Acknowledgements: the potentially amazing Rachel (IfrozenspiritI) served as guinea pig to this; go and tell her to finish the product of that experiment, because you'll love it. Chris Widdison (tearstone) approached me indecently with the idea of writing a longer essay (which will still happen, and be a lot more purdy than this here thing), which would incorporate this essay in another form, amongst others. He doesn't need to read any of this, because he already knows it all.
Target audience: young, inexperienced writers, especially those that find themselves pulling off vignettes and other super-short forms with an ease, while chronically unable to produce anything with more than a handful of scenes and more than 1,000 words.
Part 1: The Premise takes a look at the basic idea behind a piece
Part 2: The Story fills in some of those blanks and gives us raw material
Part 3: The Plot makes things interesting and gives us a skeleton on which to slap flesh
About the author: Daniel is a guy who writes. That about sums him up. He writes a lot, and he tends to write long-ish short stories. He's figured out a few things on the way; surely not enough for him to be any sort of authority, but he's got some ideas where others may not.
About this essay: I dislike the idea of selling a faulty premise along the lines of: I will tell you how to write, and thus, by extension of wishful expectancy, I will tell you how to earn money writing. It's a bit like “SURE WAY TO WIN THE LOTTERY”, if you know what I mean.
I'm obviously not asking money for this; I wouldn't dare. Also, I don't promise to give you the keys to the kingdom, the sure-fire way of Writing Well. Ain't no such thing; even the existence of a concept like “Universally Good Writing” is highly dubitable. This last word was not Spanish. What I'm trying to do is to help you take that step from “one shot shorts” to a more engaging type of writing. So let's go.
* * *
Part 1: The Premise
“Titanic 1” is a film about a love affair on a famous ship-wreck-to-be. This is a premise.
A premise is the central idea of a piece of fiction condensed into a single sentence. While the premise might not have a lot to do with the finished piece of fiction (“Housesitters XXX” might have a premise like this: “one beautiful woman agrees to house-sit for another beautiful woman and lots of ravishingly beautiful men happen to drop by and take advantage of her”, while actually the finished piece of fiction is only about breasts) (I should write a porn some day), it's typically the first thing that was there. So we're starting with a premise.
A premise can really be anything: “rats are actually angels” or “in a future society, people eat people to deal with overpopulation” (a cookie if you recognized the film). We're not really interested in dissecting existing premises here though; we want to come up with one. How now, brown cow?
1.1: The Seed, or: in which I abuse pearls for metaphor's sake.
A pearl is basically a piece of dirt with a lot of stuff around it. That's how stories work too: you have a bit of dirt and then you stick more and more stuff around it, until all you can see is the stuff, and you'd have to dig real deep to find the bit of dirt at all.
I prefer to call the dirt seed, because that sounds cool. To make this completely clear for vivus: very often you will not be able to detect the seed at all in the finished story.
Thus: what's the seed? Where do you get it from?
France. Naaah, not really.
The closer we look at the creative process, the more we notice it's magic: it's pure chaos, in our brains, from which we randomly take this and that and apply sense-making-procedures to it. Most of the time when we invent a story, we are not even aware of the fact that there is a seed.
Sometimes you get lucky, and a seed happens to be dropped in a conversation. Maybe there's a funny thing someone said that you would want to develop into a story, maybe you see an odd old guy standing by a street pointing his remote control at the passing cars; those can be seeds.
What I do, most often, to get a seed and to add further stuff later-on, is something I'd love to teach you all, but I'm afraid it's one of those things that you can or can't do: I close my eyes and squeeze something in my brain. Random pictures and patterns appear before my closed eyes. I pick one, or two, or twenty, and I write. This sounds a lot madder than it is, I promise.
When I did the thing I do in order to come up with an example for this essay, I saw a car on a very long and empty highway; four people in it; then I saw a diner by that long road, and for some reason I knew something was up with the toilet in there. That is my seed.
1.2: The Growing, or: in which I quote Depeche Mode to appeal to my audience.
Reach out and touch faith! I should tattoo “faith” on my genitalia and then walk around naked singing Personal Jesus. Or maybe not.
What you do next is best described by “reaching out”. You may want to ask questions (“who are the people in the car? What's up with the toilet? Diner, where?”), or you may simply turn the central concept around in your mind and feel for associations (“toilet... privacy... despair... four people: family...”) (don't ask me why I associate “despair” with “toilet”; I just do). At any rate, grow that seed into a premise. You know you've hit “premise” when you're saying “this is beginning to feel interesting!”. There you go: premise.
Your premise need not be very thrilling; we'll get to thrilling when we get to plot. Keep in mind all this is happening in your mind still; at any point you can say “naaah, this isn't going anywhere” and discard it like an aborted ... wait, I was trying not to piss people off.
1.3: The Crystallisation, or: in which I make you write a sentence, oh nose! Nose? Noes!
If you have a good premise, you can summarise it in a single sentence of, oh, let's say twenty words. I would have said ten, but my guinea pig showed me that some people must be wordy. Thus: twenty words. One sentence. That's your premise. Write it down. Look at it. Good? Let's move on then.
* * *
Part 2: The Story
I'll quote something that I've read quoted in a hundred places; I have no clue who originally said it:
“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Thus: a plot is a story with the why questions answered, with the angles decided, with the window of narration defined (where to begin and where to stop; we don't always begin at the beginning). A story is our raw material. Let's make some raw stuff.
2.1: What, or: aaaaaaaand theeeeeen?
Now it's time to look at what things happen, very basically. Say you've gotten a premise that reads: “rats are actually angels”. That's an idea, and quite a weird idea, but it has no action yet. So you must make things happen.
Again, you will be using lots of seeds in the following creative processes; again you will or will not be aware of that. This time, though, they will quickly and almost automatically connect to the premise.
For instance, you decide that you need to introduce the idea of rats being angels by making rats do something that's impossibly intelligent and benevolent. So you come up with the idea of a man lying tied up in a damp cellar, and rats “randomly” just happen to chew through his ropes. You decide there will be more instances of rats doing good things; you decide in the end the guy will clue into the fact that rats are actually God's agents, and he will be eaten by rats so that the secret is kept. That's good enough.
Don't go into detail here yet; we're not interested in how we'll tell these things or who will witness these things or anything like that. We just want the most basic “What?”. Develop the story just long enough that you feel you have enough to tell. And then?
2.2: Who, or: the not so dramatic dramatis personae.
That's Latin for “the drama of people”, and if you know people, you know drama. But that's not what we mean here. (this is actually incorrect information; in artist circles we call this a "joke")
We need to know who our characters are. We don't need to know much here; think of this as people-premises. The guy tied in the cellar is a student of journalism who wanted to come out with a big breaking story to jump-start his career and ended up with the wrong kind of people. He's an over-achieving sort of fella, and a very rational guy too. In the process of figuring out that rats are angels, he'll break inside and go slightly mad, like Freddy. In the end his rat-eaten corpse will be found and people will assume he went loco ultimately and killed himself somehow. Couldn't tell how: the rats ate all the evidence.
Notice that even though there's a lot of “what” in here (what with the whole going crazy and suicide thing), but that these whats are actually part of “character development”. Scary word, I know.
You should do this for one character at least; if you can already see now what other characters you'll need, at least sketch them out in your mind as well. Keep in mind, you're still not writing. I'm going to ask you to write in Part 3.
2.3: When and Where, or: Setting the setting.
Sometimes, oftentimes, stories need not be set explicitly at all. Every story is implicitly set, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, not setting a story is the clever thing to do.
The setting should really be very sketchy here; no need to go look at city maps (yet?). Very often, “a middle-sized western city” will do just fine. If you have intimate knowledge of a certain place and the place would lend itself to your story, by all means, do use it! Extra points if you live in London: every goddamn classic is set in London.
Here's some good news finally: I'm not asking you to write down anything at this stage; not yet!
* * *
Part 3: The Plot
3.1: Plotting, or: in which I tell you about space-chickens
A star is basically a lot of hot air; hot gas, rather. Mostly, sun-type stars have lots and lots of hydrogen, which is the simplest gas there is. Four little happy hydrogen atoms get together and do the fusion dance: you end up with a helium atom, which is a little lighter than four hydrogen atoms. The weight-loss goes straight into energy. At some point, the star is all out of hydrogen; then it gets angry and it huffs and it puffs and it grows bigger and redder, and then it collapses.
Stick around four and a half billion years and you'll get to see it in the sky. Hey, stick around long enough and you can touch the sun sitting leisurely in your garden. Provided you got the right sort of sun blocker.
My point is that if a star is big enough (which our sun is not; pity), it collapses into a black hole (otherwise it just becomes a cute little white dwarf). A black hole is so heavy that time stands still inside. I know that doesn't make any sense; blame the physicists.
A black hole also attracts things and swallows them and grows, thus attracting more things. Can you feel the metaphor coming?
That's how your story should be now: it should have grown to a certain point: a tangle of concepts and people and places. Suddenly, there was enough stuff, and it collapsed; maybe you have a name for it already, maybe you don't, but from now on you're more likely to think of the whole of the new story than of its aspects. If it's good enough, it'll make you happy (and you should really pause here and check if you're happy; if you're not happy, you may want to start over) and it'll start attracting new things like crazy. Let it do that; help it, even: now's the time to start the writing. But not the writing of the story; what I typically do is create a file called something like rats_are_angels_notes.rtf (yes I like rtf; it's very portable and does all the shiny stuff I need), and I start writing stuff. I don't stop myself, I don't look at how pretty my words are (okay, even while writing notes I'll look up this and that, but I'm obsessive compulsive like that), I just write, write, write, and add raw material to it. Typically, a note file looks like this:
Pierre LaCroix, father, 56; civil servant; tax official; very boring man; ironically always advertising “Le Système D”--the famed chaotic life-style in which the French are supposed to make things work somehow. When Pierre was younger, he'd lost a letter from the veterinarian that he had retrieved from the mailbox. He loved his dog. His father said they had to euthanise the dog now, because they didn't have the letter anymore. Pierre became traumatised and the most orderly Frenchman to ever live.
You don't worry about anything while writing these notes; just keep writing (keep on dancing, KEEP on dancing). Keep making up things. No-one will ever see this note file. Most of the things you write there you'll never use in the story; trust me, this stuff still helps you get a better grip on the characters in your mind. You will probably want to write these notes around the main characters; this is how it works best for me. However, you're doing a lot more than just develop the characters: you're telling the whole story as well. In the end of this first bit of notes, I like to have a rough timeline for myself to refer back to. Of course, we'll deviate from this chronological order, because, hey, Tarantino!
If there were space-chickens, they'd be attracted by black holes.
“Have you split up now?”
“Are you being funny?”
People quite often thought Marcus was being funny when he wasn't.
3.2: The Hook, or: tag 'em and bag 'em
I began this with a Nick Hornby quote; this is from “About a boy”, a quite remarkable book. This is what we call a hook. I'm not certain whether or not Hornby was aware of the fact that he's writing a hook there, but seeing how he's a pretty darn good writer, I'll guess he was not aware of it; that's how things go. Writing is like Kung-Fu: first you learn the rules, then you become one with the rules, and then you forget the rules.
The other day a friend of mine told me that with all the one-liners I'm putting out, I sounded like something between Ahnold and Keanu Reaves. As MinorKey once pointed out, you can tell a friend by the insults he uses.
The hook is important. The hook is the most important thing about your writing. No, really. Now if you're calling me mainstream, and sell-out (I wished), consider this:
“When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battaile's lost and won;
That shall be ere the set of sun.”
But we all agree that Shakespeare was a sell-out anyway.
We're drowning in writing these days. The internet is great and all, but this unfiltered mass of letters necessitated an unconscious filtering; these days, when I look at fiction outside dA, I read the first few lines; if they do nothing for me, I discard the piece. Yes, I'm horrible like that. On dA I read on anyway, because I'm not expecting anything else. Nothing like a good insult to keep your readers reading.
(not really; don't try this outside a semi-humorous essay)
You need to sink your hook in soon, fast, deep, and hard. Optimally, the first sentence makes me say “what the fuck?”, and I'll keep reading.
Technically speaking, a hook is a surprise. Since we don't have a lot of innertextual context to contrast this surprise to in the very first sentence, we need work on this-world concepts to surprise our readers. There are certain concepts, especially when reading a story, that we can work with here. You can work on a linguistic level; for instance, you could hook us with a lot of interesting words:
“The rich milky-mocha skin of her hand in her lap stood out in sharp relief against the little white dress: stain-proof, wrinkle-proof, overembellishment-proof.” That'd be a decent hook.
Or you can work on the presupposition that a word like “this” should describe something already introduced by using that word as a first word of a story, and add to that the fact that we expect something relevant in the first line / first sentence, and come up with this classic:
“This is a walnut.”
Or you could take the idea that our narrator should typically be alive to tell his story, and end up with something along the lines of:
“Dying wasn't as bad as it's always made out to be.”
And so on. You get the idea.
Like all other things I'm mentioning in here, the hook is not restricted to one place. Just yesterday, I read yakitate-art's very entertaining “Jade Dragon”; about a third into the story, there's a hell of a hook in the form of a three word sentence (you do not want to read this if you haven't read the story; don't let me spoil it; skip to the next paragraph; really): “Li is dead”.
When I said in the beginning that I can't teach you how to write well, I meant it. There is so much about writing that you learn as you go along; I have so many concepts in my head about good story telling and how to deliver a message and so on that I cannot even put into words. All I can do here is start you out. That's what I'm trying to do.
Write hook-conscious at first; you really want to think about your hook. My “Death of a Dreamseeker” story used to begin with a dull description of the character Jacob (who really isn't a very central character at all), likening types of people to types of cars. That was rather witty, rather poorly done, and overall not a hook at all. I remember walking around my village muttering to myself “I need a hook I need hook”. Then the walnut came to me; I actually yelled “I have a hook!”.
Look at your plot now; where can you start to hook your people? Or if you don't want to distort the chronological order of things, how can you word your first thought, how can you zoom in or zoom out in the beginning, what odd angle can you choose, what can you do to make me want to read your story? Figure that one out before you go on; this is important.
If you want to give background, and setting, and characters, and all that, that's fine; but please, hook us first. We won't care a bit for all your wonderful background and all if you start your book with, oh I don't know, say a whole chapter discussing a made-up race and their habits (I think to remember that “Concerning Hobbits” was only added in later editions; some Tolkienite correct me if I'm wrong; Tolkien is something altogether different anyway, his mere diction is the hook). Thus: Hook us!
3.3: The Narrator, or: in which I scare the last two of you away with big words
Internal focalisation. Extradiegetic narrator.
Now that the scaring away is all done, let's look at a VERY rough sketch of narrative perspectives. I'm keeping this as short as I can, I promise.
3.3.1: He or I?
Your first decision is this: first person narrative or third person narrative? You only get to use second person narrative if you're Kevin Wilson and you're writing a short story called “the choir director affair”. This is the baby and yes, those are teeth. They are not important. Don't think about them. www.unc.edu/depts/cqonline/wil…
First person narration is simple, and yet it's not. Essentially, you're telling the story from the perspective of a person. There's a LOT of factors here, but I was going to be short. Consider only these brief questions: is the narrator important for the plot? Can we trust the narrator to tell the truth?
Optimally, you'll be imitating a certain voice and certain figures of speech that aren't yours; you may or may not have a justification for why this narrator is narrating (you could pretend he's writing a report about the thing in question; you could pretend he's writing a foreword to a book (hi Tim!); you may or may not allow mistakes; and so on. But, brevity, Daniel, brevity!)
3.3.3: He, or: but in that third person narration, what things may come, when we have shuffled off the coil of first person, must give us pause...
And there's the respect that makes calamity of such long writing. I promise I'll quit quoting the bard now.
Third person is a hundred times trickier than first person. Most people don't realize this. There's a whole science dedicated to analysing the telling of stories (if you know what a referentless pronoun is and just why there is no such thing as a figural narrator, you might be studying Narratology). I have a certain passion for narratology, but once more, I'll try to subject myself to the bitter yoke of brevity.
The classic distinctions we all learn in school (and which are rather useless, but let's not go there) are between an omniscient and a non-omniscient narrator. In most cases, what we'd call an omniscient narrator indicates authorial narrative, while a non-omniscient narrator implies figural narrative. I know you don't really care, but we'll need this to properly look at the options you have:
You can write your short story in the tone of a narrator, a distinct author, who might or might not know everything, be everywhere at once or not, and who might or might not comment on what happens. You may or may not allow this narrator to look into your characters' thoughts.
Or you can write as if it was first person narrative, but turn all first person sentences into third person. For instance:
“I was gonna have to tag her as mine and send her off to hell. I'm sure someone had a real good laugh that moment. Someone down here or up there, I don't know.”
“He was going to have to tag her as his and send her off to hell. He was sure someone had a real good laugh at that moment; someone down in hell or up in heaven, he did not know.”
(obviously this is not how figural narrative is done; I just used this to point out its similarities to first person narrative; you write figural narrative in third person right away.)
This is figural narrative. Figural narrative should usually not be omniscient; everything you tell should be seen from the eyes of a certain figure. The only introspection allowed is into this figure's thoughts and comments. This style came into use with the modernist movement; Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce all did some experimenting with it.
If you've gotten a little curious about narratology, I highly recommend the following script:
This is part of the generally awesome “Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres” script by Manfred Jahn. It wouldn't hurt to read all of it. It's a lot more entertaining than what I'm doing here (it's also longer though ).
This much on perspective. I suggest you consciously decide on a mode for now (and it wouldn't hurt to try out something you've never done; always look for new things, no?) and try to stick to it when it actually comes to writing.
3.4 Re-arrangement, or: how to make re-inventing the wheel fun
Now we pretty much have the story; many aspects of how to tell it have been answered already, but a last look at it won't hurt.
Will you tell things in a chronological order? Often it's best not to, but be careful not to let this deteriorate into a gimmick. If you're using flash-backs and flash-forwards (I've yet to see someone pull off a decent flash-forward; I'll have to do it myself, I'm afraid), there had better be a good reason for them.
Will you stick to your angle (that is, narrative perspective) at all times? Will you maybe change the figure the figural narrative is attached to now and then? For an added bit of twistiness: will you maybe change first person narrator half-way through?
Which parts will you leave out? You can never tell the whole story because there's always going to be another why and another “and then?”. Decide now which aspects of the story you want to tell, where to start, where to stop.
If your story grows very long, you might want to think of chapters; this is basically outside the scope of this essay, since I'm dealing with short stories here, but many of the things I say can be applied to novel writing as well, I expect. Consider doing a chapter breakdown.
Even if you're not writing a novel, you might want to consider doing a scene breakdown. Many short narratives kind of flow from here to there without real scene breaks, and that is fine; highly descriptive prose, however, will naturally divide into scenes. It might help to get an overview of these scenes. In your story, you may want to indicate a change of scenes with three asterisks, like so:
* * *
Epilogue: The Writing
Have you worked through all this? Good. Go to your notes file. All the little things you've decided during the plotting stages, write them down. Expand. Invent. Go wild, no-one's watching.
Then let it gestate. That is to say, put it aside. Don't work on it for a few days. But during those days, keep thinking about it. How will this work, how will I connect this and that, and so on. Let your mind mull over the things you have and those you don't. I promise magic things will happen. Take a long walk (this won't hurt either, unless you live in an area with a high density of rabies-crazed grisly bears preying on writers) and think about what you're going to do. Look at it from all sides.
Then take a deep breath; set aside a good chunk of time; and write.
At this point, it'll be the simplest thing in the world.
If you're curious what happened to the toilet premise: it turned into "The Importance Of Being Frank". Find it in my gallery.