Writing Tips: Kill Your Darlings

writing tips kill your darlings

Writing tips: kill your darlings.

Some writing tips are cryptic.

When I first came across writing advice that said, “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.

Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that although “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so, it also has a broader meaning. We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, if doing so improves our work.

That’s solid advice, and I agree with it. Read more

Writing Tips for Creating a Complex Villain

fiction writing exercises and villains

Create a villain with today’s writing tips.

When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.

Maybe you’re like me and find it difficult to write a really good villain — I mean — a really bad villain.

The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.

That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.

Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me — as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life. Read more

Fiction Writing Exercises: A Story for a Song

fiction writing exercises - story for a song

Fiction writing exercises: story and song.

Art Begets Art

A compelling story speaks to us much the same way music does, communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas in ways that go beyond concrete language.

The result?

Something clicks. When you hear a song or read a story that resonates in this manner, you connect with it on a deep level. It almost feels like the author or songwriter was speaking for you, about you, or to you.

Some say that truly great art communicates directly with the subconscious. That’s why the arts coexist so naturally. Where you find a buzzing music scene, you can be sure a booming literary crowd is nearby. And where filmmakers toil with scripts and cameras, you can bet dancers aren’t too far off.

Creativity breeds creativity, and we are like magnets, drawn not just into our own passion, but those that complement and support our passions. Music, film, and art all enrich and inform one another. So do the musicians, filmmakers, artists, and of course, writers. Read more

42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists

writing tips

Writing tips for fiction writers.

The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.

Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of story writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.

These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer. Read more

Fiction Writing Prompts for Every Genre

fiction writing prompts

Fiction writing prompts for every genre.

Today I’d like to share a selection of fiction writing prompts from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, which includes 500 fiction prompts plus prompts for writing poetry and creative nonfiction.

Writing prompts are ideal for when you’re feeling uninspired because they provide you with ideas for your writing sessions and projects.

But prompts are also useful for those times when you’re not motivated to write. I’ve found that the sheer act of reading through a few good fiction writing prompts gives me the impetus to stop procrastinating and start writing.

These fiction writing prompts cover a range of genres, including literary, suspense, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult. Read more

What Makes Iconic Characters Unforgettable?

iconic characters

Why are iconic characters so memorable?

Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope so why did Han, Leia, and Darth Vader get all the attention?

When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s utterly forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.

All the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters, and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories? Read more

Where to Find Ideas for Writing a Story

ideas for writing a story

Ideas for writing a story

It always seem like there are too many writing ideas or not enough.

When you don’t have time to write, ideas come hurtling out of nowhere. Sometimes they come so fast, you can’t even write them all down. But when you sit down, stretch your fingers, and lean over your keyboard to start typing, nothing happens. Where did all those ideas go?

Chances are, you’re not really out of ideas; you’re just not in the mood to write. Sometimes, that’s okay. Take a break and do something else. Give yourself a day off. But other times, you need to dig your heels in, make those ideas flow, and get busy writing.

Where to Find Story Writing Ideas

Luckily, ideas for writing a story are all around you. As long as you can force yourself to get focused, you should easily be able to overcome a bout of writer’s block.

1. Start with a character. Don’t worry about the story yet. Make a character sketch. Don’t think about whether the character is a hero, a villain, or some secondary character. Start with the character’s name, age, and occupation. Then describe the character’s personality, beliefs, and backstory. See if a story emerges.

2. Turn to your favorite fiction. All your favorite books, movies, and TV shows are laden with ideas for writing a story. That’s not to say you should re-purpose or regurgitate an existing story. Look for details that you can work into your own story. Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a tornado sweeps a girl from Kansas to the fantastical land of Oz. In The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a storm sweeps Morris (and his trusty journal) to a land of books. And yes, the author officially recognized The Wizard of Oz as an influence.

3. Brainstorm with a mapping technique. What happens when you’re in the middle of writing a story and find yourself at a standstill? This recently happened to me: I didn’t know what my character should do next. I fretted about it for a few days, and then I made a list of all the possibilities — all the choices she could make. Then I stepped away from the list. In the hours that followed, one of those ideas stuck with me. That’s the one I went with.

4. Cull ideas from your own life. If all you need is a story starter, look back on your own life. After you graduated high school, did you think about spending a year hiking around Europe but instead got a job and went to college? Is there someone in your past, someone you almost married, but didn’t? A job you were offered but turned down? An invitation you declined? Use the crossroads from your past as a starting point for a story. Bonus tip: you can do this with other people’s lives too. Remember that story your grandma told you about how she won a dance contest when she was a teenager? Start with that!

5. Write outside the story. Forget about story and plot. Just write something, anything. You can start with a scene, a character, or a situation. Maybe what you write will become backstory or maybe it will be the epilogue. Maybe some tangent will carry you into a new story that you want to fully realize.

6. Turn on the news. You can get the news from television, the Internet, or a newspaper. Whatever source you choose, it’s sure to be packed with excellent ideas for writing a story, from a double homicide to a neighborhood do-gooder or a corporate conspiracy, you’re sure to find something that will spark your muse into action.

7. Ask a friend. Whether you’re struggling to start a new story or are stumped with a story you’re working on, you might want to try turning to friends and family for a little direction. Even your non-writer friends will have tons of great ideas to help you out. Bonus tip: friends and family are also great for bouncing ideas off of, especially when you’re working on a complex concept.

8. Freewriting. It’s the all-purpose writing activity. Use it for daily writing practice, brainstorming, problem solving, clearing your head, and getting ideas to flow. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Take out your notebook (or some sheets of paper) and write whatever comes to mind (no matter how wild or crazy) for the allotted time period. Don’t stop, don’t think. When you’re done, see if there’s something in there that could prompt a story.

9. Writing prompts. There are oodles of writing prompts right here at Writing Forward, and if can’t find what you’re looking for here, just do a Google search for “story prompts” or “fiction writing prompts.” You’ll be confronted with more story starters than you’ll know what to do with.

10. Turn to your notebook. If you’ve been diligent about jotting down your best writing ideas, then your notebook should prove to be a valuable resource when you’re feeling uninspired. If you haven’t filled your notebook with ideas for writing a story, then crack it open and use the tips above to start your own idea journal.

What kind of stories do you write? Do you ever have trouble starting a story, or are you more likely to get stuck somewhere in the middle? When you need ideas for writing a story, where do you turn? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

The Power of Narrative Writing

narrative writing

What is narrative writing?

Wikipedia defines narrative as “any report of connected events, actual or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images.”

Put simply, narrative is story — a sequence of events with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Narrative can be true or fictional. It can be relayed in writing, through photographs, in film, and even in song.

Narrative comprises a huge segment of creative writing, so let’s take a look at narrative in action and examine some key traits of narrative writing.

What is Narrative?

The word narrative is often thrown around by the media, politicians, and commercial enterprises, especially advertisers. These folks understand the power of narrative, which can be used to spread a message, cultivate emotional connections, and control a story.

Consider Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head at age fifteen because she wanted to go to school. Malala survived and went on to become a world renowned advocate for girls’ education, focusing on regions of the world where girls are deprived of education. Malala’s story, or narrative, was instrumental to her ability to step upon the world stage and broadcast her message to the masses, and in 2014 she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Celebrities excel at using narrative to build their brands and cultivate emotional connections with their fans. Watch any music competition show on television and you’ll see the contestants sharing their life stories, often emphasizing the difficulties or conflicts they’ve experienced. It’s been said before: conflict is story. When audiences see these contestants’ struggles, they want to root for them, and a fandom begins to blossom. Throughout a celebrity’s career, the narrative continues, as we watch their highs and lows: they go through relationships, struggle with drugs, get married, have kids, and get divorced. It’s a long, ongoing narrative, and it keeps the fan base tuned in and buying books, movies, music, and magazines.

Politicians also use narrative to forge an emotional connection, but they are often more invested in controlling the story than sharing it. As they reveal their life stories to us, they pick and choose which parts to include, forging a selective narrative that emphasizes their strengths while downplaying their weaknesses.

And we can watch any commercial on television to see narrative being used to sell products and services. We see exhausted but devoted moms and dads looking for better ways to keep their kids healthy and the house clean. There are hipsters searching for the latest and greatest gadget, which will surely make their life funner and easier. Commercials are overrun with people who want to be beautiful and attract a mate. These are narratives that a target demographic can relate to, which is why commercials sell millions of products ranging from food and cleaning supplies to computers and makeup.

Why We Love Narrative

Whether we’re buried in books or ogling at a screen, we love to immerse ourselves in narratives.

Why is that?

An article on Wired titled “The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?” delves into the science behind why we love stories so much:

Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

So how do we find meaning in stories? How do we use stories to make sense of our world? Let’s look to fiction and personal narratives for the answers:

Nonfiction (personal) Narratives: Storytelling is used in memoirs and documentaries to convey true stories. When we hear about a devastating natural disaster on the other side of the world, it’s difficult for many people to put it in context. But when we hear firsthand accounts of survivors who describe what it was like to witness and experience the disaster — when we hear their narratives — we can better relate to the events that transpired. We begin to understand what it was like to be there, and our empathy engages.

Fictional Narratives: Fiction, however, is probably the most beloved form of narrative writing and story consumption. Books, movies, television shows, and even video games give us made-up stories. Whether a historical novel that carries us into the past so we can gain insight on what it might have been like to live in a world without technology or a science-fiction film that takes us far into the future where technology has surpassed our wildest imaginations, fictional narratives, like true narratives, give us access to experiences that we’ll never have and allow us to gain better understanding of the world we live in, and in some cases, the world we might someday live in.

Narrative Writing

Whether we write prose or scripts, narrative writing is a useful tool for sharing our thoughts, experiences, and ideas with others. We can use narrative to pose questions, like What will happen when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than humans? What was it like to be aboard the Titanic? What is it like to climb Mount Everest?

There are several key elements that we find in successful narrative writing:

  • Characters: They can be made-up characters or real people. Audiences develop relationships with characters; it is through this bond that we connect with stories.
  • Conflict: All the best narratives are built around a core conflict or story question. We stay tuned in because we want see how the conflict gets resolved. We want to find out the answer to the questions that the story poses.
  • Plot: Plot is action and dialogue, the rising and falling of tension, the arc of a story. Plot is what happens. We engage intellectually with a narrative’s plot.
  • Setting: The backdrop of a narrative sets the stage and helps the audience enter a story world. Setting is crucial, even if it’s minimal.
  • Point of view: Who’s telling the story? Who’s it about? Who does the camera follow? The narrative point-of-view is the point of connection between a story and its audience.

As you pursue narrative writing, ask whether you’re including these essential elements and whether they’re woven into the narrative seamlessly.

Are you a storyteller? How do you use narrative writing? Do you aim to educate and inform, share your thoughts and ideas, or entertain audiences? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing narrative!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Writing Resources: No Plot? No Problem!

no plot no problem

Chris Baty: No Plot? No Problem!

There are a million ways to approach writing a novel. You can outline your plot. You can create a series of scenes and use note cards to organize them. You can use a tried and proven formula from any number of plotting resources. Or you can create a couple of interesting characters and just start writing.

In 1999 Chris Baty rounded up twenty-one friends and together they set sail on a journey like no other. With no map and no compass, they each set out to write a novel in just one month.

Some of the crew got lost at sea. Others survived the voyage and reached dry land with scrappy but completed novels in hand.

The result? One of the most celebrated writing events in the world: NaNoWriMo.

“That [we] were undertalented goofballs who had no business flailing around at the serious endeavor of novel writing was pretty clear. We hadn’t taken any creative writing courses in college, or read any how-to books on story or craft. And our combined post-elementary-school fiction output would have fit comfortably on a Post-it Note.” — Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!

Despite their lack of talent and experience, and despite the fact that more than half of the original crew went overboard, Chris Baty and his friends had unlocked one of the secrets of novel writing, and with that treasure in hand, Chris went on to found one of the most beloved and exciting writing events in the world.

National Novel Writing Month

Today, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. In 2007, the event’s ninth year, over 100,000 participants signed up from all around the world, and over 15,000 reported that they finished their novels. By 2010, over 200,000 people were participating, and the numbers continue to grow.

National Novel Writing Month has been expanded with Camp NaNoWriMo, which is basically NaNoWriMo in months other than November.

Some NaNos (that’s what participants are called) have even gotten book deals and published novels they wrote for NaNoWriMo. Others found that writing a book wasn’t as hard as they thought and went on to pursue a career in writing. A few discovered that writing a novel wasn’t the dream they thought it was and moved on to other endeavors.

But every person who signed up and went through NaNoWriMo came away with a valuable experience and new wisdom about what it means to write a novel.

Writing Resources Can Be Fast, Fun, and Functional

I read No Plot? No Problem! in one night. It only took a couple of hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The book is straightforward and easy to read, but it’s also packed with humor. I found myself laughing out loud as I made my way through the chapters. More importantly, the book proved to be a useful addition to my ever-growing collection of writing resources.

Chris takes you through his own journey to becoming a novelist and then dives into the lessons he’s learned and techniques he’s discovered. Much of his advice centers around plot development (which is no surprise, considering the book’s title), and I was ecstatic since plot was the one wall I kept crashing into every time I attempted to write a novel. I had plenty of characters, settings, and scenes. But no plot.

No problem!

Chris Baty solved that problem for me. Oh sure, he touches on character creation, finding time to write, and why you shouldn’t EVER revise while you’re still plowing through your first draft. But more importantly, Chris revealed ideas for tackling plot that I’d never before considered (or even heard about).

A couple of weeks after I read the book, I diligently signed up for NaNoWriMo (2008) and hopped aboard my own ship. The voyage was sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky, but in the end, I reached the far shores as a novelist. And while I’m the one who wrote that novel, I have to thank Chris Baty not only for founding the event that led me to write my first novel in just thirty days, but also for his funny, insightful, and informative book on novel writing and plotting.

Believe it or not, there is a plot lurking around somewhere inside that muddled imagination of yours. There are also characters, scenes, themes, and a whole lot more. No Plot? No Problem! will help you dig through the muck and unearth the novel that’s waiting to be written.

Get Your Novel Off the Ground

No Plot? No Problem!
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Whether you plan on participating in NaNoWriMo this year or if you just want to write a novel at your own pace, this is one of the best writing resources for starting and finishing your novel. My own experience with this book is proof that by changing the way you approach novel writing, you can also change the outcome and finally succeed. Next time you have an idea for a novel or start a novel project, you’ll actually finish it!

Get your copy of No Plot? No Problem! today.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Fiction Writing Exercises for Exploring and Developing Theme

fiction writing exercises

Develop themes in your stories with these fiction writing exercises.

Good fiction is comprised of many parts: plot, characters, setting, scenes, and dialogue. But we rarely talk about theme, even though it’s critical to good storytelling.

There’s no clear and easy way to define theme. It has been called the worldview, philosophy, message, moral, and lesson within a story. However, these labels, taken alone or together, don’t quite explain theme in fiction.

We can think of a theme as an underlying principle or concept. It’s usually universal in nature. Some common themes include redemption, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, greed, justice, oppression, revenge, and love.

Themes can be philosophical; they can ask questions or pit two ideas against each other: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, why are we here and what happens when we die?

Themes in Storytelling

You need look no further than some of your favorite stories to explore and identify themes. Keep in mind that most stories have multiple themes. For example, in Harry Potter, I would say the most significant themes are good vs. evil and the power of love. However, there are also themes of friendship, sacrifice, and redemption. One theme might stretch across an entire series while other themes appear at the novel or chapter level.

And themes are not unique to fictional literature. Any form of storytelling can (and should) contain thematic elements, including movies, television shows, songs, and poetry. Themes will also be present in nonfiction, and in some cases themes will drive a work of nonfiction, whether it is a memoir or documentary. For example, a documentary about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will focus on the theme of justice in the context of a woman’s right to vote. Such a documentary won’t look closely at their personal lives but will focus on their founding of the women’s suffrage movement, keeping to the theme.

Today’s fiction writing exercises encourage you to explore themes by identifying them in some of your favorite stories.

Fiction Writing Exercises: Exploring and Developing Theme

Once you understand theme and have learned to identify it, you can start bringing it into your own work. There’s a good chance that themes will manifest even if you don’t put any special effort into theme development. Themes are so closely tied to human nature that it’s almost impossible to tell a story without a theme of some kind. But if you approach theme with intent (even vague intent), your work might have greater depth and meaning.

Exercise 1: Study in Themes

If you and I both watch the film Titanic, we might identify different themes in the film. I might identify wealth disparity or materialism as a theme, and you might say liberty is a theme. In this case, we’d both be right. For this exercise, you will choose one of your favorite stories and identify its themes.

  1. Choose a favorite book, movie, or television show (for a TV show, you should just choose one episode). Make a list of all the themes you can identify in the story. Try to find three to five themes. Go over your list a few times to make sure you’re identifying themes (big, sweeping concepts) rather than conflicts or plot twists.
  2. Next, determine one key theme that is woven through the entire story. You might find there are two or three major themes. List them all but choose just one to explore in the next step.
  3. Finally, explain how the storyteller presented this theme through plot, character, and scenes. Make a list of events and situations from the story that embody the theme.

I found an example that identifies a theme in Catcher in the Rye.

As an alternative, choose one of your completed poems, stories, or essays. The exercise will work better with a story, but poetry and essays will do. Now go through the steps above to list all the themes in your piece, identify the main theme(s), and examine how you executed the themes. If you’re already working on a story, try to identify a few themes that are appearing in your work and elaborate on them. Look for ways to integrate the theme with your plot, and ask how your main conflict can be connected with a primary theme.

Exercise 2: Starting from Theme

Choose three themes and for each, sketch ideas for how you could make the theme manifest through character, plot, or scenes. Here’s an example using revenge as a theme: A thieving woman is fired because a co-worker reported her for stealing. Instead of accepting responsibility, she blames the co-worker and frames him so he gets fired too, even though he is innocent.

Exercise 3: Theme Master

Now that you’ve learned how to identify themes and integrate theme in your own work, make a master list of themes that can be used in storytelling. Whenever you come across an interesting theme, add it to the list. You can refer back to your list whenever you need a theme for one of your writing projects.

A Few Final Tips for Bringing Themes into Your Writing

Theme is not cut and dry, and it shouldn’t be overly obvious. If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to show your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.

Since themes can contain messages and morals, make a conscious effort not to force your personal beliefs and values onto your readers. There’s a difference between making a statement and being preachy. Most readers don’t like novels that preach at them. In fact, some themes work best when they work as questions and the reader gets to experience contrary viewpoints. For example, we all accept that stealing is wrong, but we feel differently about it when it’s done by a small child who is starving.

Finally, have fun with theme. You can go through your outline and make notes about where themes are addressed. Or you can look for opportunities in your story where theme could be expanded. You can do these exercises over and over for various stories until you get a good handle on theme, and then you can use theme to enrich your own writing. You might also use the Internet to look for other people’s ideas about theme for any given story.

Let’s Talk About Themes

How do you approach themes in storytelling? Do you purposefully develop themes, or do you let them happen naturally? Did you find today’s fiction writing exercises helpful in understanding and exploring themes? Got any theme-related resources or ideas to share? Leave a comment!

And keep writing.

Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.

101 creative writing exercises

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