Whether you’re a novice writer or a published author, crafting a story can be as hard as solving a math problem that you’ve never encountered before. (And if you’re as bad at math as I am, that’s hard.)
But you’re not alone. Even famous writers struggle to write their stories. Tom Wolfe, the National Book Award–winning author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, told the Paris Review “I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing.”
Somehow, despite his fears, he became one of the twentieth century’s great authors. I can’t promise to turn you into Tom Wolfe, but I can give you some tips that can help you write your next story.
1. Start with a good protagonist.
Every story revolves around a central character—the protagonist. As Stephen Koch wrote in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: “The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.” Both you and (more importantly) your readers must be invested in this character.
2. Your protagonist must endure conflict.
Your protagonist must struggle with a central decision, one that usually creates conflict. This conflict must be significant and credible; it must challenge your protagonist’s status quo and force a change in behavior. Ultimately he or she must make a choice that determines his or her fate.
3. Plot = protagonist + goal + obstacles
Conflict will keep readers interested and turning pages, so be thoughtful when choosing the obstacles that your protagonist will encounter. Think about how the he or she will overcome these challenges. What other conflicts will these hurdles create?
4. All characters are people.
Remember that there are no minor characters, only those who make brief appearances. Make sure that everyone who shows up in your story is interesting, fully developed, and convincingly human.
5. Create a memorable antagonist.
The antagonist is the protagonist’s foil. He or she forces the protagonist to stretch, grow, and change. Without this tension, the plot suffers. As John Truby explained in The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, “The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold.”
6. Don’t touch the backspace key!
Put in all the plot twists, scenarios, and characters that come to mind—don’t hold back. That will give you more to material to work with. Resist the urge to second-guess yourself—first drafts are supposed to be raw. The rough edges will be smoothed out during editing.
7. Edit yourself.
Once your first draft is complete, become your own worst critic. Try to read your writing objectively, as readers would. What works? What doesn’t? Readers won’t have the story outline in their heads, so be sure to give them enough information to stay engaged throughout.
8. Kill your darlings.
Once you’ve read through your draft, you may have to jettison some of the material I just encouraged you to include. Why? Any writing that isn’t exceptional doesn’t serve your reader. If the story works better without certain elements, you must dispatch them without mercy. For tips on recycling those discarded scenes and characters, see our post on creating a zombie file.
9. Get some help.
Once you’ve reviewed your draft and trimmed the text, ask a few friends or colleagues for some honest feedback. Then put your ego aside and get ready to listen. Pay attention to scenes or characters that receive consistently negative reviews, no matter how much you personally like that particular patch of text. Remember that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
10. Rinse and repeat.
Your story can’t be great until it’s written—and there are no shortcuts. A famous stratagem for writing advises: “Apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.” Keep writing, refining, and editing until you’ve polished your prose to gem-like brilliance. Just do it.
Write Your Story
The only way to write a good story is to just start writing. You will never get results if you don’t act. Practice writing with prompts or free-writing exercises. Expect to fail sometimes, but know that failure is just one bump on the road to great writing.
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