How to Write a Fiction Narrative

I have a feeling this one’s at risk of becoming a long post, so I’ll try to keep it simple. Writing a fiction narrative is all about maintaining the balance between story and plot (story being defined as the events that don’t directly affect the main arc, and plot being events that do). In order to maintain this balance you have to cultivate a strong inner critic, and learn to listen to them when you lose their interest.

One of the easiest ways to recognize when you’ve lost your inner critic’s interest is when writing becomes extraordinarily hard. You probably know exactly how long it should take you to write a thousand word scene, but if you’ve lost interest it can easily take five times as long. Every word feels like a chore, every motion a slog. You might say ‘but they have to do that to get to this cool thing.’

That’s the wrong way to look at it. Your readers won’t know that the cool thing is coming up, and if you’re boring yourself writing a scene you can just imagine how bored they’ll get reading it. The best case scenario is that they finish it and enjoy the rest of the novel, but it’s more likely that they’ll put the book down and walk away.

So listen to your inner critic and back away when writing becomes too much of a chore. Then reassess and change direction. It could be a slight adjustment, or it could change the entire course of your novel.

Now, onto the bigger picture. The simplest fiction narratives follow the format of a call, conflict, resolution, and denouement. You have an initial phase where the characters/world are introduced and the stakes are laid out, the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist, the big finale, and then a few closing comments.

The problem with that list is that it makes it seem like all of those elements should be equal. In reality, the conflict should make up ninety percent or more of your novel. Readers pick a novel up to see characters pitting their wills against one another, or to escape into a world fraught with danger and adventure. They don’t pick it up in order to read an encyclopedia entry lasting the first fifty pages.

Again, it’s all about balance. Story can replace plot in some cases, and this can work well when it becomes a sub-plot in-and-of itself. However, allowing the main plot to grind to a halt is a surefire way to lose reader interest. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the story should only take the lead when there’s a really good reason for it (main character development being at the top of the list). The plot is the reason you’re writing this book, so you should do your best to cut down to it and stay focused.

In summary, listen to your inner critic and always keep the story/plot balance in mind. If you venture away from the plot that’s alright, but if you find it getting increasingly difficult to write then you’ll know that you’ve gone astray. Take a step back, pause, and reassess. There’s no rule saying that you have to fight through the pain when writing is hard.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to Write Novel Titles

A novel title is an interesting bird. It can be boring and mundane, or entirely rare and unique. The best novel titles are those which are both intriguing and descriptive. That is to say, they pique reader interest while also giving a look into the novel itself.

Looking at a book shelf, it seems so easy. There are so many titles out there that fit the book while also giving a little taste of what it’s about. But—as you probably know if you’re reading this post—writing your own title can be an extraordinarily trying experience. All of a sudden the words escape you, and you’re left with either a ridiculously long title or something too short to interest any readers.

Don’t worry, this is where I come in. Or rather, where feedback comes in. If you can come up with a few options for titles, you can poll friends, family, and even your Twitter followers. I’ve even gone to the extreme of muttering different titles as I passed random strangers to see which ones would make them perk up and look at me strangely. You may not think the ideas you have at the moment are very good, but often the responses you get will help guide you toward something better.

In many ways, this hearkens back to my post on coming up with stories for a novel. So long as you can kick the assumption that any ideas are ‘bad,’ you can utilize every idea to eventually reach the final goal.

Another strategy is to ask yourself what the heart of the novel is about; whether it’s a place, a person, or an element of the story. You can write the title based upon that, in essence turning it into a description of the most important element (a la Dumas and his The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers).

This strategy works and fills the second requirement (of a  descriptive title) beautifully. Of course, you’re then forced to rely more heavily on your cover and blurb to draw reader interest, but if you feel that the title you come up with this way is the right one then you should stick with it.

In some ways, I wish there was a simple trick. It would be nice to write a post telling you that all you have to do to come up with the perfect title is ask the wizard in the well or something. But unfortunately—as with everything else in writing—it’s going to involve a lot of guesswork and a lot of introspection.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to come up with Story Ideas

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good ideas come from bad ones. This is true of every aspect of storytelling, but especially when it comes to the ideas that inspire a main plot. Carrie started out as a metaphor for puberty, The Hunger Games originated as a theoretical twist on the game show Survivor, and The Lord of the Rings began as a simple notion of creating an English mythology.

If we could hear the original kernel from which each of these stories grew, no doubt we would see little resemblance to the stories we know and love. On their way to becoming robust enough to support sixty thousand words or more, an idea must take on nuances and changes that render it all but unrecognizable. It must gain a back story, characters, all the supporting elements that will take it from a vague notion to the written page.

The good news about this is that we all know how to come up with bad ideas. I’m sure that if you started typing right now, you could come up with a dozen or more in the span of a few seconds. I’ve found that the true key to distilling these into a story idea is getting to the core of what you want to write about. The task isn’t necessarily to come up with ideas alone, but to come up with ideas that fit your motivation. What was it that brought you to the computer in the first place?

You want to write a good story. No, that’s not enough motivation. If that’s what you’re aiming for, you’ve got it all wrong. Writing at its heart—or at least, good writing—says something. It makes a point. It has a fundamental theme that brings both writer to the computer and reader to the store. Realizing what this point is should be your true purpose.

I’m going to assign you a task for whenever you feel as if you don’t have a good story idea. Sit down in front of your computer, laptop, or even tablet. Now write down the first ten or so things that come to mind. They could be characters, scenes, locations, or anything else. If you reach ten and don’t want to stop, then by all means keep going. But once you get close to ten or feel as if you’ve gotten all your ideas out, I want you to look at that list and ask yourself some questions. How are those things connected? If there’s no obvious connection, is there a way to tie them together? What’s the underlying theme, if there is one? Can you bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create something that nobody’s ever written about before?

As you can see, I’m a big fan of utilizing dialectics in planning my writing. That is to say, starting with an original idea (or thesis), introducing a new idea (antithesis), and combining them into a foreign concept (synthesis). You can look at just about any modern story and see that—at some level—it was written this way. Harry Potter: a combination of witch lore with the modern world (and some Nazism thrown in). Vampire Diaries: modernized and humanized vampires. Walking Dead: slow zombies, with a focus on the degradation of humanity and the moral questions posed instead of the traditional horror theme.

The thing about dialectic thinking is that it builds on the pillars of what came before. To use the examples above, you can’t have Lord of the Rings without ancient mythology; you can’t have Harry Potter without the Salem witch trials. But it also benefits from out-of-the-box thinking, in that the less related an antithesis is to the original thesis the more unique the final idea will be. So say that I paired a modern high school with exorbitant wealth. I’d get something like Gossip Girl, which isn’t really that unique at all.

Now say that I paired that same high school with ritual sacrifice. All of a sudden there are hundreds of questions that come to mind. Why do they believe in ritual sacrifice? Is this still the real world? Maybe ritual sacrifice actually works in this city, introducing something of a moral question.

And there you have it. If I wanted to write a horror/fantasy novel, I would have just arrived at an idea. The process is easy enough to understand: first dial yourself in to the kind of story you’re looking to write, and then combine some ideas to see what you come up with. Once one of them piques your interest, you’re well on your way.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!