How to Write a Story

While I primarily write non-fiction and have technical talks I do dabble in writing of novels on occassion. Even for technical writers this is a useful exercise, because when learning to write a good novel the you must think far more about getting the reader engaged.

I it is also useful for people designing their own games. In fact I was exposed to the structure of story telling for the first time while studying game design at university.

Most people can probably write something equivalent to a separate chapters of a book. But how do you bring everything together to be a real engaging story?

So this is really just a curated list of what others have written which I have found interesting and useful.

Core of a Story

If you want to boil down what a store is about to its bare minimum then I think this definition by Geoffrey A. Landis is really good:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions, and
  3. those actions must have consequences.

If you think that is too basic to figure out what to write, you can expand this to the seven point story structure.

Seven Point Story Structure

From Philip Brewer’s blog we got Algis Budrys’s seven point story structure:

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.

Hero’s journey

However the most classic way of thinking about a story, which is what I learned during game design is what is referred to as the “Hero’s journey”. Classic stories that follow this kind of structure are fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings.

However this the hero and the trials could be something in the normal world. The hero could be an outsider girl in a high school, facing cheerleaders rather than dragons.

The point is that the structure of the story can be the same regardless of what kind of setting you have. The hero can be a high schooler, a wizard, a warrior, a western gunslinger or just about anybody.

Read Philip Brewer’s blog for more details of these steps:

  1. The hero is confronted with a challenge,
  2. rejects it,
  3. but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
  4. He travels on the road of trials,
  5. gathering powers and allies, and
  6. confronts evil — only to be defeated.
  7. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which
  8. the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to
  9. confront evil again and be victorious.
  10. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.

How to Write a Short Story

Phillip Brewer had this interesting take on how to write short stories.

Basically he says that a short story should contain all the steps of a full story (novel) except you cheat by simply implying or mentioning some of the steps in the story. Say we are using the Heroes’s Journey as a template.

We could simply mention previous steps such as confronting evil and getting defeated could be a flash back, memory or similar. Something simply mentioned in a few sentences.

The story could begin with the hero facing evil again and this time triumph. Alternatively you do the story at the beginning at the eventual success is simply implied. E.g. the story could be that the hero accept the challenge. The trials he will face is simply implied.

Personal Reflections and Experience in Writing

One of the key things for a story is that the hero has to grow. If you model the main character as an idealized version of yourself, which is all too easy to do, then you will easily fail doing this.

Personally I think a good starting point could be to e.g. base the character of yourself but amplify some of your bad traits. The point is that you have to let the character grow and that is impossible if the character has no flaws.

It is important that your main character screws up or fails. Otherwise you easily end up writing a story about one cool thing after the other that happens, but there is never really anything at stake. You are never worried the main character will not make it.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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