A story, a story, my kingdom for a story!
November 30, 2011 7:45 AM   Subscribe

I can write fiction, but nothing I write ever seems to be a coherent story. How do I write a story?

I write 1000 words of fiction everyday for creative writing practice, but most of my writing seems to wander around, describe experiences or conversations that even I don't really understand. These conversations are like eavesdropping on someone's else's - they're completely out of context and boring.

But the meat of my issues with creative writing is that I just can't seem to come up with a plot or a story when I write. In all the fiction I've churned out, I haven't written a single one that can be defined as a story with a plot, conflict and resolution. There are no colourful characters that interact in interesting ways. Often there's just the protagonist character, who isn't interesting at all, wandering about and experiencing things or talking bland stuff with people.

I just can't seem to come up with anything decent and I've been doing this creative writing business for a few months now. It's been bugging me for as long as I can remember.

How do I come up with stories and plots? Is there a guide or something that helps explain this?
posted by Senza Volto to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went to a Kurt Vonnegut lecture once, and two things he said about writing stories stood out to me. First: every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning, anything is possible, in the middle, things happen that narrow those choices down, and by the end, there's really no other way to go. He claimed (and I've come to believe) that it can't really work any other way. This is much unlike real life, which is all middle (up until the end, of course).
The second thing he said was that everything in a story had to either advance the plot or develop character. If it didn't do one of those it regrettably needed to go. I didn't believe this for the longest time, but I've come around to agreeing that he was right.
posted by Gilbert at 8:05 AM on November 30, 2011 [19 favorites]

I've gotten a lot of help from studying screenplays and movie structure, maybe this will help? The word you're looking for Story Structure.
posted by The Whelk at 8:06 AM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: Give your protagonist a goal, and add obstacles until a plot emerges.
posted by nicwolff at 8:08 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

The short answer is to find some old thing you like (but not something you love) and basically remake it. Change characters, move things around. Excise some characters and add others. Look at what works and what resonates with you. Take out what doesn't. But what you start with is a pre-made structured plot, a working model if you will, so you can kind of see how it was done originally. Do this a few times and you'll get a sense of it.

Ultimately, concern yourself with these questions:

1. Who is your protagonist at the outset, and why should I care about them? (This is the beginning of your story.)
2. What does your protagonist want?
3. What obstacles exist between your protagonist and the thing or things they want?
4. What occurs as a result of those obstacles? How do they impact the protagonist's life? (This is the middle of your story.)
5. At the end of the conflict, what has the protagonist learned, and how have they changed as a person, and how is that apparent to the reader? (This is the end of your story).

Start with that, and go from there. If you can't answer those questions then you need to refine the story until you can.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:13 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and also - don't be afraid to be terrible to your characters, so that we can see what they're made of. A story about someone who is presented with obstacles and acquits themselves with ease and aplomb right away is a boring story. It becomes a story about how awesome your character is, and no one wants that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:15 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

To expand on nicwolff's comment:

At the core of nearly every story (in the western tradition, anyway) is a character or a group of characters who want something. That thing could be as simple as "to get married to their boyfriend" or "to learn how to make the best pies." The kind of goal or desire your characters have often determines what kind of story you're telling -- do they want to find out who killed their sister? To go to Mars? To kiss the cutest boy in school? To fight the zombies taking over their town? To save their house from foreclosure? To just be alone with their book for five minutes when their mother-in-law is visiting?

The desires and goals of your characters will shape everything else in your story. The plot, essentially, is the series of events that follow a character's decision to pursue their goals, even if that goal is just to preserve the status quo when outside forces are threatening it.

I think you'll find that if you sit and come up with a few characters with very simple, clear-cut desires that you can explore in your fiction, you'll have an easier time getting a handle on how to structure your stories. And as you get better at it, you can be more ambitious with complicated or nuanced with characters and their arcs.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:16 AM on November 30, 2011

....Maybe all of those conversations you're writing are just fragments of a larger work, and a structure will present itself when you have enough?...

For example: track down a copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, or Eduardo Galleano's Memory of Fire trilogy. Those are both examples of a bunch of "fragments" which, when taken all together, have a structure.

Galleano's work is non-fiction -- it's a history of the Americas told in a series of short vignettes that jump all over the place (you could have a silver mine in Peru in one segment, Wounded Knee in the next, Mark Twain writing "Huck Finn" in the next....). The chronology is what gives it the structure, so he's free to jump all over the place in terms of what he actually writes.

Calvino's work reads like a series of travelogues, but the "structure" is that it's a series of conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan; Polo is ostensibly reporting back to Khan about some of the various cities in his empire, and these travelogues are "about" those different cities. Taken individually, each of the travelogues is really quite weird -- but Calvino picked and chose the different travelogues to make a whole, and just wrote a few more direct "conversations" between Khan and Polo to help hang the whole thing together.

Maybe that's what you're doing. Try reading those works to see how those guys make a cohesive whole out of a bunch of diverse fragments, and see if maybe that's what you could be doing with what you've got.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't write fiction. But what I read on a similar thread expand on the beginning-middle-end structure.

It was roughly this:
* Write a three-sentence plot, such as ... Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
* Take each of those three sentences and expand them to three sentences (beginning-middle-end?).
* Rinse and repeat.
posted by maurreen at 8:26 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

nicwolff and Narrative Priorities have covered it for your protagonist (give him or her a goal, then keep him or her from reaching it).

Do the same for your minor characters. The interactions between your protagonist and your minor characters will be enlivened as everybody works toward oblique ends. So, for example, your protag needs a new stopper for his tub (he's desperate for a soothing bath; serial killing is stressful work!) and he goes to the local hardware store to pick one up. Meanwhile, the girl at the hardware store wishes she had a job at the diner instead, cause she thinks a pocketful of tips would really make life easier...

What others have said about beginnings and middles and ends applies to scenes, too.
posted by notyou at 8:38 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Whelk: screenwriting is a great way to learn about creating and structuring a story, what things should happen for a compelling narrative, and where in the storyline they should come. Fiction writing is a craft as much as an art: once you've internalised the basic skills of developing good plot and characterisation you can break all the rules you wish. I'd strongly recommend going to a library or bookshop and browsing screenwriting books till you find one that works for you.

As for how to come up with a plot: that depends on what works for you. One way is think of a character and a situation. How would that particular character realistically react to this situation? How would that situation change him? Etc. For example, one science fiction writer (Lois McMaster Bujold) says she takes a character and thinks of the worst thing that she can do to him. This happens over the course of a story, which is about that worst thing happening, the character falling into the depths, and then emerging strengthened - a very common and elementary story structure.
posted by tavegyl at 8:42 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

From a plot structure perspective, I agree with what others have said about having protagonists with clear goals and having the plot revolve around the progress and setbacks that occur while they attempt to reach those goals. But to me structure answers the question of how to write a story but not of how to figure out what kind of story you want to write. To use an analogy to paining, learning about plot structure is like learning about composition, but when you sit down to paint you need more than composition to be able to decide what ends up on the canvas.

So to me at least the most important question to answer when you start thinking about a story is, what kind of story do you want to tell? What do you want the reader to feel or think about when they read your story? What is the point? The overall plot structure to The Grapes of Wrath for example is the story of a family making a journey and trying to find a new home, but that plot only exists to serve the purpose of showing the hardships of the Great Depression and expressing the other themes that are important to the story.

Say you have one of your existing stories with a protagonist that wanders around aimlessly and has random conversations. So you introduce more of a plot, such as that he loses his job and has to find a new one, or that he breaks up with his girlfriend and starts dating. Even with that structure though, it will be difficult to write something worth reading unless you think about what themes the plot is serving. If you want the story to be funny, you can structure the plot around a series of mishaps. If you want the story to be a satire of something in the world, then you can structure the plot around a series of parodies the subject of the satire. If you, as an author, have a clear goal yourself as far as what you want the story to be for the reader, then it's much easier to come up with story elements that help further what you are trying to write.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:48 AM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: Figure out what your characters want. Then make it hard for them to get what they want, and watch them work their way towards getting it.
posted by nonasuch at 8:52 AM on November 30, 2011

I've been running through the classic message-board creative writing lesson "Learn Writing with Uncle Jim". He has a lot to say about structure of novel length works. One of his most interesting ideas is to base your overall plot structure on the threads of a Celtic knot. He argues that the patterns and twists of these braids are so deeply imbedded in our western consciesness, that your story is bound to resonate if you model it after one of these knots. Not sure I believe that, but it's a nice idea. Here's how he describes it:

Construct a nice bit of knotwork, using your favorite method.

Let's do a nice linear border-kind of knot. It starts there to the left, runs to the right.

You have various walls in place to make it interesting.

Now ... over there at the far right, is your climax, right? Who's there? Name the strands that pass through the climax with those people's names. I hope that you have two left-over strands, because we're going to name them for themes, one positive one negative (Honor/deceit for example).

Now color the lines back to the beginning, using different colors.

The opening scene will have those characters who arrive at the beginning (due to walls and such, some characters who were at the end may not arrive at the beginning. Add in different characters for those few).

Now, decide how long your chapters are going to be. Say you're doing thirty ten-page chapters.

Divided the braid into thirty segments.

Look at each segment. Which strand is on top? Which strands are mostly covered? Which are in the foreground? Which are moving most rapidly across the knot?

Those are your chapters, there is your focus, there is your motion.

Now, dream.

Dream, and type.
posted by Think_Long at 9:01 AM on November 30, 2011

err, consciousness. fuck.
posted by Think_Long at 9:02 AM on November 30, 2011

You might want to try Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke - it has a very practical, hands-on approach to writing fiction and deals particularly with problems you may have with creating interesting characters and coming up with a plot.
posted by Jelly at 9:03 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

All this is fine but...
is gthe story a short story or a novel? they do differ.
posted by Postroad at 9:37 AM on November 30, 2011

Response by poster: @Postroad: We'll consider short story for now. I can't plot a novel if I can't plot a simple short story!

And epic thanks to everyone else for the help, keep the advice coming!
posted by Senza Volto at 9:49 AM on November 30, 2011

That sounds like my old frustration with fiction; I like using words and describing things, but had a hard time putting together the 10,000 foot view to make it coherent. The only fiction I've written since junior high school is a short piece of interactive fiction for a minicomp, and I was pretty astonished by how easy it was to stay on target thanks to the constraints of the project:

1) No more than 24 non-consecutive hours spent on it
2) Some arbitrary requirements: "The adventure must be set in a theatre. It must involve a petticoat, an advertisement, something which is repainted, and a trapdoor."

Having to work those disparate elements into the plot in a coherent way helped a story emerge pretty quickly. I think starting from an external idea or constraint is a pretty common exercise; check out Story Elements and poke around Google for 'Story element generator."
posted by usonian at 9:52 AM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: Description isn't fiction. It's not enough to describe a character or an experience or a conversation, even if you've imagined it, i.e., even if it's fictitious. You're writing fictitious things but you're not writing fiction. It's a kind of freewriting or verbal calisthenics. I used to do it, too, in order to avoid actually thinking about character and plot, which are always difficult and frightening. The result is a highly developed style or voice but an inability to tell stories. Luckily you've only been doing this for three months, and probably the bad habits haven't yet hardened, and you've got plenty of time to learn to outline and to develop a methodology and a routine and a rhythm and all that necessary boring stuff.

For now, when you practice your writing, you need to make yourself acutely aware of narrative time. Realize that every paragraph devoted to description pauses narrative progress. Time stops for your character when you, as a writer, take over, and if you do nothing but 'describe experiences' then there can't be a plot. So remember to unpause and allow your character movement and autonomy, even if it means setting aside your writerly ego, whose sole concern is likely to be language rather than character or plot.

Do you write a new story each day or continue with prior work?

In either case, try lowering your quota. Faulkner wrote 500 words per diem and Stephen King writes 2000, and the former is one of the greatest American novelists and the latter is a hack. Obviously this is anecdotal, and you probably aren't trying to be the next Faulkner, or even the next King, but the point is quality/quantity. You cannot 'churn out' (to borrow your phrase) so many words a day and expect stories to form. But if you go slowly, you'll be able to keep an eye on the work and to respond to it and give it shape, and if you're patient the plot will come on its own. But you have to give it the chance.

Dedicate yourself to a project: one character, one event, one significant scene or conversation, for several days straight. Keep in mind that behind any decent short story are thousands of excised words written toward the consummation of a character or the refinement of a set piece. What is your character's favorite color? You should know this even if the reader never will. What is your character's educational background? These aspects don't need to appear in the story, but they complete the character for you, make him convincing for you, and enable you to ask the broader and more important questions relevant to plot: What are his motives? What means is he likely to employ towards the end he seeks? Which of his flaws can sabotage that means? The more of these questions you answer, the likelier you are to see the elusive plot threads that tug inexorably on your character. (This is why character/ization and plot are inseparable.) And once you've discovered the general direction the story needs to go in, you'll have a much easier time supplying the details.

Of course, it may take 3000 words for a structure to emerge. It may take half the final length of the story. All you can do is write and be patient.
posted by incandenza at 10:37 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm mostly lurking to read other people's comments, and have very little to add. Except:

Please remember that three months is not a very long time. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Also, more generally, I found Allen Guthrie's Writing Tips to be useful.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've written a few stories of varying quality (some of those comment fables on the blue), and I think I know the problem you're having.

I find, when I'm writing a story, it helps above all if there's a point to it, that exists even before you start writing. Storytelling is communication; if you have nothing to communicate, it will naturally be directionless. By illustrating some argument, the structure of your story will match with the structure of your argument. The modern popular novel, like Harry Potter, is a degraded form; the best stories teach (or notice, or realize, or consider) as much as they entertain, even if the thing tought/noticed/realized/considered is something silly, as with a recent comment fable of mine which spilt a page on the possibility that Batman has problems with time management.

Find something you want to communicate. If you don't have anything, find something. Sometimes it takes it takes some living before you gain the confidence to back up your statements, or even to find statements worth stating.

You can accelerate that process by reading a lot, and engaging in discussions with people you disagree with, I mean actually engaging with them; by defending your point of view, and not coincidentally modifying it if you discover it doesn't jive with facts, you discover what issues you care about, you gain courage of belief, and you build the communication skills to get your points across.

Well, this is what I'm thinking. I hope it is useful.
posted by JHarris at 11:17 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Generally speaking, a story is about a protagonist interacting with his or her world. This means that a story should:

-have two identifiable and complete story arcs: one of things that happen in the world, and one of things that happen in the protagonist (e.g. Jane must defeat an evil robot bent on world domination; also, Jane must overcome her crippling shyness and become a leader)

-these two plots should frequently intersect, such that, for example, an event in the world will force a difficult choice on Jane, causing her to re-evaluate her beliefs and priorities, and then in acting on her decision, she will alter the course of the events going on around her, etc., etc.

When a section of a story seems boring, it's often because one of these plots has stalled, such that things are going on in the world but having no real consequences for the protagonist, or the protagonist is thinking lots of deep thoughts that have no impact on what's happening around her. Alternately, the plots may have diverged too much, such that they seem unrelated, and are interrupting rather than feeding into each other.

Also, are you completing rough drafts of stories and then revising them? Cutting out the boring bits is part of what revision is for - often what writers need to know to write a story is different from what readers need to know to understand and enjoy it. There may be a "throat clearing" period at the start of a rough draft where the writer is finding the voice of the story, exploring the character and setting, etc., but the story hasn't really started yet. This can be cut out during revision. A writer may also need to know a lot of logistics - how people and things got from point A to point B, etc., but the reader can skip all that between two scenes because it is not really important - these things also can be cut.

Steve Almond says that every reader arrives at a story wanting to know who to care about and what that character cares about. So a writer should not waste much time in identifying the protagonist (not just a name, but a character) what the protagonist wants, and how that desire imperils him or her - and that means the writer has to know those things, too. Jim Shepard says that one important question for writers to think about is "why this day in my character's life?" - I mean, this character has lived for years and years - why is this specific day the one worth writing a story about? Finding the answer to that question is another way of focusing in on the important part of your story.

Finally, I think the best way to learn how to diagnose and correct problems in your own stories is to critique other stories, ideally in collaboration with others engaged in the same process. Seek out a writers' group, a workshop, a creative writing class, a conference, volunteer to read slush for a literary magazine - just put yourself in a position where you have to form opinions about what works and doesn't in other people's stories and then explain, defend, or amend those opinions in conversation.
posted by unsub at 11:21 AM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: There are lots of resources out there if you google "story structure", "novel structure", "4 act structure"
A couple of (free) resources that I am use when I write:
Larry Brooks' Story Structure Series (based on a 4 act structure)
Plotting Made Easy (aimed at kid lit but can apply to any lit, based on 4 act structure.
Kristen Lamb's blog

Once you get a handle on big-picture structure, start thinking about scene structure. Motivation-reaction units are a good scene structuring tool. Another link.

I know all these tools seem very mechanical and formulaic, but once you master them you will be able to bend them to your will.
posted by LittleMy at 11:23 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I realy like this advice from Jim Butcher. (Scroll down to the bottom for the first entry.)
posted by tdismukes at 11:29 AM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: If you can find and read copies of the Lejos Egri books called The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing, you would be well on your way. Classics. A theater friend pointed me to them when I started writing fiction and they were incredibly helpful.
posted by rw at 12:26 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a great piece about writing more complex, interesting characters.
posted by penguin pie at 12:28 PM on November 30, 2011

Figuring out how to plot a novel may be easier than plotting a short story because you'll have more room to work, so don't discount the novel form just because it's longer.

At various times, I've followed and believed in a lot of advice similar to the advice in this thread. This advice sets out practical solutions for many writers, but not for everyone. Not for me, anyway.

My advice is to consider the possibility that you already do have a plot, something that has arisen or could arise from what you've already written. Your task now might be to find out what the plot is and to give it the emphasis you think it should have.

How? By considering when something changes in your narrative. I think that focusing on wants, or decisions, or act-breaks is limiting, and that thinking about when anything at all changes suggests movement and drama that may be more subtle.
posted by Handstand Devil at 1:25 PM on November 30, 2011

Not everyone who writes is good at narrative fiction. If you're not, I'm not sure what the point of forcing it might be.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:01 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recommend checking out flash fiction. Usually less than 1000 words, but you can get into less than 500, less than 100. And then there's Ernest Hemingway's six-word short story. "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Flash fiction is good for studying how to introduce characters and their conflict right away without all the dilly-dallying about setting the scene and tone, etc. I agree with some of the other answers that setting constraints for yourself can make it easier to use your imagination.

Good flash fiction anthologies: Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories Lots of classic authors and you can get it for 32 cents!

New Sudden Fiction My favorite story in this collection is by a Hawaiian author who I swear to God I can't find anything else about her on the whole internet, except that she was in this book. Ugh.

Anyway, one of the best pieces of advice I know about writing fiction is that people in fiction make decisions and take chances that put them in new situations, create conflicts. Be brave through your characters.
posted by book 'em dano at 4:15 PM on November 30, 2011

I'm the same! And it turns out that, even though my whole entire life I had assumed I was a fiction writer, I really am not. I discovered this one year when I did Nanowrimo, and hated every minute of it, and failed muchly - all while happily blogging my little heart out.

Not everyone is cut out to write fiction. Not everyone thinks in story terms. That's okay! Think of all the incredible works of non-fiction you have enjoyed over the years.

My advice is to explore some other kinds of writing, and see where it takes you. Maybe you were meant to be a travel writer, or a technical writer, or a professional blogger. It's a whole big world being constructed of words out there, and there are a lot of ways to "be a writer" beyond "being a fiction writer."
posted by ErikaB at 6:00 PM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: Trey Parker and Matt Stone have written every South Park episode and the most successful Broadway show of the decade.

Here they offer the most succinct story advice I've ever heard.

Money quote: "If you can put 'and then' between your scenes, you're fucked. It should be 'therefore' or 'but'."
posted by vecchio at 12:31 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

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