Saturday, September 13, 2008

Creative Writing Tips: Starting Out, Ideas, Characters, Plot and Structure, Viewpoints

Starting Out

Making the decision

So you've decided you want to write. Perhaps, you've been scribbling down snippets of thoughts on scrap paper for years, or maybe you have something important to say. It might even be you've just read a story or seen a film and thought, 'I could do better than that'. You probably can.
Personally, it's the thought of entertaining someone for the time it takes them to read one of my stories, that provides the enjoyment. If the tale provokes a subsequent moment of reflection or speculation, so much the better.
If the prospect of setting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, and sending the finished product into the wide world seems daunting, remember all published authors had to start somewhere....

  • Okay, first and foremost, set aside a space for writing, preferably somewhere quiet where you can work uninterrupted.

  • Invest in a word processor or computer. Some publishers still accept handwritten manuscripts but their numbers are dwindling.

  • Read as much as you can about the art of writing. Local libraries are a good place to start. Consider subscribing to Writers' News, sister magazine to Writing Magazine. Both publications are excellent sources of information for new and established writers.

  • Buy a current edition of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and/ or Writers' and Artists' Handbook. The Small Press Guide is also an extremely useful source of markets looking for short stories and poetry.

  • Enrol in a writing course or workshop. There are plenty available on a variety of subjects.

  • Join a writing circle. At the very least you will meet people with similar aspirations. The better groups will set homework and provide constructive criticism on your work. In time, you will be able to return the favour. Many groups also engage the occasional guest speaker.

  • Network. Tell your friends what you're up to. If you can pen a press release, critique or newsletter, they'll be knocking on your door in no time.

See, it's simple. Now you're ready to produce the masterpiece!

The Right Mindset

When you decide to become a writer, you may encounter various obstacles. The biggest of these is often self-doubt. After all, what right do we have to think we can succeed where millions of others have failed. Every right! Believe in yourself and others will too.
This is where a supportive family and friends can make the difference between completing that first special manuscript or resigning it to the wastepaper basket.
It's important to realise that writing can be a lonely profession but this isn't necessarily a problem. If you're doing it properly, you won't have time to feel isolated with all those characters inside your head clamouring for attention.

Confidence, perseverance, discipline, a willingness to learn and a thick skin.
Yes, you'll need them all to keep plugging away at the keyboard at odd and often antisocial hours, especially if the rejection slips begin to arrive.

Make time to write each day!
This is critical, even if it's only to write fifty words or edit an existing manuscript. The more practice you get, the better. Don't worry about the housework, the telephone or the garden. Get in there and create. After a while, you will probably discover that a certain time of day works best for you. Try to keep that time free.


Useful Sources of Ideas

Ideas are everywhere. Some of them come naturally but it's worth knowing where to look for that extra piece of inspiration.

  • newspapers - especially the news-in-brief columns
  • magazines - especially letters to the editor or agony aunts
  • other people's conversations - eavesdrop shamelessly
  • other stories - remember, there's no copyright on an idea, just the finished product. That said, don't go 'borrowing' characters or large wads of print from
  • other people's work. You don't need to.
  • jokes - most of them are mini stories in themselves

Making the Most of an Idea

Once something catches your fancy, interrogate it.
For example, if you see a young girl running for the bus in the rain, ask yourself plenty of why's.
Why is she running, why is she catching a bus, why does she look sad/ angry/ happy, why doesn't she have an umbrella, why is she carrying a suitcase, why is she alone?
Then you can go on to ask yourself; Who is she? Where is she from and where is she going? What is she planning to do once she gets there?
Approach the idea from all perspectives and let your imagination run riot with the what ifs...


Using People You Know

Yes, this is one method of developing a character. Many scripts have been written with a particular actress/ actor (or at least their screen/ stage persona) in mind.
The obvious drawback is that if your character is recognizable as a real person, you may leave yourself open to litigation. This might occur because the real person feels you have invaded their privacy or even slandered them. It is worth noting that we never know anyone as well as ourselves, so throughout the course of your story, no matter how well you think you know that person, there will be blanks to fill in. The potential to cause offence is enormous.
If you feel you must use a real person as a template, it is safer to incorporate traits from additional people so that you have a composite.
And above all, make sure real names are changed.

Creating and Developing a Character from Scratch

This is the safer and preferable option.

  • Get to know your characters, everything about them. Their pasts, family, occupations, hobbies, upbringing, physical appearance and so forth. You may never use a quarter of the information you have generated but your characters will be more three dimensional and credible for it.

  • Don't give minor characters names unless it is necessary to the story. This is particularly applicable to short stories, in which there is little enough time to develop the main characters let alone supporting ones.

  • Short stories should have no more than three main characters. More than this and readers may become confused or fail to develop the emotional response to the characters.

  • Be clear in your own mind when writing the story of the varying relationships between the main characters. For example, how does a interact with b in c's presence/ absence, b with c in a's presence/ absence and so forth.

  • Try to ensure each character has a function. Don't be tempted to add one to pad out a story.

  • Be clear on their roles within the story. If you're confused, it's a safe bet your readers will feel the same.

  • Make them believable, give them dimension. Readers are willing to suspend their disbelief when it comes to plot, provided the characters are credible. A great plot is nothing if the people within the story are cutouts or caricatures.

  • Above all, make your characters behave in a consistent fashion throughout the story, whatever happens to them. Characters tend to take on a life of their own some time into a story. You need to know when they say or do something 'out-of-character'. Of course, at certain times you may wish this to happen, in which case make it clear to the reader that they are acting 'out-of-character' for a reason, not simply because you've lost control of them.

  • The more interesting characters tend to be flawed.

  • The main characters should develop during the story although this personal growth is necessarily limited with short stories.

  • Make sure you know which characters you want the readers to like. You must develop an empathy for these characters in the early stages of the story. Equally, ensure your villains are hateful especially if they have a nasty comeuppance in store.

  • Establish the identity of the hero(ine) of your story. These characters usually undergo the most change.

Plot and Structure

Three Acts

All stories, regardless of their subject or word count, should have three acts or a beginning, middle and end. They don't necessarily occur in that order but they should be in there somewhere.

In short stories, it is absolutely critical to make each word count. There is no room for padding. If the sentence (be it narrative or dialogue) doesn't move the story forward, it shouldn't be there.

Act I / The Beginning:

A good opening line or paragraph is essential. This is what determines whether the reader goes on to read the story or goes in search of another.
The opening should contain a Hook. This is used to grab the reader's attention. The hook may be witty, shocking or mysterious, but it must be interesting.
Many writers also structure the length of sentences within the opening paragraph. A short sentence to open, a longer one to finish. It is one way of drawing the reader into the story.
In short stories, it is important to introduce and identify the main character and conflict at the very beginning. Additionally, there should be an inciting incident. This is a mini climax which forces the protagonist into some sort of action that basically starts the story moving.

Act II / The Middle:

This forms the bulk of the story and is no less important than the beginning. A good start will not make up for a poor middle.
In this section of the story, the writer must develop the characters, plot and conflicts. Tension or interest is maintained using a series of small crises which inevitably lead to a climax.

Act III / The End:

Not surprisingly, the finale is equally as important as the previous two acts. A poor ending will leave the reader feeling dissatisfied and unlikely to search for more of your stories.
The ending is the climax of the story. By the time it is over, all the conflicts established and developed in the other two acts must have been resolved. It doesn't have to be a happy ending but many readers prefer an upbeat or uplifting ending.


There is usually only time for one plot in a short story. This should be well defined and clear to the reader. The plot is essentially the reason for the story. A good plot is invaluable although it won't make up for shoddy characterisation or dialogue.

A plot is the story's skeleton and it must hold together. In essence, the plot provides a conflict or an obstacle which tests the main character. This conflict is developed and the resultant tension maintained through a series of crises until the climax, at which point the conflict should be resolved.

A quick word about conflict. This can be relatively ordinary and recognisable, or outrageously dramatic. Its nature depends on the genre of story. For instance, science fiction is likely to have a more bizarre conflict than a romantic story.

There are three main types of conflicts:

a) The individual against his/ her-self.

b) The individual against another individual.

c) The individual against forces of nature.

These forces may be virtually anything beyond the character's control eg. the weather, natural or manmade disasters, war, corporations, the government...


Types of viewpoints

First person - I go, ie. an eyewitness account
Third person - He/she goes, ie. narrator can be absent
a) Omniscient - voice of God type narration, can flit between characters
b) Limited - story is led by one character
Second person - you go, ( Used mainly in non fiction )
Third person plural - they go
Advantages, Limitations and Mistakes

First person


Creates an intimacy between the reader and narrator. The reader experiences everything through the narrator's perceptions, coloured by her motives, driven by her motivations

Less likely to inadvertently switch viewpoints


Narrator/ character must be present during key scenes

Readers can only know what this character knows unless the narrator either lies or witholds information

If the story is a thriller, then the reader automatically knows that whatever happened to the narrator they survived (unless they turn out to be a ghost). This may detract from the suspense

More skill required to provide a physical description of the narrator


Revealed as a fraud ie. describes what is going through other characters’ minds rather than just her own

Narrator watches herself from a distance ie. tells the reader what happens to her but not why

Third person


Allows the reader to see all the events occurring

Allows the author to mislead the readers without cheating

Omniscient view allows us to see into many characters’ minds

Limited view allows the narrator to tell the story straight without being influenced by the character’s assumptions, prejudices etc

Limited also allows different levels of penetration

Both allow changes of viewpoint within a story


OV doesn’t allow a strong identification with any one character

Limited view takes longer to impart the same information than the omniscient


More likely to switch viewpoints by accident


Assigning a viewpoint to a character automatically gives that person importance. They will be the voice of the story. Decide who is the most important character and with whom can you most closely identify.

If you want the narrator to be a part of the story, then the first person works best. However, if the narrator isn’t one of the characters involved in events, then use the third person.

As a rule, first person narrators are distanced from the story in time and third person narrators, in space.

Humour - first / omniscient

Brevity - third person omniscient

Emotion - third person limited

Sense of truth - first

Writers lacking confidence should consider the third person limited

Rules involving viewpoints

Vary depending on whether you are writing a short story or novel.

Short stories:

Don’t change viewpoints! Not only is it confusing for the reader but it also lessens any emotional energy you may have generated towards your main character. In other words, there isn’t time within the rigid structure of a short story to enter too many minds and establish empathy between them and the reader.

However, you can use different viewpoint when a character is telling a story to someone else, ie. a tale within a tale.


Multiple viewpoints are not only allowable but useful!

In the third person, several viewpoint’s allow the reader wider access to knowledge and events not necessarily involving each character in the story.

In addition, changing the viewpoint will often increase the pace of the story.

However, shifting viewpoints too often may irritate the reader. It is also bad practice to change viewpoint within a paragraph.

Trading viewpoints:

  • requires a chapter break or line space

  • line space usually marked with three asterisks

  • the opening line of the new paragraph should immediately establish whose viewpoint it is

  • readers adapt better if they have already met the new viewpoint character

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