So you’ve decided to write a story. Yay! Congratulations. First step complete.
Now. While you can write about shiny vampires and zombie apocalypses all you want to, just so you know, I won’t read them. Why? You need to come up with something original to make your story stand out.
Kill the clichés.
But say you really wanted to write about a wizard school. Okay. Fine. But you sure as heck had better come up with something that’ll make your readers think, Oh. Okay. So this isn’t a complete cop-out of Harry Potter.
And how the heck do you do that?
As writers, we need to be creative. Sorry, but there is no way to get around it. If you want to write about Harry Po—about wizards, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
But don’t worry! Remember: A story isn’t comprised of a single idea. You need a setting and characters. Subplots. Themes. You can do this. We can do this.
Continuing with the wizard idea, let’s make a new story that’s completely different than Harry Potter. But it will still center on a boy who goes to wizard school.
Setting: Underwater. Duh. That’s why we non-magical folk haven’t found the wizards yet: They’re buried under the ocean. Of course, this’ll open up a few more opportunities, too. How do the wizards get oxygen? Do they have gills? Do they even need oxygen?
Protagonist: Harry Potter’s noble. He’s the all-around hero. So let’s do the opposite of that: In our wizard story, our protagonist will be the antagonist. Mean, creepy, clumsy, and loaded with sarcastic comments. He’ll be tall. Gauntly. But he can’t have black hair. Nope. How about…blonde? And icy blue eyes. And crooked teeth.
Subplots: Wait. We didn’t actually discuss our main plot here. Okay. So, say our protagonist wants to exploit the school and show it to all of the non-magical folk. That’s not a very creative idea, but whatever. We’ve got subplots on our side. Why? Because we need a “why.” Why would our protagonist want to show the school to the non-magical folk? What’s his back story? And who tries to stop him? How does this person (or group of people) find out about our protagonist’s plans?
Themes: What sort of a message do we want to send to our readers? What should they learn after reading this story? Maybe that change is good. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the non-magical people found out about the wizards. Or, perhaps if our protagonist fails in his mission, that failure isn’t always the end of the world.
Okay. So we have our story outline complete (though it is rather bare). Does this sound anything like Harry Potter? No. Not at all. (And, by the way, if anyone wants to write this story, feel free. Just make sure that you give me a link to the finished copy—because I would love to read it.)
What we have here is a three-dimensional story idea that actually might turn out somewhat okay if someone decided to write it. And the best part? It’s original.
“Class,” Mrs. Never Does Anything Without Consulting The Teacher’s Edition (Mrs. NDAWCTTE) whines. “What are the six story elements that we discussed yesterday?”
Beside me, Little Miss Perfect thrusts her hand into the air. Before Mrs. NDAWCTTE has a chance to call on the braggart, however, Little Miss Perfect takes a deep breath and recites—word-for-word—what Mrs. NDAWCTTE had said the previous day: “The exposition begins the story by introducing the setting and characters, the narrative hook draws the reader in, the rising action leads to the climax, and the falling action unwinds the story and brings you to the conclusion.”
“Very good!” Mrs. s NDAWCTTE squeaks. “And can you tell me about the setting?”
“The setting introduces the time and place of the story.”
No matter if you’re a high-school hostage, college captive, or regular Joe Shmo living the life of the free, this scenario has to sound familiar. You know what I’m talking about. I mean, who really cares about the setting of a story? You dragged through the same shpeal year after year in English class, and it never got any more interesting. I mean…you get it: the setting introduces the time and place of the story. The know-it-all already clarified that. Great. Now move on.
Here’s the thing: There’s more to the setting than your high school teachers let on. In fact, the setting just might be—aside from characterization, plot, and point of view—the most important element of story writing. Think back to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado: Most of the story centers on a description of the catacombs and walls smothered in human remains. The foreshadowing Poe uses by populating the crypt with skeletons creates the suspense and horror necessary to depict a revengeful murder. Even if you’ve never read the story, doesn’t the image of a dark tomb send shivers down your spine? What if Montresor had killed Fortunato in broad daylight or out in a town square filled with people? The story wouldn’t have the same thrust that Poe intended it to have.
So how do you choose the right setting?
Consider all time frames, planets, climates, and dimensions. Would your story work better if set in the 1600’s or in the future? Mountains or plains? Village or city? Desert or rainforest? Castle or sewer? During a war? If so, which one would best fit your plot? Should the character be by him/herself or with other people? Perhaps your story takes place in a secret society that only a few people know about. Or maybe you would rather shape a new world of your own that no one has ever heard of. Are the laws of gravity the same? What do people drive—or can they drive? Think about the governmental issues that circle the world today…can you think of any that you can relate to your story? Ask yourself questions such as these to make YOUR setting fit YOUR story. Don’t just copy someone else’s.
Do Your Research
If you want your story set in the past, you’re going to have to figure out what daily life was like back then. What did people do on a day-to-day basis? Were there telephones? Electrical lights? Cars? Segregational issues? Would it be possible to interview someone who lived back in that timeframe? If your setting is in the future, you’ll have to think up some cool inventions…take a look at current scientific experiments for ideas. But don’t just use the cliché flying cars idea; be original.
Keep it Consistent
No matter what setting you choose, you have to make sure that it all makes sense and that you keep the rules of your society consistent throughout your story. Do not make the mistake of changing something halfway through to fit your story…your readers will pick up on it, and they will be annoyed. I guarantee it.
Set the Mood
Remember Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado? His setting was perfect for his story because it helped to establish the eerie mood that he was looking for. If you want your setting to be bright and cheery, don’t abandon your characters in a place full of shadows and whispers. Likewise, if you want the creepy effect, don’t plop your character on a purple unicorn and send him/her on a quest to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Use common sense to your advantage.
DETAILS, my Good Son!
Now that you’ve got your setting all planned out, don’t skimp out on your readers. Remember: Live your story! Have fun with it. If you can’t picture what’s going on, your readers definitely won’t be able to.
In order for your readers to fully appreciate your story, you must have realistic characters that they can relate to. Why? Everything that happens in your story—the entire plot line—centers around what happens to the characters. If you can’t make your readers connect to your protagonist—if you can’t create that bond between character and reader—no one will care about what happens in your story. For example, would you spend hours on end worrying about the stranger that you heard about on the news who just got in a car accident? I mean…yeah. You would feel bad for him/her. But as soon as the doorbell rang, signaling that the pizza guy had finally arrived with your dinner, your mind would shift back to your personal life. The situation might be a little different, however, if it was your best friend’s name that appeared on the news.
So. How do you make your characters relatable? How can you make your readers care about what happens to your protagonist? Step One: learn your characters from front to back. I mean, if you don’t understand your characters, how do you expect your readers to? Know their quirks, habits, personalities, reactions, mood swings…everything. Among other methods that you can try, such as checking character trait lists or filling out character charts, one of the best ways to get to know your characters is to complete a character interview.
And what the heck is a character interview? …Well, if you read the name, you can kind of figure out that it’s an interview…for a character.
Pretend that you’re a reporter and your character is the interviewee. Now, in order for a character interview to be successful, you should act like it’s really happening. In other words, write the entire thing in story format. Develop a setting that fits your character’s personality—possibly one that appears in your story—and have him/her react to the questions as if he/she were a real person. Note how your character looks and speaks. Does he/she mumble and keep his/her face toward the ground? Or does he/she stand tall and look you straight in the eye? What is he/she wearing?
Still don’t understand how this works? Check out my sample response in the “Comments” section.
Of course, you need some questions for your interview, right? I’ll list some below. But remember that—depending on your story’s plot—some of these might not apply to you. Answer what you can. And if you think of another question to ask that I don’t have listed here, please feel free to share!
Why did you want to come to this place for the interview? (This is referring to the setting that you chose. Does it play a part in the story?)
What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done? What’s keeping you from doing it?
Are you a morning or night person?
What time do you normally get up/go to bed?
Do you like to show off?
What’s your most prized possession? Why?
Do you have one sense that’s more highly developed than another? (In other words, do you see more than you hear or vica-versa? Or do you rely on the famous sixth sense?)
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Why did you do it? Did you ever do anything to make up for it? If not, why?
Do you have any birthmarks or tattoos?
Do you have a hot temper? Or can you keep your cool?
Do you get along well with other people? Or would you prefer to be left alone?
What’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?
Does anybody live with you? Who are they? Do you get along with them?
Tell me about your parents and siblings if you have/had any. How well do/did you get along with them?
What were three things that you liked to do when you were a child?
What were you afraid of when you were younger?
What is your greatest fear now?
What would you change about yourself if you could?
Do you have a secret that you’ve never told anyone?
What do you want most in the world (or out of this world…whichever…)?
Do you believe in destiny?
Have you ever been married? If so, how many times? Have you ever been divorced?
Are you—or have you ever been—in love? What happened to that person? Did he/she love you back?
What is driving you to keep going—to keep fighting toward your goal? Greed? Power? Love? Revenge? Respect from others?
Are you a leader or a follower?
Do you depend on others or do you handle things for yourself?
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Do you like to crack jokes? Or are you serious all the time?
If you could bring someone back to life, who would it be and why would you choose him/her?
Are you comfortable with your appearance? If not, what would you change?
You’re watching a tear-jerker….What do you do if you’re alone? If you’re around other people?
This next section is for the protagonist (the good guy) and the antagonist (the bad guy) to answer about each other.
Describe your relationship with the antagonist/protagonist. Were you ever friends? Could you ever be friends?
How did you and the antagonist/protagonist get to know each other?
What do you hate the most about the antagonist/protagonist?
What is the antagonist/protagonist’s BEST quality?
Could you ever forgive the antagonist/protagonist?
What are the antagonist/protagonist’s weaknesses? If you don’t know them, how do you plan to figure them out?
Why are you enemies with the antagonist/protagonist?
Separate names with a comma.