IV. Elements of story composition
Plot is the backbone of any story; it unifies the characters and events and provides a path for the reader to follow. Essentially, all plots are similar at their core. Because of this, most plots can be mapped out, and doing so can help a writer understand where their plot is lacking and where holes in the story need to be filled in. Furthermore, knowing the different kinds of plots that exist can help a writer add cohesion to their story; cohesion connects the beginning to the end and all of the elements in the middle so that the story feel complete as a single whole. It is important to note that although there are many genres of writing, most plots can apply equally to all of them.
A. Plot structure
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i. Defining plot
ii. Types of plot
Different people classify plots according to different systems. The system that I was taught has four essential plot types with which stories can be mapped using any number of combinations. As might be expected, the longer a story is, the more plot types generally appear; in a short story, only a single plot type may appear, whereas longer pieces may have a primary plot with many subplots that are of other types adding to the depth and breadth of the story. Having many plot types des not guarantee a good story; good stories can have any number of plot types in them.
The first plot type is the character plot. This type is the easiest to recognize and is also the most common; in fact, almost every story has a character plot in it. Character stories can be about anyone or anything, the protagonist. At the beginning, the protagonist's life is disrupted, whether internally or externally, large or small, and he or she is forced to change. Over the course of the story, the character either fights against the disrupting forces or characters (the antagonists) or learns to cope with the new situation. At the end, the character either returns to the starting position in life, whether happy or miserable, or has achieved a new sense of stability; a less-common ending is that the character simply gives up and goes on. This last one is often unfulfilling to readers, leading many writers to not use it as frequently as the other possibilities. Essentially, character change is the core of character plots; as we'll soon find, the protagonists in non-character plots often experience very little to no change at all by the story's completion.
The second plot-type is the event plot. Like the character plot, the even plot follows events. These events are often win/lose situations where opposing forces meet; oftentimes, this meeting is in the form of heroes and villains. During the duration of the story, the heroes and villains fight, and by the end of the story, one side (usually the hero) is proclaimed the victor.
Next, we have the idea plot. Idea plots focus around missing information and often take the form of mysteries where, at the beginning, we have only part of the whole. The protagonist, often a kind of detective, has to search for and find the answers during the body of the story, and at the end of the story, the puzzle is solved and the character goes on as usual.
The last plot type is the location plot, which is driven by exploration and discovery. At the beginning, the protagonist sets off on an adventure; during the body, he or she experiences this new land (or lands); and at the end, he or she goes home. Since the protagonist doesn't usually change very much during the story, he or she is usually coupled with a sidekick or tour guide that adds personality, intrigue, and often humor to the story.
The four types of plots don't only apply to fiction, however. In factual writing, although there may or may not be a definitive plot, there is still a goal to the writing. An informative article, for example, would be an idea plot, whereas a travel guide is like a location plot. A documentary or history is like an event plot, and biographies are essentially character plots. The focus of this article is fiction, but for those who pursuing articles as well, this is a helpful point to consider.
At this point, it is important to introduce the concept of scenes. A scene is a single unit of your story; they can be long or short, calm or intense, but they capture a single instant of the plot in your story. Some scenes are continuous and seem to flow into each other, becoming a single, massive scene, whereas other scenes are clearly broken apart and set off from each other. Stories can have any number of scenes, from a single large one to hundreds in novel-length pieces.
Scenes also occur in real time and are composed of both action and dialogue, to varying degrees of balance. Additionally, scenes have setting, a place and a time where they occur. Scenes are the driving force of a story, capturing the characters and action and portraying them together as one.
Scenes can cover any length of time, from a few minutes to a few hours to even a few days within the context of your story. Because of this, it's important to construe your scenes in a logical manner that makes a unified whole. One way to do this is to intersperse low-intensity scenes of narration between scenes of high-intensity action and dialogue. To keep scenes more understandable, it's often helpful to include a line break, typically three asterisks (* * *), to prepare the reader if the setting of two scenes changes abruptly with no transitional passages.
Unity is the aspect of writing that ties it all together, that makes a bunch of words and sentences and paragraphs and pages into a single, whole, and complete piece of literature. Unity has two distinct manifestations, cohesion and coherence, that come together to make a work feel genuine.
i. Cohesion and coherence
ii. Coincidence and dei ex machina
Cohesion, as we mentioned before, is the sense that a story is whole, that the beginning is unified with the middle and the end. Typically, cohesion refers to parts of the plot, the surface details of the story that can easily be mapped out in a timeline that brings everything together in a single structure. Coherence, on the other hand, is more subtle and often concerns the characters' inner thoughts and feelings and the underlying themes of the piece just beyond the obvious plot details.
Since surface events are often more easily manipulated than character traits, cohesion generally provides a palette upon which coherence is formed: as the plot progresses, the underlying themes are able to naturally evolve alongside it. Therefore, if something disrupts cohesion, coherence is lost as well. Two things can especially ruin a story's cohesion: coincidence and dei ex machina.
A coincidence is the simultaneous occurrence of two events by mere chance alone. In real life, however, there is always a reason; every reaction is caused by an action before it. Likewise, the events in a story should have reasons that connect one event with another; that is, every effect needs a cause. When something happens without a cause, the story quickly feels unbelievable.
However, coincidences are not evil. Even in real life, coincidences happen. Two friends meet at the grocery store, a reporter shows up at the scene of a big story, etc. But these coincidences are often just happenstance: the two friends both needed to buy food, and the reporter may have been headed to the store, too--they were all just in the right place at the right time. In other words, they weren't "just there"; they each had a reason for being there that was wholly believable. Even small coincidences don't happen often, though, so even when small things like these do occur in stories (although they may lead to bigger things), they should always be used sparingly.
Deus ex machina" is a Latin phrase that means "god out of the machine" and is a term derived from Greek and Roman dramas in which gods came into the story to suddenly solve all of the characters' problems and end the tale. In modern fiction, however, a deus ex machina is anything artificial or improbable that's introduced into a story to quickly solve the problems at hand. Oftentimes, writers turn to dei ex machina when they are unable to think of any other way to solve a problem or end a story, even if, with a little thought, a solution is more than likely always available. Like coincidences, dei ex machina have no causes and make a story feel unreal, but even more so than coincidences, even a single deus ex machina can ruin a story's cohesion.
A few common phrases often accompany coincidences and dei ex machina, and many of these are among the following: "at the same time," "accidentally," "luckily," "unfortunately," "meanwhile," and "out of the blue" or "out of nowhere."
So what should you do if you find that your story uses a lot of these phrases? First, you should decide if they are, in fact, signaling coincidences or dei ex machina. If they're not, the phrases can often be removed or rewritten to smooth out the story, but if they do signal problem areas, the best thing you can do is ask yourself the questions how and why.
Typically, if you can answer these questions five times, getting deeper each time, your story is free of problems; in smaller pieces, answering these questions even two or three times can be sufficient to give your story a sense of unity. If you fail to answer either question at least once, however, it's time to consider rewriting the affected area and playing around with things until they're able to make sense and flow without disrupting your cohesion. Oftentimes, you can go back into a story a add bits to make the scene fit; other times, complete revision is necessary.
V. The writing process
The writing process begins long before even a single word is written; instead, it begins with the inception of a single idea. For many people, this point is a stumbling block because they don't know where to look to find an idea, but oftentimes, ideas are closer than one may think.
A. Find inspiration
B. Plan story
C. Write first draft
D. Revise story
E. Edit story
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i. Where to find inspiration
ii. Choosing a story to write
The trouble with finding ideas is not so much looking for where to find inspiration as much as it is in locating what inspires you. You'll never feel the breeze if you don't open the window, and likewise, you won't feel inspired if you don't open yourself to inspiration. Finding inspiration begins with learning about yourself: the things you love will inspire you the most. Take a walk, read a book, play a game--all of these can inspire you if you open your mind to being inspired. These menial tasks don't have to be mundane; simply looking at them as new experiences will help get the ideas flowing, and once you've opened yourself to this, the inspiration will follow.
Another way to get inspired is to try new things. Go ice skating in Terror Mountain, go surfing off Mystery Island. Too far, too expensive, too scared? Then try something else. Go camping with your friends, go eat at the new restaurant down the street--expand your world in small steps or big steps, whatever steps you can take, and as you learn more about the world and more about yourself and as you grow as person, you're aptitude for inspiration will grow as well. You see, the thing about ideas is that, once you've got one, more will always follow.
Once you've got an idea, what do you do with it? For some, probably for most, you'll want to start writing immediately. And for some of these ideas, that's the best way to go. Generally speaking, however, you'll want to ask yourself two questions before you begin to write.
The first question to ask is if you're ready to write this story or not. Most of the time, if you have the intent to write a story, you'll write it fine, but sometimes, no matter how clearly you can visualize the story, you're just not ready to put it to paper yet. Perhaps you don't yet have the writing skill to capture it the way you want to capture it, or perhaps you don't quite know enough about the subject matter to aptly put it to words this early on.
So what do you do if you feel you're not ready to write a story? Quite simply, write down the idea somewhere you won't forget it (or just hold onto it in your head and heart if you prefer) and write something else in the meantime. Eventually, you'll be able to write the story as you wanted to and it'll be wonderful. If you feel you need to learn something to write it, go learn it and try to write the story then. And of course, you could always just write the story and see where it takes you; sometimes, that's the only way to know what you need to know to write it as you want to.
The second question to ask yourself is if the story is ready to be written yet. No matter how skilled you are as a writer, you're bound to come across an idea that, although blossoming, has not fully bloomed into an idea that is ready to come into the world. Like a Pteri egg waiting to hatch, ideas need time to grow and develop before being born. If you try to break open its shell too soon, the story inside may not be strong enough to survive on its own and may end up dying before it's been able to grow into something great. Many times, these stories can be stored away and healed until they're ready to be born, but sometimes, they can be lost forever.
If you're a beginning writer, it may be hard to answer these questions. Just starting out, you haven't had the experience to tell how each of these answers feels, something that I like to call an author's intuition. So what to do? Well, I suggest setting aside all your fears and just writing. If you're passionate about your writing and your idea, you will succeed in time. Perhaps your first few stories will be rough and not that great, but they will teach you more about writing than any guide ever could. And once you're ready to write well, nothing will ever stop you from going back and writing the stories again, writing them how you had wanted them to be written. Virtupets wasn't built in a day, and likewise, you can't expect to be a master writer in minutes.
Planning your story is a debated topic: Some writers stress how important an outline is while others condemn them avidly. The point is, every writer is unique and what works for one writer might not work for another. Personally, I never write outlines for my stories; I merely conceive a beginning, an end, and a vague idea of what happens in the middle before I start writing. But I know for a fact there are writers who make such use of outlines that they're almost as big as the story itself.
i. Write outline
iii. Decide presentation style
If you're knew to writing, experiment with different levels of planning your story and decide what works best for you. Perhaps a combination of methods is all that you need to write well.
Whether or not you outline, there may be aspects of your story that need researching, and if you know of these parts ahead of time, it's usually a good idea to do your research as soon as possible. There are many resources available that can assist in your research, and getting familiar with and making good use of these is a good practice to get into. Not only will being a good researcher aid your ability to write, it will help you in many other areas of your life as well.
Regardless of the other objects of research that you may need, there are three aspects of a story that should definitely be planned out, at least minimally, before you start writing, and these are character species, names, and places. Although these parts of a story often come along with the idea itself, for those stories that need a bit of refining, and even for those that appear fully ready to come out, giving some thought to these issues will add immensely to a story's final outcome.
It's important to choose an appropriate species of Neopet for your characters when planning your story: If halfway through you realize he needs wings, it won't help much if your pet's a Skeith. There are so many Neopets with such a wide array of unique skills and abilities that there's a species for every character. I highly suggest reading the "all pets" page in Pet Central to familiarize yourself with all of the Neopets, but don't take these as absolute canon: There'll always be the lazy Gelert or the Lupe who doesn't eat Chias. However, it's always helpful to have an idea of the attributes various species have; just as much, it's also important to find out what colors a pet can be painted. In light of such colors as Faerie, Darigan, and Maraquan, pets normally not equipped for flight or swimming are suddenly perfectly suited to these situations.
And what happens if you don't want to use a Neopet as a character, but want to use a Petpet or even something else instead? Well, in that case, the possibilities are nearly endless. Search shops and galleries and other available resources until you find what'll work, and then run with it. Oftentimes, you'll find exactly what you're looking for and then some more.
For minor characters, you may find that you don't have to put much research into their species at all; sometimes, as long as someone's there to fill the role you need, their species won't matter.
For the names of your characters, it's important to choose something that captures their personality, something that they will be easily recognized by. For some writers, names just come to them; for others, reading baby-naming books and other such resources is an indispensable way of finding that perfect name.
As a general rule of thumb, though, try not to have many characters whose names begin with the same letter or the same sound. For readers, this makes it confusing to distinguish the characters unless their names are especially varied and unique.
The third of these topics is location. The world of Neopia is vast and nearly endless, and it's important to choose the right place for your story to take place. If it's a summery tale, Terror Mountain probably wouldn't be a good choice, and if you're aiming to tell a ghost story, there's probably no better place than the Haunted Woods. But once again, location isn't always canon: Just because a story is scary doesn't mean it can't take place in Faerieland or on Roo Island.
If you're a new writer, or new to Neopets, you'll probably find that you'll spend a lot of time finding and deciding upon what Neopet species and colors you'll use and where in Neopia your story will take place. All of this is a lesson, however, and all of it will broaden your horizons and enhance your ability to conduct research and find what you need. As you grow more familiar with Neopets, you'll spend less and less time deciding these points, but until then, enjoy your adventure--there's an entire world to discover, and it'll inspire you as much as you let it.
There's one last element of writing that should be addressed before you reach for your pen, and that's your presentation style; that is, the person and tense that you'll write the story in.
There are three persons in the English language, aptly called the first, second, and third persons. Each refer to the speaker (first person), the one being spoken to (second person), and the one being spoken about (third person). A good way to recognize them is by looking at the pronouns: In the first-person, the story is narrated by the speaker and uses pronouns like "I" and "we"; in the second-person, the reader becomes the character or the person whom the narrator is speaking to by using the pronoun "you," very much like I've done in this article; and, lastly, in the third-person, the story is narrated by a unseen narrator using the pronouns "he," "she," and "it" to tell the story. The third-person is standard in fiction, but the first-person can also work really well.
The second issue is tense, which is determined by the verbs used and tells when a story is taking place. The present tense tells of events that are happening as the reader reads them; the past tense tells of events that have already happened; and the future tense tells of events that have not yet happened, but will happen in the future. Standard tense for fictional stories is the past tense; however, it's important to understand that, even though the story is told in the past tense, unless the story is in the first-person, the characters within the story are experiencing these events as if they are happening as they experience them. This may be somewhat confusing at first, but as you become more accustomed to the various tenses in writing, this will make more sense.
Write first draft
Now that all of that planning is out of the way, it's time to write the first draft. The first draft of a story is just that--a first draft. It's not meant to be perfect; in fact, first drafts are rarely ever perfect. Instead, a first draft is meant to get the story on paper. From there, the story will be revised, refined, and polished until it's ready to be submitted and shared.
i. Chronological vs. Circumstantial writing
ii. Avoiding the inner editor
iii. Maintaining motivation
Just as there are different ways to plan a story and different styles that it can be written in, there are different ways to write a story.
The first way is called chronological writing, and like the name implies, this method of writing involves writing the story from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Many writers, probably the majority, use this method as it ensures every point is addressed in proper order and prevents things from being missed, forgotten, or left out.
The second method of writing is circumstantial. When writers write circumstantially, they write the important scene first, not always in chronological order, and then connect all the pieces and put them in proper order after it's all been written. Writing circumstantially doesn't work for everyone and can cause parts of the story to be forgotten in the initial writing process.
Like nearly everything else in writing, do what feels right to you.
No matter which writing style you use, there's a side of every writer that can successfully stop progress in its tracks, and that side is often called the inner editor. The inner editor seeks perfection and, if allowed to run rampant while writing the first draft, can get so caught up in the smallest details that the story stops before it's ever had a chance to begin. Especially for beginning writers, it is important to realize that the first draft is to get the story on paper, and nothing else. It's not meant to be perfect or any good this early in the writing process. Once the story is written, the inner editor can, and should, have full roam over the story, to make it the best it can be, but while the story is being written, it's important to ignore it the best you can.
Many new writers--and just as many experienced ones as well--often find themselves running out of steam halfway through a story when the initial burst of excitement gained when beginning it begins to dwindle and subside. For these writers, it's important to keep going--oftentimes, writing the ending can be the most memorable and joyous part of writing the entire story.
So what can you do to maintain your motivation? There are a lot of things you can do, and perhaps the most important is making time to write every day. By writing every day, you engage yourself in the story, which makes it harder to lose interest. Even when you don't feel like writing, you should write--in fact, doing so often makes you want to write even more. If you really don't feel like writing, aim to write just ten words before you stop, and if you really don't feel like writing after that, take the rest of the day off. Treat yourself to something special--you definitely deserve it if you've made it this far. Spend time with your family and friends, freshen up your mind and body a bit, and then when you get back to writing, you'll feel recharged and ready to keep going. Just don't take too much time off, or it'll be hard to get back into the story. For me, I try to not let more than three days, at most, pass me by before I go back to writing.
No story is complete after the first draft. Instead, the writer must return to the story and reread it as many times as necessary, making changes and polishing the story until it truly shines. This process is called both revising and editing. For me, however, editing is the final step in the writing process, when I address the mechanics of what I've written, whereas revising (and, at times, rewriting) is the process of ensuring the story I've told is complete. Your thoughts on this topic may differ, but for the duration of this article, these are the definitions I shall be using.
i. Ensure cohesiveness
ii. Fix problem areas
iii. Check all facts
The first revision step is to ensure the story is a cohesive whole. The exact challenges of this step change from story to story, but it's usually obvious when a story isn't cohesive: It jumps around a lot, doesn't make much sense, and usually has a lot of holes in it. These holes, aptly named plot holes, are usually the key to good revision: If you fill these holes, the rest will smooth out easily.
Once you've located your plot holes, the next step is to fill them. If you know what facts and events are missing from the story, you simply need to write them back into the story, either by adding extra scenes or by expanding upon the ones you already have. If the holes are especially deep, it may be necessary to dig up some of the surrounding story and rewrite these portions as well; if this is the case, don't be deterred. Simply consider it an opportunity to revisit the characters you now know and love.
What happens if your story doesn't have any plot holes that need filling in, but still needs work? Well, in this case, consider yourself lucky and simply focus upon smoothing out the story. Sometimes, this involves removing some scenes or expanding upon others, while other times it means rearranging the sequence of events to make more sense. As before, this process differs largely from story to story; as you grow as a writer, you will find plot holes both rarer and easier to fill in and the smoothing-out process will be easier as well. The majority of the smoothing out process occurs during editing, and we will look at many editing techniques later in this article.
The last step in the revision process is to double check all of your facts. It's quite likely you've already fixed all of these slips as you smoothed out the story and filled in those plot holes, but just to be certain, it's a good idea to double check. After all, you don't want people thinking you're talking about Punchbag Bob when you're actually talking about Punchbag Sid, do you?
Now that the revision is complete, allow me to return to the concept I touched upon earlier, that a story is an experience. The best way to optimize the reader's experience is to help them forget that they're reading anything at all. This doesn't mean boring them until they forget about your story, it means making your story so immersing that, once they start reading, they won't want to stop. It means making your story more than just words on a page; it means making your story an experience they will never forget.
This seemingly momentous task can often be easily accomplished and is certainly nothing to be intimidated by: After all, if you've made it this far already, you can definitely reach the end. Because this process, editing the writing to perfect its mechanics, is such an important part of the writing process and truly showcases your story for the reader, I have decided to devote the entire next part to the various ways you can enhance and polish your story. Read on and enjoy.
VI. The editing process
One of the most important things about writing is the oft-overused saying, "Show, don't tell." But for many writers, this saying means little; after all, if you're telling a story, isn't it all telling? What's all of this "showing" about? In essence, showing and telling are two methods of writing.
A. Show and tell
B. Let the dialogue speak for itself
C. Logically construe events
D. Maintain solid point of view
E. Pacing, tone, and proportion
F. The "perfect" beginning
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Show and tell
i. Discuss difference
ii. Tell when to use showing
iii. Tell when to use telling
A helpful analogy is to consider writing a form of translation. When you write, you are taking a thought and translating it into a series of words that others can read; when these words are read, they, too, are translated back into the form of a thought. This said, we can now explain how showing and telling differ in the terms of translating thoughts into words and vice versa.
Showing is direct translation: when you show something, you describe your thoughts exactly as you experience them, every thought, every sound, every image. Telling, however, is interpreted translation: when you tell something, you describe your own interpretation of your thoughts. In this sense, showing allows the reader to experience your exact thoughts first-hand; telling, however, only gives your reader a second-hand recounting of what happens in the story. Looking at it in these terms, it can easily be understood why it is so important to show rather than to tell.
Telling, however, is not without merit. In fact, if you only use showing to illustrate your story, your story will soon begin to feel over-burdened and over-described. It's important to understand that, although scenes occur in real time in the story, to the reader, as much as ninety-percent of the details the characters see are missing. If every sneeze, cough, shudder, and blink were shown, it'd take a few hours to read what only takes a few minutes within the context of the story. These inconsequential bits of "real time," then, are not shown, nor told, but are instead left out entirely.
Further, telling--which is also called narrative summary, as it uses narration to summarize what happens in a story--can add rhythm and variation to your writing. Within individual scenes, telling is uncommon (although not unseen), though narrative summary often can be exploited on a larger scale between major scenes to allow your reader to relax between the more-intense moments of the story. Further, if long periods of time pass in which nothing of importance occurs, you can use narrative summary to smoothly express it so that your reader gets a sense of how much time has passed between the scenes. In all, one suggested balance for showing and telling is about eighty-percent showing with little more than twenty-percent narrative summary.
Let the dialogue speak for itself
For many stories, dialogue is the heart and soul of the characters and plot. Even for stories with minimal dialogue, the role dialogue plays is crucial and, if not written skillfully, can easily and quickly bring a story down. Luckily, however, writing dialogue is easier than one might think.
i. Crafting good dialogue
ii. Keeping the speaker clear
iii. Strengthening dialogue with action
iv. Other ways to improve dialogue
The first step in writing good dialogue is becoming a good listener. Listen to how you talk and listen to how others talk everywhere you go. Listening to how people talk will help you get an impression for how natural conversations sound. Reading good books and watching shows and movies on your home Neovision console can also help you get an idea for writing good dialogue.
There are, however, two things you should watch out for when listening. In real life, people tend to talk in fragments with a lot of pauses and um's. In fiction, people tend to talk too articulately and far too much. Finding a balance between "real" and "fictional" dialogue will help your characters come to life without causing them to sound fake or burdened with unwanted um's.
To start, write your dialogue as you would normally write your dialogue, and from there, you can start shaping it into a masterpiece. The first step is to read your dialogue aloud to get a feel for how it sounds spoken, and then change it to make it sound more natural and easier to say. After all, if you can't say the dialogue yourself, why should a reader believe that the character can?
Another important thing to keep in mind is that the speaker of your dialogue should always be clear to the reader. If there are only one or two characters speaking, it's usually a safe assumption that readers will be able to follow them easily, but once there are three or more speakers present, readers will quickly find themselves quite confused. Not only do unclear speakers make reading a chore, they greatly decrease the quality of the writing as well.
Dialogue is normally narrated with speech tags, the "he said" and "she said" phrases that are so common to readers and writers alike. These tags are given in the narrative, offset with commas, and tell the reader who is speaking. However, new writers often fall into the habit of putting these tags at the end of a passage of dialogue, which causes the speaker to only become known once the dialogue has ended, leaving any confused readers to muck about in the mud, confused.
To keep the speaker clear, then, it's important to state the speaker as early as possible. However, putting the speech tag before the dialogue begins usually weakens the dialogue more than it enhances it. So, to clarify the speaker, a writer should place the tag at the first natural pause in the dialogue; reading the dialogue aloud and listening to your inflection can quickly reveal this. Not only does this allow the reader to quickly identify the speaker, it also allows it the speech tag to occur at a natural time and place, actually enhancing the dialogue's quality and believability.
He said" and "she said" speech tags, however, are not the only ways to narrate dialogue. In fact, excessively using speech tags can get monotonous. But what other solutions does a writer have?
The answer to that is using bits of action to narrate your dialogue. The actions never have to be big, but a little bit of nonverbal communication for your characters--a sigh, a laugh, walking across the room--adds depth not only to the dialogue, but also to the characters themselves.
Using action too much, however, can be just as disruptive as, if not more disruptive than, not using it at all. Of course, if you moderate your use of tags and action lines in dialogue, sometimes omitting them entirely if still understandable, your dialogue will remain fresh, vivid, and always powerful.
There are, however, other factors that can easily and unknowingly harm a writer's dialogue, and these are adverbs, alternative to "said," punctuation, and dialects. We'll talk about these below.
To begin, adverbs tell how an action is performed; they "add" to "verbs" by giving them extra details that the verbs alone cannot convey. However, adverbs tend to make writing feel forced and fake, and this applies doubly to dialogue. This is because dialogue is itself like a sentence part, such as the subject or the verb itself, and like a part of speech, such as an adjective or prepositions. And just as it's better to use vivid nouns instead of relying on trite adjectives to give your writing color, it's better to use vivid dialogue instead of weighing it down with adverbs.
Another pitfall similar to using adverbs is using alternatives to the verb "said." Writers know to use vivid and exact nouns and verbs, but these vivid and exact verbs substituted for "said" only act like adverbs around dialogue. Because the dialogue itself is comparable to a noun or a verb, using "said" alternatives weaken it by degrading the innate value that dialogue has on its own.
Even with vivid nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs are still frequently used, so why are adverbs and "said" alternatives so damaging to writing? Essentially, this is because they provide interpretation of the action; that is, they tell the reader how a character is speaking instead of showing the reader how the character is speaking. Since the objective of writing is to engage readers and let them experience the story, using adverbs and "said" alternatives endangers this.
Should "said" alternatives and adverbs never be used with dialogue? No, but they should be used very sparingly, as a little goes quite a long way. If an adverb ends in –ly, chances are, it's best removed, but sometimes, an adverb is the only way to clarify what a character's trying to say. Likewise, occasionally using a synonym for "said" can direct the reader just enough to clearly understand an ambiguous passage of dialogue. Using bits of action interspersed throughout a passage can eliminate the need for speech tags entirely, and at times when there are only a couple of speakers, dialogue can be left unattributed and still remain understandable. In each case, the intent is to create dialogue that is easily understood, and with moderation and consideration, this is always possible, and often quite simple, to achieve in your writing. Just relax and be patient.
Punctuation can also prove problematic when writing dialogue, for the same reason why adverbs should be avoided: it's telling instead of showing. Exclamation points are especially harmful. Everyone knows that exclamation points are used to show excitement and tell things that are shouted. However, in fiction, exclamation points tend to act like a substitute for natural emotion, and therefore, they should be used very sparingly, if they're even used at all.
Like exclamation points, dashes and ellipses should also be used sparingly in dialogue. Too many dashes can make dialogue sound choppy and fake, while too many ellipses can make dialogue sound broken and unnatural. Although both can, and should, be used where necessary, as with many things, over-using these punctuation marks will only weaken the writing in the end.
Sometimes, writers will also try to use dialects to make their characters sound more vivid and alive. This dialectal dialogue often includes many misspellings with dropped letters and apostrophes intended to make the words sound like how people might speak them. However, this often leads to the dialogue becoming hard to read and understand. Because of this, it's often best to avoid using dialects and to simply write dialogue naturally. Varying the pace and rhythm of words in dialogue, as well as the word choice, adds much more characterization and uniqueness to dialogue than dialects do. However, if a character truly needs that extra touch of polish, use dialects sparingly and only occasionally. If overused, the writing could feel difficult and heavy.
Logically construe events
Most stories are told chronologically, so it is important to construe events logically and cohesively to ensure that they can be easily understood. A key component to this is ensuring that you properly use the tenses of your verbs. Tenses help show the reader when something happens. In the section on grammar below, we will look a bit more at tenses and how they function.
i. Proper use of tenses
ii. "As" phrases and participials
In addition to maintaining proper tense throughout a story, it's also helpful to take special care when you use participial phrases and phrases beginning with the word "as." These phrases function as adverbs and adjectives that, if not used properly, can quickly cause confusing passages because they can easily conflict with the assumed tense of actions, hindering a story.
Participial phrases begin with participials, verb forms like "running," "flying," and "swimming," when they function as adjectives; they are usually set off from the rest of the sentence with a pair of commas. Like phrases beginning with "as," they state an action or occurrence that is happening at the same time as something else, which can cause confusion if not done properly.
An example of how participial phrases can disrupt a story is opening a locked door: since you can't open a door if it's locked, it would be senseless to say, "he opened the door as he unlocked it," or just as senseless "unlocking the door, she opened it." For this reason, it's a good habit to monitor your usage of these phrases and limit them like you would any other kind of adverb.
Maintain solid point of view
One of the greatest assets a writer has at his or her disposal is that of point of view, but to truly understand what point of view is, it's important now to talk about two other aspects of writing in greater detail than we've thus far spoken with; specifically, the narrator and narrative distance.
i. Define PoV – the narrator and distance
ii. Discuss PoV benefits and ailments
iii. Discuss alternating points of view
The narrator guides the narration of the story, which is everything that's not dialogue or interior monologue. If dialogue comprises the bones of a story, narration comprises its flesh, filling things out and making a bunch of individual pieces a congruent and coherent whole.
Narrative distance describes the distance between the narrator and the characters and is measured in two scales, called intimacy and perspective. Intimacy denotes how close to the character the narrator is, while perspective denotes the breadth of knowledge that accompanies the narration.
Point of view, in this sense, is a continuum. At one end of the spectrum, we have lots of intimacy but restricted perspective: the first person. The character is the narrator, gaining intimacy with the reader by being at the forefront, inside his or her head, but losing perspective as he or she can only narrate what he or she knows and nothing more. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the omniscient view: we have almost no intimacy whatsoever, but practically endless perspective. The narrator barely touches upon the characters, but at the same time, has the potential to know anything and everything that the characters cannot or simply do not know.
The median here is the third person point of view, in which the author uses a balance of both distance and perspective to allow the reader to easily fall in line with the characters. The third-person point of view exists in many varying forms, some with more intimacy or perspective than others, but all of them provide a balance between the two that suits the story and the scene in which it is used. The third person provides both intimacy and personality that helps make the writing become transparent, allowing readers to experience the story wholeheartedly and through the character's eyes. Because of this, the third person is typically considered standard style because its engaging nature has given it considerable popularity among fiction writers.
Now that we know what point of view is, let's talk about some ways that it can be used to your advantage. Essentially, this revolves around distance: the closer to the characters a story is, the deeper the reader's bond with the characters can become. Knowing this, you can use distance to sweep over long periods of time between key events in a story by merely easing away from the character for a bit and then easing back in when the time has passed. If the distance between the narrator and the story becomes too great, however, it can feel lifeless and become hard to read.
You can also use distance to show a character's importance; the closer to the character the point of view becomes, the more important the character seems. Because of this, it's often beneficial to use more distance with minor characters than you would use with major ones, otherwise you risk misleading the reader by drawing their attention away from the main characters and key events.
Of course, all of these examples can be as hindering as they are helpful if not executed skillfully. One of the biggest obstacles to using point of view is one of the very things that helps to make it everything it is: That is, the point of view must be restricted to one character, and one character only. By gaining the intimacy of a focal character, the perspective is restricted by that character. But with this one hindrance, you can tailor your choice of words to reflect your character's knowledge, upbringing, culture, and personality, thus making your character more vivid, more lifelike, and most importantly, much more real than if you had no point of view at all.
But what happens if you really do need to use more than one point of view to tell a story? What happens if Sally stole the cookie and is trying to hide the fact from her mother, while her mother thinks it was actually her brother? How does the reader show all of the characters if a single point of view is restricted to only one character? Well, in this case, you use multiple narrators.
Using multiple narrators can account for many obstacles that a third-person perspective can create. Quite simply, if you need to use a different narrator for a while, you insert a line break (typically three asterisks) and start the next scene after that. Notice that last part, the next scene; it's important to maintain a steady point of view during the entirety of any one scene. By using line breaks, you can change the narrator (and hence, the point of view) almost every scene if you so wish and never have to worry about it. However, be wary of using too many narrators or changing them too quickly, as both can lead to confusing the reader. You should also try to restrict the point of view to only major characters so you don't mislead the reader as said before.
Because you have the freedom to write from almost anyone's perspective, it's always worthwhile to consider whose point of view a scene is best written in. A scene could be vastly improved by changing its point of view, so don't forget to consider how a change in perspective would affect the scene while you're revising it. Otherwise, you'd be cheating yourself out of an amazing and wondrous literary tool that's crucial to every story. Remember, point of view exists to draw in readers and connect them to your characters. It may take some work to smooth out your writing, but a solid point of view can easily become the strongest and most memorable part of any story.
Pacing, tone, and proportion
Paragraphing, like many aspects of grammar, is merely a tool to enhance and shape your story, and learning how paragraphing works can be an important part in becoming a successful writer.
ii. Scene division
In fiction, the length of your paragraphs directly affects the tone and the pacing of your piece: Longer paragraphs tend to make the mood more contemplative, while shorter paragraphs tend to make it feel intense and more suspenseful, drawing the eye rapidly down the page as opposed to allowing the reader to linger in one thought for a time while they meander onwards_
However, it's also important to realize that there comes a point when paragraphing becomes a hindrance. If you neglect necessary paragraphing to enhance the mood, you weaken the writing's quality. Similar to outlining, paragraphing helps present the information (the story) in a manner that's both understandable and easy to read. You should always start a new paragraph when the speaker changes (which isn't always at the quotation marks), but you should also start new paragraphs when the setting, action sequence, or interior monologue changes significantly. Try experimenting with paragraphing and observe how it affects other stories; you'll soon find that it isn't necessarily as confusing or complicated as it may seem to you now.
Like paragraphing, scenes should be broken up at certain times, too. Some stories are composed of interconnected scenes that flow into each other seemingly as one, but other times, stories change locations, times, or even point of view and dividing scenes becomes necessary.
Unlike paragraphs, however, scenes are not regulated by length alone. Instead, scenes are regulated by content. If the content of a scene sufficiently changes, the first scene should be ended and a second scene should begin, with this process repeated as necessary. In standard format, scenes are divided by three asterisks (* * *) single-spaced upon a line between them.
Although there are rare but occasional exceptions when people apply there own artistic style to a piece, more often than not, a new scene should begin when any of the following occur: when the location of the scene abruptly changes, unless this change is described in the narrative; when the point of view changes; and when time changes, especially when nonessential events are skipped over and not included in the narrative, unless the transition is described in the narrative itself.
Another important aspect of fiction is proportion. Like in mathematics, proportion weighs the value of one thing against the value of another. One proportional statement that most Neopians should know about might look like this: 1:1.16. This proportion is a familiar NP ratio that states for every point scored in a game, 1.16 NP are rewarded for playing. As the figure on the left increases, so does the figure on the right. So if you score two points, you would receive 2.32 NP.
But how does this apply to writing? The answer is actually simpler than you might expect: The more you time you spend on a single issue, whether it's a character, an item, or an entire scene, the more important that issue becomes. Therefore, things that are given less attention feel less important, and things that are given more attention feel more important. Simple, isn't it?
The principle of proportion should always be considered when editing your writing. If one particular scene is very long, but nothing important happens in it, it is out of proportion and should be reduced in size or even removed if it truly adds nothing to the story. In the same way, if a supporting character is given more attention than a main character, he or she is out of proportion and should be adjusted accordingly. Properly using proportion helps add emphasis to what really matters in a story while not drawing too much attention to what's insignificant.
There is one exception, however, and that's foreshadowing. When you use foreshadowing, you drop hints about what might happen next. If foreshadowing is too blunt, however, it may ruin the surprise and spoil the story, so foreshadowing is often used subtly, giving hints in passing so that the reader will see them but may not be able to put the pieces together immediately. You must be careful, though, to not accidentally hide a detail that is necessary to be known so that it's impossible to find, otherwise the reader might feel lost and disconnected from the story. The best foreshadowing is plot progression itself; as long as the plot is cohesive, it acts as foreshadowing.
Oftentimes, due to the proportionate nature of this principle, the only way to find proportion problems is to look at the story or scene as a whole and then decide from there. As with most things in the arts, and in this article, the more you put your mind to it and the more you become aware of the problem, the more easily you will be able to recognize and remove it.
The "perfect" beginning
Now that we've spent some time looking at ways to improve your writing, let's now take a few moments to look at how these techniques can be applied to beginnings, once of the most crucial parts in any story. Unlike any other part of the story, the beginning is the first thing that readers will see. That is, if a beginning cannot capture the readers' interest, they won't want to read your story. However, there are many ways to enhance your beginning, and we shall look at them here.
i. Why the beginning is important
ii. Ways to better begin a story
A story's hook is what grabs the reader's attention and holds them to the story. You've probably heard the saying "hook, line, and sinker" that, using terminology familiar to Underwater fishers, implies that the whole of a reader's attention is grabbed "hook, line, and sinker" when they begin reading the story. Oftentimes, however, beginning writers do not know how to polish their hooks to draw the reader into the story; because of this, many story-starters fall short of their potential.
The first step to a good beginning is to start your story with action. This means that, instead of describing Jeran's brilliant sword, you show him swinging the glistening sword through the air. Instead of describing Lucie's messy room, you show her rushing around to collect her Usukis before she leaves. Instead of describing the sunset, show your characters watching the bands of viridian falling into the Shenkese mists. As you can probably notice by now, there are a lot of possible ways to start the scene with action. Also, the action present doesn't always have to be a physical action; as long as you use an active verb, even non-physical actions can create powerful openings. You should also avoid using adverbs in your opening; adverbs add detail, but not necessarily vividness, to your writing and they are usually best used sparingly, if used at all.
Another kind of action that makes a powerful opening is dialogue. When characters speak, your readers can hear it, too, so, naturally, when you use dialogue to open a story, the readers not only see it, but hear it as well. And if you can stimulate more of your readers' senses sooner than later, your readers will more easily be immersed into the story and want to stick around to read it.
When using dialogue, however, it's important to not open with unattributed dialogue, which is dialogue unaccompanied by a speech tag or action line. More often than not, this results in a confusing image for your reader: Who's speaking, a man or a woman, perhaps a young boy or girl? How are they speaking, are they happy or sad, angry or excited? Because words alone create very little substance to conceptualize and hold onto, it's important to be careful when you use unattributed dialogue to open a story; more often than not, it's best to try to add a speech tag or action clause to ground the dialogue so that it clearly brings your story to life for your reader.
The last tip for writing a good beginning is to avoid giving weather reports. Although weather can be an integral part of any story's setting and plot, the last thing that readers want to see when they start a new story is that it's raining, or that it's snowing, or that next week, it's supposed to be sunny with a slight chance of intergalactic showers. There are plenty of opportunities later on to show your readers what the weather is like, so save the beginning for something else.
Using these principles, your stories should have vivid beginnings that will instantly draw in your readers and make them want to keep reading. And, after all, that is what you want, isn't it?
IX. Sharing your work
When it comes to sharing your work, there are two topics that are important to consider before any manuscripts are sent away. The first is understanding why you write and the second is understanding your intended audience. We shall look at each of these in turn below.
A. Why do you write?
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Why do you write?
Typically, there are three key reasons why people write. The first is out of obligation, such as school essays or entry forms for certain contests around Neopia. Whether you want to write or not, in these cases, you're required to do so in order to do something else. However, when it comes to writing by personal choice, I find there are two main reasons why people write.
The first reason people write is for fulfillment. For some, this is being able to express themselves in words, for others, the act of creating the story itself is reward enough. Some people even write to make others happy, and through spreading the joy of reading, they receive fulfillment. People who write for the enjoyment of writing are very passionate about their stories and tend to fit the classic conception of the artist, one who is overwhelmed and wholly in love with their craft.
The second reason people write is for fame. People often look to writing as a means for attention, not realizing how much work and patience are required to create writing that will give them the recognition they want. In my experience, those who write solely for recognition have had lower-quality writing than those who wrote enjoyment and often end up feeling defeated and angry because of their writing and audience. My advice for these people is to set writing aside for a while and search for other hobbies that they will find more enjoyable. Turning writing for pleasure into a chore helps no one. If writing truly is someone's passion, however, sticking through the frustration and disappointment will only help make him or her a stronger writer.
It's also possible to write both for fulfillment and fame. In fact, it seems that many writers who share their work hope to receive some form of recognition, even if world-wide fame is not a necessary goal. After all, anyone who spends hours writing and editing a story would like to know that they did a good job writing it. It's important to understand, however, that if someone focused too highly upon the material gains of writing and neglects the subtler, more personal rewards such as the satisfaction that writing brings them, it's quite likely that they'll lose passion their for writing. If this is ever the case, it's best to step back for a moment and remind oneself how much they love writing. Otherwise, one may lose a wonderful and fulfilling part of life.
Now that we've spoken about why people write, let's talk about audience. A writer's audience is anyone who reads their work. Since some pieces are read by different people, audience often varies from one story to another. Although an author may write primarily for one audience or another, it's unwise to think that all of your writing is intended for all audiences. That is, although some material is suitable for all audiences, most stories are specifically geared towards a limited audience, a select group of individuals that would find the most interest in the story.
i. What is audience?
ii. How to understand your audience
Some writers choose their intended audience before or during the writing process and actively gear their writing towards that end; other writers, however, decide a piece's audience after its completion. Some people don't consider audience at all and share their writing with anyone who will read it. You should realize, however, that rampantly sharing your writing can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and perhaps worse depending on the circumstances. Further, adapting to your audience will enhance their enjoyment of the piece.
Specifically, we'll consider four distinct audiences, Neopets, non-Neopets markets, school, and the self.
You probably found yourself at this webpage because of an interest and desire to write for Neopets. Obviously, this is a unique audience that requires special attention. First, stories must be about Neopets or other beings and/or other objects on the Neopets website. Additionally, excessively violent and graphic content is not allowed, nor are swearing, romantic relationships, and many hot-topic subjects that Neopets wishes to keep off the website. When writers abide by these guidelines and rules, they are successfully writing for a limited audience--that of Neopets.
Although writing for non-Neopets markets is often similar to writing for Neopets, the aforementioned restrictions (or challenges, as some may prefer to call them) don't always exist. It's unwise, however, to think that all non-Neopets markets allow the issues that Neopets does not; in fact, most non-Neopets markets have their own set of restrictions that writers should acquaint themselves with before sharing their stories. Some markets only have fantasy or literary fiction, while other markets write specifically for children or adults. Adapting to audiences is a key element of success for any serious writer. Studying market restrictions and being watchful for lines that may be unintentionally crossed and being sure to correct errors or change a story to accommodate its intended audience are skills and practices that any serious writer should have.
Another audience that many people are familiar with is school. Oftentimes, school writing is expository, including essays, reports, biographies, and other such compositions. Occasionally, fictional pieces are required or requested by schools, although if such is the case, they often have some level of content restrictions as well, depending upon the study level of the course.
The last audience we shall address is that of the self. Many people keep diaries or journals for their eyes only, and in this context, anything goes, so long as it fulfills their needs of expression. Just as you wouldn't share your journal with just anyone, you shouldn't share your stories with just anyone. Instead, you should find the audience that's best suited for your story.
So how do you understand an audience? The best thing you can do to understand an audience is to immerse yourself in it and learn to think like they do and understand their needs and desires. For example, if you write for a school newspaper, you're likely already a part of the paper's audience and already know the issues and concerns that students and faculty members have.
At times, however, it's impossible to explore an audience on your own. Just a cat can't become a dog to see what it's like, some people are unable to become a part of their audience. Instead, they must turn to research in order to understand their audience. Libraries and the internet contain massive amounts of material that can help acquaint anybody with probably any audience imaginable, and talking directly to people of your intended audience, if possible, can lead to vast quantities of both knowledge and personal understanding. Remember, always use safe practices when using the internet, and don't be afraid to ask friends or family for help if you need it.
Now that you have a better understanding of what audience is, how do you know if something is suitable for that audience? At this point, there are two questions to ask yourself: will your audience want to read your story, and is the story appropriate for your audience? If you can answer both questions with a yes, and if you can answer similarly for any other issues your audience may have, it's usually alright to share your work with it. You should understand, however, that no person can please everyone, and even if you adapt your piece specifically to an audience, there is no guarantee that everyone in it will equally appreciate and enjoy your story.