I’ve been reading the Game of Thrones novels, and one of the things that stands out to me is the detailed descriptions of each character’s clothing. One to two paragraphs are often dedicated to how a character dresses, which makes sense given the era. Attention to detail can signify a character’s rank, status, and class within the story’s context.
With the unfortunate passing of Queen Elizabeth II and her upcoming funeral service, the images of the Royals and their clothing for key events gave me an idea for a writing exercise.
Pick a member of the Royal family or the Royal staff and write as detailed as possible about what they’re wearing in one to two paragraphs.
Pay specific attention to the clothing, don’t worry about who’s wearing it.
This exercise is to work on how detailed and intricate you can describe what your chosen individual is wearing.
Now, suppose you don’t want to use someone from the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In that case, you can find Google images of Meghan and Harry’s wedding and pick someone from that event.
Find another person wearing one of those intricate hats at the wedding or funeral and describe it in one or two paragraphs. Again, the more detailed your description, the better.
Fine-tune your paragraphs and read over them a few times.
A character’s clothing can give us insight into who they are. By showing and not telling, the reader can get a sense of who the character is before a line of dialogue is spoken.
It’s time to do some homework! I know, I know. But this is valuable homework that can help you become a stronger writer by breaking down and analyzing a published author’s work.
Pick a book – preferably one you’ve read and enjoyed – then choose a random chapter. Read the chapter from beginning to end two or three times, familiarizing yourself with the style, genre, story points, etc.
Now, it’s time to dive deeply into the chapter and get into what makes it tick.
Ask yourself the following questions as you dig into the chapter. You may want to write down or type your answers as go:
What characters are present in the chapter?
What are the relationships between the characters in the chapter?
What is the POV of the chapter (first person, third person, third person limited, omniscient)? Whose POV are we in?
What’s the main conflict in the chapter?
What information is known at the start of the chapter?
What new information is provided or discovered by the end of the chapter?
Is there any subtext in the dialogue between the characters?
Does the chapter deal with the main plot or a subplot?
Does the chapter end on a cliffhanger? Does the end of the chapter compel you to keep reading?
If you’ve read the book, how does this chapter fit into the overall narrative structure of the novel?
Are there any weak points or areas of the chapter you feel could be improved?
What’s the Point?
By taking time to analyze a work you enjoy, you can see how the author has structured each chapter as building blocks or puzzle pieces that fit together to create a complete story. While this is an exercise to delve into one chapter, you can also do this for an entire book to deconstruct the structure, conflict, story, etc.
You can also do this with screenplays, plays, or short stories to really get a sense of the structure and other elements that make the story work.
Happy Reading and Writing, and I’ll see you next time!
People. We see them every day in some form. Whether it’s in person, on TV, in a movie, or in a photograph, each person is unique and has their own unique look, traits, and personality.
Either through observation out in the real world or via your TV, computer screen, a new story, etc., find a photo of a person (they can be anyone), and write a detailed description of them. If they are a celebrity or politician, give them a new name and profession.
Describe what they look like.
What do they do?
What are they doing that day?
Who are they with?
How do they interact with others?
What thoughts do they have?
What do they think others think about them?
In this exercise, details matter, so take your time to create a three-dimensional look at this individual. Don’t be afraid to get silly, or dark, or outlandish, this is your opportunity to flex your creative muscles and create a whole new life for an existing person.
Did you write today? What did you write today? How many pages or words did you write today? Sometimes, the thought of sitting down at the computer or laptop at home after 40 hours in front of a computer at work can be a difficult task. You want to get outside, see people, do anything other than sit and stare at a screen – well, one where staring requires active thought and creativity.
While the act of physical writing is an essential part of the writer’s life (especially if they plan to show their work to others), I often do a lot of the creative legwork in places other than in front of the computer. I find that these activities open up my creativity channels and help me to brainstorm and connect ideas in a more productive manner.
Let’s talk about them!
I often get hung up on the seeming finality and concrete nature of typing or writing an idea down; they seem to have more weight once they make it to the page. This can prevent your ability to explore, add to, or remove concepts or ideas that don’t work in a fast-paced manner.
I like to actively think out my ideas for scenes, chapters, plot points, etc., and workshop them in my head for a while before I commit anything to paper. I have found that this method allows me to swap out characters, change settings, create dialogue, and alter story points faster and more efficiently.
If something isn’t working, I can explore other options. What about this? What about that? What if she went here instead of there? What if he didn’t answer the phone? Once I’ve worked things out, I’m more prepared to write the idea down. Depending on how I fleshed out the idea, I will either write it in bullet point or paragraph form.
I do this on the couch, watching YouTube videos, cleaning, or doing other mundane activities. Sometimes giving your creative brain free reign is a great way to solve a complex story problem.
Sometimes clichés deliver solid advice, and “Sleep on it” is definitely one that can result in many creative epiphanies. Often, we are distracted throughout the day with dozens of other projects, chores, and activities that we don’t have the time to focus on our story.
Once I’m in bed, ready to drift off, I will start to think of the story problem or issue that I’m having. The crazy thing is that the subconscious often can find a way to resolve the issue while you sleep, resulting in you waking up with the answer to your story problem. Does it always work? No. But when you do have that moment when you wake up, and the story dots all connect, it’s a great feeling.
Walking. Running. Swimming. Any form of physical exertion can help you get out of your head and allow your brain to do what it does best: solve problems. I’ve been on a walk on a break at work and develop story ideas or story solutions. I’ve been on the treadmill at the gym and worked out big story sequences.
It’s amazing how even ten minutes of walking can clear your head and let the creativity flow.
Yes, crafting a narrative and creating compelling characters and dialogue takes time and effort. But it is work that should be fun and get you excited about the story you want to tell. If you dread working on your story, all the thinking, sleeping, and exercise aren’t going to get you very far (although you might have solved other problems, be well-rested and in good shape).
You are the only person who can get yourself excited and motivated to work on your novel, screenplay, or play. If you can’t find the motivation, ask yourself why. Ask yourself what’s missing from the project that would get me excited and motivated to get it done.
The key is to find an aspect of the story you love and want to explore and express to audiences and use that energy and motivation to create your fictional world and its characters.
Creative people are always creating. No matter where creatives are, stories, scenes, characters, and dialogue flow in and out of their brains rapidly. A legal pad and pen or a computer and word processing program don’t make you a writer; they are just tools to help finish the job.
By taking steps through thinking, sleeping, exercising, and motivating yourself to open up the creative reaches of your mind, when you do commit your ideas to paper, they will be more impactful to you and the reader.
No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story. They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection. Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.
As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created. We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.
Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.
Who’s who, and why are they there? If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper. Do they serve an essential function in the story?
If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through. Do they all serve a purpose? Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?
By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story. If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…
More Characters = More Problems
Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting. Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story. The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.
Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…
Where’s the Focus?
Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles. That should be your primary focus as you write. Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters? It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.
If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine. But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.
Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story? Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey. But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade.
However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose. Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.
Elevate or Eliminate?
If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:
You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.
You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.
Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.
There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.
Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?
I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question. The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story. You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again. Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.
So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex? Is the dog okay? I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”
Read, Read, Read
Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters. Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.
Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.
Deadlines. We have them at work, and our kids have them for school projects, and the government gives us one to pay our taxes. Having a set, definite date to aim for with something major can be a great motivator for getting things done.
But are you setting deadlines for your writing?
Even if you’re not planning to publish or send your work to contest, giving yourself a deadline can be a great way to get things in gear and get the writing done. This milestone can be a moment of celebration and excitement; the novel is done, and I can move forward with my next writing project.
Some people may prefer not to have deadlines. They allow the Muse to decide when they write and when the project is done. That’s all well and good. However, if you want to write a lot and get a lot done and off your To-Do List, I recommend creating deadlines for your projects.
Here are some things to consider when setting deadlines.
If you are working on your first novel, setting a deadline of one month maybe a little too intense (unless you’re into that sort of high-octane writing thrill). Creating a reasonable deadline that is manageable but not ridiculous is the key to making the deadline work.
Maybe you plan to have a six-month deadline for your first novel. Then once you’ve seen what you can do with six months, shave a month off for the next one.
I’m sure you’ve seen stories and videos of people who wrote a screenplay in 48 hours or a novel in two weeks, and if you want to aim for that as a personal goal, go for it. But if you have a day job, kids, a family, and other obligations don’t add to your plate writing a 65,000-word novel in a month.
No one wins in that scenario.
Write It Down
It may sound silly, but writing a deadline down in a notebook, a journal, on a calendar, or on a whiteboard where you can see it as a reminder is useful to keep you mindful of the chosen deadline date.
It is better to have it written down than to make a mental note and forget it.
You can also use this as a way to mark smaller milestones on your way to the big deadline by establishing smaller goals in the larger timeline. If your goal is to write a first draft of your novel in six months, breakdown ideally where you want to be in the process at the end of months 1, 3, and 5. Fragmenting the larger goal can help make it less daunting.
Beat the Clock
Let’s say you set a deadline of three months to write a play. Can you finish a day early? A week early? Giving yourself personal competition can be a great motivator. It always feels good to get something done before it’s due, and this is one way to see how much faster you can get the project done before your stated deadline.
You finished the novel early! You did it! Give yourself time for a reward. It can be going to a movie, buying a book you wanted, or getting dinner out. This is another great way to incentivize yourself to set and keep your writing deadlines.
In our world of instant gratification, delaying getting what you want by completing a major writing task first can make receiving that reward all the better.
Life happens. If your deadline has to change or you miss it by a week or two, it’s okay. Keep going and still work to get the project done. The key is the complete the project. While the deadline is nice to have, if things prevent you from writing, sometimes there’s not much you can do.
Stay persistent and keep writing.
Writing should be fun, and getting a writing project done should also be a fun process. Remember that you want to get this novel done to move on to the next one.
Give yourself permission to enjoy the process and the creative aspects of the writing. You’ll be grateful that you did.
Happy 2022, everyone! I’m sure by now you’ve planned out your writing goals for the new year, but sometimes the most challenging part of digging into those goals is facing the ominous and foreboding blank page. Whether on your laptop with a blinking cursor, or a pad of lined paper, the blank page is something all writers face, from newbies to seasoned vets.
So, how do you break through the intimidation factor that can occur when staring into the blank abyss?
Fact: The Blank Page is Inevitable
The blank page will always be an ever-present factor in your writing life. It can’t hurt you. It can’t harm you. It can’t do anything but sit there and quietly taunt you.
Don’t let it win!
You can’t learn to swim unless you get in the water, and you can’t ride a bike without getting on one. And you can’t conquer the blank page without adding words and conquering its blankness.
Here are a couple ways to defeat it.
Conquer your fear by jumping into the blank page by writing whatever pops into your head. It can be relevant to your story, but the trick is to eliminate the blankness by adding words to the canvas.
Write a poem. Write a thank-you note. Write a logline. Just write something to get the words on the page.
Write Down Questions
Your story has a lot of elements. If you’re having a hard time diving into the meat and potatoes of the writing, write down questions related to your story, characters, setting, etc. This will break up the blank page and give you story-specific things to think about as you begin your writing process.
Don’t Start at the Start
At this stage, there’s no need to begin your writing project at the beginning. What chapter, scene, or sequence gets you excited about the project? Is there a character’s description that intrigues you most?
Why not start there?
It’s all part of the same project, and if writing that piece gets the words flowing, then that’s the best place to start.
Remember, you can always go back and write the beginning later.
This year, fight the good by dominating and defeating the evil and dastardly blank page. Your creativity is counting on you!
Last time, we kicked off the final month of 2021 by exploring ways to set new writing goals in 2022. Below are a few more ideas to get your head in the game this coming year.
Always Be Thinking
We are surrounded by people, places, and events that have the possibility of inspiring and evolving into stories. As you go about your day, observe and later write down what you experienced that was noteworthy. Did something happen to you at work or school that could be the basis of a storyline? Did your kid say something funny that would work great in a script?
By being aware of the real world around us, we can create stronger and more grounded stories.
Work To Write Every Day
To write more, write better, and write longer, you need to make it a habitual ritual in your daily routine. Whether it’s for 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours, work to fit time into your daily schedule to write. Even if you write about your day, an experience you had, or on your big writing project, you are still working to develop your skills as a writer.
Numerous websites offer hundreds of writing prompts that can help you focus on what to write if you need assistance. The key is to commit to writing every day and stick to it. With each daily writing session, you’ll be amazed at how your writing skills grow.
Here’s a link to an article featuring 100 creative writing prompts from Writer’s Digest.
Have Side Projects Just In Case
I always like to have another writing project or two on the side if I hit a brick wall with my current project. The solution should never be closing the laptop and skimming through YouTube videos on your phone. A more productive way to deal with this issue is to have another project you can focus on.
I prefer that the second project is in a different genre and even another medium. For example, if I’m writing a novel that’s action-adventure, I’ll have a play that’s a comedy to work on as well. This gives your brain a rest and can actually help you subconsciously resolve issues you’re having with the primary project as you work on the secondary one.
You’re going to have tough writing days. You’re going to get writers’ block of some kind. You’re going to have personal things pop up that distract you. But when you’re at the desk, the table, or wherever you write, you have to have a positive mindset. You will get the writing done. You will get something on the page. Even if it’s not quality work, it; ’s still work you completed and can fix later.
Don’t get discouraged with the process. If you have issues with a story, step back and figure out why. Write down why you think the story or a character isn’t working (that still counts as writing).
The key is to not allow negative self-talk and other internal forces to win the creative war. Push yourself through the blocks, the doubt, and the problems, and you will come out the other side with work you can be proud of.
It’s hard in 2021 – and soon 2022 – to disappear from the world and just focus on your writing. It can be hard to shut the world out and focus with social media, the news, COVID, family, friends, work, and doom and gloom seemingly lurking around every corner.
I recommend finding a chaos-free zone where you have your phone off, your wi-fi off, and as few external distractions as possible when you sit down to write. You can fact-check your story later if you need to.
This is your time to escape the real world and live in your fictional universe with your characters and story. I can guarantee that you will not miss world peace being achieved or a cure for all illnesses being discovered while you’re hunkered down writing.
Give yourself the permission and the time to focus, and you will be glad you did.
This is the most essential aspect of writing. You have to have fun with it. You’re not writing 500-word essays for your high school literature class; you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a play, short stories, poems, or non-fiction. This is the fun stuff. Enjoy the creative ride.
I believe that the passion, excitement, and joy you have while writing translates off the page to the reader or viewer. Creative writing shouldn’t be a torturous affair; it should be fun, invigorating, energizing.
While there is plenty of hard work involved, it’s work that should be approached from a positive place, not one of dread or resentment. Go into each writing session open-minded, ready to write, and have a good time.
I hope these tips help you plan out your writing goals for 2022. I know that I will make a concerted effort to write every day, complete multiple projects, and stay focused on creating fun, positive, creative writing experiences each time I start a new writing session.
Happy New Year, Happy Writing, and I’ll be back with more articles in 2022!
No matter what you write, what genre you write, or your writing methods, I feel it’s always good to read about how others in the writing world approach their craft. If you are a novelist, you can still learn from screenwriters. Screenwriters can learn from playwrights. Playwrights from poets. We all have the goals to engage, entertain, and inspire, so exploring how others write in other forms is always a good idea.
Alone in a Room‘s concepts and honesty can be applied to all writers, not just screenwriters. Below is my review of the book:
It took me a while to get around to reading Alone in a Room (I’ve had it since 2004), but the other night I was thinking about the book and decided to crack it open. I wish I had done so a long time ago. John Scott Lewinski’s insights and writer interviews are filled with valuable information for both the novice and pro writer.
While the focus is on screenwriting, any writer can glean plenty of tips and tools to use in their work. Topics include dealing with deadlines, working with a partner, or working on multiple projects at once.
Lewinski finds a nice balance between giving you the hard and ugly truth about being a writer in Hollywood while keeping up the positive encouragement for you to keep on writing.
I enjoyed this book and am surprised he hasn’t updated it to reflect the current trends in streaming, gaming, podcasts, and other avenues a writer can take.
Despite the lack of updated material, the book still provides valuable insights and tools that any writer can use.
I recommend Alone in a Room.
What books about writing have you read and recommend? Leave a comment and let me know!
Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives. Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.
Let’s get started.
Where Are We? Location, Location, Location.
The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come. Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances. Is this a contemporary story? Are we in Victorian England? In a galaxy far, far away? Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story. Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time. The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.
Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.
Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?
Whose journey are we following? Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold. What’s their name? Their profession? What relationships do they have? What conflicts do they have in their lives? What’s their personality?
In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14). These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:
• Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)
• An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)
• Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)
• Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)
• Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)
• In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)
• Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)
• Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)
• Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)
These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:
Active or Passive Protagonist?
In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active. This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal. Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him. Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him. His actions move the story in a new direction.
Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery. She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.
A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening. Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others. When you watch Twister, Dante’s Peak, San Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.
What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues? What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it? They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.
Is It Really “The Beginning”?
A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element. We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life.
You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming. We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.
A character’s story is on a continuum. What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary. Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…
What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.
Things are pretty normal for your main character. They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse. This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.
Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead. Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth. It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.
Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.
Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced. How does the main character react when something new happens? What’s the first thing they do? How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward? What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?
Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.