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Author Topic: User Submission: Writing Well Part One  (Read 2973 times)

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Offline Rob

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User Submission: Writing Well Part One
« on: March 22, 2010, 06:09:54 PM »
Today's tutorial post was submitted by Gibson Twist, creator of Pictures of You. You can check out more of his work at Sinister Squid. Where this article and successive entries were originally published.

The following is the first in a series of six tutorials designed to help novice writers build a better story.

Writing is pretty easy, when it comes right down to it. All you need is an implement of writing, be it digital or manual, and a fair grasp of the language in which you want to write…and even the latter is becoming more and more negotiable. Sounds simple enough. Those are the mechanics of writing, it really is just that easy to write. Anyone can do it. Now the trick is to do it well. Anyone can ride a bike, but standing on the handlebars and spinning the front wheel while 16 feet in the air is a little rarer.
Writing an effective and interesting story is very much like that, taking something mundane and making it extraordinary, striking awe in your audience by doing something commonplace in an uncommon way. How do you do this? As someone who has been writing and publishing for 20 years, I’m still looking for the answer to that, but let’s take a look at some very basic tips and tools to making your writing flow a little better and hopefully cause people to ooh and ah in the process.

Contrary to popular opinion, story writing is not just having an idea and putting words on paper, and too many people underestimate what is involved in doing it well. There must be a process. Now, this process can be bare bones or it can be painfully exact, but without following some essential rules, including a lot of preparation, you are doomed. To make this process more digestible, let’s break it down into its base components, the major food groups, if you will, of how to write well. For lack of better terms, we’ll call them Concept, Tableau, Plot, Technique, Composition and finally Review. In this first part, we’ll concentrate on Concept.

Concept is a very broad subject and is hard to pinpoint into specifics. It deals with general ideas rather than fine details, and is therefor difficult to discuss in, ahem, detail, so let’s talk in broader strokes. Also, a lot of the elements of Concept tend to overlap, making certain distinctions rather arbitrary. The important part isn’t so much in a step-by-step during the conceptual phase, but in finding a satisfactory and complete whole, building a solid ground upon which to create the story. It’s a good time to be wild and fanciful and let your mind wander into all manner of directions, since later phases need to be more definite. This is where you’ll throw everything onto the table, no matter how foolish, and then pick away the things that don’t belong until you have a functional direction. Think of it like establishing the ground rules of how you’re going to write the story.

The purpose to this tutorial isn’t to show you how to conceive of your story, no one can teach or tell someone how to develop their Concept, but it is intended to provide parameters you can follow while you do. As the writing process can be broken into basic elements, so can those elements, and Concept can be broken down, for our purposes here, as the following:

Premise

The premise of the story is usually simple…or as simple as you can make it. Using my comic Pictures of You as an example (because it’s easier and because I’m an egomaniac,) the premise could be described succinctly as “the disintegration of a close circle of friends”. A slightly more in-depth premise could be “Peter Morris reflects on his youth and how his old friendships fell apart”. Whatever the premise of your story and however you choose to describe it, this is the first building block of a story. Few writers have a problem meeting this step, but many forget that this premise is at the core of what they are writing, and that everything in the story should serve this end. If a writer finds themselves losing this most central focus, the story often becomes meandering and pointless.

Theme

Theme is similar to premise, but goes deeper and there is often more than one. In Pictures of You, there are many themes…humour, drama, foreboding/foreshadowing, friendships, relationships, youth, coming of age, betrayal, drugs and alcohol, rock and roll…the list goes on. It’s not always necessary to be so formal as to list your themes, but it is important to know what they are. Think of it like building a house with Lego.
Before you begin, you want to know what kind of Lego you’ll be using. You can use many different kinds of Lego (Space Lego, yeah!) or you can use only one kind, but it’s important to know how you’re going to fit them all together. If you use too many kinds, or if you start adding new kinds later that you hadn’t intended, the end result may be confusing and unwieldy. On the other hand, if you’re only using the eight-pronged red blocks, you run the risk of being boring and predictable.

The thing to remember when you’re starting out isn’t as much what themes you want to use as it is how they are going to fit together. If you want to write a story with such elements as alien nanotechnology, religious intolerance and the colour green, you should be aware of how those will play together. Themes that are too distinct can clash without forethought. Theme is too often underestimated during the writing process, and always to the writer’s detriment.

Tone

Tone is so closely related to Theme that it could be argued as a part of it, but it’s such an important and overlooked factor that I thought it deserved special mention. Tone, put very simply, is the way a story feels. Too often a writer will assume that a comedy should be light or a drama should be dark, but it doesn’t always have to be and breaking from that idea can bring a completely fresh angle to your story. In fact, presuming that any story element has an implicit tone attached to it is a mistake. Tone is a remarkable tool and is used too rarely to its full potential. For example, if you were to think of a story set in a hospital, the first thought might be that it should have a somber and reverent tone, but I could point a number of remarkable instances where surrealist tone is used, or tedious monotony or fast-paced tension or even positive optimism. Another example, a story about a boy and his dog would usually be depicted with a light-hearted innocence, but imagine what kind of story would emerge with a tone of paranormal creepiness or suspense.

Tone is often influenced by the other story elements, but when used effectively the tone can also influence them. Using a fresh and innovative tone within your story can provide avenues that may not occur with a more traditional one, leading your writing in different directions than originally planned. Whatever tone (or tones if you use more than one) you choose, make sure it is the right one for you, and above all, never lose sight of it.

Main Characters and Setting

Before you start every writer’s favourite activity of putting together your Character Profiles, all you need at this point is a basic knowledge of who or what your characters are going to be. You don’t have to know how tall Jimmy is going to be, nor do you need to know where Enid went to school or why Alejandro doesn’t like hats. All you need to know are the bare essentials. Will there be a single protagonist or many? Is the main character(s) male, female, other? Anything that is essential to know before beginning the story, you’ll want to know it here. If you have a giant stack of detailed character profiles already, that’s great and it will help, but it isn’t necessary yet. Often characters will be defined by the needs of the story as much as the story will be defined by its characters, and the process of detailing this will happen in due course. For now, all you need to know is what is imperative to the initial idea.

Setting also should be very basic. You don’t need to know that the story takes place at Vittorio’s Pizza Bonanza, opened in 1938 on Restaurant Street decorated with old photographs of Italy and checkerboard tablecloths. All you need to know is that it happens in a pizza joint, and even that can be overlooked if it doesn’t shape the story. Whatever city or town or even country is also not necessary unless it has specific bearing on the story. As with the characters, if you have these details, that’s good, but it’s fine if you don’t. Those details will get fleshed out later.

Message

What, if anything, are you trying to say with your story? Are you writing an analogy of western decadence set in the bunny cage at a local pet shop? If so, you should be careful to make sure that comes across. Messages, sometimes known as the moral of the story, can be tricky. You want the message to be clear, but you don’t want it to be so blatant that it overpowers or cheapens the story at large, or becomes preachy. Unless you’re just out to write a manifesto, be sparing with how you dole out the turpitude, and let it be subtle enough that the reader has to think about it to get it without being so subtle that they miss it. Of all the elements of Concept, Message is the most difficult to manoeuvre and will often not be fully manageable until the final stage of the process, Review, when an outside opinion can tell you how effective your efforts have been.

Now, a story doesn’t need to have a clearly defined message, but you should always know when you’re starting out whether it will, intended or not. What I mean is that a writer should be aware not necessarily what a reader will take away from the story, but what a reader can take away from the story. For example, if you’re going to write a story from the point of view of a paedophile, you should be aware that a message can be construed that paedophiles are actually okay dudes. This message doesn’t have to be intended for it to be gleaned, and it simply a cop-out to shrug off the responsibility if it happens. Writers should always be aware of what they are writing, and while I’ll never be the one to suggest that writers draw moral lines (I do so rarely), we should all be prepared for the repercussions.

Summary

A Summary is like a cheat-sheet for your story, encompassing all the basic elements of your conceptual phase in a short, concise burst. This is the clarity of your idea, the focus of what you’re trying to do. You don’t have to worry about the fine details here, but the broad strokes need to be addressed. Premise, Theme, Tone, Message and Main Characters should all be described here. And this, more than any other element of Concept, should actually be written down. It may seem unnecessary, you may feel that you have everything straight in your head, but any good writer will understand the difference between what makes sense in their head and what they can delineate on a page. You may know everything inside and out of what you want to do but still have trouble defining it with written words. There is also the benefit of being able to look at your ideas more objectively in a physical form, to look for glaring errors or just reassure yourself that you know what you’re doing. It also helps serve as a quick reference when you get into more detailed revision.

I’m going to make a bold statement here, but if you can’t summarize your story, don’t bother writing it. Summary is a clear and concise depiction of your idea, and if this isn’t something you can do, chances are your vision for the story isn’t clear and you’ll have no end of problems later. Whether you need to start from square one and better define the Concept or merely tweak what you have already can be discovered here.

Originality

Here is the tough one…is your story original? It’s a hard question to answer, especially to yourself, and it requires a lot of honesty and open-mindedness, not to mention a healthy dose of subjectivity. There are stories which are done over and over again and still manage sometimes to be original. Zombies, for example, is one of the most prolific subjects in modern western culture, yet there are still fresh takes on it produced with surprising frequency. A story about toys coming to life, however, has been done relatively few times but would almost certainly been seen as a plundered idea. There is no benchmark to define originality, that’s one of the worst things about it. You know it when you see it. Still, an author can be honest with his or herself about their ideas, and with the invaluable help of an outside opinion (which will be covered in detail in the Review tutorial), you can avoid looking like a talentless hack.

The point of all of this, the entire process of dealing with your Concept, is to make you think about the story you’re writing. The more you think about the story, the clearer your ideas will become and the more illuminated potential problems will be. You’ll know better what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, you’ll have the groundwork for the rest of the process and you’ll be able to speak more clearly about your project, all of which are invaluable. No writer has ever been ill-served by examining the basic elements of their story before beginning the writing process, and your work will always be better after you’ve done it.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2010, 12:47:01 PM by Rob »

Offline Miluette

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Re: User Submission: Writing Well Part One
« Reply #1 on: April 03, 2010, 07:33:57 PM »
Everyone needs to read this. Everyone!
I had very limited thoughts about how to go about evaluating my stories in their beginnings a couple years back. It shows. I think the most important things in here to me are how some ideas "come out differently in writing" than in your mind, and also the section on Tone.