How to Write A Good Story
We are natural storytellers. Yet writing a story is a surprisingly complex process and can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for getting past that overwhelm.
What Makes a Good Story?
A short story should be a snapshot of a moment in time or a short sequence of events. It should absorb the reader for a short amount of time and make them think or provoke some kind of emotional response – entertain them, amuse them, make them scared or moved.
Creativity, when we’re inspired, can consume us and take us on a bit of a rollercoaster. And this can be a wonderful journey. It’s easy to allow our ideas to run away with us, though, and this is where often children fall into a bit of a trap.
Here are the most common areas which can let down a story.
Problem 1: Overplotting
Sometime stories unfold in our minds and we want to record everything. We want to get as much action in there as possible. But you just don’t have time, in the space of five or six paragraphs, to talk about a pirate ship and an alien and an earthquake and an explosion. It’s too much. And your reader gets confused and stops caring.
What to Do Instead: Keep it Simple
Choose one central conflict or problem, build up to it and resolve it. Aim for 5-8 paragraphs (a couple to set the scene, a couple around the conflict or problem and one or two to resolve it). This will give you space to develop your setting and your character’s emotions. Which brings us onto Number 2.
Problem 2: Too Many Characters
I was a big fan of this one in my youth. I wrote many a tedious boarding school story (I read way too many Chalet School books) filled with about a thousand Phyllises and Ediths and Emilys. Not even I could keep up.
What to Do Instead: You Guessed It – Keep It Simple!
Stick to one or two characters. You don’t even need their names if you want to just use pronouns.
Problem 3: Winging It
Another favourite of mine from the 90s. I believed myself to be possessed with a kind of literary passion and felt that planning slowed me down. So, I wrote a fourteen-chapter novel about World War One where everyone died horribly (I even threw some maudlin poetry in there) – without planning. Let’s just say you can really tell. It doesn’t feel like there was much direction. It does feel like the author is winging it. When I marked my pupils’ essays, I could always tell when they’d planned and when they hadn’t. It’s worth doing. It doesn’t take long.
What to Do Instead: Plan!
Loads of ways to do it, you just need to find the method that works best for you.
- Bullet points or numbered points. This works well for people who like to think in a linear fashion and enjoy the logic and order of a list.
- Mind maps. These are better for more free thinkers. They are effectively a big spidergram.*
- Sketch different areas of your story, like a map, and label with words and phrases, then number them. You can draw a simple sketch, like a story mountain, and label.**
- Act out your story with props first, and then place the props in the same order that you used them to jog your memory.
Problem 4: Pedestrian Writing
A story is so much more than a sequence of events.
What to Do Instead: Show, Don’t Tell
Lift your writing with an array of exciting language. Create pictures in your reader’s mind with imagery (metaphors, similes and personification), and other visual details like colour, the effect of the light. Build sensory details by exploring sounds (devices like alliteration and onomatopoeia can help here), tactile and olfactory touches too. All of this will enable your reader to empathise with your character. Avoid, “I could smell… I could hear…” which feels like a checklist. Instead, play around with verbs: “The pungent perfume assaulted my nostrils”. Instead of saying, “I was scared,” try, “terror gripped me in its icy grasp.”
Problem 5: Forgetting About Your Character
Sometimes we’re so tied up with what’s happening that we lose focus on our protagonist.
What to Do Instead: Empathise
And encourage your reader to do the same. How would you really feel if you were in this character’s shoes? Invite your reader to share their joy, pain and fear by using emotive language and sensory details.
Problem 6: Writing a Full Story Is Just Too Hard
There’s so much to think about: structure, paragraphs, language, sentences, making sense, handwriting…
What to Do Instead: Free Yourself!
Short stories are not the only literary form! Write anything – songs, poetry, haikus, postcards, keep a diary, write a letter to a friend to surprise them, write a blog about your life, a letter to an MP about something you care about. You didn’t like the ending of a film? Write a new one.
What to Do If You’re Stuck
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, choose one area to work on at a time: plot, language, structure, characterisation, planning, editing, etc. If handwriting is your worst enemy, keep practising but in the meantime dictate to someone else, or type it. You can just write one paragraph at a time and keep coming back to it.
Burgle Your Own House (Metaphorically!)
You’re overwhelmed. You’re worried about spelling/grammar/handwriting/writing generally. You know there are great ideas buried in your mind (and there are, in everyone’s mind). You just need a key to unlock them.
This is a trick I learned from a writer at a creative writing workshop. All that anxiety can really hamper our ability to think.
This is where free writing comes in.
Start with a sentence – like “The tree reached high into the sky and…” or “At the end of the road there was…” Write the sentence and carry on writing. No planning, no editing.
There are only two rules – the first is that you cannot take your pen off the page. If you get stuck, just repeat the same word a few times until inspiration strikes again. Spelling, handwriting, grammar – none of that matters a jot. The second rule – no one is allowed to see what you’ve written. It’s totally private. When you’ve finished you can chuck it in the bin or keep it. If you want to share it that’s different but it’s important that this is strictly voluntary so that you can have a sense of ownership over their work. If you’re working with someone else (parent/friend), get them to do it too. Then, instead of having parent/teacher and pupil, you’re just two writers, writing away together, which is empowering.
Have a boundary. Set a timer or write for the length of an atmospheric piece of music.
At the end, look at it. What surprises or delights you? Anything that pleases you or makes you laugh?
I found that when I introduced this technique that at the beginning the children were so free with their ideas that they wrote all sorts of wild and silly thoughts (which they always begged to share!) Gradually, over time, their writing became confident and thoughtful, and this trick unearthed some truly spectacular poetry and prose.
We are all writers. Sometimes we just need a little help to find our voices.
I hope some of these tips help you to find yours. Happy writing, everyone.
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Further Reading If You Fancy It
Mind Maps for Kids: An Introduction by Tony Buzan