something that relates to the "real world" like fantasy or sci-fi, that doesn't change the fact that the fantastic story is filtered through our culture, viewed through the eyes of our people. As such, it becomes a story of us, not just the amazing what ifs of speculative fiction, but a mirror to the world we live in, and the way we see it.

Of course, this is something I realize now. When I was younger, I had no idea this was a normal thing to feel, this anchorless searching, and I fought against it. Parts of me still fight against it.

When I became old enough to assert my own tastes, I decided I would go goth. Keep in mind, goth in my day was a bit different than it is now, and I lived in a small town where all you needed to be gothic was to wear black all the time and invest in a good pair of combat boots. Besides, my mother would have strung me up by my newly acquired piercings had I chosen to get them.

So, I wore more black in my high school career then could be found on the set of the Matrix--all three movies. I practiced my disaffected scowl, and that fake superiority that all really good followers of the "fringe" have. But underneath my tough girl exterior, I was still searching. I secretly read inspiring books that spoke of humanity's ability to grow, I cried in secret at sappy movies, even while faking indifference. Apathy was my tool, boredom my crutch, and dissatisfaction my mantra. And I was darn good at it. Would it surprise anyone to know that I never wrote anything at this stage in my life? Well, I did write, but only really, really bad poetry. The kind of stuff that would have made Sylvia Plath look optimistic (this joke is much funnier if you know who Sylvia Plath is, look her up. A bit of dark humor to brighten your day).

I did this for several reasons; one, I thought being a disaffected youth was cool, and two, I thought that's what I needed to do to be a writer. I was wrong on both counts. To be a writer, all I had to do was give in to my urge to find the truth, the ultimate cosmic truth, and show it in my writing, share it with others.

Eventually I gave up the act and started being my own person. Hanging out with people who thought it was not only okay to be happy, but much more acceptable than brooding about the injustices of the world while doing nothing to stop them. I found I liked being able to be happy without feeling uncool, while still being allowed to wallow in a little bit of self-pity. Self-pity can be a good thing sometimes, as long as you come out the other end knowing your life is pretty good.

Now, I know you're asking; "What's the point of all this?" All right, all right, partially I'm just egocentric and like to talk about...well, me, of course. But I truly do have a point.

All people search for who they truly are, and none more so than writers.

Once I accepted this about myself and stopped forcing myself to conform (even if that conforming was being a nonconformist, sounds weird but look around you. Even the nonconformist is conforming to something), I could whole-heartedly embrace the search. And finally, I was on my path to acceptance.

You may think of this as a cautionary tale. Me trying to tell you not to force yourself into anything, to search with an open heart and turn nothing aside. In a way, that's exactly what I'm saying, but I'm also contradicting myself. Don't listen to others (not even someone as wise as me). If you feel like you want to try on a personality, try it on. If you want to go preppy, or punk, or goofy, or any other adjective you can think of, then by all means do it. You're being true to yourself at the moment, and that's all anyone can hope for. Besides, how can a writer really know what it is to be a knight, a surgeon, a librarian, or a bad guy, if they aren't well-versed in how to slip on someone else's shoes, and look through someone else's eyes?

When on the hunt for who you are, remember that everything you learn, everything you try, will enrich your writing, and your life. Embrace that, and remember everyone is a work in progress, and documenting that work is the job of the writer. Now, get out there and search, and bring your notebook with you.

 

 

Creative Writing Ideas:
Where They Come From and How To Get Them On Paper

By Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

 

Creative writing ideas come from everywhere.

"I have nothing to write about." How many times have you heard that come out of your mouth? I've said it myself, many times. That is simply not true. If anything has made you stop and say, "Oh, that's kind of cool," you have something to write about. If you've ever watched the world around you and wondered why people do the things they do, or events happened the way they did, then you have something to write about. If you've ever had a birthday party, been to a school dance, had your first crush, or even just gotten up this morning, you have something to write about.

The best way for a writer to get creative writing ideas is to say "What if…" Let's try it. What if someone found an old map in his attic that led to a treasure? Of course, he would have to go find the treasure, right? Well, if he didn't, it wouldn't be much fun. So, he packs up his suitcase, tells his friends and family good-bye, and heads out to find this treasure. What if he has to travel through some dangerous territory, like, an enchanted forest, or a mountain filled with trolls? What if he keeps getting sidetracked on his quest? Maybe he meets people who need his help.

Starting to get the idea? Apply this to anything, from your imagination to your everyday life. What if you woke up one morning and your parents were different people? What if you got an A on that math test you've been sweating over? Try it. Look around you and ask "What if…"

Okay, so you might have a few creative writing ideas floating around. "What next?" you ask. Now the fun starts. Now you write. Sounds easy enough. This is the time where you want to get as many of your creative writing ideas on paper as you can. Let yourself go and have fun with it. Writing should feel like you're slipping into a special place, a place you've created. In your real life, you cannot eat candy for dinner, you have a bedtime, you have homework, and yes, you might have to make your bed, even if you are just going to mess it up when you sleep in it again. Life is full of things that don't seem all that fun (even for adults). In creative writing, you are the boss. If your main character wants to have cake for dinner, then let her eat cake.

Here is a quick list of a few creative writing prompts just to get your imagination going. These could be used to help develop your characters, or start a completely new story, or used in any darn way you like. You don't have to do all of these; you don't have to do any of these, but the more you practice at writing the better you get. Pick one that appeals to you and see where it takes you.

  • Someone finds a jewel-encrusted box.

  • Your main character wakes up to find himself in a completely different place from where he fell asleep.

  • Your character is afraid of something. What is it? How does he confront it?

  • Your character is being chased and steps in a mysterious puddle of goop, or makes a wrong turn and ends up in a dead end, or is rescued by someone she does not like.

  • Your character is fishing and catches something interesting.

  • Your character sees a shimmering light through the trees.

  • The sky changes color.

  • A secret room is found.

  • A path branches off in three different directions and your character has no idea where to go.

  • A laughing spell goes terribly wrong.

Now that we've covered some ways to get creative writing ideas, it's time we get into the nitty-gritty of writing. I'm going to explain a few of the basic concepts of creative writing and give you some examples of how each one works.

Now, enough chitchat. Let's get down to the fun stuff… Writing!

 

This was an excerpt from Shannon Stockdale-Elftman’s book Fantastic Fiction available for sale on this website! See Our Products page for details.

Creative Writing Topic:
Creating an Interesting Bad Guy

by Miriam Darnell

 

It's easy to fall into cliché when creating a bad guy. Most of the bad people in movies and books want the same thing... power. And they don't care who gets hurt on their way to achieving this ultimate goal. The very thought of their victory brings a sadistic grin and an evil laugh to their lips. They seem like such a happy lot, always laughing and rubbing their hands together in excitement as they make their dastardly plans. Of course, they never win, as the good guy strikes them down just in time, so we never get to see what they would have done with all that desired power. There's an old saying: "It's lonely at the top." How true is this? Too bad the antagonist will never find out.

The good guy, or "protagonist," has one big job to do (and possibly a bunch of smaller jobs on the side), and that big job is to stop the bad guy or "antagonist" from winning. Of course, your antagonist may be just an obstacle to overcome, such as fear of speaking in front of an audience, rather than an actual person to defeat. But you simply don't have a story without an obstacle, conflict, or bad guy. Without the conflict, the protagonist has no reason to exist. It's an interesting way to think of life in general. We don't find out what we're made of until we have something to push against. Something that forces us to be our best so we can discover things about ourselves that we never would have known otherwise. Without a whole lot of pressure, a diamond is just a piece of coal.

What would Harry Potter be without Voldemort? What would Frodo be without the ring? Or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? Neo without the evil machines that created the Matrix? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch of the West? Let us all take a moment to silently thank the bad guys for doing what most would call a "thankless job." They create the fun of the story, yet all they get is tortured, destroyed, thrown in jail and otherwise humiliated.

My students have asked why they never make movies where the bad guy wins. Well, they do make such movies, but they're usually not successful at the box office. Happy endings where the audience feels a sense of communion with the triumphant protagonist make the biggest bucks. People will see a film that has a sad or defeating ending once, and never go back (unless it's Titanic and it has a Hollywood hunk as the lead character - someone who teenage girls go nuts over). But people will see a movie over and over again if the protagonist triumphs in the end because it makes them feel good inside. It makes them feel like they can accomplish anything in lives because the protagonist overcame great obstacles and made it through. People like to be inspired. If you want to create a bad guy who wins in the end, by all means, feel free to do so. But remember that if you do this, you'll need an antagonist who is original and interesting. Maybe someone who makes us question our own sense of morals and values. Otherwise, no one will want to read your story...at least not twice.

Now, for the sake of this article, let's just assume you're trying to create a person as your antagonist. This person is really bad, and in being so, he/she brings out the best in the protagonist. You want a unique bad guy who people are going to remember. Someone who speaks with an original voice and doesn't seem like anyone else they've read before. This is a very hard thing to accomplish.

The first thing you need to do when creating an interesting bad guy is define "evil" in your opinion. This is going to take a lot of thought, because normal good people make mistakes. They lie and steal and hurt other people without really meaning to. Are there times when it's okay to steal? What about if you're Robin Hood? Are there times when it's okay to kill? What if it's to save your own life, or the life of someone you care about? What if it's just for revenge? Is it okay then?

What separates a good person who does "bad things" from a bad person who does bad things? Most humans aren't perfectly good or perfectly evil. We are all various shades of gray, and we spend our lifetimes defining just what that means and how we came to be who we are. I've never in my life met a person who was "evil" for the sake of being evil. I've met some people who are walking what I would call a "dark path," but that doesn't necessarily make them "bad." Define what evil is in your opinion and that will give you the basis from which to grow this dark character.

Next step is to give this character a history and a motivation for doing bad things. We are the culmination of our environment, our genetics, our past, and our choices. This antagonist of yours needs to have reasons for choosing the path he walks. Even if it isn't a conscious choice. Did something bad happen in his past? Did he suffer some kind of abuse? Does he have a mental instability or illness? Has he felt helpless all his life and he craves power now? If you want an antagonist who isn't a walking cliché, it's all going to be in the motivation and history that you give them. Let's look at some motivations for doing bad things, and some of the famous bad guys who have used these motivations.

Insane:

The Joker and most other super-villains fit into this category. Insanity is an easy way to explain most bad behaviors, but it can be a bit of a cop-out, if not done right. You can't just explain everything away by saying the guy isn't right in the head. There has to be more than that. And if you're going for the insanity plea, at least make the character unusual yet believable. Try looking in the real-life DSM guide (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) for mental disorders and phobias. You won't believe some of the brain disorders you find in there. Stuff you wouldn't have ever thought up yourself. Real life is far stranger than fiction.

Stupid but Strong:

Most villains who are just stupid and brawny, are in comedies and aren't meant to be taken seriously, except for maybe the movie version of Frankenstein (not the novel version), in which he was deemed a "horrific character." Wolfman is another example of this kind of character.

Fearful and Prejudiced:

Fear born of ignorance is different from stupidity. It can be changed with a little knowledge. There are lots of real-life examples of ignorance causing bad behavior, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and other racist groups. When you fear a group of people just because of the color of their skin, or because of their religion, it's from ignorance.

Fanatic or Extremist:

Certainly, one of the most frightening villains is one who is willing to kill themself for a cause. One who believes so strongly in a religion or political belief that he takes extreme action (i.e., causing wars, taking hostages or prisoners, kamikaze, terrorism, or sacrifice). You often see such enemies on television in action shows, but they're also all over the news. Extremists are easily found in almost every nation around the world, and they make for an interesting antagonist, as long as you don't stray into the cliché again. One television show that has used this technique successfully and surprisingly is the new Battlestar Galactica. This science fiction show is about humans who are on the run from a race of machines that they themselves created, called Cylons. The Cylons can look like sleek metallic robots, or they can look exactly like humans. The interesting thing about the Cylons is that even though they are machines, they believe in God, and they are fanatical in their mission to carry out what they believe to be "God's will": to destroy all humans. They're actually quite spiritual. They meditate and preach and believe that God has a reason for all things. It's the last thing you would expect from a race of machines. Fanatics are scary because they are steadfast. You're not likely to change their minds. They believe they're right. They are on a divine mission.

Greedy:

Most villains are greedy for power and/or riches, like dastardly pirates, evil overlords, bad wizards (i.e., Long John Silver, Voldemort, Sauron, The Wicked Witch of the West, Count Olaf, the Snow Queen, Cruella DeVil, all the villains in the James Bond movies, etc.). This is the most popular explanation for evil deeds and should be avoided if you want to break away from cliché.

Cultural Preferences:

Some of the more clever villains in recent film and novels have come from a concept called cultural preferences. In a culture such as the Aztecs, human sacrifice was considered a part of their normal routine. We would think of such a sacrifice in our modern society to be horrific. But it really comes down to cultural preferences. In a show called Star Trek, they have an interesting villain called the Borg. These are part human, part machine beings who have a collective consciousness. They're not individuals, but they don't want to be. When one is cut off from the collective, essentially "rescued" from the Borg, the first thing the drone notices is how lonely he feels inside his own mind. How cut off he feels from the whole. The mission of the Borg is to unite the universe into their collective consciousness. Individuality will be wiped out. No more painful choices, emotions, violence, loneliness... All will be ordered and peaceful. In their opinion, that kind of life is perfection. To us, it's unfathomable. Who's right? Them or us? Or are we both right? It's just a matter of preference.

Mindless Instinct:

Mindless instinct is for when your villain is an ant colony or a dinosaur or a man-eating monster or a killer bunny who's just trying to survive and you've stepped a bit too far into its lair. Jurassic Park, Alien, and Jaws fit this category nicely. The best mindless villain I've read is the "Thread" in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. Thread are clumps of spores that look like worms that fall from the sky every 200 years or so, when another planet gets too close to Pern in its orbit. When Thread land, the acid on their skin allows them to burrow quickly into the ground, where they grow fast and devour all growing life for miles. They must be destroyed by fire in the sky (which is typically done by fire breathing dragons) before they reach the ground. Thread are incredibly dangerous and pose a terrible threat to the planet, but the people of Pern have devised clever ways to combat this mindless creature.

Angry and Hurt:

The villain could be angry, hurting and vengeful. He was wronged in some terrible way and wants to set things right by hurting people. Situations like this make an antagonist more sympathetic. Though you may not agree with his methods of finding healing, you can relate to them because you know what it's like to be angry and hurt. Darth Vader from Star Wars and Magneto from X-Men fit this category, as do many other common villains. These characters run the risk of being terribly cliché, but if their background is developed well enough and readers feel a measure of sympathy for them, cliché can be overcome by uniqueness of experience and emotional connection.

Intelligent Attention Seeker:

Some bad guys will do anything for attention. They won't be ignored no matter what. The intelligent ones are commonly bored, have hidden layers of low self-esteem, experience jealousy easily, and come off sounding like ego-maniacs. They have ready insults for anyone who dares challenge them. They can out-think anyone, and generally have above-average attractiveness and charm. They can be flamboyant and outgoing, trying to gather as many people behind them with their convincing words as possible. Mr. Smith from The Matrix and Sark from Alias are two examples. They want money and power, of course, which only serve to feed their false egos more, but their greatest desire is to be noticed. To stand out from the crowd. I've seen many of these villains on television and in the movies, particularly in action TV shows.

Ignorant Attention Seeker:

The ignorant attention seekers are typically risk-takers and bullies because they're bored. They put their own lives in danger as well as everyone else's for the thrill of it, and/or to make a name for themselves. These tend to be party animals, drug users, daredevils, abusers, classroom disruptors, bullies on the playground, and cause fights and riots in bars. It's hard to think of examples of these characters because they seem to be in the film for a short period of time and they're only there to cause trouble, so the hero has someone to beat up. They're easily forgettable.

Overly Good:

Yes, being overly good can be a form of evil. At least certain characters like Barney and the Tele Tubbies bring out violent urges in my own sons (who are nearly teenagers now). A character can be so sugary sweet and out of touch with reality that it becomes the enemy. This is displayed well in Edward Scissorhands, The Stepford Wives, and A Wrinkle in Time. Places and people who seem brainwashed or lifeless, because they're too plastic and sweet, are sometimes seen as the best villains of all.

Some Gray Areas:

There are lots of characters who are hard to define...who don't fit into any of these categories. Those are the ones who are most interesting and complex. Characters who play on both sides of the tracks, like Morgan Le Fay (Arthurian Legends), Han Solo (Star Wars), Rogue, Wolverine and Gambit (X-Men), and Q (Star Trek) are good examples. These are generally likeable bad guys who are sympathetic and could switch sides at any time. They prefer to remain neutral and unpredictable.

ACTIVITY:

Name some of your favorite bad guys. Ask yourself these questions:

Why are they considered "bad"? And what are their histories?

What are some reasons for a person to act in ways that are not socially acceptable?

Now create your own villain. Make them completely unique. The only way to do this is to really delve into their background and motivations. Bring this character into three-dimensional life by telling your readers all the details that you would want to know about your friend. Look at real people. Watch the news for your examples. Get into the mind of your character and try to understand them. If you do this, you're guaranteed to have a captive audience.

Dos and Donts For Fantasy/Sci-Fi Writers

By Julie Rodriguez

 

Fantasy Specific

Writing good, well-thought-out fantasy can be a challenging process, especially when featuring a setting or race completely different from that which is familiar to the author.

There is a myriad of places within a story where a writer can falter and insert details which are not well enough developed, uncharacteristic, confusing, or which simply don't make sense in the context of the setting.

This list is meant to point out some of these common areas of confusion and tell what can be done to be more aware of and correct any potential inconsistencies.

Remember that these are all only suggestions, and not everything on the list applies to every story. Use your best judgment as an author to understand when these things should be considered and when they can be safely ignored. Some fantasy stories are not set in original worlds, but on Earth, in which case references to Earth should be made; not all fantasy centers on the use of magic; not all fantasy is in a medieval world.

Still, everyone can take something from these suggestions, which might prove useful at some point in the future, in their writing.

Don't: Reference Earth

The major thing that all fantasy authors must watch out for is accidentally making reference to places, people, objects, and concepts that exist in their own world, but not in the world in which their story is set.

There are many different ways that this appears in fiction, and I will point out all the most common mistakes and what can be done to correct them. This mistake usually manifests itself most pointedly in the use of common Earth expressions, slang, and clichés.

In general, most of these things should be avoided in narrative anyway, except in instances where they are used to a certain effect or within a character's dialogue. One way to avoid this is: instead of using an Earth expression, idiom or cliché, come up with phrases of your own creation that have the same meaning or sound similar.

Changing the wording is also a good way to give a foreign feeling to the familiar. That's really the balance that you want to achieve in a fantasy narrative, a feeling of the unfamiliar, in a world completely unlike our own, but also with similarities. This makes it easier to write than trying to come up with something completely different and alien, because you may allow yourself to lapse into making references to things the writer and reader will be familiar with, without seeming lazy or apathetic to creating an original setting.

Something especially creative and fun is to invent slang or curses that your characters can use. Many medieval curses and exclamations were derived from references to God or Saints, for example, the epithets "God's thumb!" Be creative. What they will use as curses and slang will depend on what they value as a society.

We in the US have so many sexual curses due to its perceived "dirtiness" in our highly-religious culture, thus increasing the shock value of certain terms. To use an example, the term "mudblood" in Harry Potter is highly offensive due to the unique wizarding culture developed by J. K. Rowling. Think of what would be offensive or rude by the standards of the society your characters live in.

Another common lapse is the use of Earth units of measurement and currency. There is no excuse for making references to US dollars in fantasy writing whatsoever. Use of US or metric units of measurement is more excusable, but still to be avoided if one wants their original setting to be taken credibly.

The best way to avoid this mistake is to make up units of measurement and currency, or to at least use more archaic forms to give a medieval setting more authenticity. (Research in this area is priceless, and good to know, anyway.)

Many fantasy settings simply use gold, silver, and other precious metals or stones as currency, avoiding the need for definite units. This is a perfectly acceptable solution. For measurements in distance, it is more difficult to resolve. You may have to think of units in terms of the society in which your character lives; what is important to them and what are they most likely to stress and express when quantifying various objects? If they are nomadic, perhaps they measure physical distance in a unit referring to the average distance they cover in a day's travel.

Many units of measurement have historically been based on the dimensions of the human body; a foot was originally the length of a human foot, some things were measured in hand-spans, and an inch developed from the width of the human thumb. These might provide insight into coming up with an original measurement system, if you are so inclined. It is more work, certainly, but the extra effort does show in your writing, and being thorough in your setting will help you become a better writer.

The worst reference to Earth commonly occurring in the fantasy genre is transferring American (or any other) cultural/social expectations, customs, and assumptions to a fantasy setting, especially one dealing with non-human races and creatures. The point of fantasy is not to emulate the world with which we are familiar.

Again, think: what is important in this society? What are they likely to praise and detest?

Their values, customs, and government will likely be based on whatever is practical for them, or based on religious beliefs. For example, do not necessarily assume that they bury their dead. Some Asian cultures leave the bodies for scavengers to, well, scavenge, thus symbolically allowing the body to become one with all living creatures. In cultures with little room left for burying people, bodies are burned, or in places where there are often floods or areas that are beneath sea-level, bodies are put into mausoleums above ground. In fact, in some places in Europe with full graveyards and no room for expansion, graves are "rented" for a period of years and then the body removed to make room for someone else!

Another example is that of courtship rituals. Is this culture encouraging or restrictive when it comes to love and sex? Are promiscuous women punished as prostitutes, or glorified as powerful? Do women take their husbands' names, or the other way around, or neither? Are marriages arranged for money or property, never for love, or is love the only reason to marry? Are sexual relations considered a sin, or is it an encouraged or glorified part of life? There are many different directions in which this could be developed and expanded.

And what of a culture's standards of beauty? Many medieval societies found plump women attractive as a sign of their wealth and social standing; only a wealthy woman could afford to eat enough to become fat. In fact, fashions developed to try to make naturally skinny women look fatter, hence puffy sleeves and huge skirts.

Also, historically, pale skin was attractive, showing that one did not need to work outside and was well-off enough that they did not need to do heavy labor. These are both opposite the ideals of beauty in our society today, mostly because of technological advances making them obsolete. Now, food is readily available enough that being slim is in fashion, and having a tan mostly shows that one has time to lounge about in the sun, rather than being too busy with other matters.

Beauty is a relative concept, a social phenomenon based mostly on, again, what is practical in a certain society. It shows many things about the setting of your story; what is attractive is based on a place's standard of living, religion, and many other innumerable factors that would prove interesting to develop in any story of reasonable length.

Another important element of a society is not only its culture, but its system of government. Again, the government will be based on what is considered, in practical terms, best for the people. If you are writing about a feudal society like medieval Europe, one in which a few very wealthy landowners keep most of the population as serfs (basically, a form of slave labor), then the government would be focused on keeping common people in their place and glorifying the rich, giving landowners and nobility all sorts of privileges and denying basic rights to everyone else.

This kind of government was necessary at the time, in order to keep the existing social structure in place. This was a practical concern of the rich, which acted in detriment of most everyone else (which is why no such societies exist today).

A society's religion will tend to be based on their scientific knowledge and the type of society in which they function. A war-like culture would glorify a violent god and consider peace-loving gods as "weak." In a society in which a low value is placed on the individual life, the society as a whole, rather than each person on their own, is glorified through religions promoting "the greater good" for everyone. By focusing on the interconnections between all beings, some religions promote this principle, allowing society to function more smoothly. Many stories and religious myths arise from man searching for an explanation of various natural phenomena in which the scientific basis is not known (for example: "lightning is caused by Zeus getting angry").

An agricultural society without basic scientific knowledge of farming might deify the sun, thinking that if they anger the gods, their crops will cease to grow, rather than realizing that there are simply no nutrients left in the soil.

When creating a society, some important things to consider that will be very influential in the way the culture thinks, lives, and acts are their geographic location and topography (nomadic desert tribe vs. agriculture community vs. isolated hermitic group in the mountains), their standard of living, their knowledge of science (disease and germ theory, level of mathematical advancement, etc.), and their interaction with other groups/nations/races.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that is intended to point out multiple factors that must be taken into consideration and will prompt writers to thinking creatively about the social impact of various non-social factors on any culture.

References to Earth are the most common mistakes that I, as a reader, come across, even in popular published fiction. As a fantasy writer, one must put a mental barrier between the world that they know and the world they are writing about.

This is why character and race sheets, and Patricia C. Wrede's Worldbuilder's Questions (readily available online) are so helpful; they allow you to completely shape the other world before you write about it, minimizing the likelihood that you will write something out of place or uncharacteristic of a fantasy realm.

Do: Put Thought Into Fantasy Races

As explained in the previous section, assumptions about anything, from the use of language to units of measurement, to social customs, values, and expectations, are all highly dependent on a myriad of factors which will have an effect on a given society.

This is especially important when dealing with a non-human fantasy race. While there is an excuse for lapses in references to one's own culture in the case of human cultures and characters (still, I stress, to be avoided or at least taken into careful consideration), non-human races must be much more carefully designed.

First of all, think: what distinguishes this race from humans enough that makes this race important to the story? If there is basically no distinction between elves and humans other than you happen to find pointy ears "cute," there is no good reason to have an elf in the story. This goes for just about anything you could ever write; there must be a real reason behind your decision to use certain races, personalities, and even genders for your characters.

It must add something to the story that could not be brought about by any other method. (If the story would be exactly the same if your character were male or female, gay or straight, human or vampire, your characters and plot are not specifically developed enough.) So, when designing a race, you must consider the physical, mental, and social distinctions between them and their human counterparts.

For example, in Christie Golden's Instrument of Fate, the elven races think differently from the humans. They do not feel deep emotions as humans do, especially not love. When they form an emotional attachment to someone, it is enduring and lasts until they or the other person die. They must be incredibly moved to take a stand on any matter, preferring more to be objective and calm about everything. They are only moved to emotionally-charged action when it involves deep, firm convictions.

For example, their desperation to avert a potentially cataclysmic war is based on the dictate of their Goddess that there should be peace between the different races, meaning that they would typically take a long time to look at the pros and cons of any international action regardless of their personal feelings.

Another example would be Anne Rice's vampires. Sunlight kills them and they survive on blood, which are vital differences between them and humans. These are obvious, but there are many more subtle differences that go into making Rice's novels as detailed and interesting as they are.

Her vampires physically perceive the world in a fundamentally different way than we do, with a completely altered sense of sight. They form emotional attachments differently as well, feeling a deep love for other members of their vampire family regardless of gender or their relationship in pre-vampire life. Not necessarily sexual in the way we would think, but with a fascination beyond the platonic. These things make her vampires different from humans in a way that retains some familiarity with the reader while also allowing more alien elements into the story that make the plots richer and more fascinating than authors who make vampires merely humans with pointy teeth.

This is a subject that could be expounded upon in an extreme amount of detail, but I think these examples are sufficient to show why thinking about the race you write is so important.

Everything previously mentioned in how to distance your fantasy society from that which is familiar to you applies here, and more. Not only must you take that into account, you must somehow physically and mentally distinguish between your race and humans.

Think: what physical traits does this race possess, and how does that benefit or hinder them? What additional abilities do they have? An enhanced sense of sight, hearing, or smell? Also, remember that if you choose to give them superior abilities in one area, they should also have a corresponding weakness. If they are large and strong, perhaps they are also slow and not particularly agile. If they are very intelligent, perhaps they are at a physical disadvantage.

You do not want to make your races god-like or without flaws; this makes them uninteresting at best, and insufferable at worst. You do not want to bore or alienate your reader, but better fiction will explore races in detail. If you are particularly ambitious, perhaps you can use their differences from humans to point out enduring truths about human nature; utilizing fantasy to convey a symbolic message (ala Lord of the Rings). An interesting and intricate plot is the mark of truly great writing, and only stories of that variety will be enduring works that will be enjoyed for a very long time. Because they are independent of the author's society and time, they can be enjoyed universally while still containing a message that people will find important enough to preserve.

Don't: Combine Every Creature Imaginable Into One Monstrous Chimera of a Character

In general, it is not a good idea to combine several fantasy races to make your character. For example, a half-phoenix-catgirl-dragon-mermaid-vampire-elf with psychic powers and angel wings.

This is too complicated to make sense, and too ridiculous to be taken seriously, if that is your intention. If you do feel the need to combine the characteristics of two or more different fantasy races, it would be best to come up with your own original race altogether, keeping in mind all of the advice outlined in the previous section.

Do: Put Thought Into the Use of Magic

If your fantasy story is going to contain elements of magic in it, give a plausible explanation for how it works. You can't simply have characters who use magic for no reason. Perhaps their race is particularly attuned to focusing and molding the natural energy of the universe? Maybe they can harness the power of a particular element. Is a wizard's magic a natural, in-born ability (Harry Potter), or is it something acquired through years of study and practice? It is a highly ritualized process, or one requiring membership into a secret society to learn? Is a character's magic derived from a pact with something evil, or from dedicated service to a God? Are there certain tools needed to allow them to use magic (a staff, tarot cards, talismans, a complicated ritual set-up, ancient tomes of untold and horrible powers)?

There are many different ways to develop this. Magic use can be based on inborn traits (the ability to use magic, psychic powers), an ancient curse, the study of ritual magic or alchemy (in which case at least cursory research is necessary on the part of the writer; Mercedes Lackey has an extensive knowledge of these subjects, and it shows in her novels), the incantation of spells, or anything else that you desire. Just have a reason why your characters can use magic, and how they work within that system.

This can satisfactorily be explained simply by stating "she is a witch," however, the more detail and thought put into it, the better, as with all aspects of writing.

From there, you must also consider the limit and scope of magic. Are there certain uses for which magic is forbidden, and, if so, how is this enforced, who enforces it, and what is the punishment? Are there certain things magic simply can't do? Are there things it shouldn't be used for, which yield unpleasant and unintended consequences, such as a botched love-spell resulting in the object of a character's affections falling for another (or the insanity of A Midsummer Night's Dream), or the attempted resurrection of the dead that brings them back as a monster or a completely different person?

It is important to try to make definite rules about the purpose, abilities, and function of magic so that the author does not contradict themself or use magic as an excuse to avoid a creative resolution to conflicts in the plot. For these reasons, the use of magic should also not be unlimited.

There must be a "price" for the use of magic, which may be as simple as being physically strenuous, to the higher demand of requiring complex rituals and blood sacrifice. What if the use of magic requires part of the magician's own life-force, aging her prematurely? What if a seemingly costless use of magic results in all sorts of horrible, unintended consequences (i.e., selling one's soul to the devil, a genie who grants wishes in a way that the character did not intend).

In the anime Full Metal Alchemist, magic cannot simply conjure something into existence; one thing must be magically transformed into another, and the two objects must be made of the same basic substance. A composite of two different things can be created but cannot necessarily be separated again. Organic magic is strictly forbidden and requires blood sacrifice, at a terrible physical cost to the alchemist and the subject of the magic. There is a military society of alchemists that adheres to and enforces certain codes of conduct, among other things. In fact, this anime is a prime example of good research and implementation of a system of magic.

As mentioned before, Mercedes Lackey is an excellent fantasy author who puts a good amount of thought into developing plausible and understandable systems of magic in her original fantasy worlds. She has also researched ritual magic and alchemy, not to mention the history and people behind them, and has incorporated the subjects into her writing, a wonderful example being The Fire Rose.

Don't: Show an Uncharacteristic Level of Technological Advancement

Remember a few things when writing about a world with medieval technology: no plumbing, no sanitation, flat-out stupid medical practices.

While there were exceptions, notably, the highly advanced societies in Mesoamerica and China, for the most part, medieval society was miserable, unclean, and unhealthy. Your fantasy world does not have to be like this, but as most fantasy stories are set in a period with a similar level of development, it is pertinent and interesting to consider.

Your characters probably use a chamber pot, and they almost certainly do not have toilets. In fact, chamber pots are perhaps the most glamorous method of waste-disposal your characters will have access to, unless you contrive an intricate system of plumbing and waste-management that is somehow completely independent of advanced technology. (As I said, it can, and has been done. But not in Europe.)

A magic-based system of waste management is also a good option, taking into account the section on systems of magic.

Also keep in mind the general level of scientific and medical incompetence of the medieval time period. The existence of germs was not known, and diseases were either seen as punishment from God or an imbalance of the "humors," four fluids thought to permeate the human body and to cause illness when one was in deficit or excess.

These four humors (corresponding to the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air) were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. If you intend to base your characters' medical knowledge on this, you must do a little research, whether or not you go into any detail at all about it. (I'm sure you can tell my prevailing attitude that RESEARCH IS GOOD FOR YOU by now.) Most diseases were treated by bleeding the patient (not necessarily with leeches), inducing vomiting, with medicinal herbs (again, if you want to use them, know what you're talking about; many of these are actually still used as effective remedies today), or by way of the simply bizarre.

Folk medicine did not know any reasonable bounds; diseases could be "treated" by grinding up and making a potion out of toads, hanging dead or decaying animals from a person's throat, feeding them all sorts of foul concoctions that combined dead animal bits, ashes, dirt, and who knows what else.

If you want to use any of these treatments in your story, you can either research actual historical medicine (which will be much more fun than it sounds. Seriously!), or by making up your own wacky medical practices.

Take into consideration also, that for a long time in Europe, bathing was considered unhealthy, and some people bragged of never having bathed their entire lives. Also consider that this was before the invention of deodorant.

This, in my opinion, was a major cause of the Crusades; there was a huge demand for nice-smelling spices that would mask an individual's unbearable body odor, and the easiest way to import them sometimes involved invading and conquering foreign countries. This is another subject that should be enjoyable to explore if you wish to research it.

In ancient Egypt, women would wear sweet-smelling wax in their hair that would slowly melt in the heat to cover the smell of perspiration. Remember: just because we in the modern day have found ways to keep people from smelling all the time does not mean that your characters will have access to that level of chemical technology. They will probably have to resort to highly creative ways of disguising or blocking natural odors. Another creative addition to a story would be to have a character who sees the value in bathing, viewed as insane and unhealthy by everyone around them.

In a similar vein, also realize that sanitation was not a high priority and, as such, people often died of preventable diseases or infections. Many medical practices meant to save a person's life, actually killed them because of unclean instruments. This also facilitated the spread of disease on a massive scale.

The level of ignorance in Europe during this time period was terrible, and, if your characters are in a similar setting, you must take this all into consideration.

As I said, this is not necessarily how your fantasy world has to be, but you can't simply romanticize the medieval period without providing plausible, viable alternatives to the technology you are familiar with.

Science Fiction Specific

Science fiction can be just as challenging to write as fantasy, but in different ways. While not all science fiction focuses specifically on the science aspect, most of it at least references advances or declines in scientific knowledge or technology. Because of this, the basic mechanics of whatever kind of sciences are being referenced must be understood by the author, whether the area of focus is psychology, biology, physics, geology, or sociology. Science fiction is not supposed to be science fact, however.

Unless one understands the basics of what they wish to explore in a story, they have no way to speculate on that area of science within their story. There is a difference between creative science, which expands on that which is already known, or examines it in a new way, and what is simply sloppy and, frankly, bad writing.

Not every sci-fi story needs to focus on science. Perhaps instead it could use technological advances as a place to start in examining people, personality, morals, and social dynamics. In fact, this is what the best stories in the genre do; they are more compelling than those that only concern themselves with "hard" science, because people want to read about characters in fiction. If they want to read about theoretical physics without characters, a compelling plot, and character development, they're better off reading a textbook.

That said, there is a market for "hard sci-fi" writing which focuses on in-depth, accurate science specifically within the boundaries of a plot, and which is driven more by science than the characters themselves.

Some examples authors who wrote like this are Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. The main point here is that there are still characters and a plot to speak of.

Not all of these factors listed will need to be considered in every science fiction story, but many of them should nevertheless be considered by anyone choosing to write in the genre. Some speculative stories focusing only on the effects of technology on the characters will probably not need to incorporate any of these points at all.

As with the fantasy section, use your best judgment in how you, as an author, will apply these to your story.

Don't: Reference Earth or Modern Times Unless it Makes Sense

Sci-fi is easier to write, in some ways, than fantasy because it is probably set in the future of our society. This is not necessarily so (Star Wars), but likely.

It is important to realize, however, that the future will probably not be like modern times. Fads, fashion, slang, religious and social attitudes, and scientific understanding will change.

Play around with it. Take into consideration the factors that can affect society in the future: how will changes in climate, technology, knowledge, and technological ability change the human race? What will become important to a society that lives in outer space? On another planet?

Stories about human colonists on other worlds, especially, need to consider the impact of geography, history, biology, physics, and every other factor imaginable. How will the land that they are now living on affect them as a society? Do they need special equipment to sustain life and, if so, how does that change their morals and concerns as people?

For example, the worst crime would probably be someone trying to undermine the systems that keep their colony functioning—what if they try to destroy the artificial atmosphere? On a space colony, what if they disrupt artificial gravity, or heating/cooling systems?

Obviously, these are unacceptable behaviors that would be punished and turned into moral issues. Does this new world still have contact with Earth? If not, how does isolation affect them? Does the species or society evolve differently to deal with very different issues necessary for their survival?

The point here is that, while there is much more reason to reference Earth in most science fiction than there is in fantasy, you must still strive to remove your writing from the social and cultural assumptions of your own world, unless it makes sense to do otherwise. If you are dealing with an alien species, or a completely different galaxy independent of our own (Star Wars), obviously, referencing Earth does not make sense and should be avoided.

The process for developing a society in this case is much the same as the considerations in the fantasy section, so I will not repeat them again.

There are some more, special considerations for stories set in the future. What kind of currency do they use? In a story with highly evolved technology, likely, all money would be electronic, just numbers stored in bank accounts that could be transferred around using a variant of checks or credit cards. In light of this, security would be a major concern. What measures would be taken to ensure the safety of one's money? Would retinal scans and fingerprints, perhaps voice recognition be required in order to transfer funds from one part to another? How would this affect hacker culture and the black market? Would this be government regulated? What about the potential for abuse? The possibilities are endless, and, at the very least, have to be considered in as much detail as the story requires. Obviously, this will be more or less important depending on the focus of the story.

Remember: science fiction is a way to explore our fundamental reality by displacing it into a new realm free of current social, political, cultural, or even scientific assumptions; the most powerful and enduring science fiction uses an alien setting to explore essential human and/or scientific realities. In this way, it is important to try to remove oneself from a familiar and comfortable setting.

Do: Use Metric In Scientific Contexts

Scientists generally use metric units when they're in their work setting. There is little reason for using miles and degrees Fahrenheit in, say, the dialogue of a NASA official, as has been portrayed in so many woefully bad movies. It's unrealistic.

Do: Understand the Properties of a Vacuum

If you set a story in outer space, understand the principles of zero-gravity and vacuum. Space is a vacuum, a lack of atmosphere. This means several things.

First of all, there is no sound in space. At all. Ignore everything you've seen on television and in movies: there is no sound in space. Because there is no air, there also can't be really neat explosions in space, at least not with things catching on fire. Fire requires oxygen to burn, of which there is none in a vacuum. Maybe the explosion involves oxygen escaping from the spaceship, in which case, yeah, okay, you can have a neat fiery inferno of death. But the source of the explosion can't come from outside the ship or on its surface.

Another key thing is that, given the lack of atmosphere, there is no air pressure in space. Our bodies have internal pressure meant to counteract the force of all the air pressing down from above so that we do not implode or collapse in on ourselves.

In space, there is no air pressure, and so, without protective gear, the internal pressure of the human body (or any Earth animal) will cause the body to explode. Yes, it's disgusting.

Another thing to consider is that, without the insulating function of an atmosphere, temperatures in a vacuum are extreme. It is not a comfortable place; if in the direct light of a star, it is incredibly hot, and away from a star, unimaginably cold. Spaceships and suits are designed with this in mind; even if internal body pressure was not a problem for an astronaut, out of the light of the sun, they might immediately freeze solid.

Do: Understand Relativity and the Speed of Light

By all known science, it is and will always be impossible to travel at, and especially faster than, the speed of light. Any sci-fi stories in which an object can travel faster than the speed of light defy the fundamental laws of physics.

Many stories use a cop-out "hyperspeed" or "warp" drive, but this is simply bad science and can be avoided by means of other, infinitely less bland methods of travel.

For example, human space-travelers might cryogenically freeze themselves, put the ship on autopilot, and wake up years later when they have reached their destination (this appears in more stories than I can name).

Colonists might form a society, living for generations upon a spaceship until they reach their destination, which will be populated by the descendants of the original crew of the ship. Corporations could create and harness wormholes (which are like two stable black holes that are connected) and provide a plausible way to travel instantaneously between two distant planets, bypassing these problems (ex: the anime Cowboy Bebop).

In fact, there are works of science fiction that use all of these explanations, and all of them yield their own interesting impact on the plot.

Just imagine, what if the great-grandchildren of the original crew of a colony ship realize that they don't want to colonize the planet when they reach it, because they have been living in space for generations?

What happens if most of the storage units holding the frozen passengers of a ship malfunction—or are sabotaged—leaving only a sole survivor in a ship he can't run on his own? What if the auto-pilot malfunctions, damaging the ship or causing the ship to miss the planet entirely? If the opening on one end of a wormhole collapses, what happens to whatever's inside?

Because wormholes connect two distant points in space-time directly, the passage between them being outside of the known physical universe, what kind of realm will they be stuck in? Is there any way back out? Do the wormholes only work one way? Will the ship end up in an alternate reality, or will it just be obliterated? Will the laws of physics still apply?

If your characters do find a way to travel at the speed of light, or even simply very, very fast, the theory of relativity comes into play. You see, the passage of time is relative to the speed at which a body in space is moving. If a spaceship traveled for one year at the speed of light, only one year would pass for those on the ship, but many would have passed on Earth.

This makes for a great plot point, and can be very interesting to explore—there are many stories that detail the breakdown of relationships between people who travel in space for months at a time, where years pass for their loved ones down on a planet.

In fact, this is used very well in the novels The Snow Queen and Ender's Game. (Both of which I also recommend as good examples of a nice balance between science and character development.)

This also makes some interesting paradoxes; one would think that the progression of time between two different planets would be radically different as well, depending on the size, mass, and orbit of the distant world. This would make communication between different planets impossible, and what effect would this isolation have on the different segments of humanity?

Being aware of and exploring the different possibilities of relativity makes much more interesting fiction than any story with instant, non-relative travel ever will.

Another theory connecting both the speed of light and relativity is the idea that if an object does manage to travel faster than the speed of light, it will actually go back in time. Also, in the future, perhaps quantum mechanics would allow for instant, faster-than-light communication between two distant points.

Do: Put Thought Into Alien Species

The ideas outlined in the fantasy section in regard to developing a distinct race from that of humans still apply here, but with science fiction there arises also the need to understand the biological workings of an alien species.

Where all fantasy creatures are, it can be assumed, more or less like Earth animals (carbon-based, able to survive in an Earth-like environment and atmosphere, etc), alien species have the potential to be like nothing we could ever imagine. Their biology is very important if you want to explore them in detail, and it would have an extreme impact on their culture, society, behavior, way of life, and very way of perceiving the universe.

For example, what about a space faring race with the ability to survive in a vacuum? What special biological adaptations would they have to have? How would they breathe, or, if they didn't have to (which could be theoretically possible; they're not necessarily bound by the known principles of biology as they apply on Earth), how would they stay alive otherwise? And would they die on the surface of a planet with an atmosphere due to air pressure, or anything else? Without the ability to communicate aurally (through sound), would they have developed instead telepathic communication, or perhaps even all share one mind?

On that note, also consider the differences between a creature living deep the in ocean and one on land. Deep-sea creatures live without light, under pressures that would kill a human. On the other hand, some sea creatures (jellyfish) are not made to withstand air pressure and lose their form out of water. These are special considerations necessary to any authors writing about a water-dwelling species.

The wonderful thing about creating an alien species is that you can't go wrong with it. Because we have never encountered anything living not from Earth, they could be like anything, and function according to principles that no life on Earth adheres to.

They don't even necessarily need to have bodies which can be perceived in our four-dimensional universe; perhaps they exist in other dimensions and seem like ghosts or gods to us. Just always be sure to remember that they are not human and should not act or think like humans. That's what makes them interesting to read and write about.

Do: Know What You're Talking About

Whenever basing any part of your story on scientific principles, have a basic understanding of what you're talking about, or have someone who is familiar with the subject read it and point out your mistakes. I cannot stress this enough.

There is nothing worse than science fiction with incorrect or inaccurate science and having someone help you is not so difficult. If you don't know anything about the subject you're addressing, you probably aren't qualified to be writing about it.

If you really find the subject so fascinating that you can't not write about it, do some research into the subject.

Don't: Use Mindless Technobabble

Technobabble. We all know what it is.

"Captain, we've lost 43% of the power to the main aft thrusters in sector G!" The power flickers off and on for some reason.

"The main booster shields are at 150% capacity and the main circuit of the AI autopilot chef chip is malfunctioning! The shields are down in alpha zeta prime! We're going to crash!"

Don't tell me you've never heard this on TV.

It's the random use of technical-sounding terms that don't make any sense to anyone, least of all the person who wrote them. Never, ever use technobabble to make your story sound more "exciting" or "credible."

Write things that make sense, if you must use technobabble at all. (A good example would be Star Trek, which, while still using technobabble, uses technobabble that has a basis in scientific fact and actually refers to specific, concrete, credible things.

The people actually know what parts of the ship they're talking about, even if the viewer doesn't.)

"The shields are failing" on its own makes sense.

"The propulsion system is out of fuel; we'll have to make an emergency landing" makes sense.

Random babble about sector some-letter, in the zeta quadrant with random boosters and thrusters and phasers and whatever else thrown in sounds stupid, confuses everyone, and leads the reader to just skip that section anyway and not really pay attention.

Genre Neutral

There are a few things that can appear in both sci-fi and fantasy stories which are equally ill-advised in both. However, this is the only major one that comes to mind..

Don't: Make Up Languages

I know you may feel the desire, and haven't we all wanted to at some point? Resist the urge. I know it's hard. Just don't do it.

Unless you are a linguist, like Tolkien, and you really want to go all the way, please just say something along the lines of,

"She spoke some words he did not understand." Maybe even go into detail describing how the words sound. And definitely don't write out something in your made-up language and then just provide a translation because the character already understands what it means. Just make it clear they are speaking in another language.

Why do I say not to do this? When you are writing, there is no good reason to do this. Chances are you are simply hitting random letters on the keyboard, and half your readers are skipping over your carefully crafted dialogue because they don't know what it means.

I can make exceptions for movies and TV shows, where you actually hear the languages spoken, maybe even see subtitles. That is when making up a language is permissible, and, actually, better than simply assuming everyone speaks English. But when writing fiction, it is not the best idea.

Also, unless necessary, it's best not to throw in random words from existing languages that not every reader is going to be familiar with.

For example, random French, German, Japanese… Have a good reason for it, such as your character actually being from a country that speaks that language. And even then, don't use it so much that you confuse the readers. (While not a sci-fi/fantasy book, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is an aggravating read for including long passages of French text and dialogue in an English-language novel. At least the main character is actually from France, but it's still awful for someone who doesn't know anything about the language.)

There are plenty of ways to convey that another language is being spoken. In the novel The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge, she changes the syntax (word order) in dialogue to show which language is being spoken. It is easy to follow and effective, and, in my opinion, infinitely more creative than slapping random made-up words together in no particular order. Which, unless you are actually creating a whole language, chances are this is exactly what you're doing.

Conclusion

Applying This to Your Writing

This is meant only to be a basic guide detailing problems I have found in science fiction and fantasy writing again and again, and, sadly, not always in stories by amateur writers.

If you are careful and creative, you need not necessarily adhere to any of the guidelines I have set forth in this paper. These are not rules set in stone, but suggestions from someone who has seen a lot of excellent and a lot of terrible science fiction and fantasy.

Some writers might be angry that I dare tell them how to write or feel that by defining a minimum of required scientific accuracy, I am limiting their creativity. The point of this is to hopefully help writers of all abilities to improve their skills and to write unique, creative fiction with their own style and focus.

Too many fantasy writers rehash the same Lord of the Rings plot, rife with elves and ancient evils bent on destroying the world, without taking the time to add an individual focus to the plot or setting.

Too many writers use the Anne Rice vampire without bothering to develop their own interesting characteristics for the species. Too many writers don't take the time to develop the biology of their alien species (acid blood, laying eggs in people's chests, and so on), instead deferring to the popular image of "little green men" with only the fact that they are extraterrestrials with funny-shaped heads to distinguish them from the cast of human characters.

These writers are not original and have not written anything really creative or new, re-using cliché ideas and scripting a plot without any sort of focus. They are meandering along a vague path of what is typical of the genre without any real thought put into what they're writing, and why. This does not make them bad writers (and, indeed, anyone who actually managed to read all the way to this point can't possibly be awful), but there is always room for improvement.

If you intend to become a professional writer, the ability to craft creative, original fiction is of principal importance.

Perhaps the best way to apply my suggestions to your writing is to think very hard about the purpose of your story. Why are you writing it? What's the point? What are you trying to convey to the reader? The answers to these questions should help you understand what areas you really need to focus on, and, thus, what areas of the setting and characters are important to expand upon.

Challenges

By Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

 

Note: This article is written more for adult writers.

I have three challenges to my writing. I call them, Temptation, Critic, and Wraith.

Temptation is a voluptuous Aphrodite in a slinky, red sequenced dress. Her body moves like ripples on the surface of a moonlit lake. Her long blonde hair is perfectly styled, in an elegant imitation of Marilyn Monroe. Her temptations are many, the temptations of the writing lifestyle, or at least what I, in my youth, thought was the writing lifestyle. Depression is her greatest tool. "Only through suffering can great art be produced." There are more. Alcohol, drugs, and sex come to mind. Through these, she offers a wealth of stories. A chance to truly live life. Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Shelly, Poe, the list is endless. Look at the way they lived, look at the great art they produced. She holds the ruby red apple before me, "All the answers you seek are here," she says. She panders to some writers' natural tendencies to be depressed, hermit alcoholics. She twists our uniqueness, our sensitivity, and our sentimental hearts, into something deformed and repulsive. She turns us into bitter jaded writers who are only capable of producing bizarre abstractions.

Then there is the common complaint of the writer, the critic. My inner critic is all of my English teachers rolled into one, with a touch of my mother thrown in for good measure. He is bald, in his early fifties, with a tan muscular body. His crisp white shirt sleeves are rolled neatly up to his elbows, a Cary Grant style hat sits jauntily on his head. When I am being particularly awful he will rip this hat off his head, throw it on the ground, and stomp on it. When I first put my fingers to the keyboard his protests are gentle, but soon they become full-blown tantrums. His face reddens, veins bulge on his forehead, and spittle flies from his mouth. "You spelled that wrong. Your grammar is terrible. Your characters are as flat as pancakes. You suck so much you even have me using clichés!" His voice invades my every thought, until all inspiration is driven from my head, and I cannot put pen to paper.

Then there is the most insidious of the three, the Wraith. I call him this because of the way his formless body curls around the feet of the other two. He is less than shadow; he is the unspoken idea of my greatness. He is my secret that I only subscribe to the Buddhist faith because of my belief that I am the reincarnation of Shakespeare, (please remember it is not nice to laugh at another's beliefs). The Wraith is my greed, my need for recognition. He is also my hope, that should I die before I am published, my children will find my writing, and upon reading my work, will exclaim with tears in their eyes, "This is genius, such heartbreaking prose, our mother was a prophet!" They will, of course, forgive my every parenting mistake as they run to the nearest publishing house, where (the world having finally caught up with my genius), I will be immediately published. The Wraith does not come out often, but just a little misplaced ego is enough to ruin what little talent someone might have.

At this time, I would like to state that I am not suffering from schizophrenia, at least not anymore than any other writer. As you can imagine, it is hard to accomplish anything with these voices in my head, and I wish I could say I knew how to turn them off, but alas, I do not. All I know for sure is that I have to keep going no matter how loud they get. Just like every writer, I have to keep going or face the consequences of letting my stories die inside me untold. I think I would rather listen to a few figments of my imagination than face that.

Suspense Writing Part I

By Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

Well, now that we're all settled into the new school year, I finally got a chance to put this together for you. I know, you were in suspense waiting for it! How ironic that this article is, in fact, about suspense writing, or writing suspenseful and action-oriented passages, to be more specific.

I've had a lot of questions coming in from the board about this recently, and to be honest, it has taken me a while to figure out exactly how to approach this. See, there are all kinds of suspense writing; there's the physical fighting senses, verbal fighting, emotional suspense, fast paced chase scenes... The list goes on and on. Originally, I was only going to address the fight scenes, but I figured that would only be half of the story, and we needed to cover it all. I'm going to post these in sections, much like I did with point of view, because there are so many different kinds of suspense and action scenes, and it will make it easier to grasp if we do it in small lumps. So, without further ado, let's get started.

Suspense Writing: Physical Fight Scenes

How do you write a good fight scene? I get asked this question a lot. Well, the answer isn't always easy. So many variables go into writing a fight scene, and there are dozens of different ways to fight. The short answer to this question is keep the sentences short, the description down to the basics, and know the way your characters are moving in a physical scene. But let's elaborate on that a little bit.

Keeping sentences short and to the point is a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you're like me and don't believe a sentence is complete until it reaches the twenty-word mark. It may seem like a trivial piece of advice at first, but trust me, keeping your sentences short and direct will add to the feel of the piece immensely. The stop and start of a short sentence jolts the reader, keeping them always on edge. With short sentences should come short paragraphs as well, this adds to that on-edge feeling. This is also where the occasional fragmented sentence can be used to great effect.

As for description, this is where it starts to get tricky. When a character is fighting for his life, his entire world shrinks down to that survival instinct. His surroundings may blur around him, but chances are he feels his muscles strain, hears the grunts of his opponents, and braces himself against the impact of a punch. This is not the place for the character to notice the alluring geometric pattern of the marble floor, or the gentle sigh of the summer breeze. This is also not the place for all those fancy words you learned on your word-of-the-day calendar. Anything that takes away from the peril your character is in needs to be cut. If you need to describe the area where the fight is taking place, do it before hand. This way you're not stopping the action to let the reader know where everything is.

Planning out the movements of our characters for a fight scene is very important if you don't want to have to do a lot or rewrites. I usually draw a basic sketch of the room or area where a fight will take place and use small buttons or dimes to represent all the people who will be in the room at the time. Then I can have a visual reminder of where everything is, and who is a part of the action. Mapping the scene out like this is especially helpful if you have the kind of fight scene that requires a lot of bobbing and weaving, or a shooting match where characters might be ducking behind different objects and running around. Even if you have a fairly straight forward sword fight or fist fight, mapping it out beforehand will keep everything straight in your mind. I've had to do numerous rewrites because I skipped this step. I also like doing an outline for my more complex fight scenes. The outline, in addition to a drawn-out map, helps the writing process go a lot smoother.

Another way you can map out a fight scene is to use figurines (like War-hammer miniatures). You can place them on a drawing that simulates the setting of the fight and then move each figure slowly to plot out the action, taking notes as you go. Having a visual-kinesthetic aid like this helps tremendously when trying to make your fight scenes realistic and believable.

Now, I want to give you an example of a fight scene from a book called: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. The two characters fighting are both…well let's just call them otherworldly. To be honest, it's the only book I had handy with a good fight scene in it. Because it is a long passage that leads up to the fight, I'll cut all the preliminary stuff and get right to the meat of the fight.

      The Nonman had raised the point of his sword to Kellhus, who had fallen into a stance, his own curved sword poised above his head.

     Again silence, deadly this time.

    "I am a warrior of ages, Anasurimbor…ages. I have dipped my nimil in a thousand hearts. I have ridden both against and for the No-God in the great wars that authored this wilderness. I have scaled the ramparts of great Golgotterath, watched the hearts of High Kings break with fury."

     "Then why," Kellhus asked, "raise arms against a lone man?"

     Laughter. The free hand gestured to the dead Sranc. "A pittance, I agree, but still you would be memorable."

     Kellhus struck first, but his blade recoiled from the mail beneath the Nonman's cloak. He crouched, deflected the powerful counterstroke, swept the figure's legs out from beneath him. The Nonman toppled backward but managed to roll effortlessly back to his feet. Laughter rang from the helmed face.

     "Most memorable!" he cried, falling upon the monk.

     And Kellhus felt himself pressed. A rain of mighty blows, forcing him back, away from the dead tree. The ring of Dunyain steel and Nonman nimil pealed across the windswept heights. But Kellhus could sense the moment—although it was much thinner than it had been with the Sranc.

    He climbed into that narrow instant, and the unearthly blade fell farther and farther from its mark, bit deeper into empty air. Then Kellhus's own sword was scoring the dark figure, clipping and prodding the armour, tattering the grim cloak. But he could draw no blood.

     "What are you?" the Nonman cried in fury.

     There was one space between them, but the crossings were infinite…

     Kellhus opened the Nonman's exposed chin. Blood, black in the gloom, spilled across his breast. A second stroke sent the uncanny blade skittering across the snow and ice.

     As Kellhus leapt, the Nonman scrambled backward, fell. The point of Kellhus' sword, poised against the opening of his helm, stilled him.

Taken out of context like this, the fight might be hard to understand, but we want to pay attention more to the way the words and sentences are strung together than to the actual content anyway. Notice the simple sentence structure… subject, predicate. Very few adverbs or adjectives to clutter up the prose. Also, there are a lot of commas breaking up sentences in a way that seems almost confusing, and more than a few fragmented sentences. The writer is trying to impart the speed and uncertainty of a fight through words on a page, and that is a very difficult thing to do.

Writing a fight in a fantasy world has some unique challenges. Because there are things like magic, altered physics, and inhuman strength involved, we have to be cautious about keeping a sense of realism to the fight scene. For example, the chances are good that no matter how strong you are, or how magical, if you hit someone full in the face with your fist, it's going to hurt…a lot. A punch to the face is bone against bone, and bone is a sturdy substance. So don't be afraid to show your character's pain, or exhaustion. It will make them more human and likeable to us.

Another common mistake I see all the time in fantasy books and movies, is the indestructible character. The character that keeps fighting no matter what. Every time I see a character like this, I am reminded of the Monty Python movie "The Search for the Holy Grail" where the Black knight keeps insisting someone fight him even after he has lost all of his limbs. Trust me, it's hysterical. Keep in mind that everyone suffers physical limitations no matter what kind of power or magic they hold. If you lose a limb the chances of getting up and continuing the fight are slim to none. And no matter how good your character is, chances are there is someone better out there, somewhere. Try keeping this in mind when writing a fight scene. If you know ahead of time just how powerful your character and his opponent are, you know what your limits are when you start the fight. Do not make it too easy for your main character to win. After all, it is our job to make a character's life more complicated, so don't be afraid to let the bad guys get a couple of good punches in. It will only increase the tension you're setting up for the reader.

 

This was an excerpt from Shannon Stockdale-Elftman’s book Fantastic Fiction available for sale on this website! See Our Products page for details.

 

 

 

Suspense Writing Part II

By Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

 

In Part I of this article we talked about physical fight scenes. In this section, we are going to discuss other techniques for turning up the heat in your stories.

For starters, let's think about what makes a story a page-turner. What was the last story you read that seemed to grab you by the throat and not let go? What exactly made it gripping? Did you feel the excitement from the first pages? Were the characters captivating? Was it the heart pounding events that took place? More than likely it was all of these things combined that made the story exciting. I always judge a book by how late I stay up to find out what happens next. If I'm in bed by ten o'clock, it's not that great, but if I'm still wide awake at two in the morning, that's a darn good book. So, how do we keep our readers up to the wee hours of the morning? We just gotta get 'em hooked.

Let's take a minute here to list some the things that keep us reading a book. This list has a lot to do with my personal preferences in a book, but yours should look pretty similar.

First, the characters, if I don't like the people who populate the book, then I could really care less what happens to them. Second, the book proposes questions that need to be answered; a mystery that drives me to find out the ending. Basically, a hook that doesn't let go. Third, emotional intensity; anything from being scared out of my wits, to heart-breaking loss. So, what does all this add up to? Conflict and tension. Now, let's break these elements down one by one.

Characters

The single most effective way of creating suspense is to give us a character we can care about. By making us care, you give us a reason to go on with the story. We want to find out what happens to this person you've created, and the wanting is going to keep us reading.

We've talked a little bit about characters already, but we'll touch on a few basics here. The first, and only, cardinal rule of building characters is, make them real. Easier said than done, I know. If you use a character sheet (like the one you might fill out if you’re involved in a Druidawn writing club), you're part of the way there. Those lists will start you thinking about your character's motivation, or why they do the things they do. It will also help you set up their weaknesses and strengths, because we all have them, and a writer has to learn how to use them. If you aren't the type to fill out a form on a character, then just try doing an "interview" with your character. Think up questions to ask them and write down the answers in first person perspective. Think of yourself as Barbra Walters, or, if you prefer, Jerry Springer. An interview might look something like this.

Q: What do you think your greatest achievement in life has been?

A: Oh, gee. That's a toughie. Well, last summer I won the County Fair bake-off with my raspberry coffee cake. Marge Johnson was so jealous I thought she'd pop a button on those tight little sweaters she wears. I mean, really, have you seen those sweaters? And she wears them to teach Sunday school! You'd think a woman her age would have a little more decorum. But I suppose that's what happens when you're raised the way she was. It's a shame really.

That came right off the top of my head. Notice how I let my character ramble a bit, allowing her take over and get off the subject. The trick here is to just get those characters started with a few questions, and then sit back and see what comes out.

If you try these techniques, you'll find that you can hear your character's voice very clearly. I know, it sounds crazy, but eventually you'll get to the point with a character where you can hear her speaking in your head. Now, don't freak out, that's perfectly normal. Well, maybe not PERFECTLY normal, but you get the point. On any given day, I have at least three characters, from several different stories, chatting it up inside my head. Some of my best one-liners come from these imaginary conversations. Sometimes the characters fight, sometimes they discuss the weather, but I always get a valuable glimpse into their personality when I take the time to listen to them. When you start thinking up conversations involving your characters, try writing them down as fast as you can. Even if you don't use it in a story, it will help you see them more clearly.

Once you have a good idea of who your character is you need to think about how she might respond in different situations. Take for example the woman I was interviewing above. We'll call her Julia. Just from that one question I asked Julia, I have a decent idea of how she might respond to certain types of people and in certain environments. Julia strikes me as the judgmental type, the town gossip perhaps. She's probably closed-minded and doesn't like change. Now, given these basic traits, how do you think Julia might react to…oh, say a Goth teenager moving in next door? Would she appreciate his liberty spikes as a statement of his individualism, or would she proclaim him a freak without even getting to know him? My guess would be the second one. But let's go deeper. What if she were put in a situation where she had to rely on this kid for help? What would she do then? I'm not sure yet, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Do you see what I'm doing here? I've set up the basics of a character, and now I'm asking myself a series of what-if questions to figure her out. Asking questions like this will help you delve deeper into your character's thoughts. You can also try writing journal entries for your character, or, if she's Catholic, put her in a confessional and see what her gravest sins are, eavesdrop on her secret conversations… whatever it takes to find out what makes her tick.

I know you're thinking, "Why do I have to go to all this trouble?" Good question. And the answer is, because it will make a better story. Any good story will take a character to places they've never been before, not just physically but emotionally as well, and we have to know how those characters will respond in those situations. If we're not sure how the character handles everyday life then how are we going to know how they'll handle being held at gunpoint, or being chased by demon dogs? We won't.

We not only have to know how they would react, we have to know how they wouldn't react as well. I know, that sounds redundant, but it's a common mistake that writers of all skill levels make. They take a character and force them into being something they are not to fit the plot, or to fit what the writer thinks should happen.

Confused yet? Let me explain what I mean. Have you ever seen a horror movie? Even if you haven't, chances are you know about those famous horror movie scenes, where the heroine hears a noise out in the deep, dark woods and is compelled to go out there and see what it is. Even though she was warned that a serial killer recently escaped from a mental institution and is believed to be hunting down victims in the woods. Now, on the surface this heroine seems to be reasonably intelligent, but she still goes out in those woods (usually in her night gown and bare feet) with no weapon and no flashlight. That, in my book, is stupid. Yet almost every cheesy horror movie has a similar scene. Why do you think this is? Because the writer of the movie NEEDS the heroine to act like a complete moron in order to put her in a situation where the bad guy can scare the pants off her. 

Starting to get my point?

 

If you have a smart, self-assured heroine, don't try to insult her intelligence by sending her into those woods without so much as a frying pan to defend herself. Better yet, let her lock all the doors and try to call the police. The bad guy can still come to her, the effect is still the same, but she doesn't look stupid in the process.

This problem crops up in other types of stories too. Characters who are unemotional and stoic suddenly bawling like babies. Squires too afraid to pick up a sword in battle suddenly finding a backbone with no apparent motivation. All of these things will make your characters unbelievable. That doesn't mean you can't make them do unpredictable things. The trick is to make the unpredictable believable. If the unemotional character wants to grieve for a recently lost friend, show that grief in other ways besides shedding tears. If the coward needs a reason to fight, give him one. Don't expect the readers to buy a dramatic change in the character without some kind of advanced notice or logic.

A catalyst for change can be the situation they find themselves in. Learning how to balance a character, plot, and setting come with practice, along with reading other authors who are good at it. I want to give you an example from the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck, in my opinion, reached the pinnacle of characterization and change due to the situation in this book. If you haven't already read it in your English classes, chances are you will eventually have to. The passage I am about to quote comes from the end of the book where one of the characters, George, must make a decision concerning his friend Lennie, a man with severe mental disabilities, who has gotten himself in a whole lot of trouble. I want you to pay attention to the clues that are given about George's character as he deals with the situation before him. I'm not going to give away the ending here, for those of you who haven't read it, so don't worry about that. In this scene, Lennie and George are talking as George comes to a very hard decision. ~~

The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled, and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of men sounded again, this time much closer than before.

George took off his hat. He said shakily, "Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine."

Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.

Lennie said, "Tell how it's gonna be."

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. "Look across the river Lennie, an' I'll tell you so you can almost see it."

Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. "We gonna get a little place," George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson's Luger; he snapped the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie's back. He looked at the back of Lennie's head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined.

A man's voice called from up the river, and another man's answered.

"Go on," said Lennie.

George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

~~

If you've never read this book you're probably wondering what drove George to the point he is now, and what Lennie did to make shooting him preferable to whatever punishment he is going to receive at the hands of the men crashing through the bush. All I can say is read it for yourself and find out. There is a lot of conflict in this book. Conflict between migrate farm hands and the landowners, between George's desires in life and his loyalties to Lennie, between dreams and harsh reality. The point of my showing you this small passage is that it is a prime example of a character reacting to the circumstances he finds himself in. George doesn't want to shoot Lennie, you can see that by the way his handshakes, and the way he "says shakily." You also get a sense of the danger Lennie is in as George notices the sound of the men coming after him. If you were to read the entire book, you would also see how Steinbeck gives hints—or foreshadows—what is to come. Steinbeck is also an expert at drawing out the relationship between man and his environment. The time and place of this story, mid 1930's, has a huge effect on these men and their reactions.

Let's look at how Steinbeck used description to set the mood of this piece too. George and Lennie stand in a protected little area, where the breeze is gentle and there is a serene pool of water. Yet danger is coming, rummaging through the woods, looming closer. By describing the approaching evening, the blue of the shadows, there is a certain symbolism there. No matter how secure you think you are, something is always coming after you. There are always wolves at the door. Now there are many symbols in this book that could be picked apart. In fact, for a volume a little over one-hundred pages, there is a lot to be learned from the way Steinbeck constructs this story. Symbolism, first class description, and excellent characterization ooze off every page. I would highly recommend reading and studying the techniques Steinbeck uses. But for our purposes today, I hope you see the balancing act between a character's emotional reactions and his environment.

If you want to read an excellent example of characterization, not to mention a great character-driven story, I would also suggest "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens, the book's main character, pops off the page in vivid color, even though he is, by nature, an unassuming man. This is may not be the typical kind of story you'd read, heaven knows it wasn't something I ever thought I'd read, but I find it's good for writers to read everything they can get their hands on, even if it is not in their genre of choice.

A final note on characters. I think many writers forget that suspense, at its most basic, is simply wanting to find out what happens next to the characters. The well-being of the entire world dosen't have to be in danger, and the characters' lives don't have to be on the line. Suspense can be as simple as wanting to know if the main character gets to go to the dance with the girl of his dreams, or if he will get turned down. Some of the best stories I've ever read had relatively small stakes like this. It's all in how you tell the story and portray your characters.

Now, onto the next aspect of tension filled writing… the hook.

The Hook: Reeling Them In, Keeping Them on the Line

 

Having a compelling character is a must for any kind of book, but different genres will have different kinds of hooks. What exactly is a hook? It's a common term in the writing world for the plot twists or initial ideas that "hook" the readers to the story. Think of it like fishing; you dangle a piece of bait in the water and when a fish bites you start reeling it in. The trick with a good hook is not only to get the readers past the first few pages, but to keep them going all the way through the book (that's the "reeling them in" part). This is done in several ways.

Starting the story out with a bit of a mystery is the most common hook. Even if you are not writing a mystery using the same techniques that a mystery writer does; like providing clues, keeping a villain secret, or keeping their motivation secret, can up the suspense.

In a traditional mystery, the story starts with a cop or detective appearing on a crime scene who immediately begins to gather clues. This is the first hook. In a fantasy, the hooks vary. Sometimes the hooks are just intriguing characters and worlds, sometimes it will be the bad guy himself. It all depends on the type of fantasy you're writing. In a traditional mainstream fiction story, the hook is usually the characters themselves, sometimes facing unusual situations. Let's take a look at some examples of different openings, and hooks, from various kinds of stories.

Winter Rose a fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip

~~

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.

I was kneeling at the well; I had just lifted water to my lips. The well was one of the wood's secrets; a deep spring as clear as light, hidden under an overhang of dark stones down which the brier roses fall, white as snow, red as blood, all summer long. The vines hide the water unless you know to look. I found it one hot afternoon when I stopped to smell the roses. Beneath their sweet scent lay something shadowy, mysterious: the smell of earth, water, wet stone. I moved the cascading briers and looked down at my own reflection.

Corbet, he called himself to the villagers. But I saw him before he had any name at all.

~~

In this example, the hook is the strange man, mainly, but there is also an element of foreshadowing here. When the narrator, Rois is her name, describes the secret well, it foreshadows the themes that run throughout the story. A secret world hidden below the surface of normalcy, the lure of the unknown and the wild. By taking the time to describe the well, McKillip is setting the stage for the conflicts to come.

Now, on to the next example. A short story titled, "On a Rainy River" by Tim O'Brien. This story is taken from a collection called "The Things They Carried," a fictional memoir. Tim O'Brien is an author who studied quiet a bit in advanced high school Language Arts classes and in collage, so becoming familiar with his work now is not a bad idea.

~~

This is one story I've never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I've always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession. Even now, I'll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. Still, it's a hard story to tell. All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968….

~~

This is a mainstream piece and is therefore more character driven than a fantasy piece, but fantasy can rely just as heavily on characters. The hook here is obvious; what secret is he about to share? In the above paragraph, O'Brien mentions that confessions make people want to be elsewhere, and that may be true in real life, but in fiction a confession of this sort can lure readers on. Why else do people read character driven stories like this if not to spend some time walking in someone else's shoes?

The next example is from a popular suspense novel entitled: "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown. This book falls under traditional suspense or mystery.

~~

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Sauniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

~~

The first question most readers are going to ask is: "What the heck is going on here?" All the elements for a robbery are there, but we can't be quite sure. And that's good. That's exactly what a writer wants, to keep people guessing for as long as possible.

There is a catch to this technique, though. If you keep the readers guessing for too long without giving them any hints to the mystery, they will become frustrated and might give up on the story. Our job is to drop breadcrumbs as we go, leaving satisfying hunks of information in strategic areas, and luring the readers deeper into the world we've created. So, how do you know when to give a clue away and when to hold back? A lot of it is based on instinct, and on practice. No one can tell you exactly where to give up a clue; you have to feel in your gut when the right moment is. Put yourself in the reader's place as much as possible, especially when you're editing a story. When you read a story where do you want to find clues? As a general rule I like to give tiny clues in almost every chapter, and larger clues at major plot points every few chapters. If your story isn't broken up into chapters, then do it in different scenes. Reading a lot, and in different genres, will help you get a feeling for the pace at which information is given. Too much at one time and you've lost all the tension, not enough and you've frustrated the readers.

One cautionary note. All writers, no matter what they write about, make in implicit promise to their readers. Say you have a loaded gun in your story—or a vial of poison, or an unopened envelope, or a killer on the loose -- you had better use that element at some point in your story. If you do not, you break the "promise" you've made to the readers. By opening a story with a mystery, that mystery has to be solved, the questions answered. 

Look at the example above from Patricia A. McKillip's "Winter Rose." In that example, the hook is a strange man coming into the village. Now, what would you think if you found out in the following chapter that this mysterious man was nothing more than a life insurance salesman? You'd probably feel kind of cheated. As if the writer was just playing with you. No one likes to feel cheated. Chances are you will lose your readers if they feel this way. In short, don't give us a mysterious situation just to get us hooked, especially if it has nothing, or very little, to do with the story as a whole.

There are other hooks, though all of them are founded on the "keep your readers guessing" school. We'll briefly cover various other ways to keep your readers going past the first page.

First, immediate action and/or violence. Many fantasy, suspense, or thriller novels begin this way and will have numerous action scenes throughout. The excerpt from the "Da Vinci Code" I showed you is a prime example of this. But strong action is not just for beginnings. Well-placed scenes involving violence, chase scenes, people hanging onto cliffs by their fingertips, all of that keeps the readers going through the middle and climax of a book or story. Keep in mind that -- just like everything else in writing -- it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Moving your characters from one outrageous action scene to the next will stretch the believability of a story. There has to be room for both the characters and the readers to breathe.

Another common hook, especially of the character driven story, is starting with strong, vivid emotion, something the reader can immediately sympathize with. The trick with emotions is walking that fine line between dramatic and melodramatic, especially at the beginning of a story when we don't know the characters very well. Also, the emotions don't have to be violent, or passionate, just vivid and relatable. Here is the opening passage to the fantasy book Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn. The opening passage resonates with the simpler, but no less powerful emotions of love, and family. There is also a touch of foreshadowing for the violence that comes later in the chapter.

~~

My mother used to threaten to tear me into eight pieces if I knocked over the water bucket or pretended not to hear her calling me to come home as the dusk thickened and the cicadas' shrilling increased. I would hear her voice, rough and fierce, echoing through the lonely valley. "Where's that wretched boy? I'll tear him apart when he gets back."

But when I did get back, muddy from sliding down the hillside, bruised from fighting, once bleeding great spouts of blood from a stone wound to the head (I still have the scar, like a silvered thumb-nail), there would be the fire, and the smell of soup, and my mother's arms not tearing me apart but trying to hold me, clean my face, or straighten my hair, while I twisted like a lizard to get away from her. She was strong from endless hard work, and not old: She'd given birth to me before she was seventeen, and when she held me I could see we had the same skin, although in other ways we were not much alike, she having broad, placid features, while mine, I'd been told (for we had no mirrors in the remote village of Mino), were finer, like a hawk's. The wrestling usually ended with her winning, her prize being the hug I could not escape from. And her voice would whisper in my ears the words of blessing of the Hidden, while my stepfather grumbled mildly that she spoiled me, and the little girls, my half-sisters, jumped around us for their share of the hugs and blessings.

So, I thought it was a matter of speaking. Mino was a peaceful place, too isolated to be touched by the savage battles of the clans. I never imagined men and women could actually be torn into eight pieces, their strong honey-colored limbs wrenched from their sockets and thrown down to the waiting dogs. Raised among the Hidden, with all their gentleness, I did not know men did such things to each other.

~~

The initial emotion the narrator is playing on is all the comforts of home and family. The love, mild annoyance, and warmth of being surrounded by people you know so well, and who know you. Almost any reader with a family can connect with that. However, those emotions turn a little darker in that last paragraph, foreshadowing what is to come later in the chapter. Also pay attention to how the longer, meandering sentences in the first two paragraphs back-up that homey feeling, while the third paragraph has much shorter sentences by comparison. As a general rule, but certainly not always, shorter sentences help reinforce the feelings of suspense, while longer, more complex sentences echo a more relaxed, dreamy feeling. The trick is knowing when to use which one.

More powerful emotions can be used in this way as well, not only as the initial reason for getting the reader past the first page, but to also keep them interested. A story that doesn't take full advantage of the myriad of emotions a human being feels is not a complete story.

Everything from horror to love needs to be played up. The excerpt above from the book Of Mice and Men is a prime example. By the time you get to this passage in the book you are drawn into the characters' world. You truly feel for the decision George has to make.

Can you think if the last book you read that deeply affected you? Perhaps you shed a few tears right along with the characters, or laughed where they did? Can you remember what exactly caused this effect in you? The characters obviously, as we've already discussed, but what else? It's really a combination of many things; characters, timing, plot, believability. I would suggest re-reading a book or story that had a strong effect on you. See if you can figure out how the author accomplished this. Learning to read like a writer, in other words learning to read not only for enjoyment but in order to learn as well, is one of the most important things you can do to improve your writing. Besides actually writing, of course.

Giving you small examples like this out of context is a hard way to learn because a good book is the sum of its parts. So many different techniques go into a suspenseful book. So, the best thing you can do is read, and read a lot. Pay attention to those areas in the story that really hold your attention. Go back and reread those passages several times and pay attention to the different techniques the author used.

Now, I have a few prompts to get you started practicing suspenseful writing. I'm going to give you a few opening lines and I want you to try to finish them. Pay attention to the way you deliver information, never answering one question without posing another, at least until the end.

  • The first time I stared death in the face was in the Clearwater Mall bathroom; while my mother shopped for the perfect Christmas presents.

  • The stranger came into the village just as the first season snows began, snows that would cut off the mountain passes, locking the valley in a prison of ice and snow. The stranger's pale blond hair was crusted in blood, his mount so exhausted the poor beast fell dead in the center of the village, throwing his unconscious rider to the cobbled road.

  • The door stood ajar, a sliver of light cutting into the darkened hallway. Jacob could hear sobbing and muffled words through the door. He felt a sudden need to comfort the woman -- for he assumed that only women made noises like that when they wept -- who was grieving just beyond the door.

I hope these prompts inspire you at least a little bit. If these don't do anything for you, then make up an opening line of your own and see where it takes you.

If you have any more questions on suspense please post them. This is such a broad topic that several books have been written about and it's hard to compact all that information into a small space. So if I haven't answered your questions, or you need more examples, let me know.

 

This was an excerpt from Shannon Stockdale-Elftman’s book Fantastic Fiction available for sale on this website! See Our Products page for details.

Writing TCFDs: A Writer's Secret Weapon

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

 

Spring is a time of year to open the windows of your house and let in a little fresh air. Air out all the stale smells of winter. Symbolically speaking, it's the time of year to let light into the secret corners of your mind, a time of rebirth. It's also time to let out a few secrets. Oh, I saw some ears perk up there. Nothing like a secret to get someone interested. Strap yourself in, because I'm about to share the most closely guarded secret in all of writerdom-okay, not that closely guarded, I won't have to kill you after sharing it. Ready?

All writers' first drafts suck! And anyone who claims to write a perfect first draft is the worst kind of liar. Or a freak of nature. You choose.

Oh, so you think I'm being harsh? Well, maybe a little. But trust me on this one, ninety-nine-point-nine percent of writers write what is called "TCFD"; or "The Crappy First Draft." And the trick of being the writer who gets the crappy first draft finished and sitting all pretty-like on the bookshelf, is another secret. They give themselves permission to write the worst stuff ever conceived of... the kind of terrible writing that causes spontaneous eye bleeding. The successful writer shuts off that part of their brain that knows all the rules; they sit down at their computer and pour out all kinds of trite dialogue, unbelievable characters, convoluted plot lines, and all-out bad writing. And why do they do this? Because the secret to getting a book finished is letting it all hang out in your first go round.

Why, and how, does this work? This technique works for many writers because of the simple fact that it's hard to be creative when you have an inner editor-you know the one, the bodiless voice in your head that whispers all of your short comings-staring over your shoulder and telling you how much your masterpiece sucks. So, many writers, including myself, turn that inner editor off and repeat the following mantra "I hereby give myself permission to write crap, absolute and complete crap, nothing short of crap will be allowed from this point forward."

So, here's a few tricks to getting that crappy first draft all done, and what to do with it when it is finished.

For starters, your first obstacle is that cursed inner editor and his (or her) constant nagging. Maybe that inner editor sounds like a teacher, or a parent, or you. Everyone has one, though, so don't worry about that. Writers are just weird people who can hear their inner critic so clearly, they almost become real.

Now, my inner editor sounds like all of my English teachers rolled into one, and this little demon is so persuasive, I must admit he is hard to turn off. There are times I find myself hitting the delete key more often than any other, there are times when I'm convinced I'll never write anything worth another human being spending the precious time to read, and he has almost succeeded in making me give up on writing all together. Luckily, as I get a little older and the words flow just a little easier, I get better at telling him to shut up.

Here's the best way to get rid of the inner critic. Close your eyes and picture this cynic, give them a body, a form. What does he look like? What is she wearing? Bring them into sharp focus in your mind. Then, and this is my favorite part, picture a box, a box just large enough to hold that nasty critic. If you like, picture the box made of steel, kryptonite, or some other supper strong material. Add a few razor-sharp barbs if it helps. Now, pick up the kicking and screaming critic, and drop them right in. Then lock it, sit an elephant on top of it, throw the box in the darkest, deepest part of the ocean, do whatever it takes to make sure that critic stays where you put them. Until, that is, you decide it's time to let them out (and you will need them later, so don't just kill them off right now, as tempting as that might be).

Now, free of the inner editor, you can sit down to write the worst stuff ever read by man, and that's okay, that's what you want. Repeat that mantra I mentioned earlier (the "I give myself permission to write crap..." mantra) and GO. Don't delete, don't run a spell check, don't worry about commas, just follow Nike's advice and DO IT.

Here comes the amazing part. You'll find that as you practice this, as you get really good at shutting up that inner critic. The words come so much easier, and-miracle of all miracles-some of it isn't all that bad. In fact, some of it is downright good. Especially as you get into the "flow" of the story, as you find that special space that is a writer's version of heaven, where everything is clicking into place.

It's easy to get discouraged sometimes, and sometimes that critic's voice manages to sneak out of the box and whisper to you. Don't give up, though. Put an extra lock on that box and keep going. Just tell yourself that any mistakes can be cleaned up later, and they can. The delete key was invented for a reason, because no one is perfect the first time around.

Now, you have that first draft pretty much done, you know there are some good parts, and you know there are a lot of parts that should be burned in order to spare mankind the pain of reading them. This is where the editing comes into play. Go back and find those good parts, highlight them in bright yellow if it makes you feel better. Now, find those parts that make you cringe, underline them, those underlined parts need to be fixed, but those highlighted parts are your bread and butter, the reason most writers get up in the morning. Those are the parts where you found the right words, the right emotions somewhere in the vastness of your mind. And you couldn't have found those without silencing that inner critic.

Now, I would like to show you this concept in action. I'm about to unearth a rough draft that should probably have been buried and mourned ages ago. I'm going to present this to you exactly as it is: lines drawn through, misspelling, bad grammar, and all. Please, try to keep your lunch.

****

The ghost never spoke to Lilly, never moved, or made any human gesture. It simply stared with vivid blue eyes surrounded by a wavering form. The eyes were alive even after the bodies lines had wavered, the face became foggy. The blue eyes always held her Lilly. Sometimes the blue eyes held emotion, but Lilly suspected she saw what she wanted to. More often then note, they were vacant held detachment, as was only right.

On this particular morning they seemed to plead. The ghost's features were sharper then they had been in several years. Lilly could make out the high cheekbones, the proud lines fot the forehead and nose, the full mouth. It was as if the ghost knew what was coming, and found substance and power in it.

Lilly sipped her morning tea, closed her eyes for a moment hoping the apperation had haunted her for almost twenty years would leave her to her breakfast in peace.

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. The ghost still stood there across the table from her, staring unblinkingly. Just Lilly and the specters of the past in an opulent room, sharing tea and cinimmion pastries.

"Soon mother," Lilly whispered into her teacup. "Soon."

****

Okay, that's plenty for now, the rest is too painful to share. Let's just say I didn't have enough of an idea of where this was going, and it sank into a pit of blackness soon after this passage. That's another aspect to this technique. If you are the kind of writer who needs to have an outline, and many notes, then do that before you begin. Knowing where you are going with a story will help to keep that critic quiet.

As you can see, there are many grammar issues and spelling mistakes here, there are sentences that don't make a lot of sense, there are a few tense problems, and not quite enough detail. Not to mention that the overall read is just a little rough. Despite all those faults, I still like this scene and will probably use it again in a different project I'm working on. Writing is a continual learning process; you learn what works and what does not as you go. You learn that everything can be fixed in the second draft, and unless you're willing to share it, no one EVER has to read that crappy first draft. It's your secret, you're the only one who has to know how terrible it was. Thank the powers of the universe for that.

The reason the writing process is so mystical is because writers can't always explain the process without sounding like weirdoes, but there are some things we can share that is easy to understand. We are not perfect on the first try, no one is, and every writer needs those second, and sometimes third rewrites. It's what produces the stories we all know and love, that diligent refusal to let an idea go, the knowledge that writing that crappy first draft will let us get all of our grand ideas on paper. And sometimes within all the garbage, you'll find the gem. It's that gem that keeps me going, that keeps me shifting through the refuse of my mind. Trust me there's a lot of junk in there.

Happy crappy first draft writing.

Writing Your Rough Draft

By Shannon Stockdale-Elftman

 

The rough draft is my favorite part. This is where you can just let it all go. The whole point of the first draft is to get your ideas on paper. There's time to worry about commas, spelling and all that stuff later.

Many elementary schools focus way too much on the basic mechanics of writing (the proper grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure you need), but they forget to teach the application of those skills. In other words, they don't teach you how to tell a good story. How to make your words important enough that someone would want to read them. Having good mechanics is useless if you're not writing anything interesting. So here are a few pointers to get you started.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Characters are the heart of any story. Many writers start with an idea for a character and then ask "What if" questions to build a story around them.

Characters can usually be broken into three categories. The protagonists (good guys); the antagonists, the people who stir up all the trouble in the story (bad guys); and finally, the minor characters, the ones who help move the story along, but who are less developed than the main characters. You, as the writer, want to find out as much about these people as you can, even the minor ones. So here are a few questions to ask yourself when you're thinking about your main characters.

  • What gender does this person identify as?

  • What is their name? You would be surprised at how something as simple as a name will make them more real.

  • How old are they?

  • What do they look like? I like to make a list of hair color, eye color, details like that. However, keep in mind that this is more for your own use right now. When you are writing your story, you don't want to just write down a list to describe your character's appearance. More information on this a little later on.

  • What is their job? Or what chores do they have to do?

  • Where do they live?

  • What clothes do they wear?

  • How does your character view themself? Pretty, smart, artistic, weak, something else?

  • Who are their friends?

  • What does your character want? This question will most affect the plot of your story. Your job as the author is to keep your characters from getting what they want for as long as possible, then either help them get it in the end, or throw some other kind of twist in there – maybe they thought they wanted one thing, when they actually wanted something else entirely. It's all up to you. In this world, you are the boss. Without a goal, there is no story to tell, so don't give your characters resolution of the goal until your story is truly ending.

  • What are some things in their past that effect who they are today? This is something else that might affect your story dramatically. A person's history is part of what motivates them, so give this some thought.

 

Those are just a few examples of questions to get you started. Try thinking of some more that will help you really get to know your character. Imagine you're meeting a person for the first time. What kinds of questions would you ask her?

Characters come from all sorts of places. People you know, people you read about or see on TV. The mother in your story may be based on your mom. You may base your main character on yourself. All those things are okay. In fact, when you first start writing, the best place to find characters is in the people around you. Just keep in mind that your imagination has to fill in the holes. Say one of your characters is based on your best friend. In your story, you have that character come under attack by a dragon. Chances are, if your real best friend saw a dragon hovering above his house, he'd freak out. I know I would. But the character, who is based on your friend, might have to be a bit braver than that in order for the story to work. You have to use your imagination and try to figure out what your character would do given each unique situation. Would he run? Would he stay and fight? You can use the people around you for your stories, but at some point those characters are going to act differently from the people in your real life, and that's okay, in fact, you want that. Your characters will start to take on a life of their own.

There are other ways to make your characters come to life. One way is to pay attention to the way they move, or the gestures they make. Have you ever met someone who gestured a lot when they talked, or chewed their nails, or spoke so softly you could hardly hear them? This told you a lot about what that person was like before you ever really knew anything about them. Just like in real life, a character's body language and mannerisms give them away. Mannerisms are the unconscious things that people do every day, like tapping your pencil on the desk when you're thinking, or toying with your hair when you're nervous.

An example of an effective way to use body language:

"What are you doing here? I told you, you're too little to play with us," John said, with a sigh.

Shane looked down at the ground and scraped the toe of his sneaker into the dirt. "I only wanted to play."

John's shoulders slumped at the pleading note in his brother's voice. "Okay, okay, you can play with us. But try not to give the ball to the other team this time."

Shane looked up from the ground, with a huge grin that displayed his missing front tooth. "I promise."

An example of an effective way to use mannerisms:

"Hello, my name is Caleb."

The strange girl did not answer, just continued to stare at Caleb's horse, and chew thoughtfully on her lower lip.

Finally, she replied, "I'm Sally." She spoke so softly that Caleb had to lean forward to hear her clearly, and she did not look him directly in the eye. "Can I pet your horse?"

Notice that the references to body language and mannerisms are subtle. You don't want to beat the readers over the head with it, just give them an idea of what that person is like. In the first example, you get the feeling that Shane is younger than John, and that John is annoyed with him. The dialogue also gives this away, but the body language makes it easier to picture. In the second example, Sally seems shy, maybe even a little nervous. Though none of this is directly said, her manner gives her away.

Finally, another thing to think about for character development is the way they speak and think. This comes with a lot of practice, but I'll touch on it here just to give you something to think about.

Everyone speaks differently. Someone highly educated will use bigger words and speak more formally, like, "Actually, I believe the true nature of the villain we face is openly displayed in his treachery."

A small town, lifetime fisherman might speak more simply and compare things to fish or water: "That man's as slippery as a cod fish."

Or the fisherman's thoughts might be: Her voice was loud and angry, like the tides crashing against the shore.

Other ideas for unique dialects and methods of speech you may want to toy with:

  • A speech impediment like: a lisp, stuttering, or "R"s and "L"s sound like "W"s. Example: "lollipop" becomes "woweepop."

  • Character uses too many words when she talks. She tends to drone on and on when she made her point ages ago.

  • Character regularly goes off track in his speech in a distracted sort of way. May begin one thought, then jump to something else, then to something else completely unrelated again and lose sight of what he was trying to say to begin with. Other characters could become frustrated with this character and constantly have to rein them in and get back on the topic at hand.

  • Character uses a lot of fillers in her speech such as "like" or "uh" or "um."

  • Character mumbles and is incomprehensible at times.

  • Character uses nicknames for everything and shortens words in a Southern fashion. Or character may use a lot of clichés, similes, or metaphors in his speech, turning everything into some kind of old saying.

  • Character may correct other people all the time and drive them crazy.

  • Character may use her hands excessively during speech

  • Character may have an accent (such as Indian, French, English, German, Irish).

 

Get the idea? Mess around a little bit with this. Pay attention to the different people around you and how they speak. Does your teacher use words your mother does not? Does your dad talk a lot about his work? Do your grandparents use phrases you've never even heard before? With lots of practice and listening closely to how people speak, you'll pick up on it sooner than you think. Writers are observers of human behavior. I like to take my notebook with me everywhere so I can jot down ideas or observations on the fly. Journaling is a good habit to get into if you want to improve your writing skills.

 

PLOT

Plot is the vehicle that moves your story along. Your job as the writer is to get your character stuck in a situation, get her more stuck, throw impossible obstacles in her way, and then when it all seems hopeless, show her a way out, and, if you're so inclined, hand her a happy ending.

Take the example I used in the previous section about someone who finds a treasure map hidden in his attic. To really make it interesting, let's pretend that this person, we'll call him Caleb, is broke. In fact, he is so poor he's about to lose his house, or his only healthy horse, or something else important to him. The treasure map is just what he needs to help him out of his troubles. So, with map in hand, he begins his journey. The map is the first situation, the first turn of events that gets the reader interested. Then we throw in the troll infested mountains and the enchanted woods, and the people he meets along the way. Sometimes these people may help, sometimes they do not, but chances are they exist as further obstacles in Caleb's path.

Eventually Caleb reaches the treasure. Does he find what he's looking for? Is he rich? Is he happy after that? Does the map turn out to be nothing but a lure by a witch who captures him, and then he discovers that he isn't really human himself the way he thought he was? Maybe money wasn't really what he needed after all? Does Caleb die during his journey, giving the story a sad ending? However you decide to bring the story to a close, it must have closure. A sense that most of the mysteries have been solved, changes occurred and lessons were learned, and one way or another, we can stop worrying about Caleb.

And that, my friend, is a plot. Caleb wants something, he goes after it, obstacles get in his way, and at last there is some form of closure.

Plot is usually described as a curve or a hill. The beginning is the curve up the hill, the climax, or highest action point in the story, is the top of the hill, and the ending comes at the base of the downhill slope.

I prefer to think of it as a roller coaster ride. The beginning of a story is similar to being strapped into the seat and starting the climb up to the first big curve. Your stomach is churning a little. You're excited. You hit the apex of the hill and for that split second, paused on top of that coaster ride; you feel a moment of awe and fear. Then the drop starts, your stomach rides up into your throat, and you're sure you'll never make it through. There are many ups and downs during the ride, moments of lower stress and moments of higher stress. At last, the ride is over, the car comes to a stop, and as you get out, your knees feel wobbly.

Another thing to keep in mind when writing is the pace of the story. Pacing is how fast or slow the story moves. You don't want the story to be boring, but you don't want nonstop action without any room to breathe. Compare it to running on a track. If you sprint around the track quickly, you're going to wear yourself out; if you go too slowly, you may never get finished. You want to keep a nice steady pace, fast enough to keep people interested, but slow enough so as not to wear yourself out. Most stories vary between three speeds, the slower beginning where you're conserving your energy, then the pace picks up as the action comes in, then it's up and down hill for a while, with a few slower moments in between when the characters can rest, then the rapid sprint to the end. You can look at the stories you read now for an idea of what pacing is.

Let's take Harry Potter for example. The books always start in his aunt and uncle's house, where his cousin is making him miserable. Then there is usually a little misadventure that begins to pick up the pace of the story. He inflates his aunt or is attacked by dementors. Then he's off to Hogwarts and within a few pages, he's started to uncover a mystery. As the mystery unfolds, we see Harry trying to pass tests, put up with Professor Snape, and play Quidditch, in a series of ups and downs, like a roller coaster, until the climax comes; the moment he puts all the pieces together and faces his greatest foe. The ride comes to an end at last with Harry victorious in some way, or at least the immediate threat is resolved.

Pick up any other book you've read recently, or even short story, and break it down like that. What happens first, second, etc. Are there moments of intense action followed by moments where the characters get a break? Think about this as you start to write.

Finally, a note on the ending. The ending of a book is the part your readers are most likely to remember. You want the end to occur as quickly after the climax as possible and have a strong impact. You don't want to keep dragging the ending on and on. After the main character gets what they want, tie everything together, and type THE END.

 

This was an excerpt from Shannon Stockdale-Elftman’s book Fantastic Fiction available for sale on this website! See Our Products page for details.

Overcoming Writer's Block

By Miriam Darnell

Here are some writing tips that I often use to overcome writer's block.

All writers experience writer's block at some point in their writing career, and it seems like the more pressure they put on themselves, the worse it gets. I have spent a good deal of time talking with various writers and getting their suggestions on how to overcome this common problem. The following is a list of ideas that I have compiled, some of which are my own and have worked well for me in the past. Others are the ideas of successful authors who wanted to share their knowledge with fellow writers. I hope you find some of these techniques to be helpful!

KNOWN CURES:

  • Move away from the project - watch a related television show or movie or read a book instead, something on the same topic.

  • Draw, doodle, paint, sculpt, etc. - see where your art takes you.

  • Make sure you're comfortable - change your writing position. Try the floor or the kitchen table or outside at the park. A change of setting can do wonders.

  • Music - try listening to appropriate music that sets the mood for your project. For instance, listen to heavy metal or action movie soundtracks if writing an action sequence. Try love songs for a romantic sequence, etc.

  • Ask for help - friends and family, teachers and mentors all have good ideas that you would never have thought of yourself. Never be too private or too proud to ask for assistance from others.

  • Eat - try eating spicy foods that open your sinuses, or sweet foods that give you a quick spurt of energy.

  • Try another project - most writers have more than one project that they are working on at a time. Maybe the timing isn't right for the current project you're having trouble with. Try working on something else for a while, then come back to it.

  • Talk it through out loud - sometimes you can think better out loud if you listen to your own voice.

  • Find a list of writing prompts (there are whole books on this subject, but there is also a continually growing list of writing prompts on this website).

  • Outline - try making an outline of the entire plot, beginning to end. This is taking an eagle-eye view of the project and can give you a better perspective on where you're going.

  • Ask yourself the following question, "If I was reading this story instead of writing it, what would I most want to see happen, just for my own pleasure?"

  • Always keep a writer's notebook with you - keep it by your bed so you can write down your dreams when you first wake up (the answer might be in your dreams!). Take it with you when you go places or when you read a book or watch a movie. You never know when the answer to your block will appear before your eyes. But beware, it can disappear just as quickly! So always write it down in your notebook. Also keep lists of phrases, people, places and other notes there.

  • Try writing out of sequence - no one says you have to write chapter one before you start chapter two. Maybe if you skip the difficult stuff in the part you're working on and try writing something that happens later in the story, you'll be able to go back and fill in the blanks more easily. Write the parts you do know, that way at least you'll have something on paper. You'll be making progress.

  • Do more character development. Make sure you really CARE about your main character. If this person hasn't captured a part of your heart, it's going to be hard to write about them. Most characters who are well fleshed out demand that you write about them. They'll help you overcome your block all by themselves!

  • Observe real people and watch the news. To coin a cliché, fact is often stranger than fiction. Real people do strange things and make themselves easy subjects to write about.

  • Play role-playing games if you're a fantasy writer. RPGs are the best way to get into the mode of the adventure, and you'll get lots of ideas from whatever quest you happen to be on.

  • Lastly, OVERCOME PERFECTIONISM IN THE FIRST DRAFT!!!!! - It's not going to be perfect in the first draft. Just get your ideas down and push yourself to finish the project, no matter how sloppy it is in the initial stages. If you bog yourself down with perfectionism (i.e., wanting the words to flow beautifully and the characters to just spring instantly to life), you'll never complete the project!