ETJ Writes

Archive for the tag “writing help”

No Novel is Worth Your Hands

Hey, Friends!

Today’s article is something a bit different. It’s actually a (slighted edited) transcript of the accompanying youtube video. Feel free to watch that if you’d prefer to listen, or keep reading below:


Sharp stabbing pains, burning, tingling, or numbness in your hands during or after a writing session is not normal, and you should stop immediately to prevent serious damage.

Hey, guys, ETJ Writes here! I want to talk to you today about the health of your hands while writing.

I was actually inspired to make this video by a post I made on tumblr about two years ago talking about what to do if you start feeling burning, tingling, numbness, etc., in your hands while you’re writing.

Now, I always wear these braces while I’m writing—this did not occur because of writing, um, actually my hands are fine right now, so that’s good. But a couple years ago I did something to them. I tried a new activity, and I did it too intensely too quickly, and I started to have searing pain all down the backs of my hands—both hands.

img_3931It started out in the one, and then I was using the other hand more, and then it switched to that hand too, and it was just—it was not fun. It got to the point where I really felt like I couldn’t move my hands, and given that my bread and butter is being a musician, I was kind of freaking out over the prospect of not being able to play piano. So immediately I went out, and I got these braces, and I got some help from people who worked on the computer a lot, and I want to talk to you today about what you can do to avoid damage.

This is especially important as NaNoWriMo is coming up, and a lot of you take this time of year to be like, “Hey it’s time to finally start, finish, do whatever I need to do on my novel—whether I’m on the first draft, second draft, third draft, I’m gonna use this time to get it done.”

However if you’re not someone that writes every day and you go from zero writing or minimal writing to a tonne of writing all at once, you are going to overwork your hands, and you’re gonna stress them out.

Again like I said, I was inspired to make this video by a post I made on tumblr a couple years ago. I remember I put it out—I think it was in October? And I said NaNo was on the way, and I described some things that are not good to do; just kind of a general reminder to people and what happened was . . .

Nothing.

No noise.

The post was dead silent. Then all of a sudden in like the last week of November—this is like a month and change after I made the post—the notes start piling up and piling up and piling up, until in just a matter of weeks I had over 700 notes on this post, which to me told me that people jumped into NaNo, started writing, felt pretty good for most of it, and then in the last week or so their hands started bothering them so badly they started looking for things on the internet talking about similar experiences and how to fix it, and they stumbled across my post and started reblogging it.

And by then maybe it was too late. So hopefully this video comes in time for a lot of you to be able to set yourselves up for success and not failure when writing.

I want to split this video into two sections. First I want to talk about what I do personally, and then I want to share some experiences and tips on the notes of the tumblr post, and then of course feel free to put your own experiences and your own tips in the comment section down below.


So without further ado, like I said, once I started noticing the burning and tingling in my hands I went out and I got some braces. Actually I started with the one, and then I ended up with two, and these are actually my third set because after a while they wear out, and I wear these a lot.

I don’t currently have any pain in my hands, however once you’ve damaged something there’s always the possibility of damage occurring again, and I find that if I use the computer for more than 30 minutes—whether it’s just using the mouse or typing—I start to feel a little strain on my hands. Nothing that you couldn’t push through, but it’s not good to push through that type of thing and if you push through it every day you’re going to make it a little bit worse and a little bit worse and a little bit worse until you end up at the worst possible extreme which is needing surgery. We don’t want that.

So I wear these every day on my hands whenever I’m doing any type of work on the computer. I will also wear them when gardening; sometimes I will wear them when I am writing by hand. I will wear them when I am sewing; I will wear them when I’m doing a lot of small fiddly activities I need to do with my hands, because hopefully that will prevent it.

There was a point where I had to wear these constantly every day for a period of several months until my hands got better.

img_3974Now—I’ll take this off so you can see; you can get these at Target; they’re pretty nice—there is usually a little metal thing that goes inside of here. I’ve taken that out because it’s too rigid for my hands at this point, but if your hands are really paining you, the metal will be very useful to provide support to your hands—especially overnight—but I find at this point it’s too rigid, and I don’t need something that hard so I just take the metal out.

You can also wash these easily in the dryer, particularly if you take the metal out, and that makes it really nice. Just put it in the washer/dryer; just toss it in with the rest of your regular laundry, and you are good to go.

img_3973I wear these all the time; they are the Futuro brand and they just fit my hands really well. They make them in left and right sizes—you can get braces that are one size fits all, but I have found you get better results when they’re tailored specifically to right and left hand; they come in different sizes as well, and you can get small, medium, large—I think I have a medium for my hands—and of course they make men’s and ladies sizes.

The other thing you can do as far as braces goes—you can get those ones that go all the way down your arm. It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor if you have serious pain about which brand to get, but these are great.

Now these are cures right? Or crutches/aids. What should we do to prevent the use of these? Now again I do use these as preventative to stop my hands from seizing up, but how do we get there in the first place?

Well one of the things you have to do is get your hands ready for an extended period of typing. Thankfully since I have been playing piano since I was about nine years old and flute since I was about twelve, I don’t actually have an issue with playing flute or piano. Even if my hands are hurting, I don’t have pain doing that because I correctly have all the technique that I need for that.

What I always tell people, my students, when they are starting piano for the first time is: just take it a couple minutes at a time, five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes; just slowly work up to that. You don’t want to jump into a whole half-hour straight away or else you can create damage, and we don’t want that.

Same thing with writing. Right now it is the middle of October. If you start now doing a little bit of writing every day—200 words, 500 words maybe—and slowly work up to a thousand by the end of October you will be ready to hit that 1,500 (1,667 to be specific) word goal every single day for NaNoWriMo. You don’t want to just dive in cold the first day.

Now another thing you can do is hand exercises, and you can do these before or after you have finished your writing session. I’ll take the brace off again so you can see.

One of the things you want to do is take your hand like this—make sure that you have your thumb involved—and you’re just going to take your other hand, keep your hand up like this, and you’re just going to gently press back as far as you can, and then just kind of hold that for about ten seconds-ish—maybe five seconds depending on your level of comfort. This should not hurt if there’s nothing wrong with your hands. If there is immediately a little bit of pain here then you have some lingering or potential damage about to happen, and doing these stretches every day can help with that.img_3975

If you feel like you don’t get a good enough stretch with your hand, you can then put it against the wall for a better stretch; and you want to do this in both hands like I said for about five to ten seconds on each side.

Of course you don’t just want to stretch the bottoms of your hands—and you’ll feel it on the top too, but you don’t just wanna stretch these bottom tendons down here—you wanna stretch the top [as well]. So then you’re gonna take your hand like this—and I’ll take this off.

You wanna take your hand and gently curl it under and just press, and again this should not hurt. If it hurts that means you either need to do these stretches more or consult your doctor or just be very careful about the amount of work that you’re doing because that means you’re very tight here.img_3976

Any time you feel any pain do not try to push through it. You’ve got to stop and then just do these—and these are good to do anyway just to relieve tension but these are preventative—and if you can do these every day before your writing session that’s going to really really help you to make your hands feel good. You can also do them afterward if your hands are feeling a little bit stiff.

So those are some things you can do:

You can wear these braces which are very comfortable especially once you take the metal out. They are easy to wash/keep clean, and I always use them when I’m on the computer and other things I know will strain my hands if I go more than 30 minutes doing them.

The other thing you can do is these stretches I’ve indicated (as well as soaking your hands in warm water with salts/oils of your choice) and then of course just trying to get enough sleep, enough nutrition; those things are all going to contribute to the health of your hands.


Second part of this video: I want to read over some experiences that people had and they put in the notes and just kind of comment on them here.

img_3941One of the first notes I had comes from user h-brooks-writes who wrote: Yikes, this happened to me last night after writing sprint.

(A writing sprint is a very short intense writing session. You try to get as many words as you can, focusing on quantity versus quality.)

My hand felt kind of floppy and a bit numb (I could still feel things but my hand didn’t really . . . focus on the textures? If that makes sense), and my elbow-to-wrist area was kind of sore. This all settled in about half an hour after I’d stopped writing for the night.

So you can see it doesn’t really matter if you feel it right away or after a delayed time, you may have done some damage if you just rushed into [writing] without doing some warm-up exercises first or getting your hands acclimatized by writing on a more continuous daily basis, because writing every day—yes it does stretch our brain muscles and our ability to write, but it also physically helps our hands be ready whether we are doing it by hand or typing. Even if you’re doing dictation you need to warm up your throat and your voice—but we’re talking mostly about the hands so that’s where I will stay focused.

I have another note from michaelbyorkwrites who said: When my writing output rose for this blog a few months ago, I started to get a pretty bad burning pain in my hands, wrists, and forearms.

Again you do not want that, it is very very bad for you, so you have to stop immediately because otherwise it will just get worse.

Another user called heywriters said: OH. Okay. My hand and wrist go numb and feel “cold” lately when I hand write or keyboard type for long periods of time. I thought it was my posture and have been ignoring it.

Your posture actually can play a role when you’re typing. A lot of the times the keyboard’s like this and our hand is like that. When your hand is like that, it’s shortening the tendons in your hand.

If I relax they’re still there, but they’re not as pronounced versus here you can really see—I’ll come up close—here it’s more relaxed, here it’s really stretched, and if you are writing like this with your hand like that every time you type you’re writing on shortened tendons, and that is going to just increase the tension and make things worse. If you can get like a writing a pad that you can put [beneath your hands] and keep your hands more in this position, or try to keep your hands lifted and not at this angle, that will help as well.img_3944

if-all-I-have-are-words said: I absolutely MURDERED—in all caps— my wrist last night (I pinched it over at the base of my thumb by lying on my hand) and my carpal tunnel started acting up so y’all [don’t make my mistakes]

Yes, you can definitely injure your hands in other ways not related to writing, and that does bring on the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome, which again you can mitigate by using a good pair of braces, hand stretches—even soaking your hands in some warm water nightly before or after you do your writing sessions.

ladyhacksaway said: hey guys, put some serious thought toward dictating your first drafts if you can. the current tech on google docs for speech-to-text (and other services) is actually really decent and your first draft is going to need editing anyway!!! try it out a few times. it’ll feel awkward and freewrite-y at first; that’s ok. we’re talking about first drafts.

And they’re absolutely right! If your hands pain you so much you can’t write or you want to know that you’re doing good preventative care for your hands, then try speech-to-text. You can use Siri on Apple iPhone or Google docs on any phone if you have it set up correctly, or even in your computer, and there are other softwares you can buy that will do an even better job.

Again with NaNoWriMo you might have to figure out how long will it take you to say the 1500 plus words you need every day to beat your quota, your daily quota, but once you get used to that that is definitely an option to get all those words out there without even having to use your hands. Again you would have to do some warm-up exercises so you’re not damaging your throat when you’re speaking, and maybe have a cup of warm tea that will keep your throat soothed, but that is definitely an option if either your hands already pain you or if you’re worried about the possibility of that happening.

You can even switch off day-to-day. Some days you could use your hands, some days you could use your voice.

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babysimpala who was originally missjenniferb said: I lived in braces for EONS. . . Saw different specialists; got steroid injections first then gave in and got the carpal tunnel surgery. Left wrist first – six months of p.[hysical] t[herapy] then the same on my right wrist afterward. Eight months apart.

Of course that’s the worst case scenario if you have to end up getting surgery. It’s no fun, and there’s a long recovery time before you feel like your hands are truly yours again, so we’re trying to prevent that.

Now however babysimpala who is Jessica added a little follow-up where she said: For those with Fibromyalgia try MyPainAway . . . . It’s a lotion.

She has neuropathy (both arms and legs from being type 1 diabetic) and it is AMAZING.

So there are some lotions and things out there you can use. As always if you’re feeling pain and it’s really, really bad definitely talk to a doctor and talk to a physical therapist.

I would not recommend a chiropractor because there is a whole set of different licensing you have to go through, and I’ve heard some horror stories about chiropractors, but physical therapists—especially one who deals with hands/wrists, all this kind of area especially—will know how to help you.

You might have to see a couple to find one who works with you and your needs, but if you are experiencing a lot of pain and you do not want to go for the surgery route try physical therapy first, and then of course if surgery is absolutely necessary as a last resort, you can consult with your doctor and find the best option that will work for you.


All right I know that was a lot of info, but I really really want you guys to not have pain during or because of NaNoWriMo.

I want you to write your novels, and I want them to be the best you can be without having to push through pain.

So lots of sleep, lots of water, make sure you take breaks, try maybe dictating some of the days, and get yourself up to the level that you need to be by starting to write a few weeks beforehand if you’re not in a habit of daily writing. And then of course you can always pop a brace or two on your hands if you feel you need a little extra support.

I personally won’t be participating in NaNo because I know that amount of daily writing for me is just too stressful, but for those of you who are I hope this will be helpful and that you are going to be extremely successful with what you’re doing.

Again like I said in the beginning, any questions/tips please feel free to leave them in the comments down below. Hopefully we will all get through this season without any pain in our hands, but if you do get some you will know how to manage it.

Until next time,

Happy writing!
~ETJ

UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | Part 3 – Tools & Resources

Hello Friends!

Welcome to the last of a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.

This part of the series focuses on the tools and mechanisms available to help put all of the aforementioned knowledge into practice. It will also mention the actual work processes of the solutions to the problems mentioned in the first two sections.

Activities such as brainstorming, storyboarding, and other ways of thinking up new parts to stories can be very work intensive and time consuming. How easy or how hard writers find each creative activity often depends on a combination of inborn talent and the willingness and dedication to improving their writing skills and abilities.

The good news is that with enough applied time, effort, and diligence, all things writerly can be learned to a very high degree of skill. With that being said, let’s start by focusing on some narrative tools that are excellent writing aids.

  1. Narrative Tools

It’s helpful to think of this section like baking cookies. Sure, you could go to the local mill, grind wheat into flour, collect honey from the bees, raise a few chickens for eggs, and generally complete all the other tasks you’d need to collect the raw ingredients and bake your desserts from scratch, or you could buy a pre-blended box of cookie mix from your local grocery store, along with the few other items listed on the back of the box. All you need to do at home is follow the directions, perhaps adding in a few special touches of your own, and voila! Delicious, mouth-watering cookies.

The writing tools at our disposal work much the same way. It’s far easier to write a story if you collect a bunch of story elements first and then mix them all together with your own unique take.

Following are a few narrative tools you can apply to various parts of the writing process.

  • Obstacles: Murphy’s Law

I talked about obstacles fairly in-depth in part two, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a very specific and handy tool to utilise when impeding your characters’ progress; Murphy’s Law—whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Essentially, have your characters make a plan and then have things go wildly off the rails over and over again. As satisfying as it can be when characters execute a daring plan flawlessly, it’s twice as exciting when things go wrong, and they have to suddenly think or fight themselves out of an unanticipated sticky situation.

  • Character Arcs

There are numerous examples you can find of a typical character arc. Two opposing but related arcs would be redemption and corruption. In the first, flawed characters are won over to the light side, and in the other, the dark side claims them. Sometimes the same character undergoes both arcs, like Anakin from Star Wars. Other examples of common arcs include healing from trauma, overcoming selfishness or some other negative trait, or learning to forgive. It’s quite important to develop an idea of where your characters start versus where you’d like them to wind up. What lessons do you want them to learn or impart? In the case of tragedies such as Oedipus or Othello, how far do you want them to fall?

Applying character arcs to your stories is a great way to give your characters goals and further, can give your entire story a solid direction, even if the actors within it are themselves unambitious.

  • Tropes

What is a literary trope? According to the dictionary, it can be a “a recurring theme or motif” and also “a convention or device” based around common stereotypes. These can be small and specific or large and broad, extending even to entire story arcs.

For instance, characters getting hit literally anywhere and immediately spurting blood from the mouth is a trope common to action films and anime, which serves as a shortcut to tell viewers the character is seriously injured. Another often used trope is that of the unseen or deceased parents, so popular in Disney films and young adult fiction, allowing the young protagonists to have grand adventures that would most definitely not be happening if the parents were properly involved.

Each genre of writing usually contains a few standard tropes that readers come to expect (like the fake relationship trope common to romance stories), and the deliberate inclusion, exclusion, twisting, and inversion of certain tropes can make stories feel very fresh when combined with your unique ideas, characters, and world-building.

Let’s briefly look at two examples – the MacGuffin and the Deus ex Machina – and how they are used to create, drive, and resolve plot in various stories.

A. The MacGuffin

Essentially the quintessential quest item, MacGuffin’s pop up all the time in adventure and questing type stories. A MacGuffin is a plot device – usually an object of some sort – that is being desperately sought after by the story’s characters. This device can be relevant to the plot, but is often unimportant in of itself, the character development and the life lessons subsequently learned being the story’s primary focus. A good example of a useless MacGuffin would be the items (and by extension the title of “Ultimate Detective (or Human)/Genius”) that the detectives of Brooklyn 99 fight over during their annual Halloween Heist. (Side note: the series recently concluded, and it’s notable they chose this particular trope of the show as a setting for their very last episode.)

A more useful type of MacGuffin would be the infinity stones as presented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more specifically, The Guardians of the Galaxy.

There, while being the catalyst that gets everyone to band together on a grand quest, the stones are also of vital importance to the plot, as the villain cannot be defeated without the heroes interfacing with the power stone. While each containing individual stories (some of which focus heavily on the stones, some hardly at all), the entire overarching plot of the MCU through Endgame is explicitly about the heroes trying to collect and use the infinity stones before Thanos does.

Either treatment – useful or irrelevant – will work, and including a MacGuffin (whether literal or metaphorical) is a great way to give your characters goals and drive the story forward.

B. The Deus ex Machina

When it comes to ending stories, another great trope that pops up is the Deus ex Machina. This is a literary device involving our heroes being saved by outside forces at the zero hour. It usually works best when this moment is precipitated by an action carried out by one or more of the characters earlier in the story, and when you’re writing your first draft, can be a nice way to set up the ending.

The Molière comedy, Tartuffe, blatantly but elegantly includes a Deus ex Machina moment in the last act of the play, when the king of France himself saves the beleaguered family who are about to be financially ruined by a con-man pretending to be a priest. It’s a fantastic moment, because the plot twist involved in the reveal forces the audience to reexamine the rest of the story through a fresh lens.

There are hundreds more such big tropes and thousands more such little ones. Although, as mentioned, different genres tend to include specific sets of them at certain beats throughout the narrative, they can certainly overlap from one type of story to another. Tvtropes.org is a great online resource for finding and understanding many different types of tropes you might want to experiment with in your writing.

  1. Structure

A second great asset to have in your writer toolbox is a thorough understanding of structure. While all stories can essentially be boiled down to the same basic two or three plots, there are various more complex and layered narrative structures writers tend to default to when drafting and revising. Some structures work best when applied to novels, others fit quite well when paired with comic books or plays, but there is often overlap from one medium to another.

(To continue the analogy from earlier, if tropes are the ingredients to a story, structure is the moulding and baking process. It’s everything that holds it together and gives it a definable shape.)

When setting up and drafting your story, if you find the plot meanders too much and you’re getting away from your original plan – or if you have no plan, and you’d like to rein things in a bit – it’s worth going back over your story and seeing if it fits into a solid narrative structure. If it doesn’t, applying one can help you get back on track. It is important to understand however, that not every structure is a one-size-fits all, and if your story has hit a block somewhere, it might be that the structure you’re using does not suit the type of story you are telling, so feel free to experiment with structure, especially if a conventional one is not working for you and your storytelling needs.

Not every story follows exactly the same beats, even within the same genre, but if you start with one or two of the common structures listed below, you’ll be well on your way to successfully finishing that first draft!

  • 3 Act Structure

Common in many current blockbuster films and modern young adult literary works, this structure splits a story into three fairly well delineated parts (setup, build up, payoff), characterized by a turn at the end of acts two and three. Although not a new concept, the three act model was popularised as a narrative tool for film in the late 1970’s and has been highly regarded ever since.

  • 5 Act Structure

Common in television and plays. Popularized by the famous playwright William Shakespeare, five act structure is still used with great effect today in television because the transitions between acts neatly line up with commercial breaks.

  • Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey

Based the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung and refined by literature professor Joseph Campbell, this structure follows a circle, constructing a progress as much physical as metaphorical, in that the characters often end up back where they started but emerge quite different, having undergone many trials and tribulations along the way. This structure is found in action and adventure movies like The Lion King and Star Wars, and draws from ancient epics such as Homer’s Odyssey.

  • Fairytale Structure

Perhaps one of the most well known and earliest learned Western story structures, this usually starts with “Once Upon a Time” and ends with “And They Lived Happily Ever After.” Fairytale structure tends to follow a “And then this happened” outline, going through a series of misfortunes brought on either by the character’s naivety or some fatal flaw until the final climax. Often, some kind of life lesson is imparted to the characters, such as in King Thrushbeard, where a spoiled princess learns a painful lesson in humility.

  • Nonlinear Structure

As the name implies, this is when the story jumps around instead of progressing forward through time from one event to the next. These types of stories tend to be connected by theme rather than plot. It can be helpful to write a first draft in linear progression and then rearrange it later, but you might find it works best to dive right in with the pieces already shuffled about. Non-fictional poetry collections often feature this type of structure.

  • Vignettes

A vignette is a short story (ranging from a drabble of one hundred words to upward of 1000) that can stand on its own, but is usually part of a larger loosely connected set of stories. This type of story structure is commonly found in fanfiction circles, as the narrative burden of world-building and character conception and introduction has been largely removed, letting the writer focus on interesting moments occurring  just outside of canon. Other examples of vignettes occur within the genres of slice-of-life manga, such as A Man and His Cat, or the ever popular American sitcom format.

When drafting, don’t be worried if your story doesn’t seem to fit any of these structures. There are quite a few more out there than those mentioned above, and you can always beat your plot into submission during revision.

Format & Organisation

An aspect of structure, these tools are often more tangible, as while structure is the invisible glue that holds our story together, how we put it together, and how it looks on the page (or sounds over the radio) is something we can visually, aurally, and tactilely experience.

For example, a story that is mostly laid out in dialogue, with sparse notations about setting, time, and description is generally considered to be a script and is often connected with film.

Storyboarding, another film technique which involves drawing images and shuffling them around to fit your narrative is a formatting and organisation tool that can greatly aid in drafting. This visual format is well suited to kinesthetic, hands-on storytellers, but can be used by anyone. Editing film is fantastic way to tell a story. Simply by taking different video and audio clips and arranging them in a certain order, editors can a weave together an engaging narrative. This is usually how documentaries are put together, and often, fans of film and television use pre-existing footage in a creative order to recontextualise the canon or even tell a different story altogether. For a great example of how editing is its own form of storytelling, the excellent video How Star Wars was Saved in the Edit by RocketJump on Youtube is required viewing.

In decades past, stories like The Lone Ranger were told on the radio with a dynamic cast accompanied by an array of inventive and innovative sound effects, and in 1938, a broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was so masterfully acted that (despite notices at various points that the radioplay was fictional) it caused a panic among some listeners who thought the science fiction tale of an invasion by an alien race was actually real. Today, podcasting has largely taken up that space, two great examples of which would be the popular series Welcome to Nightvale and SCP Explained.

A common issue among those new to writing non-fiction such as memoirs or autobiographies is that the story already exists, but needs to be organised into a coherent, digestible narrative. Centering these types of projects around a particular theme is often the best way to structure the narrative into something interesting and meaningful. A lot of the story will have to be left on the cutting room floor, but a precise, focused narrative will be both easier to write and more attention grabbing than a meandering clutter including every little moment that happened.

When you’re first drafting, feel free to write using whatever format best helps your ideas flow. This can be anything from well constructed prose to fragmented run-ons to bulleted lists. Applications like Siri and Google docs have free software allowing writers to dictate ideas straight into a word document, and it might help to keep a drawing pad nearby to quickly sketch out images that pop into your mind.

Whatever helps to get your ideas out of your head and onto paper or some other experienceable medium is valid.

  1. Research

Now, it’s all well and good for me to impart all this advice and then tell you to go away and start brainstorming – itself a technique that helps to sort through all the info in your mind and derive new ideas. But how does a writer acquire all the tools to help them move beyond their imagination and begin storytelling in the first place?

A. Read

The first and best thing an aspiring writer MUST do if they want to become a great author/playwright/mangaka/screenwriter etc, is to read.

Art students learn to draw their favourite paintings. Dance students replicate the moves of their instructors. Musicians listen to music. And so too, must writers read.

Aspiring novelists especially should take this advice (yes, listening to audiobooks counts), and although those wanting to go into alternate forms of storytelling (graphic novels, film, etc.,) should focus on their chosen mediums, cross-pollinating these different storytelling formats is extremely helpful in the long run and greatly builds up the knowledge base writers can pull from when creating something new.

If writers have access to nothing else, they can still learn how to tell a good story by reading hundreds of them, copying what works, and throwing out what doesn’t. In addition, traditionally published novels tend to have the advantage of using a specific set of grammar rules writers can unconsciously pick up and use – without having formally studied English – which makes the reading experience much more accessible.

It’s very important to read both fiction and non-fiction, as history is filled with the fascinating tales and exploits of those who came before and has served as inspiration for some of the most memorable stories throughout the ages. William Shakespeare pulled both from the recent history of his time and the ancient past to create MacBeth and Julius Caesar, George R. R. Martin famously based much of the political conflicts of his A Song of Ice and Fire series on the English “War of the Roses,” and of course, the critically acclaimed musical Hamilton is firmly rooted in events surrounding the American revolution.

Read the genres you enjoy as well as ones you haven’t tried before. Pick a book from every section of the library or bookstore, and see what sparks your imagination. Sometimes it’s worth reading – or at least encountering – badly written books, or novels with subject matter you detest, so you know what you would definitely rather avoid writing.

Read articles and poetry, textbooks and epics, independent authors, fanfiction, and traditionally published works. Read the back of a cereal box if that’s what you have at your disposal! But always remember, if you want to write, and write well, you must read.

B. Study

The next thing you can do is study!

If you’ve already started on step one, reading, congratulations, you’ve begun studying! But there is a difference between passive and active learning. If you truly desire to master the craft, it’s vital to move beyond simply absorbing what you’re reading and into actively picking apart a story to really learn its inner mechanics.

Why and how does a good story work? How do I replicate it? What grammar rules should I be following to construct coherent sentences? These are questions any aspiring writer should be asking. While it is possible to come to the answers on your own, much of the hard work of story analysis has already been completed and repackaged into solid writing advice by other writers, editors, and literature enthusiasts. By seeking out and following well established, authoritative guidance, writers will be able to far more quickly rise from the ranks of novice to master. After all, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

There are two caveats to briefly mention here.

  1. Don’t feel like you have to exactly replicate every piece of writing advice you come across. Different genres and styles and cultures have different storytelling conventions. You must adapt what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. In the words of perhaps the greatest martial artist to ever live, Bruce Lee, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”       
  2. Never stop studying. There is always more you can learn, a higher level in the storytelling craft you can achieve. Don’t let either failure or success stifle your drive to improve.

There are many resources, both free and otherwise that can be accessed when studying storytelling. Youtube has a fairly vibrant author community giving out writing tips, as well as hosting myriad booktube channels where readers offer quite deep and insightful thoughts about the books they’ve enjoyed or hated.

In fact, just about any social media site has its own dedicated cache of writers offering advice. Many longform writing articles also populate the internet, most turning up with a simple Google search, and writing podcasts are on the rise as well.

Writing books (many with accompanying workbooks) can be purchased online or at your local bookstore, though don’t forget to check your local library for complimentary access to books on storycraft.

Libraries are also often hosts to writing workshops, both physical and virtual. Some even provide online certificate courses, as do quite a few colleges, and there is always the option of obtaining a degree (or several) in writing.

The last thing you can do is find a writer friend or two and pick their brain. Whether this is someone you’ve known for years, someone you match with at an author mentor-mentee program, or an online writing partner discovered through social media, these people can help you along your journey, offering one-on-one advice that aids the growth of your writing skills. Many urban areas also have dedicated critique groups that offer writers a vibrant and encouraging space to share their work and hone their craft.

Useful Resources:

Following is a handy, but non-exhaustive list of writing, storytelling, and general knowledge resources to aid in filling your writing toolbox:

Authortube:

Alexa Donne
Brandon Sanderson 2020 Creative Writing Lectures at BYU
Jenna Moreci

Booktube:

Daniel Greene
Merphy Napier

General Knowledge Channels:

Shadiversity
Thoughty2
Today I Found Out

Books:

Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
The Elements of Style, 4th Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)
Wordsmith: A Creative Writing Course for Young People by Janie B. Cheaney

Websites:

Helping Writers Become Authors
Jane Friedman
Kiingo
Mid-Continent Public Library Storytelling Certificate Program
September C. Fawkes
The Creative Penn
TV Tropes
Writing World

C. Practice

The last thing to do once you’ve gotten your writing toolkit together is practice!

The more you refine your writing process, the easier it becomes to invent new situations and scenarios and develop endings and middles.

Regular repetition of something is generally the best way to learn and see consistent growth. Some writers swear by writing every day, at the same time, for the same set amount for years on end. Others are more fluid with their writing schedules, and some writers go long stretches of time without writing at all. (This last practice is not particularly recommended, as the less time you put into learning something, the longer it will take to achieve your goals.) What works best for you will depend on your specific time constraints, writing ambitions (do you want to write fanfiction? Screenplays? Is hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List your ultimate dream?), and other conflicting factors.

You can type out your ideas on a computer, use dictation software, or even pull out a good old-fashioned typewriter. Maybe you’re like me and construct elaborate fantasy settings before falling asleep at night. Perhaps you’re a people watcher and enjoy imagining what sorts of lives the strangers around you are living. However you practice, make sure to do it as often as you can for the best results.

Whatever your writing schedule looks like, you can always keep things fresh and motivating by switching up the type of practicing you do. If you’re working on a novel, it could be that penning a short story will get your creative juices flowing. If you’re a screenwriter, challenging yourself to write a epic fantasy can stretch your writing muscles in all sorts of new ways. Authors of fiction might try their hand at biographies or academic papers, and a journalist might get into comedy.

If you’ve just started your writing journey, be gentle with yourself, and simply have fun with the process, knowing that you’ll grow along the way, and that if you keep reading, studying, and practicing, eventually you’ll gain the skills and self-assurance to get from beginning to end every time with confidence.

There can come a time in a writer’s journey when they bemoan what they’re writing because it seems terrible to them – and that wasn’t the case when they began! Don’t despair if this is your reality. The better you get, the more you can see the flaws that novice!you missed entirely. Just keep practicing and learning; if you stick with it, you will push past those plateaus.

A Few Closing Thoughts:

Ambiguous or open and sad endings are okay. Not everything in life has definitive closure, so these types of endings can be quite relatable.

Sometimes an idea is best left bite-sized. I’ve seen absolutely amazing stories suffer because the author extended the idea a bit too long. It can be the case that withholding certain details compels readers to desperately crave the unsaid implications, making the story linger with them far beyond the initial reading. A fantastic example of this is the Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Clocking in at just over 2,000 words, the story’s short length is its greatest strength. It’s a quick and easy read, but impossible to forget.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to write bad ideas. Remember, there are no stupid ideas – at least not on the first draft. If you want to write about a Mary Sue self-insert who defeats the forces of darkness using the power of a mystical unicorn, go for it! If it gets your story finished, it was a good idea.


That concludes part three, and thus this series. I trust you now have a grasp on how to start from nothing and end up with a finished first draft. Hopefully this also helped answer questions about how to push past writer’s block and get your WIP started again.

Thanks for following along, and please feel free to add comments on what you’ve found helpful as well as questions about anything discussed in this and the previous articles.

Now go forth, and write!

~ETJ

UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | Part 2 – Adding OBSTACLES

(+ Other Devices That Further Plot)

Hello Friends!

Welcome to part two of a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.

Today’s segment tackles how to continue once you’ve gone halfway, gotten stuck, and have no idea how to end, as well as the common issue of having a really well fleshed out beginning and end, but majorly struggling when it comes to figuring out how to connect them. Similarly to the first section, some of the problem and solutions will overlap. If there’s an issue this article doesn’t mention or that you’d like to know more about, please drop a comment below.

Before beginning this next section, I need to impart a small nugget of advice that aspiring writers should keep in the back of their minds while working through the issues and solutions presented below, and that is: Don’t be afraid to abandon your ideas.

Sometimes the reason a story isn’t working is because the author is clinging too tightly to their original ideas (whether plotting or pantsing). Stories naturally evolve and change as we work on them, and trying to force a plot or a character to go in a certain direction might be why the story keeps stalling out. Famously, the Iron Man script hadn’t even been finished when shooting on the movie started (usually not recommended, due to budgeting reasons), but Jon Favreau and his team still managed to pull together all the story elements to create a tight, entertaining, highly re-watchable film. You can bet there were very many changes, deleted scenes, and abandoned threads as they went along! Problem: Half a Story – No Idea How to End

Sometimes we writers, especially pantsers like myself, conceive a story idea, start writing it down (mostly so we don’t forget it) get a quarter or even halfway through, and then get blocked. (It’s possible to get stuck 75% from the end, but it doesn’t happen quite as often as the other two, mostly because by that time, you’ve done so much work you have a fairly good idea of what the ending looks like.)

With this problem, we’ve got a great story, but there’s no ending in sight. Our characters are having grand adventures, but the greater plot isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps we’re even getting bored of writing the story, because nothing interesting seems to be happening. This is about where the dreaded “Writer’s Block” occurs, and writers start to give up. It can be pretty debilitating to look at your work, knowing you have an fantastic concept, knowing that if you could just finish it amazing things would happen, and feeling like you are driving through a thick fog late on a snowy night. The rest of the story is right there in front of you, but you can’t find it.

Let’s look at two simple, extremely handy methods you can use to push through this issue. (Note: simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. You still have to put in the work, but if you’re willing to challenge yourself, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.)

Solution 1 – Figure out the Ending:

I find I always do my most coherent writing when I have some sort of ending I’m working toward. It is perfectly okay to begin a story with no idea of where it’s going, but unless you’re able to spit out your whole story in one sitting, it’s imperative that you to sit down and work out an ending at some point.

This goes back to our discussion of goals in part one. Your ending could showcase the goals of your characters or it could feature the larger narrative goal of you, the author. Do you want to use themes to teach a life lesson? Are you exploring healing from trauma? What does a scorched earth end up looking like? What is the ultimate thing you want your audience to experience and remember?

Does the romancer get their sweetheart? Does the hero save the day? Does the detective catch the killer? Does the mobster evade the police? Do the explorers reach a new continent? Does the anti-hero enact revenge?

+Warriors+ by ERA7

Whatever goal you set at the beginning of the story, determine whether or not it will be reached, and what consequences will follow. Then you can continue to work toward that ending. And that ending might change the closer you get to it – it might not even work with the beginning at all! But that’s a problem for later drafts once you’ve already gotten through from start to finish. On the first draft, just envision that ending and then focus on getting there.

Solution 2 – Plot Twists

Plot twists, or at the very least, several good turns that take the story in a unexpected, but not illogical direction keep the story interesting for you as an author, and help to create conflicts and obstacles that your characters must solve and overcome.

For instance, imagine a group of friends have been going on a grand quest to destroy an evil dragon that has been terrorizing their kingdom. Only – PLOT TWIST – it turns out that a member of the friend group is one of the dragon’s children in human form. The implications of this and how it effects the ending can propel your story in ALL sorts of new directions.

Both of these solutions will likely require some serious brainstorming as you put them into practice. This is where all the other advice you’ve likely read about how to cure writer’s block comes into play:

  • Going for walks
  • Watching/reading/consuming other media
  • Listening to music
  • Doing creative writing exercises
  • Looking at writing prompts online
  • Throwing darts at a bunch of ideas on a board
  • Etc.

Don’t forget about the twist ending either. Leaving your reader thoroughly unsettled is quite a sought after feeling in the horror and thriller genres.

Problem: Beginning and Ending – No Middle

A lot of people struggle with middles because they find them uninteresting. They have to figure out how to connect the “ordinary life” beginning, and the “everything’s changed” end. They think the middle has to be some boring mess that slogs along until we get to the real action.

In my opinion, the middle should contain some of the most exciting parts. (Not too exciting, as we don’t want to overshadow the ending, but something that will definitely keep readers on the edge of their seats.) Of course, you’ll want breathing spots to let the readers and characters digest the crazy going-ons happening, but ideally, once you’ve passed about the 25% mark, the stakes should continue to escalate until you’re driven into the finish. The middle shouldn’t be something readers or watchers have to endure to get to the end, but contain rather some of the most compelling and memorable sections, making the story both hard to put down and something they’ll come back to over and over again.

But how do we make that happen?

Solution:

This solution has two related prongs. One is to shake things up, and the second is to build tension. Both of these can be accomplished – to greater and lesser degrees – by introducing obstacles the characters then have to overcome.

At this stage you should be starting to pull together all the elements mentioned so far in this series. With that in mind, here’s a very simple diagram to illustrate how writers might lay out story structure:

As you can see, it’s that middle section (Obstacles>Overcome) that gets a lot of people stuck, so we need to start incorporating the fixes I’m about to walk us through.

(Your obstacles and tension builders can really be anything, but I’m going to be focusing on five common, easy ideas to which you can build upon and expand as necessary.)

  1. Add/Remove Characters

One simple but phenomenally great thing you can do to shake up a sagging middle is to introduce new characters. These new players can either be a help or a hindrance to our heroes. This is something that happens quite often on long-running television shows. Take for example, the character of Jack in Supernatural. At first, it wasn’t clear whether he was an ally or an enemy, but his mere existence caused a whole plethora of problems that the brothers Winchester had to solve, thereby injecting fresh life into the series in its twilight years

Arrow did this to great effect when they introduced Slade in the latter half of season one. Although eagle-eyed fans may have caught the Easter eggs in the first episode that pointed to the character’s existence in the Arrowverse, his actual appearance really shook things up and created some of the most exciting episodes in the entire series.

Introducing new characters is also a fantastic way to keep your story from being too cluttered at the beginning, giving readers time to process the new additions instead of trying to keep track of too many people all at once.

On the other hand, it can just as effectively disrupt the story if characters are taken away. The A Song of Ice and Fire series is famous for this very thing, with each removal of key players pushing the story along in new and exciting directions. The Death Note Manga also does this to great effect.

Thus, if your story has started to stagnate, you might just find that adding or taking away a character is exactly what you need to shake things up. This doesn’t have to be solely narrative (that is, happening within the text). If, as you are writing, things have gotten stale, you may want to permanently remove characters (or combine extraneous characters into one) and you might find that getting rid of characters your story never needed in the first place solves all your issues. This is more revision type work, but if you’re really stuck, it doesn’t hurt to try it on the first draft.

  1. Plot Twist/Turn/Betrayal

We mentioned plot twists in the section dealing with how to end your story, but it applies just as well in the middle.

Plot twists are often (especially within the crime and thriller genres) revealed near the end, but there’s no rule saying you can’t throw a bunch of them into the middle. I personally think it builds tension much better if you aim for plot turns rather than complete twists in the middle. That way, instead of introducing something that completely turns everything we knew on its head too early, you can more subtly bring in a new story element that broadens the context of the story while making narrative sense so that readers aren’t blindsided.

For example, in the first book of the Mirrowen series, Fireblood, there are three characters working together for a common goal. However, you get the feeling throughout the first half of the book that something is not quite right. And then, once the POV splits between the characters, we get into their heads and discover that one of them has been working against the others’ aims the entire time. When you get to this moment, it injects an incredible amount of tension into the story, because you as the reader know the character could choose to betray the others at any instant, and you’re just waiting for the moment things go wrong.

This segways nicely into our third idea here, which is betrayal, in of itself a type of plot twist. This is a favourite of mine and other authors, because if you can get your audience to care about all the characters, when one of them turns out to be a turncoat, and worse, hurts our main characters because of it, now you have all of these conflicting feelings that have enormous potential to spin the story in intriguing directions.

  1. Make Things Harder

A third device you can execute to pick up a struggling middle is to make things harder for your characters. Especially if it’s an adventure story, you want to be pushing your heroes to the point of no return.

For example, your hero might have gotten halfway through their heroic quest to free the land from the troubles plaguing it, but then they misplace their trusty sword. Perhaps it is stolen, or lost during battle. Either way, with less tools at their disposal, our hero must resort to other means to continue.

Let’s look at The Little Mermaid. In gaining the ability to walk, Ariel loses her ability to sing, which prevents her from instantly connecting with the prince, forcing her to try and win him over in other ways. Then, just when Eric is starting to really fall for her, Ursula shows up using Ariel’s stolen voice to lure him away. Each one of these mishaps forces Ariel to try something different to achieve her goal, keeping the story interesting as we navigate its twists and turns. Along the way, we admire and appreciate Ariel’s tenacious spirit and determination to never give up on her dreams, no matter what happens.

  1. A Ticking Clock

A very easy way to breathe some life into an otherwise dull story is to add a ticking clock. Often, this is set up from the beginning, but countdown timers can be introduced anywhere you need some narrative tension. In Avatar the last Airbender, Aang has to master the four elements before the arrival of Sozin’s comet. In many romances, the heroine has to find a man before she is no longer eligible to be married or is past child bearing age, and in Avengers, Steve and Tony must work together to repair the helicarriers before they drop from the air, killing all aboard.

Stringing a mounting series of ticking-clock moments together can be a particularly fun way to push a story forward, ratcheting up our heartbeats, and then giving us a sigh of relief when the heroes prevail once more.

Another reason why including a ticking clock is so helpful is because it lays out some very immediate – and usually devastating – consequences if the characters were to fail. We want the characters to succeed because we can’t help but imagine ourselves in those sorts of situations and can clearly picture what would happen if everything went wrong.

  1. Let Your Characters Fail/Let the Bad Guys Win

This is one of my absolute favourite story elements to throw into the mix. Although good stories can be written around the heroes cleverly winning all the time à la Leverage or Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic way to shake things up is to defeat your heroes. This often happens at the end of act one or two for three-part structures, but can occur anywhere you need it to make sense while drafting. One great example of this is again found in Avatar the Last Airbender. Season two ends with the gaang (after many success throughout their adventures so far) thoroughly defeated and forced into hiding by their enemies.

Avengers: Infinity War utilises this very effectively as well. For Thanos to be perceived by us as a real threat, he actually had to succeed with his plan to destroy half the life in the universe. The worst had to happen, and our heroes had to be beaten down to their lowest to raise the stakes to the absolute maximum boiling point.

So, if you find that you’ve tried everything else and your story has lost steam, have your characters fail. Let them lose the thing that makes them special. Have their friends and allies be captured and mistreated. Let the villains accomplish their objectives. And then go from there.

As a side note, comedies are often filled with strings of micro failures, which keeps things moving along and brings smiles to our faces as things go more and more absurdly sideways until the ultimate happy ending.

When we utilise these story elements, we move the story beyond just a set of obstacles to be overcome. Because, while at its core that’s what a narrative is—setting up obstacles that the characters must overcome to save the day (or fail—spectacularly in the case of tragedies)—simply repeating this process of Obstacle>Overcome>Obstacle>Overcome until we get to the end becomes formulaic and extremely boring.

(When this is played out on television, a common complaint is that the show feels like a video game. Character gets a task, character does a quest to complete the task, character gets rewarded, character gets new task, ad infinitum till the end of the game is reached.)

With the above taken into account, our story diagram now looks like this:

Side note: My use of the word “Reaction” here is not to imply that the characters are passive, merely that they are going to be acting upon continuing events, even if that means they have actively decided to push the story forward. All of these connecting story points can be driven either by external forces or the characters themselves as you so desire.

Tertiary Issues:

In this last section I mention a few things that can cause writers to get stuck once they hit the middle.

Problem: You Need to Write a Fight/Kiss/Medical Scene, But Lack the Required Knowledge

This issue trips up many writers when they get into the nitty gritty of writing. Sometimes you reach a particular scene, and a kiss or a fight or a medical emergency etc. needs to happen, and you don’t know how to write it.

Solution: Brackets

There are two things that have to eventually be done. No 1. is to make up something and hope it sticks, and second is to do some research. Both these options have cons, with the second really having the potential to take writers down a research hole that stops them from writing (although if this is your process and it works for you, you don’t have to deviate from it).

To prevent this and keep the flow going, you can simply put a pair of brackets around a sentence describing what happens, with a note to come back to it later i.e. [EPIC FIGHT SCENE HERE, FLESH OUT LATER]. I personally like to use uppercase within said brackets, as it helps these parts to stand out, thus making them easier to find when revising.

Most anything you find yourself struggling with in terms of sentence/scene level execution is a draft two problem. The good news is, if you keep writing and practicing the craft and increasing your general knowledge, your first drafts have the potential to become cleaner and cleaner, which gives you less to wrestle with in subsequent revisions.

Problem: You Don’t know to End – Solution: Resolution of Goals

This is a small section because while endings can be difficult, in the first draft, we are just aiming to get there. Whether it’s good or not (and really, this is the question most writers are actually asking, how do I write a good ending) is unimportant at this stage. If you’ve been following along, I’ve already provided the answer, and it is to have your characters fail or succeed in their ambitions. Anything extra can be added in subsequent drafts.

Problem: Writing is Overwhelming

You might object that what prevents you from finishing is not your lack of knowledge in any of the storycraft mentioned heretofore in this series, but rather that writing a story, of whatever length, seems so incredibly daunting.

To that I must quote Lao Tzu:

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Solution: – Chapter by Chapter, Scene by Scene, Sentence by Sentence

It can takes years to complete a full-length first draft. This is often because aspiring writers are learning the craft at the same time as writing their story. The key is to break it down into manageable parts. Just work on drafting a chapter or a scene or a paragraph at a time. All the elements mentioned above can be repackaged into smaller sections. As you go, add them all up until they equal a story at the end. The most important part is never giving up, no matter how long it takes.

One last item worth mentioning is that it can be helpful to switch up how you are writing if nothing is coming to you. Locking yourself in the box of only writing from first person, or telling the story from a particular character’s perspective, or sticking religiously to prose etc. might be preventing your draft from reaching its fullest potential. Consider all the different lenses from which your story might be told, and if one style or point of view or tense isn’t working, experiment with using another instead.


That concludes Part 2, and hopefully you now have a grasp on how to develop and get to the end of your story. Next up, we move from looking at pushing through the middle to what tools you’ll need to have in your writer’s toolkit to make it all come together. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss Part 3!

Happy Writing,
~ETJ

UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | How to Create a Story from Nothing – Part 1

Hello Friends!

Welcome to a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.

Throughout this series we’ll be looking at divers groups of problems and issues centering around creating and continuing a story from nothing, and discussing how to solve them.

Essentially, crafting a plot that gets you through from start to finish is little more than having a beginning and an ending point and placing obstacles in between that your characters must overcome. The more obstacles you throw in front of your characters, the longer or more twisty the plot can be.

This series focuses on getting you through the first draft, which doesn’t have to be perfect, doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out – it doesn’t even have to be good! – it just has to get done. Story elements such as theme, metaphor, and characterization hopefully reveal themselves as they go along – if you haven’t already plotted their inclusion – but don’t worry if such elements remain elusive in the beginning stages. Upon revising and redrafting your writing, you’ll be able to expand and add to your story as necessary.

This series mainly focuses on novel writing, but the concepts within also apply to the broader storytelling medium (film, video games, and the like), and many of the examples used throughout will pull from various different sources.

Part 1 – No Thoughts Head Empty

Part one of this series tackles common specific problems that crop up when starting a story and how to resolve them. A lot of these issues feed off each other, so there’s going to be some overlapping content, as is common when working with any type of art. If there’s an issue this article doesn’t mention or that you’d like to know more about, please drop a comment below.

Problem: I Want to Write a Story – No Idea How or Where to Start

This problem is more common with very new writers, whether they’re 12, 21, or 92. You sat down one day and decided you were going to be a writer. Maybe you have one or more of the other elements that will be mentioned below in your mind, but you haven’t the faintest clue of how to make it all come together. More than that, perhaps you don’t even know how to start!

All you know is that you have an empty page, and, somehow, you have to fill it.

Solution:

First, you should ask yourself, why do I want to write? Is it because a teacher or a friend suggested I should? Is it because I have an idea that needs to be shared with the world? Is it because I want to be rich and famous? Is the person who inspires me the most an author, and I want to follow in their footsteps? Is it because I have these characters knocking around in my head that won’t go away?

Once you’ve identified your initial motivation, if you have absolutely nothing, go and find something to inspire you. Read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and plays, go for long walks in nature. You might even just put a list of subjects on a board and throw a dart at them. However you do it, pick a theme or an idea and start brainstorming.

For example, when looking outside I see the trees, which makes me think about leaves. So I could write a story about leaves or bark or roots. Once I’ve picked my subject, I’m going to keep it simple to start. I’ll write about the leaves falling in the autumn. By basing my story in reality, it’ll be easier to construct because I have something tangible from which to draw.

But just writing about leaves falling, with no twist to it, is simply writing my observations about nature – nice, but not a story. So I’ll focus on one leaf. I’m going to anthropomorphise this leaf, giving it a name and a personality. Now I have a character – let’s call him Rustle (the sound of the leaves when the wind blows through them, conveniently also a homophone of the name Russell) – and I’m going to give him some character. He’s afraid of autumn, because he’s already seen several other leaves fall, and he doesn’t want to leave his home in the tree.

I could have Rustle reminisce about how he got to this point, remembering all the things that could conceivably happen in a leaf’s life – a bird defecating on him, a caterpillar munching away, providing shelter during a rainstorm for a lady bug, feeling the sun on his face during a warm summer day, being an artist’s study, and so on. And then Rustle could speculate about what is coming next.

Ultimately, when he does fall (and perhaps this is a bit of a sad story) he could observe how, on the ground, he provides covering for the worms, or maybe he’s essential to the building of a leaf tipi, or is gathered up and made part of a leaf pile for young children to jump into. Perhaps, at the end, he is saved and framed on somebody’s wall, or made part of a lovely autumn wreath.

We could end with Rustle realising that perhaps fall isn’t so scary after all, and he’s experienced so much more than he would have if he’d stayed forever in his tree.

It’s a simple story, but it illustrates how you can pick literally anything to write about.

To recap, if you want to write, first identify your reason – it could be as simple as that you want to try it and see what happens – then pick a subject, inject some personality, and go from there.

Problem: Awesome Idea – No Clue How to Turn it Into a Story

Sometimes, you come up with an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT idea (this is often what is called “high concept” in fiction), something like Inception, that runs on the premise: “what if you could enter into someone’s dreamworld and influence their mind?” and more subtly: “what if you couldn’t get out?” but you have no characters, no plot, no worldbuilding, no nothing besides the idea.

Solution:

I’m a character focused person, so I like to start there with my idea before adding other elements that will lead me to a coherent plot.

If you do start here, it’s often a good idea to consider whether your character will be mostly good, mostly bad, or somewhere in between. Then consider whether you want them to change or stay static over the course of the story (in which case, the world around them should change). You’re going to be asking a lot of “what if” questions during this process.

Look at The Terminator. It asks: “what if machines ruled the future? What if someone created a vibrant resistance to the machine overlords?” and then, the twist question, “what if one of those machines went back in time to preserve their own existence?” You can see how all these questions led James Cameron from his initial dream idea to the creation of an unfeeling, near-unstoppable, killing machine that we can’t help but watch in fascinated horror.

If starting with world-building, you’ll want to question how a particular idea would affect you, your friends, or the world you live in, if it were reality. You can really get into some exciting stuff with world-building as you re-imagine what society would look like if we never got away from the inventions of the industrial revolution (steampunk) or if science could give people superpowers (Marvel Comics) or if dragons lived at the same time as the vikings (Skyrim).

Once you have some answers to these questions, you can throw in a couple characters, give them a goal, and start placing obstacles in their way.

If starting with theme, try asking: what do I want my audience to come away thinking about? Often this method will lead you to start with the end of the story and build backward and is more often found in stories that tend to lend themselves to tragedy; think Romeo and Juliet or Jurassic Park. The first teaches us the dangers of never-ending feuds, the latter, the danger of playing God with science.

Once you have your world, your theme, and characters, however tightly or loosely you’ve crafted each element, you can now begin to build out your plot – if it hasn’t already started to come to you during these processes. Again, as stated at the beginning, what you want to do is pick a goal, whether internal (coming from the characters) or external (coming from what you want your readers to experience) and work toward that by creating challenges that your characters have to solve and overcome (or fail to overcome as the case may be.)

Problem: Awesome Characters . . . And Nothing Else

Sometimes, especially for the visual artist types (and often those going into writing comic books and video games and such), you come up with a great character or ten. These characters can be as simple as a face and general description, or they might spring into your mind fully formed, with a tonne of backstory. However, you might feel a little bit like a kid who’s just opened a pack full of Lego minifigures. You’ve got all these neat people inhabiting your fictional world – now what to do with them?

This is actually less of a problem than you might think. Amazing characters can make even the thinnest of plots work when written correctly. It’s why we enjoy programmes like Scooby-Doo or Brooklyn 99 or Supernatural, because while the plot can be fun and engaging (or sometimes, really, really silly), often in these types of shows, the story is less about the overarching narrative and more about how the characters relate to each other and the obstacles they face. Combining great characters with decent world-building and a solid narrative is what makes for a very memorable story. (Designing fully fleshed out characters can happen at any time during the writing process, so don’t worry too much if your characters feel somewhat flat or wooden in the first draft.)

Solution:

Before we fully dive into the solution, it’s worth considering what storytelling medium you’d like to use, as playing with format and setting is going to give you a better idea of what direction to take your story in.

Would your characters be well suited to a full length epic novel? Would they work better in a novella? Should you choose a slice-of-life comic book instead of a 90 minute screenplay? There is also genre to consider, as a character thrust into a sweet romance is going to act and react quite differently than the lead detective in a thriller novel. Explore multiple different options, and see what fits best.

Once you have that, it’s time to formulate your plot. Take what you know about your characters and give them a goal.

Depending on your world building, you may have to create a Disruption Event of some kind.

For instance, say you have a humdrum character living in a boring little town. Nothing bad has ever happened to them, and they’re enjoying their life. Then a sudden summer freeze kills off the town’s crops. People fall on hard times. Your main character (or someone close to them) loses their job. Now their main ambition is to return things to the status quo – or simply to survive. That’s their goal. How they accomplish or fail to achieve that goal is your story.

If we take a more complex character – say they’re existing in a world where they’ve lost a lot already, and they’re just trying to survive – they have friends (or have lost them and are living with the memories), and are constantly dealing with pressure from all sides. They make a decision to help a lost child and find themselves drawn into a brewing civil war. How your already well fleshed-out character reacts to these events, and how they change (or don’t, but how the world around them changes as a result of their actions) is your story.

Not every story needs a Disruption Event if your character has a clear goal – revenge, money, love, fame, success – (although adding one – or several! – can certainly spice things up, especially if the Disruption Event is actively preventing your character from accomplishing their dreams) and characters are often more interesting in these types of stories, proactively pursing their ambitions instead of reacting to the story around them.

Once you have your character’s goal pinned down (and this can certainly change throughout the story as they grow and become a different person), it’s imperative to place obstacles in the way of them achieving this goal. These can be internal or external.

For example: a young woman who wants to find love but is stymied by her crippling shyness, a mouse who wants to become a warrior but has never even left the nest, or a young man who wants to become a starfighter pilot, but is stopped by having his home destroyed and is forced to go on the run after receiving a message that holds the key to undermining a totalitarian government. (Yes, this is the plot of Star Wars.)

As mentioned before, how your character reacts to these obstacles and eventually reaches – or fails to reach – their goals is your story. Either type of ending can be a tragedy or a happily ever after, based on what happens along the way.

Problem: Awesome World-Building – No Characters or Plot

This section is related to the high concept idea, but focuses more on everything both tangible and intangible that our heroes might come into contact with. To use Star Wars as an example again, from blasters to ewoks, to ‘freshers and spice, all the details that make a fictional universe feel lived-in and believable form the world-building aspect of your story. You might find that you are absolutely brilliant at creating the nitty gritty details that make up your fantasy world, but you have no clue how to populate your world with people or take your aesthetic and turn it into a coherent narrative.

Solution:

Similarly to the Awesome Characters solution, it’s very helpful to consider what genre you want your story to inhabit. Sometimes the world-building on its own lends itself to the genre, but just because a world is, say, set in space, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a western (The Mandalorian) or a romance (Sirantha Jax series). Perhaps you’ve been playing with a high fantasy setting, but the narrative revolves around a series of murder mysteries, making it a detective story or a thriller. What kinds of characters would inhabit these subgenres? What would their stories look like?

Plumber by Punchyninja

Pick underutilised professions to highlight. What does a plumber or other type of handy man look like in this fantasy world? What problems would they encounter? What about doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals? How is information disseminated, and what types of characters are at the centre of that?

Challenge your world-building to extend beyond aesthetics to structures of religion or government. Look to real life to derive inspiration for the types of conflicts that arise from these structures, and keep drilling down until you reach the characters making the decisions that will drive the machine of your story.

Once you’ve applied your world-building to characters, ideas, or themes, sprinkle in some Disruption Events that shake up your carefully constructed world. Consider how the world-building can both solve and create problems. One good example of this is the Warriors series, which seriously examines the concept of cats having nine lives. On the one hand, our heroes have multiple chances to cheat death. On the other hand, this knowledge both makes them a target of enemy clans and gives them a false sense of confidence, leading them to act more recklessly than they might otherwise.

You can also use world-building to explore what happens when well meaning ideas are taken to an extreme, as is the case with The Giver, which presents a beautiful utopia on its surface but hides a dark truth, or Farenheit 451, which contemplates a reality where ideas running against the norm are literally destroyed.

(As an aside, if you are struggling to come up with characters to begin with, there are all sorts of character-building exercises you can find on the web, and if that fails, it’s a tried, tested, and true method of authors to base characters on people they know in real life.)


That concludes Part 1, and hopefully you now have a grasp on how to start your storytelling journey. Next up, we move from looking at beginning the story into how to develop and finish it. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss Part 2!

Happy Writing,
~ETJ

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