A Helpful Guide for Writing a Book
Obviously you care about making your book, short story, or novel the best it can be—otherwise, you would not have come here. I have written this to help both myself and you, for I need to get my thoughts together. I find that writing about writing is an excellent way to do this.
Anyway, as the title goes, this is a guide for organizing and structuring your story, and I sincerely hope that you find this as helpful as I have. Let’s get started, shall we?
This is the main storyline in a piece of fiction, as the dictionary defines it. Without the plot, you hardly have a story, but more of an idea. But you cannot have one without the other, and most plots evolve from an idea.
For example, this is an idea: A girl walked through the woods to get to her grandmother’s house, but met a wolf along the way.
This is a very general idea, of course. It is the writer’s job to add things to it to make it interesting to the reader, such as further defining the characters (What does the girl look like, what is her name? What kind of wolf? Is the wolf bad? Why is the girl going to her grandmother’s house?). Another thing you could add is if anything happens along the way besides meeting the wolf. Did the girl fall down or stumble? Did she run away from the wolf? Did she get lost? It is questions like these that you must ask yourself as you write your story. You want the reader to see everything that you see.
You must ask yourself what happens, why, how, and where throughout the whole story. This gives your reader a clear view of what they are supposed to visualize. You can’t always leave it up to their imaginations.
According to the dictionary, a character is “a quality or trait that distinguishes an individual or group.” However, I do not completely agree with that definition. I would rather say that a character is “an individual personality (including all qualities and traits of that personality) that distinguishes it from another.”
That being said, your character needs to be distinguishable (told apart) from other characters. For example, Harry Potter is extraordinarily different than Hermione Granger. Obviously, they are different genders; Harry wears glasses and has a scar, etc. But what matters more is their personality, not their looks (although that is also important). Hermione is a know-it-all, while Harry is a trouble magnet. You can probably find an endless amount of differences on your own, so I will leave it at that.
As for the creation of characters, it is nearly impossible to just snap your fingers and have come up with a completely unique person. Although there are infinite possibilities, a human mind is not easily capable of throwing together thousands of traits for one character—especially if there are multiple personalities in the story. However, there is a very, very simple solution: use a template.
A template (character-wise) is a character that has already been created—you are only borrowing that character and changing a few things. We’ll use Harry Potter again, for simplicity’s sake. Say I’m going to write a book about a dragon that is transformed into a boy, and only has his knowledge of magic to help him survive. Well, I rather like Potter’s bravery and knack for getting into trouble, so I’ll use that. However, I am going to remove the glasses, the scar, the robes (replace those with peasant clothes), shorten—no, elongate the hair, make him younger (about eight or nine), and give him dazzling blue eyes. If you imagined Harry’s metamorphosis, then you can probably see that this dragon boy couldn’t possible be Harry Potter any longer. He is now unique. This is the process almost all writers, conscious of it or not, use to make the characters in their stories more interesting.
But we’re not yet done. No, I still haven’t told the absolute most important thing about characters: FLAWS. Not claws (though that would be cool), not saws, FLAWS. Without flaws, your character is not interesting, period. No ands, ifs, ors, or buts. Your character IS NOT interesting, if he or she does not have at least two things that separate them from everyone else.
For example, Drake (the dragon boy Potter evolved into) is not yet imperfect enough. Sure, he used to be a dragon and he has no one to help him but his own knowledge, but it’s just not enough. Drake needs to have a phobia, or an addiction, or a really short temper. If it’s a phobia, Drake needs to be afraid of fire. An addiction: killing—possibly even uncontrollably and unpredictably. A really short temper speaks for itself. The possibilities for flaws are endless, and should not be that hard to come up with. You can even use your own flaws (because you do have some, don’t deny it), like I use mine: I’m a stuck-up know-it-all.
Have you ever started reading a story, and right from the beginning you’re like: “OMG, I need to know what’s happening! What’s that supposed to be? Who is that person? Whoa—what just happened?” Then you probably kept reading it, right?
That is exactly the type of reaction you want your reader to have. This is where you really put your brain to work. If you’re going to captivate your audience, you want to start out with a BANG! Not literally, unless you want to have an explosion in the beginning, which is totally fine. You want a first line, especially, that draws the reader in, makes them want to know what is going to happen. Several examples are included below:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too…” -Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.
“Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air…” -Christopher Paolini, Eragon.
“A tree branch slapped John Craig across the face, scraping his skin, but he kept on running and ignored the stabbing of pine needles on his bare feet. He could hear the man’s footsteps behind him, echoing his own…” -Heather Brewer, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod.
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973…” -Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones.
Just a few of my favorite books; all good reads, too. I won’t dwell too much on this subject. I’m sure you’ve got the hang of it already.
Grammar and Sentence Structure:
STOP! I know what you’re thinking: “Ugh, not this kind of stuff again,” but this is EXTREMELY important when writing. Let me ask you, have you ever read a published book that made absolute no sense because the author forgot quotation marks, left out a few words, didn’t know when to end or begin a paragraph or sentence, or put in extra spaces or letters? No, and if you have, it was because it was meant to be written in the point of view of someone who was either very young or was not educated.
I see things like this ALL THE TIME on Booksie, and as a nit-picking little know-it-all, it severely bothers me. I understand that a lot of these writers are just starting out or haven’t learned some of these things in school yet, but nowadays there are things such as spell-check (which normally includes grammar check) and editors. When I see people just running their sentences on, stopping them short, or leaving out periods and forgetting to capitalize the beginnings of their sentences, it makes me wonder things and especially just frustrates me because I don’t want to sit here and correct every little thing. So I’m here to tell you that if you are going to write a story, please, please try your best with the grammar and read over your work.
Chances are, if you do well with that, it will raise your chances of getting discovered by a big publishing company.
On to sentence structure. This is another thing I see people struggle with constantly. Sentence structure is the way you write and put things together. It includes things like simple, compound, and complex sentences (yeah, remember that?), and phrases. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t inspect every single sentence to find out what kind it is or anything like that, but when you understand it yourself, it makes you that much better of a writer, believe me. When I first started out, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not separate my dialogue into a new paragraph for each character so you never knew who was speaking or when. I used mostly periods throughout the whole story, so it was pretty much. Choppy like this. All the time. When you read it. You get really confused. So I had to do a lot of practice. To get out of the habit. Yeah. It’s a terrible habit, and the sooner you quit, the more quickly you are on the road to being a great writer (by the way, this is a compound-complex sentence).
Details and Elaboration:
Now, we already know the plot. This is the part where I stress adding in details—I’m talking adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, all that jazz. For those of you who don’t know what elaboration is, it’s pretty much just details also. The point is, your audience is not a mind-reader. He or she is not going to know what is going on unless you tell them.
Take your time, write it out. When you read over what you wrote, completely forget (temporarily) everything you know about your story. If you don’t know what’s going on or where they are or just who exactly someone is, neither does your reader. Details are SO important to a story. If you don’t believe me, grab the nearest published book and start scanning through it. Look over all those adjectives and adverbs.
No one finds this particularly interesting: “The boy ran through the woods, away from the man chasing after him with a gun.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exciting idea, but…it’s not enough for the reader. Imagine this as a movie as you write, just slow it down and take in everything, then write it down.
This is what it looks like in my head: “The shirtless boy panted in terror as he ran desperately through the dark, wet woods, the branches of the thick trees clutching at his pale skin and hair, slowing him down. His soaked jeans chafed against his legs. The larger black figure of the man chasing him aimed his shining silver pistol at the boy’s back, ready to shoot…”
Right? Isn’t that a ton more interesting? Even I want to know what happens next! It’s all about the details. And it’s not just for characters or actions. There need to be details about the settings in your story. What does it look like where they are? If it’s beautiful, describe what things make it beautiful. If it’s ugly and disgusting, tell them about the smooshed cat skeleton over there. What does it sound like there? The sound of the waterfall crashing down on the rocks filled our ears…The buzz of the flies hovering over the decaying, smooshed cat skeleton made me sick to my stomach…See? Everything, everything needs details. Everything! I need to see what’s going on in your story, not just read it.
Another aspect of every great story is suspense. Here’s the dictionary’s definition of suspense: The feeling of being insecure or undecided, resulting from uncertainty. In other words, you have to keep the reader guessing all the time until the time comes when the truth must be revealed.
For example, every Scooby Doo episode or movie you have or have not ever watched. You never know who the Yeti or lake monster or mummy really is until they unmask them at the end of every episode! You want your reader to be a meddlesome kid while they read, trying to fit all of the pieces together. However, you don’t want to be so cryptic that your reader loses interest. You have to let just enough information out, just enough detail so that your reader feels that they are one step closer to knowing what will happen.
I’m not going to get too into suspense, as this is something that I see a lot of Booksie members already have down. Lots of suspense on Booksie.
Okay, so that’s all I’ve got at the moment. I know I’ll probably think of something else right after I close out of this, but it will have to wait. If you think of anything that you’d like me to add or further explain, please feel free to let me know and I will do my best. I sincerely hope that this guide helped you in some way, because it certainly did for me.
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