I’ve been giving a lot of writing advice recently to several people, both for my job and otherwise, and I decided to put some trends that I’ve seen into words. More importantly, this is a bit of a practice to see if I can consolidate and explain the instincts that I have absorbed via literary osmosis over the years. I will be going to a local con to put on a bit of a presentation for a fanfic writing workshop, so I made this very long post as a sort of test for the format that I plan to use for the first part of the discussion. Furthermore, anyone who reads it here might benefit... somehow.
Anyway, a while back, I wrote my first PSA on how to construct solid characters. You will see parts of that post regurgitated here, but there is more to getting a good foundation for a story than that. It helps to know and understand the Classic Hero Cycle if you are writing a fantasy story or sci-fi or romance, or just about any story. The Cycle doesn’t just deal with fantasy, that is just the genre in which it is most prominent and easiest to identify. Having a well-rounded and planned out character, and a path for him or her to travel can be important, but choosing the wrong style to tell your story can kill it right out of the gate.
Remember, these things aren’t really rules. Well, except for grammar and syntax, you have to follow those, even though English barely follows them anyway. Creative writing can be anything you want it to be, there are just a few tried and true ways of getting the results you want. If you consider what you want to get out of a piece of writing, you will be far more likely to get it.
Ideas are abstract things and can be hard to explain. Stories are strings of ideas attached to one big idea and can be impossible to explain, if you do it the wrong way. So, let’s go over the most common types of style that can help you explain your story in a way that will give the proper vision to the reader.
When I say ‘Style’ I’m referring to the perspective and mood in which a story is written. Perspectives most commonly used in creative fiction are first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. Second person is another perspective but it is very hard to get right; it tends to just feel awkward and more attention goes to how the story was told rather than the story itself. When choosing a style, you need to give a good deal of consideration to the voice you want to use as well, or you draw attention to the telling rather than the content. Voice means mood or flavor. It also refers to you as a writer, specifically, how you put words together in a unique way. Some examples of voice are satirical, like Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams; comedic, which tends to be satirical, but one prominent example of a very simple comedic story is the Captain Underpants novels/story books; informal, most middle school novels are written with this voice, such as the Fablehaven series; formal, like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Brandon Sanderson; and modern, like Ray Bradbury and his contemporaries.
Once you’ve found a perspective and mood you want to go with, you need to decide on tense. Most fiction is written in the past tense as a narration. This is the most common and the most natural way to write and read a story. The idea behind fiction is that it could happen, and in some ways, it already has happened. Past tense is easy to conjugate, in English, and easiest to follow when you have a string of events. It lends itself to description and facilitates in emersion. Because it is so common and familiar, we hardly even notice it, which gives us the ability to look into the story and experience the events. Poorly written stories are not completely bad, most of the time. What happens is that an author will have a good, solid idea but falter in conveying it. The reader gets caught up in what’s wrong with the delivery rather than enjoying the story. You, as an author, are giving your reader a window into another world that only you can see. Muddying up the tenses and mismatching mood and perspective is like frosting the glass.
All tenses are not created equal; they have strengths and weaknesses. The past tense happens to be the most well-rounded in this regard, because you can do so much with it. You can even slip into the perfect past to show depth of time, which is telling of events that happened even farther back than the past your story takes place in. This doesn’t mean that present tense and future tense are terrible, they are just not as flexible. For example, past tense lets you narrate naturally. The characters and their actions can be described that way, but then the characters can show their own voices by using all of the available tenses. You can avoid a lot of confusion this way. Some feel, however, that the past tense isn’t immediate enough, that their story feels flat and dead. This may be true, but you have to be careful not to trip into the passive voice, the lurking danger of the past tense. Passive voice can happen in all of the tenses and it’s hard to avoid sometimes, but for a vast majority of a story you can avoid it. Passive voice is the use of ‘to be’ verbs that are conjugated instead of the principal verb of the sentence. For example, you can say “That was made by him” gets the point across, but it’s flat and dull. To make it more active you remove ‘was’ and change the subject of the sentence to that it reads, “He made that”. It’s easier to read, clearer and more impactful. Why say in five words what you can do with three?
After you have your mood, style and tense, you can start tailoring your text to cater to your audience. That means choosing the right words. Vocabulary is not how many ways you can say one thing, it's how many meanings you can get with one word. Context and connotation are everything in word choice, not the rarity or sophistication of the word chosen. A lot of this has to do with your style and mood. For example, if you set out to write a short fable, you probably wouldn’t want to start out by using twenty and thirty dollar words that you yanked from the maw of a thesaurus. The most successful authors use common words that convey what they mean, in essence: they mean what they say. The more clever authors call attention to their word choice as a means of adding another layer of meaning to what they want you to understand. Most of the time this comes in the form of satire and dry humor where you are supposed to laugh at how something was said just as much as what was said. A wider vocabulary can help your story immensely.
Synonyms help break up the monotony of repetitive, yet necessary, actions and phrases. Things like “he said, she said, etc” can get heavy to read; it becomes samey and mired in drudgery. So instead, you look for more descriptive words that show your reader how characters say what they said. Now, we have the latent danger of vocabulary. Don’t change a word simply because it is the same as another word that happens to be used in your story. If it says what you want it to say, then leave it. If you really, really want to change something, make sure you know the definition and proper usage of the replacement word. The more obscure the word, the more important it is that you know how to use it. Your readers, the ones who want to get everything they can from your story, will look up words they don’t know. If you have the wrong word, this is devastating to the suspension of disbelief. Misuse a word enough and the average reader will begin to distrust the narrator, the errors become a distraction, and soon the story won’t be at the forefront of their minds. Keep in mind that the words are the story; what they mean and the emotions they carry with them should fit your goal for any given passage. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how often a novice writer gets carried away with word choice.
Now, to apply. We can talk about the nitty-gritty of writing and get into all sorts of technical jargon and what-all-there-is-to-grammar until we’re blue in the mouth but that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of practicality. You really don’t want to try and tell a horror story as a satire in purple prose: it just doesn’t work. You won’t get the effect you want if you don’t match up the style with your theme. Here is where knowing the bones of a story can help. Below is a representation of the Classic Hero Cycle as described by Joseph Campbell (a wizard of epic proportions).
I bet that if you sat down and watched all of the two-part episodes of MLP:FIM with this chart in front of you, especially with the ending of Season 3, that you would be able to find most of these steps in one form or another. If you look deeper at the other episodes, you’ll see these steps in miniature all over the place. What I’m trying to get at is all stories can fit into this mold, at least, all of the really good ones. I’m not saying that you have to do everything in the cycle to have a successful story. Think of it this way; there are all sorts of cakes out there in the world and they all have different flavors and textures and things we like, and dislike, but they all follow a basic recipe. The Classic Hero Cycle is a basic recipe for a story. Just like how most cakes have eggs and flour in them, most stories have a protagonist that has to complete some task. The only time you will see all the steps of the cycle is in an epic fantasy. Epic because of length and scope. It takes a lot of infrastructure to support a complete Hero’s Journey, and that takes time to set up and execute properly. Sometimes it’s not what you have that makes your story stand out, it’s what you choose to leave out. Standing out can be good, and it can be bad. Before we get into that, let’s look at how the Cycle works.
First of all, look at it. What is that curious shape? Why yes, it is a circle. What is something we know about circles? Well besides being curved around a central point in 360 degrees, circles are infinite. If you start at any point on the circle, and follow it all the way around, you will end up where you started. Circles are also made up of an infinite number points, so we can think of the steps in the Cycle to be those points. The beauty of the Cycle is that you can start anywhere on it, and as long as you go counter-clockwise in this representation, and go all the way to the end, you will have a complete story. The level of detail you go into is dependent on how many parts of the Cycle you want to include. More points make for a longer, more complex story. Fewer milestones simplify and shorten stories. Going back to cake, or muffins, let’s go with muffins; more oils in the muffin mix gives you yummy, moist, delectable muffins. Less oils gives you crumbly, tasty, but drier muffins. Depending on the texture you prefer or that you want to accomplish, you can vary the recipe accordingly. There are so many possible combinations and subtle variations on a theme that it would take a lifetime just to put them all on paper. This is only a basic guide for giving a general idea of what direction to choose when telling a story, so I won’t be going into detail. You will have to experiment with your ideas and try some things on your own. Only you know what you want to do. Experimenting also means reading. Reading a lot. For some of us, that might mean stepping out of our comfort zone and trying something new.
With the type of story you want to do in mind, pick out the steps of the Cycle that you want to explore and then do some research on them. A priceless resource is Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces. He goes into great detail about each of the major steps and their sub-categories and the facets of each. Once you have a grasp of what sorts of things you want to have happen, write out a quick road map. This isn’t the novel, it’s just the outline. It doesn’t have to be very specific, in fact, it should be very loose and open for change. A few things might be concrete such as pivotal moments for your characters to experience, but a majority of the outline will be pretty sketchy. You want to leave the prewriting open for some organic growth. You will inevitably come up with alternative ways to explore your world and characters that may be better than your first ideas. If you leave things open, then it’s not so bad that you stray from the original plan; you aren’t losing too much energy by throwing out an idea or two. You can file those away and even use them in other stories if you feel like it. The road map will also help you keep the destination in sight. Stories always feel better when they are moving in a definite direction. It doesn’t even have to be the true direction either. Setting up a story in a way that screams out a certain ending, only to have the world turned sideways and go in a completely new direction can be a lot of fun. The point is that the twist was planned, just not divulged. Knowing where you want to go and how you want to get there is the first and best defence against the sleepy story syndrome. Sleepy stories amble around, with no clear goal, often with confused and convoluted mutterings that just make you want to put them down, tuck them in, and leave them alone.
Now, we’ve looked at how the cycle works and how circles work. We’ve discussed twists and organic growth and roadmaps, so we come to the truly difficult part: what to leave out. Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of formulae to guide you in this venture, but here are some tips on what to look for.
First, consider your scope; how big is your story going to be? I have seen both sides of this coin and there are literally millions of ways to pull off a big story. There are successful stories that only include the bare minimum of the themes in the classic cycle, but you have to really know exactly what you are doing to pull that off. Generally, if you want to tell a simple story, most of what was in the above figure will be missing from your story arc. A simple adventure doesn’t need every role to be filled, just enough to make the story interesting.
Second, consider your genre and mood. Lighthearted adventures generally don’t have the Temptress, Sacred Marriage or encounters with the Right Hand of Doom. They often don’t feature the Distancing or Betrayal at the two-thirds mark either. It all boils down to what you want to do with your story, what is your goal. This also helps you determine the types of characters you will choose to represent certain Archetypes and roles. A dark thriller full of moody scenes and whispered threats is no place for a buffoonish and awkward teenager as the lead character. He also probably wouldn’t have a snarky and cynical companion on top of that. Honestly, that sounds like the prime ingredients of a good satire.
Third, plan for backstory development. This could be for characters and places, even things, that appear in your story. The amount of work that needs to be done for this part is varied, again depending on style, mood and genre. You will have to rely on common sense, especially when it comes to working in an established universe. When you brainstorm for a character, event or place, you should always be asking yourself, “Is this something that changes how the reader will understand that?” and “Is this already common knowledge?” If the answer to either of those is “yes” then you should leave it out or show the reader that information instead. Ideally you would be showing everything, but some exposition now and then is the only way to get some kinds of information across to your readers.
There are a few things that you absolutely cannot leave out, however. The first is the Threshold of Adventure, where the Hero receives the Call, decides to follow or tries to flee, then must face the Guardian or escape the Mob. This is the most important part of a traditional adventure; this is your hook. The crossing of the threshold happens almost immediately in the story. After all, you don’t want to bore your reader with everyday things; they have enough of that with everyday life.
You also can’t leave out the Road of Trials, which should be pretty self-explanatory. Without the Road of Trials you have what we call a “slice-of-life” story, a “day in the life” memoir. The Road is the adventure. As its name suggests, it is the part of the story where your hero and his companions face obstacles and rise above them, or fall short on occasion. This is the journey, and it should be noted that we all know for the most part where the story will end.
To quote from Brandon Sanderson in his book, The Way of Kings, “The destination doesn’t matter, only the journey.” Though he was talking about life in general, we can apply it to the art of storytelling. It is ultimately up to you how many twists and turns the Road will take but be aware of your pace. Long Roads can be daunting, but they can be extremely rewarding. Short Roads packed with too much excitement have the potential to rob us of too much. What matters most is how your characters cope with the trials of their adventure. You could have a relatively short Road with lots of ups and downs, twists and turns, pitfalls and stones and have high-energy characters to match, but if your reader can’t see how your characters have changed over time, then it was largely an exercise in futility.
All of these things should be driven by your characters. There are schools of thought that preach you must find the character to suit the path and others who contend that the path chooses the character. In reality, it is a bit of both. We want to be able to see the journey’s effect on the Hero, but it is powerful when we can see how the journey was shaped by the Hero himself. How we do that is mostly up to each writer and even varies drastically story-to-story. Hopefully, some of what I have to say about character creation and development will shed some light on the mysterious ways of Pathos.
So, now we have an adventure, being told in a strong voice and matching style (theoretically). Who will go on this adventure? Never fear, Laich is here... with some tasty copypasta. In my earlier post I broke down the parts of a solid character and explained a few things. The only problem with that post is that it’s sort of specific to OC submissions that I was accepting at the the time of TGBM’s writing. The major point I’m pulling out of it is that of the personality, which is the most important part of a character.
Without a consistent personality, your character lacks stability. Inconsistent characters are jarring in a story. The reader never knows what to expect from them if they have clashing traits. Sometimes, this is the goal, such as a chaotic evil, or chaotic good character, but even then there is a continuity to that character. Heroes and heroines for the most part, are fairly well balanced people with a few shortcomings. A hero who is likable but has a phobia or self esteem issues usually makes for a solid protagonist because he has the drive, ambition, and charisma to be a hero yet he has inner struggles that he must overcome in addition to the external conflict of the story.
Lots of people like to refer to this as 'depth'. I heard that term a lot when my brony friends were trying to turn me to pony. To my delight, I found that they were right. The characters we have grown to love have depth to their personalities because they are not perfectly rounded. They have chinks and cracks, imperfections, prejudices, opinions, fears, in short, they are real. The dynamics between the Mane 6 are some of the most fascinating things in the show. Where one falls short, another excels, this lends drama and interaction to the story, as well as an element of believability, as we watch them interact with each other. FIM is successful because they keep the characters consistent with how they were introduced. Drastic changes to their character have been used as indicators that something is wrong. Though they may not say so directly, we pick up on it because that is how real people behave. 180 degree turnarounds in mannerisms, speech, opinion, behavior or attitude don't happen overnight.
When you establish a character, make sure that you have their base traits written down. Write a short biography for them, make a quick sketch of their appearance in a short paragraph, or even art if you are so inclined. You can even write out a quick scene where they interact with another character. These will prove invaluable as you progress in a story for two reasons: 1. you have a resource to fall back on when putting your character in different situations, and 2. You will have a reference for when your character started his quest and where he is when he finishes. Dynamic characters are the most fun to read about. A dynamic character is one who grows with the story, there is a change wrought in them that the reader can observe as the hero meets challenges and either succeeds, or fails. Most would argue that the hero failing a task is not good for a story. I would contend that the hero MUST fail several times before he should be allowed to succeed, otherwise there is little drama, no suspense and the victory at the climax of the arc feels hollow. A meaningful resolution to a story indicates that you were able to see the character grow. In order to show a character's growth, you need to have a solid and recognizable starting point.
Having that starting point will be a tremendous boon to your story. If you already have a path you want a character to follow, then it will be easy to point at faults your character has and say which ones need to be remedied to get him or her to the end of the story. Your protagonist’s personality will often determine what steps of a story to include and exclude.
There are essentially two ways you can start a character: attractive or unattractive. Within these two categories you have all of the subcategories that we are familiar with such as the Idealist, or Ruffian, Scalawag or Simpleton. Making them attractive doesn't mean you describe them in a way that makes every woman's heart flutter or every man's eyes bulge. Remember, we are still talking about the personality here. An attractive personality means that they are likable, they have no major foible that instantly makes the reader want nothing more than to see the hero's smug face punched in. Dashing side characters with a lot of charisma tend to be an Attractive Scalawag or Ruffian. Rarely do we see a main hero this way. Such heroes tend to be morally ambiguous, and that can be very hard to keep consistent. They can be the most exciting characters sometimes because they start out as callous jerks that are in it for themselves and couldn’t care less for the welfare of people they don't know, but in a dramatic change of heart they show their true noble quality. Prime example: Han Solo. Though Han was important to the events of Star Wars, he was not the hero. Luke Skywalker is a perfect example of the classic hero archetype. He is what I classify as an Attractive Idealist. This is the most common type of protagonist. They are versatile characters because they tend to be young, inexperienced, naive, bold, energetic and determined. Their inexperience is their weakness and so as they experience hardship, love, success, and loss we can relate to them as they learn from it.
Unattractive heroes have obvious flaws that make them hard to be around. Most of the time this appears in the form of selfishness or misplaced ambition. They tend to be older characters, world-weary, cynical, scarred and reluctant. Though the more dynamic ones tend to be young characters who are spoiled-rotten rich kids or cruel, domineering thugs.
There are so many shades to personality that it is literally impossible to break it down in such simple terms. There are exceptions and deviations to the types and categories that are totally acceptable as characters. The characters’ personalities should be constantly shifting, evolving and growing throughout the story. Normal people adjust their actions to fit situations. How they adjust their actions, for good or ill, is dependent on their personality. A dynamic character will learn from his experiences. The things he must endure will change his personality and his actions will reflect that change. If you want to map out what happens to a character, do that in a completely separate document. Not only for organizational purposes, but also for simplicity. If you start to delve into how a character will react to his adventure, you will confuse the biography. It will cease to be a resource and become liability, because you are moving forward in time where events are supposed to change that character, it will be hard to use as a contrasting reference.
There is no easy way to write a believable character. The best way to do it is to use personal experience. You will find that putting yourself in your character’s shoes is the best way to imagine how they might feel in a given situation, and this means getting personal. Your writing will reflect you, no matter how hard you try to stay out of it. Good writing is personal writing. When you put yourself into your story, that is when your reader feels your voice. Your voice is what gives your story a unique quality even in the midst of millennia of storytelling tradition.
Writing isn’t always comfortable. Feeling awkward and uncertain is totally normal when you pick up something as personal as creative writing. Most of the people I’ve tutored, from high-schoolers to adults, felt uncomfortable sharing their writing. There is a great deal of fear involved. Fear of rejection, fear of failure. It’s harder than most fears to overcome because you are dealing with things that are intrinsically a part of you. Your ideas make up a big part of your personality, and somewhere deep down, everyone knows this. If someone doesn’t like your ideas, they don’t like you, or you are stupid and inadequate. That is simply not true. You just need to find your voice and keep going.
That brings us to the next big step. Sharing. As long as you keep your work internal, you will only have yourself to judge. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves better than what we are. You are only human, the good news is, there are others around you who are as well. Through sharing your work, you test it against other perspectives. There will inevitably be friction but nothing ever gets polished without it.You will be challenged about your decisions and your characters; defend them. If you find that you cannot, then there is something to improve. Not all criticism is good criticism, unfortunately, so you will have to take what others say with a grain of salt. Aside from the occasional troll, never throw out a piece of criticism. That doesn’t mean you need to act on it, but don’t disregard it simply because it clashes with your opinion on the matter.
Refining a story is very similar to cutting gemstones. You start with a raw material, a mineral, an idea. Impurities are washed away as you brainstorm and make plans. Excess is eliminated as you narrow your scope and develop characters for your story. It starts to take shape and catch the light on its own as you write, make decisions and follow your characters. As the process continues, your cuts become more precise, and just as with a gemstone, you want to end up with the largest gem possible, but it must be cut to bring out its full brilliance. Even master jewelers will seek the opinions of their peers when cutting a stone, and ultimately their work is not for them alone, but for others to admire.
There is no faster way to improve than through practice and presentation, I know this from experience. In the short year that I have been writing fanfiction, I have already seen my technique drastically improve. I’m a far more confident writer now that I have had the opportunity to put theory into action. Taking an idea and turning it into a story is only half of the process. The development of a written work comes more in the process of revision and experimentation than it does when it first takes form. To bring a story to its full potential is to share it with others. As a writer, your primary goal should be to serve the story. When it is complete and you start to share and revise, your story will begin to serve you. With every successful sentence, potent paragraph and transitive tale, your ability to paint with the imagination will increase.