5 Elements of a Great Story

Writing is like baking a cake. You need just the right ingredients in just the right measure, or else you’ll just end up with an unappetising mess. In the same way that a tasty cake should be soft but firm, sweet but not overly so, moist but not wet and covered in lots of chocolate tastefully decorated, so too, a good story will stimulate the audience emotionally and intellectually; it will thrill them as well as make them think; frighten them as well as make them laugh and it will take them on a journey which is both meaningful and enjoyable.

To accomplish this, there’s a few key ingredients you just can’t do without:

Characters

Stories don’t just have characters. Characters are the story. Therefore, well developed characters, each with their own motives and goals which the audience sympathise with and care about, are essential for a good story. A few key players you might want to include in your story are:

  • A protagonist [2]. This is your main character, that key individual whom the story is actually about and with whom the audience should sympathise the most deeply (this one is mandatory. You don’t have a story without a protagonist).
  • An antagonist [2]. This is your protagonist’s main opponent throughout the story. He’s not necessarily evil, or even plotting evil (though he can be). He might simply be a rival competitor in the World Tiddlywinks Championships that your protagonist needs to defeat to become the World Tiddlywink Champion. Just as long as there is a direct conflict between your antagonist and your protagonist; one which the audience cares about.
  • A love interest is another common feature in much fiction. Usually there is a bit of sexual tension between your love interest and your protagonist from the outset (alternatively, unrequited attraction is a common motif). The love interest may also have some chemistry with your antagonist, thus creating the ever popular love triangle (a common motif in romance fiction). But if you are creating a love interest, just remember: no character should exist solely for the benefit another. Make sure your love interest has goals and motives of their own and a purpose for existing beyond making the protagonist swoon.
Conflict

So you’ve got a strong protagonist with firmly established goals and motives. Good for you.

Now… what’s stopping him achieving his goals? Your story will largely pivot on this question. Your character wants to do something, realises he can’t for some reason (this is your conflict!), struggles to overcome whatever it is that’s hindering him and finally succeeds.

It may be an antagonist whose goals bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist (for instance, a murderer might deliberately hide evidence from a detective, thus making it difficult for your protagonist to solve the mystery) but it could also be an inner struggle with illness, crippling self-doubt or the natural forces of nature. Whatever it is, there must be something standing between your protagonist and his ultimate goal. That’s your conflict.

Plot

This is arguably the most frustrating part of writing a story (but also one of the most important). Your plot is your basic sequence of events which form the skeleton of your story. There are lots of different approaches to plot structuring which you can Google at your leisure and decide which approach works best for you and your story.

Nevertheless, all good plots have this in common: that they progress in a logical manner from beginning to end. Something happens early on in the story to disrupt the ordinary life of your character, forcing him to do something to achieve his goal(s). This action leads to another event, leading to another action, leading to another event, progressing in a rational, cause-and-effect manner which finally concludes in a final climactic crisis event which resolves the main conflict and allows life to return to normal (though it may not be the same ‘normal’ as at the beginning of the story. e.g.: Aladdin’s ‘normal’ life started out as a single poor boy; his new ‘normal’ at the end is being married to a princess as a logical conclusion of the events that went before).

Pacing

As the author, your job is to blend fast bits and slow bits to create just the right feel for your story. This will be largely dependant on your genre, but even the most fast paced stories will still need slow bits to give the audience a chance to fully assimilate what is going on and to build a sense of anticipation. Equally, fast paced scenes (such as a good fight) are important to give the audience a bit of excitement and to relieve some of that tension you’ve been building up in the slow bits.

Some scenes can be fast paced or slow paced, depending on the effect you’re trying to create and the purpose they serve in your story. Love scenes are a good example. Fast paced narrative would make a slow and sensual love scene seem rushed (‘Jim and Jane made slow passionate love’ doesn’t quite capture the feel you’re trying to create); equally if you’re writing a moment of wild abandon between two lovers, you don’t want to bog the pacing down with talk and introspection. Use language in such a way to make the audience feel the urgency (or lack thereof) of what is happening.

Theme

I’ve spoken at some length about theme before but at the risk of repeating myself let me just say this: that an awareness of your story’s key themes will allow you to create a story with a bit of substance. All stories contain themes. They’re a natural byproduct of fiction, but they grow wild like weeds, accomplishing nothing. As an author, you have the power to cultivate your themes, to structure them and to make a really clear statement about real life through your work of fiction.

Do so, and your work will echo in the minds and the hearts of audience, challenging them, troubling them, encouraging them and stirring up their feelings long after they’ve finished reading it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bakes your cake.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?

If you’re struggling to come up with even the meanest idea for your story, you might be tempted to Google story idea generators to help you out. If you do, you’ll find there are bazillions out there: random plot generators, title generators, character generators, motive generators, setting generators, first line generators and everything else besides. If all that feels a bit too much like stealing, you can also use story dice, random image generators or random word generators or character trait generators to help lubricate the imagination.

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

Most of these random plot generators tend to work by simply throwing up a random selection of story elements, such as a random theme, a couple of randomly generated characters, a randomly generated setting and maybe a randomly generated conflict. Once in a while these might be helpful, but nine times out of ten, they tend to throw up results which are so completely random that I just end up despairing over my failure to write a story about drug addiction in which a pole dancer and an astronaut get locked in the Tower of London.

Story Plot Generator Pro (A.K.A Plot Gen Pro) by Arc Apps is probably the best random generator of this kind that I’ve come across. You have to pay for the full version but even the trial version is pretty decent and produces random elements within a chosen genre. Thus, the results are not quite as bizzare as they might otherwise have been. For instance, when I asked for sci-fi/space story I got:

Location: You are on a small civillian colony that shares the planet with a native species.
Complication: A ship of alien origin approaches: attempting to communicate proves challenging.
Character: Your character has taken someone else’s identity.
Detail: Cloning technology was recently perfected but has not been revealed to the public.


Story Plot Generator Pro

I mean, heck… with a bit of effort, that might actually be usable.

There are, of course, some idea generators out there which produce slightly more refined ideas. My personal favourite is the Story Idea Generator at thejohnfox.com. Instead of vomiting up a meaningless jumble of events, half-baked characters and opening lines, this little beauty presents you with a meaningful scenario and a relevant question to stimulate your own imagination. For example:


A heartbroken husband chases his cheating wife through a child’s playground at night. What does he keep shouting at her, and why doesn’t she want to be with him?


https://thejohnfox.com/2016/05/story-idea-generator/

If used correctly, this kind of prompt should make for a far richer story, as you are forced to think your way through the details of who your characters are and why they do what they do. Rather than giving you a pre-made story (or, to be more accurate, a sequence of meaningless events, as most generators give you), this generator essentially gives you suggestions for what to write about and a couple of questions to get you started but doesn’t actually attempt to write it for you. The specific events that happen, why they happen and the outcome of it all are left very much to the author’s imagination, as indeed, it should be.

Depending on how your brain works, I can see generators of this type working really well for a lot of people. For me personally, however, I find that I don’t usually need someone to tell me what to write about. I often think I do, but whenever I do use a plot generator which produces something sensible, I end up just feeling like I’ve been asked to finish writing someone else’s story. I seldom feel confident enough, or even interested enough, to write it. What I really need is simple stimulation, and usually the vaguer it is, the better. I am, in fact, quite capable of coming up with story ideas myself and a simple word, catchphrase or picture will usually be enough to stimulate my sleeping imagination whereas a plot generator (no matter how good it is) feels a little too restrictive. Thankfully, there are plenty of places on the internet where you can find nice vague stimuli too.

Title generators are my personal favourite. A simple adjective/noun style title generator like this one, will throw up all sorts of interesting concepts that you can take in almost direction. I just tried it out and I got The Incredible Flute, The Last Cottage and The Evil Crow. There is so much potential in those simple ideas that I bet most writers could come up with something unique for every one of them (in fact, please do! Write a story called The Incredible Flute and tell us all about it in the comments. I dares ya).

There are, of course, more complex title generators out there which are mostly tailored to specific genres. For instance, Fantasy Name Generators gave me some really interesting titles such as Wife of Dreams, Faith of Earth and Boy Without Flaws simply by pressing a button (I might actually try writing some of those myself). These can also be refined by genre and there is the option to specify key words you want to include (incidentally and in passing, Fantasy Name Generators boasts one of the largest collections of random generators I’ve ever seen on the internet; everything from story title generators to Quetzalcoatl name generators. Lose yourself on that website for a while).

Whatever kind of idea generator you like to use (including good old fashioned writing prompts), the important thing to remember is this: even the best prompts are no substitute for the imagination. By all means, let them stimulate your imagination (if you find them helpful) but don’t fall into the trap of thinking they’ll do the imagining for you. They cannot and they should not. This also means that you needn’t be enslaved to the details of whatever prompt you use. You might not be able to contrive a realistic scenario where a pole dancer and an astronaut end up in the Tower, but perhaps you can write a piece of historical fiction about someone else being locked in the Tower, or perhaps you can write about an astronaut who does a bit of pole dancing on the side. The possibilities are endless for a fertile imagination.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what prompts your story.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Writing Laws I Just Can’t Keep

Google it, and you’ll see that the internet (to say nothing of books and formal writing courses) is simply teeming with lists of rules on how to write fiction. I’ve been known to knock out a list of rules or two myself; rules I generally believe make for a better writer if they are carefully adhered to and applied with a little wisdom.

Nevertheless, it is human nature to rebel against the rules. If the Writing Police ever do raid my house at four in the morning and drag me before the Fiction Judge, I’m pretty sure the list of charges will be a long one and he’ll throw the book at me for every one of them.

And so, today I’m here to confess my crimes. I know that some of these things are wrong, and I am ashamed of them. Other laws, I break with pride. And so without further ado, here are my crimes:

Using adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

I confess it ashamedly. Sometimes when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing dialogue, I use adverbs liberally to describe the way people said things.

And I will proudly confess that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with very occasional adverbs. My real crime is that I don’t just use them ‘very occasionally.’ I use them all over the place and wait until the editing process to come back and replace them all with stronger verbs.

It’s the only way I know to get anything done.

Long-Windedness

Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.

Ernest Hemingway

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have already noticed that I have a tendency to say things in a verbose fashion; using an excess of words (with little side notes in brackets) to say even the simplest things and breaking it up with more commas and semi-colons than you can shake a stick at, when all I really need to say is something along the lines of: ‘I can be quite long-winded’ (or something like that).

It makes for a tedious narrative and a painstaking editing process.

having holidays

Just write every day of your life…

Ray Bradbury

I tried that, Ray. I really did. But I’m a firm believer that a regular day off is healthy and makes me a better writer, provided I am diligent about my writing schedule for the rest of the week. I also give myself a set amount of ‘annual leave’ (a maximum of 33 days per year, the exact same as my day job gives me) to allow for holidays and so forth.

On a related note…

Writing is not the sum total of my life

For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.

Eugene Ionesco

I know they’ll throw the book at me just for saying this, but my life consists of more than writing. I will go further: I believe that a life which consists of nothing but writing will produce very limited writing. I say that with the greatest of reverence to Ionesco, who was clearly a superior writer to myself. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion Ionesco’s own life probably consisted of more than writing. After all, to quote another great writer, ‘in order to write about life, you must first live it’ (E. Hemingway). Believing things, doing things, experiencing things and feeling things, all fill your mind with the raw material to create good stories.

Don’t misunderstand me. Writing is very important to me. I write diligently every Monday-Saturday and I do spend an excessive amount of my non-writing time thinking about writing. But I also think about my wife and daughter. I think about God and I think about the state of the world. I think about my day job and I think about how I want to reward myself at the end of a hard day’s work. I think about tidying up my death-trap of a back garden and I think about what I want to read, watch or listen to. Writing is not my life, but all my life goes into writing.

Self-doubt and arrogant pride


The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.

Neil Gaiman


For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly…

Romans 12:3 (KJV)

We writers walk a fine line between vain conceit and abject self-abasement: a line called ‘sober judgement’. Most of the time (though not always!), I tend to struggle with the latter rather than the former. I doubt my writing to such an extent that I shy away from boldly writing the things I want to write. As a result, my progress is slowed to a crawl as I sit at the computer and try to convince myself that what I’m writing isn’t a crime against literature.

However, I won’t lie to you. There have been some occasions where I’ve fallen down on the other side of ‘sober judgement’ and began to sing my own praises. This, too, is crippling, because (apart from being annoying to others) when the inevitable dry spell comes, where I struggle to write well, it makes that feeling of self-doubt all the more devastating.

What about you? What writing rules do you struggle (or outright refuse) to keep? Confession is good for the soul, so tell us all about it in the comments below!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what breaks your rules.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Are You Making The Best Use Of Your Writing Time?

Writing takes time. Lots of time, especially if you’re writing a novel. If you’re writing a novel and maintaining a weekly blog, you have to devote even more time to writing; and even then, you might still have that niggling feeling in the back of your mind that you should be writing a few short stories here and there.

That pretty much describes my situation, along with juggling a wife, a daughter and a full time job that has nothing to with writing. And so, I’ve recently made a few more changes to my weekly writing schedule which I hope will allow me to make better use of my limited time. I know I’ve spoken about this before [2], but I’m always trying to think of new ways to make the most efficient use of my limited writing time and while I’m sure your writing schedule won’t be exactly the same as mine, I thought I’d tell you about it anyway to provide you with a bit of food for thought.

On the average week, my writing time looks something like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
19:30 – 21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0007:00-11:30Day off

Note that the evening slots are very approximate, depending on how long it takes to get my toddler into bed. Also note that my Saturday session, while longer, is subject to regular interruptions and is therefore not always the best quality writing time.

I think you’ll agree, that’s not a huge amount of time, but it should be adequate. The big killer, as I mentioned in previous posts, is this blog. Because I publish a post every week (a deadline I don’t have with my novel), it seemed only natural to prioritise the blog. And so, I would sit down at 19:30 every Monday and write my blog. Once the blog was finished, I would use the rest of the week to work on my novel. If I managed to smash the blog on Monday, that gave me Tuesday-Saturday to write my novel. If I was still struggling with it on Friday, I probably wouldn’t get much novel done at all that week. While I had taken a few steps to try and redress the balance between my blog and story writing time, the fact remains that my fiction writing was still very much at the mercy of my blog. If the blog was going well, my novel got written. If progress on the blog was slow, the novel ground to a halt.

The thing is, as much as I love doing this blog, I only ever really considered it a kind of hobby. What I really want is to publish my novel and send a few more of my short stories to magazines and writing competitions (my output in that department has been shockingly low) but I just didn’t know how I could make better use of my time– until recently when I did a time management course at my work. Then my eyes were opened.

I don’t have time to go over all the particulars of the course, but one of the lessons I took away from it was the importance of organising tasks by order of importance and urgency, giving priority to important tasks (that is, the ones that mattered to me the most) first, then urgent ones (ones that were simply time sensitive) second. Since my blog is urgent (it needs to be done every week) but not as important to me as establishing a career as an author, it is clearly wrong for me to slave my novel to the progress of my blog. It’s also important to me to submit shorter works to magazines, but this is something that I’ve been completely neglecting as the blog has taken up so much of my time.

And so, I have reorganised my writing schedule. Now it looks like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
NovelNovelNovelShortsShortsBlogDay off

If you think about it, you’ll realise my novel now gets a guaranteed four and a half hours a week of my time with very few interruptions; short stories get three hours and my blog gets a still very generous four and a half hours (with more regular interruptions). This means that my blog has got just as much time as it always did, but now my novel is free of restrictions. It will get the same four and a half hours of quality time every week come hell or high water with the blog. Not only that, but I’ve even managed to make time to work on my short stories. In addition, by making Saturday my blog day, I remove the temptation to ‘borrow’ time from other days, as my blog is published on Sundays. Thus my novel and short story writing productivity is increased with little or no loss to my blog.

What about you? Do you struggle to make time to juggle life with multiple writing projects? How do you prioritise your time? Share your wisdom and experience with us in the comments below!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what manages your time.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

6 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

Writing is an art. Like any art form, it’s something you learn as you go. Even those rare child prodigies who are born excellent writers will still undoubtedly pick up a few nuggets of wisdom as they practice and hone their craft. It’s only natural. The longer you do a thing, the better you get at it.

Most of the writing tips I’ve shared on this website over the last few years have been things I have simply learned by experience, and so today I’ve decided to share a brief selection of some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years which I think have helped to make me a better writer. And so without further ado and in no particular order:

Lesson #1: You Can’t edit a blank page

Although it may go against the grain, the best way to write is to write boldly without stopping to worry about how good or bad it is. In fact, even if you know it sucks, you should still just plough on with your story until it’s finished and come back to fix it later. Heck, you’re going to do a few drafts anyway (aren’t you?).

This is no new commandment but an old one. Although it can be tempting to fix bits you’re unsatisfied with (or worse still, refuse to write them in the first place), editing as you go is ultimately crippling. You will not get anything finished writing that way.

lesson #2: Characters are the beating heart of any good story

Regular readers of this blog (God bless you kind people) will know I’ve said this a billion times before so it’s only right that I say it again: characters can make or break any story. I don’t care how clever, imaginative or well researched the rest of your story is, half-baked characters will ruin your story while excellent characters can make even the most simple of stories a joy to read.

Moreover a plot can emerge from a good cast of characters in a way which feels natural (to the reader at least; writers must sweat blood no matter what). After all, in real life events happen to people; people don’t happen to events. So too, it is better to make your characters the focus of your story and ask what happens to them, rather than creating a plot first and then populating it with characters whom you have contrived to suit it.

lesson #3: CONSISTENCY and Persistence are essential

It can be tempting for inexperienced writers to imagine inspiration is the key to being a good story writer. Such writers will only be inclined to write when they are overcome with a wave of inspiration or when they are feeling particularly ‘in the zone.’

Experienced writers know what folly that is. It might sound less exciting (in fact, it often is less exciting) but the real secret to producing a steady flow of work is to be consistent with your writing routine, regardless of how you feel and to persist with your story even when you hate it.

lesson #4: There Are No Bad Ideas; Only Bad Executions

Whenever you have an idea for a story, it can be tempting to immediately judge it in one of two ways:

  • This is the best idea ever! I can’t wait to sit down and write this masterpiece!
  • That’s a terrible idea. I’ll just pretend I didn’t have it…

In my experience, judging the quality of an idea in this way is a mistake. The fact is, ideas are a pound a dozen and have very little bearing on the quality of the final story. Even the stupidest ideas can yield a good story, if the story is well planned with characters whose goals and motives we care about; and the reverse is also true.

Lesson #5: In the early stages, only handwriting will do

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but I find that when I’m trying to come up with new material, I just can’t seem to get the creative juices flowing using a computer, tablet or phone. It has to be pen and paper. I have to be able to scribble freely. Even Scapple is a poor substitute for pen and paper at the earliest stages of brainstorming new ideas.

Once I have a rough idea of my basic plot and who the main players in my story will be, I quickly transfer to working with apps like Scapple, Scrivener or FocusWriter but until I reach that stage, it’s paper and pen all the way. Nothing else works. While this might not be the case for you, I still think it’s worthwhile having a think about what helps you to work most effectively at each stage.

Lesson #6: Like It Or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

No story, no matter how well written, appeals to everybody. However, most reasonably well written stories will appeal to somebody. If you try to please everyone, you are doomed to fail but knowing your intended audience in advance will allow you to determine exactly what kind of themes, characters and adult elements are appropriate for your story. Discussed in more detail here.

What about you? What nuggets of writerly wisdom have you picked up over the years? Be sure to share them in the comments below so we can all benefit from your wisdom!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what sautés your onions.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Why Your Fantastic Story Idea Has To Die

So you’ve had a fantastic idea for a new story: something really original, really clever and just plain brilliant. Well, bully for you, I say! It’s a wonderful feeling not only knowing what you’re next story is going to be about, but actually knowing that it’s a real cracker of an idea.

Enjoy your good feelings while you can but don’t fall in love with your idea. If you do, you’ll only end up languishing in Inspiration Hell the moment you try to put your idea into action. If you want my advice, you’ll treat your idea as a profane thing from the very moment it’s conceived. It is not sacred. It is not too beautiful to die. Frankly, it’s probably not as clever as you thought. Unless you’ve laid a real golden egg of an idea, you’ll probably have to kill it– and the sooner the better.

‘Now wait a minute there, old bean!’ I hear you cry. ‘That seems a bit harsh!’

Maybe it is, but I still think it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run if you take it to heart now. No element of your story should ever be safe from being tweaked, twisted or downright axed. This includes the original premise of your story, however clever it might be.

This is no new commandment. We all know how important it is to ‘kill your darlings’ when you write. You know what I mean: those glorious, beautiful little bits of narrative you’ve written that you think are so wonderful, but they ultimately do nothing for your story and have to go.

However, unlike most darlings on the headsman’s block, the original idea is not something you can simply come back to at the editing stage. If you write a dodgy sentence, an unnecessary scene or even several chapters of pointless drivel, you can still plod along quite the thing until you finish the draft. Not so with your original idea! If you fall too hard in love with it, you’ll never make it past the first draft (assuming you ever get the first draft started), because you will be unprepared to take whatever ruthless steps are required to fix the glaring weaknesses in your plot. If your original idea isn’t working, you must be prepared to kill it without mercy.

‘But if I kill my original idea, won’t I be right back at square one, with no idea whatsoever?’ I hear you cry.

No, of course not. Your original idea still serves a purpose: a new idea will be born from its ashes. Almost every story idea has at least a million possible alternative directions you can work in and I would encourage you to experiment with all of these (Scapple is my app of choice for organising my thoughts in this regard, though a good old fashioned pen and paper also does the trick). Perhaps your love interest should really be the protagonist? Perhaps your protagonist should be a pixie instead of a wizard? Heck, perhaps we should forget about pixies and wizards and go for cowboys instead? One of the best decisions I ever made in one of my old fantasy stories was to change from a medieval fantasy setting to a post-industrial fantasy. The basic themes, conflict and characters were essentially the same but by letting go of my determination to have knights on horses, my mind suddenly exploded with a whole bunch of material that yielded a much better story.

Even if your original idea is working, you will still need to be prepared to develop it, and that involves making changes, both big and small, so even if you stick with the same core idea, it will still require painful surgery to make it function. It is better, therefore, to simply have the attitude that your idea is profane and eligible for the chop from the very beginning. The fact is, no story idea ever comes to you fully formed. Ideas are like clumps of marble used in sculpting. Some clumps might be easier to work with than others and some might be utterly useless, but none of them can become Discobolus or David until someone first takes a hammer and chisel to it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what chisels your marble.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

10 Minute Story Challenge

In my experience, one of the hardest things about writing is coming up with a brand new story idea from scratch. I only know one way to force new story ideas on demand, and that is to sit down and write something. Anything. Maybe it’s different for all of you, but for me, a crumby little zero draft is the best and only way I know to stimulate brand new ideas from nothing. However the temptation to perfect those ideas as I go can be crippling. Ofttimes it can take ages to get started because I want to come up with a good idea before I start writing, which completely defeats the purpose of writing a zero draft.

And so today I thought I would try something new (new for the blog at least). I’ve picked a random writing prompt using Arc Apps’ Plot Gen Pro for Android and have given myself exactly ten minutes to write a zero draft based on it and post the results here, typos and all. I didn’t finish it on time (didn’t even come close to doing so) but that wasn’t the point. The point was to alarm myself into producing something that could conceivably grow into a full story. I’ve also filmed the whole thing so you know I didn’t cheat (the video is at the bottom of this post). So here goes nothing:

Untitled and Unfinished Zero Draft

by A. Ferguson

Prompt: You are living in an evil and corrupt city. Your character is reclusive and has no status in society. you have supernatural strength. You must bring someone back from the underworld.

The kettle on the stove began to whistle furiously. Tagan lifted it off with a curse. He had forgotten all about it.

There was a knock at the door. Tagan glowered suspiciously towards the door. The old man seldom ventured outside any more. He had no friends. He didn’t want any friends in this godless city. He wanted to be left alone.

Another knock at the door.

‘Go away’ Tagan growled. ‘I’ve nothing here for you.’

The door opened by itself and a man entered the hovel: tall, slender and dressed in the robes of a High Wizard. Tagan didn’t know the man’s face but he recognised his attire. One of many corrupt cults of magic that had come to the city in recent decades.

‘Get out of my house.’ Tagan spat.

‘I need you to come with me.’ The man said in a quiet but stern voice. ‘I’ve heard of your quests to the underworld–’

‘Many years ago.’ Tagan grumbled. ‘I don’t do that anymore. Not for anyone.’

‘I’m afraid you have no choice.’ The Wizard told him. ‘The Emperor’s son has died–’

‘So?’

‘So the emperor wishes him returned. You’re the last of the Heroes. No one else can make this voyage into–’

‘Then let him die.’ Tagan said firmly. ‘The whole nation’s corrupt. Everybody’s gone after black magic, despicable pagan practices and now they’re all liars and murderers and adulterers–’

‘I don’t see why–’

‘Everyone who dies is a rest for this world. Maybe soon the whole sorry generation will go the way of all the earth and I frankly don’t care. I’m not going down there, not for the emperor or anyone else.’

The Wizard looked Tagan dead in the eye and said dangerously: ‘You will go down and retrieve the emperor’s son. If you don’t, you will die.’

As he spoke, Tagan felt a curious crushing sensation grip him around the throat. He couldn’t breath. No hand touched him, but he felt as if this young wizard had both hands squeezing tightly on his throat, crushing his wind pipe.

‘Alright.’ He wheezed. ‘I’ll do it.’

The choking sensation immediately stopped and the Wizard appeared to relax.

‘The Emperor will be so pleased. You will leae

TIME UP!


Well that was a fun game. I didn’t manage to write a whole story: more like a really rubbish and half baked inciting incident but maybe I’ll do better next time. Why don’t you give it a go? Use the above prompt (or another of your choosing) and try to write a story based in on it in no more than 10 minutes and share it with us in the comments or on your own blog if you’re feeling brave. I can guarantee you you’ll not write a good one. If you’re like me, you probably won’t even manage to finish it unless you write a really tight flash fiction, but it’s still a good exercise for the imagination. After all, this crumby little scene I’ve written contains the seeds of a story, so maybe one day I’ll write it properly.

Anyway, here’s the video proof I promised you:

Music credits:

Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada |
https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by https://www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/b
y/4.0/

Precious Life by Savfk |
https://www.youtube.com/savfkmusic
Music promoted by https://www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/b
y/4.0/


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what pickles your onions.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

We writers have got to support each other. That’s why every now and again I’ll do a post showcasing the work of other fiction and writing bloggers besides my own. This week is such a week.

Previously I’ve shared specific posts that I’ve found particularly useful or entertaining but I’m doing it a bit different this week. Instead of sharing individual posts, I’m sharing links to whole blog sites that I find myself returning to again and again, either because they’re full of useful tips and resources or because they’re just plain enjoyable to read.

As ever, this is simply a selection of my favourites, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

A Writer’s Perspective – If you’re a writer of historical fiction set in the 14th century or even just mildly curious about how people lived back then, this blog is definitely worth a look. It’s full of interesting little articles about everything from castles to medieval cuisine written by historical romance author April Munday.

TurtleWriters – ‘A Community for Slow Writers’. This is a great little blog site to find help and support if you’re the sort of writer who feels like they’re wading through treacle whenever they try to write. The blog is updated pretty sparingly, but it’s just such a useful breath of fresh air to us ordinary folk who want to write that I had to include it.

Rebecca Alasdair – Useful and enjoyable writing tips, general author updates and reflections on reading and writing. Also as an aside, this blog is much easier on the eye than a lot of blog sites.

Now Novel – In addition to a plethora of other resources (writing courses, groups, story idea finder, etc.), Now Novel boasts a blog with a motherload of writing tips for would-be novelists. I’ve never used any of its paid services but it’s blog alone is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to write a novel and doesn’t know where to begin.

Morgan Hazelwood – Like her tagline says, Morgan’s blog is full of writing tips and writerly musings – with plenty of video for those too lazy to read.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what squeezes your lemons.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

Before I begin, let me ask you a question: what is the hardest thing to believe about Superman? Is it the fact he can fly, deflect bullets and shoot heat rays from eyes? Is it the fact he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than… you know? Or is it something else?

As you may be aware, if you’ve been following this blog regularly, I’m cooking up an original superhero story, which I plan to publish in regular instalments here on Penstricken. Now all writing has its challenges, but if there is one thing that I’ve found difficult to get right with this particular story, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.

‘The willing suspension of disbelief?’ I hear you cry. ‘What the heck is that?’

I’m glad you asked. Basically, whenever an audience sits down to read a book or watch a play, they make a subconscious decision to accept the truthfulness of what is happening despite knowing it to be a work of fiction. If the audience does not suspend their disbelief, they will never be able to enjoy the story, because they’ll spend the whole time pointing out all the obvious contrived and plain ridiculous elements that are required to make a good story. While it is ultimately something the audience can decide to do or not to do, you as the writer have a responsibility to write a story which makes it easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief.

Does this mean magic, goblins and (in my case) superheroes are out? Certainly not. People have been telling stories about magic, goblins and yes, even super-powered humans doing incredible things since ancient times. If the current trend in Marvel and DC films is anything to go by, humanity’s taste for the impossible has not dwindled much in the last few millennia. It’s also true that there are plenty of non-fantasy/speculative stories which can utterly fail to inspire the willing suspension of disbelief. The issue is not one of what is possible. The issue is of what is likely.

The hardest thing to believe about Superman isn’t the fact he comes from another planet, nor is it the fact he has incredible powers. Those things are perfectly acceptable within the rules of the Superman universe. The most ridiculous thing about Superman* is the fact that Lois Lane (and everyone else) is actually fooled by a pair of glasses. I started wearing glasses for the first time back in 2014, and when I went into work the next day my colleagues didn’t all demand to see my ID badge, nor did my boss phone me up and ask me why I wasn’t at work. They knew it was me. That’s because glasses really don’t obscure a face that well.

But as much as everybody loves you there is one question that keeps coming up: “How dumb was she?” Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Look (puts glasses on). I’m Clark Kent (glasses off). No, I’m Superman (glasses on). Mild-mannered reporter (glasses off). Superhero. Hello? Clark Kent is Superman. Well, that was worth the whole trip. To actually meet the most galactically stupid woman who ever lived.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, s. 2 ep. 18 ‘Tempus Fugitive’ 

Source: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=lois-and-clark-the-new-adventures-of-superman&episode=s02e18 (parentheses mine)

At this point, there is something very important to point out: in order to function, almost every story you ever write will feature a little unlikely element here or there. That’s okay, as long as you don’t push the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief too far. Think of these things like using selloptape to wrap a Christmas present. You need a little, but too much spoils the whole thing. The audience will put up with one very small ‘oh come on, that wouldn’t happen!’ moment provided it helps your story along and isn’t the beating heart of your story in and of itself. For instance, Superman wouldn’t work without the glasses ‘disguise’, but its not fundamental to who he is or what he does. It’s just a simple trick to allow him to lead a double life and it’s unobtrusive enough for the audience to forgive, assuming the audience wants to enjoy the story (a determined audience can and will find the joins in even the most perfect stories; don’t let them get you down).

Having said all of that, you still need to take care when you are constructing fantastic elements for your story too. You can’t just have a dragon pop up and save the day in the last few pages of your story when previously you had no dragons. You can make your fantasy world as ridiculous and as imaginative as you like (have you read The Colour of Magic?) but there are still a few important things to remember if you want the audience to fully suspend their disbelief. I’ll rattle through them quickly.

Every fantasy world has rules. These can be almost anything you want, but you can’t deviate from the rules of your fantasy world any more than you can deviate from the laws of physics in real life.

Consider your genre and your audience. You’ll get away with elves in a fantasy. You won’t get away with them so easily in a space opera. Your audience will almost certainly approach your story with certain expectations, so think long and hard before you deviate from them.

Foreshadow. Don’t introduce fantastic elements as and when they’re needed. If Superman only flew when he had a missile to catch but got the train everywhere else, we would find this sudden introduction in the story’s climax a little jarring (might even read like a deus ex machina). If he can fly, he can fly– so let him fly! Don’t have him climbing ladders to change light-bulbs. He can fly! He’s not going to forget he can fly!

Avoid making things too easy for your characters. Whether it’s a personal code of morality, a price for casting magic or some other Achilles heel, if all your hero has to do is snap his fingers and save the day with his powers, you’ll have created an anticlimax. Nothing in life is ever as easy as simply magicking your problems away, and no matter how much your audience might enjoy magic or reversing the polarity, a good story reflects this. Your hero has to face a challenge to overcome using their head, their heart and their hands. There’s a reason Superman always winds up a cage made of Kryptonite. The bit where he escapes the Kryptonite using nothing more than his wits, his natural human strength and his burning passion to save the day is always more satisfying than the bit immediately after where he catches and disarms the missile in midair and actually serves to make the final ‘magical’ rescue all the more exciting.

*Okay, there’s also the fact of his impeccable moral purity, but that’s a deeper issue of character writing that I’ll talk about some other time. In fact, I already have.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what suspends your disbelief.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Christmas Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a good Christmas movie/Christmas special of your favourite TV show; and so, since I’ve just come to the end of my series on genre clichés and how to avoid them, I thought: what better thing to post about this Christmas than Christmas movie clichés?

So here we go ho ho! (Sorry).

Film Ends; Snow Begins

Question: how do you know when a Christmas story is nearly finished?

Answer: it starts snowing and everybody’s amazed. It seems to be the only ending anyone has has been able to come up with for a Christmas flick.

There’s a really clever trick to avoiding this particular cliché. Basically, you just end it any other way you like! Kissy endings are fine, violent deaths are fine, I’ll even put up with riding off into the sunset but please, if you have any sense of compassion, don’t make me sit through another inevitable snow ending!

Christmas Miracles

These little deus ex machinas appear in an alarming number of Christmas films. They don’t tend to solve the main conflict of the story (though they sometimes do, and should be doubly ashamed of themselves) but usually involve small miracles at the very end of the story to instantly undo any lingering sadness that might remain from the struggle that has gone before. For instance, just after the main conflict of the story has been resolved and the film appears to be over, the boy’s puppy who got flattened by a monster truck in the in the first half hour of the film comes running down the road to meet him. Then the snow starts. The end.

The rules about how to write a good ending don’t just change because it’s Christmas. Your protagonists have struggled throughout the story; even if they haven’t lost anything substantial, they’ve had a rough time. There was a bad guy who wanted to hurt them. There was a real danger that Christmas might be cancelled. Your characters have developed and learned things from their strife as much as from their victory; don’t rob them of that by making everything magically fall into place for them in the last few minutes.

The Conversion of Scrooge

Yeah, Dickens I’m blaming you for this one. In this trope, there’s always a bitter and miserable old git who hates Christmas and wants to spoil it for everyone but in the climax of the story they learn the true meaning of Christmas (note: it’s seldom the true, true meaning of Christmas but usually some woolly notion about love and fuzziness) and become a nice person who decides to join the Christmas party, give all their money to the poor and generally become a real life Santa Claus (double cliché points if the real life Santa Claus is the one who teaches your miser the true meaning of Christmas). 

I mean… depending on exactly what your bad guy did, I’m inclined to give you a bit of leeway on this one. After all, it is Christmas: good will to men and all that jazz. But if your antagonist has deliberately tried to ruin Christmas for everyone (especially if it involved committing a serious atrocity), a little bit of comeuppance wouldn’t go amiss… would it? 

I know you want to be nice to your bad guys but come on… if you think he deserves it, then just be brave and do what my favourite Christmas movie hero always does: blow him up and say ‘yippee ki yay’. Your audience will respect you for it. They probably hate your bad guy’s guts too.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what jingles your bells.

Merry Christmas!

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking for more authors to interview here on Penstricken, especially new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]