How I approach storytelling

Charlie Kelly (Actor Charlie Day) ranting in a scene from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, explaining a conspiracy theory as t
Live view of me making a story
Happy 2024. I have returned. Apologies for my absence, the last few weeks have been a lot. Hoping to get back into the routine.

I was recently invited to a Discord server for writers where I've enjoyed finding a community and receiving feedback on my work. I don't have a ton of writing friends in meatspace and I find friends tend to only find the good things in work when I can get them to read something. I was asked for advice by a younger writer, and while I offered it, I decided to post my methods here in case it's useful. None of this should be considered the "correct way". It's my way but it may or may not work for you.

I'm not a writer by trade. It's been a long-time hobby of mine but I never spent much time looking for a community until recently. My methods may appear unconventional or I may not use the correct terms. I'm not worried about "pantsers", "plotters", or "plantsers". There are lots of articles written about plotting styles but, if I'm honest, I find the terms a bit silly. If you must label me, I'm firmly in the "plantser" camp, meaning I plan some things but go with the flow on others[1].

For this article, I'll create the skeleton of a story. Follow along and if you have your own methods, or if you think I'm wrong, subscribe and leave a comment!

The Idea

The idea for a story can come from anywhere; life experiences, dreams, and media have inspired some of my best ideas. It doesn't have to be original[2], many stories are new takes on old concepts. There's nothing wrong with starting from a trope.

My current series developed around a short story I wrote where aliens found Earth after humans went extinct and I don't even remember where I got that first idea[3]. Today, my work in progress isn't about alien archeology at all. That's the nice thing about ideas, they don't have to be a full story or to even make complete sense. The notion needs only to be a seed from which the rest of your story can flow.

For my example story, I'll start with a basic premise that's been done to death: Aliens are invading the Earth and our main characters must thwart them. Classic "War of the Worlds".

The Setting

I find worldbuilding to be the fun part of writing. The setting is more than what the world looks like, it's how it feels, what it sounds like, and, importantly, what the rules are. Consistency is the key. That doesn't mean a story can't have fantastical elements but that those elements are internally logical. It's jarring to a reader if magic isn't established but the main character

A novel isn't a movie

It turns out that not everyone can formulate pictures or sounds in their head, a fact that I embarrassingly learned only recently. When I started my novel I wrote as though one would write a movie, with little description of the background assuming the reader could fill in the details. I did this because I didn't want to reveal all the information about the world upfront. The trouble is that movies can distract the audience with pretty visuals. Consider the following:

Lucy ran into a burning building.


The ruined city smoldered around Lucy. She choked back the smoke as she ran into a burning building.

In a movie, we can see the ruined city and hear the sound of the fire. Information about the setting is conveyed without explanation. Written words don't offer that luxury. In hindsight, it seems obvious but as an author I expected my audience to fill in the blanks to get to the reveal. After all, I'm excited about my work and others reading it will be too! It was hard for me to remember that readers need motivation to keep reading. A big reveal falls flat if the reader gives up because the setting isn't clear, there are too many unanswered questions,

I have a concrete example from my own work. I wrote the second book of my series first.[3] The Children of Our Great Experiment follows Jordan Jackson's life as a young man who lives with his family on a self-sufficient compound. The majority of people uploaded their minds to a powerful AI and for all the characters know they're the only physical humans left. They tell stories of monster machines that gobbled people up and the AI is a faceless evil force in the world. The big reveal happens early on when the AI sends agents to make contact with this family. Except they are humans, complete with human bodies. The scary flying machine shows up and a person gets out of it.

It sounds great and for the longest time, I didn't want to part with it. But one piece of well-written reveal held me back from moving the story forward because the reader needed to know about the other humans to grasp the core conflict. When I convinced myself to add more backstory (so much it's now another book), I discovered it didn't detract from the work. The characters experience the same impact and the reader can feel for them. While the surprise is muted in the reader's mind, they gain a better understanding of the characters and their world.

Every Character Needs a "WHY"

In my opinion, characters that lack motivation make for the worst storytelling. Too often, I see writing in popular media where characters make baffling decisions to ensure they arrive on time for a particular plot point[4] rather than making decisions that affect the outcome.

I start with a concept and develop a conflict. I then create characters and give them goals opposed to or in line with the conflict. The plot flows from the conflict and the characters. Not the other way around. In my example story Lucy runs into a burning building for an unknown reason. That can be exciting but the audience becomes more engaged when there's a reason to care. The lazy answer is to put her there so something else can happen. Lucy dodges a falling rafter and her life flashes before her eyes ... It's weak because if she's only there to dodge the rafter then the character made a bad decision as a sacrifice to the plot.

So far Lucy is a placeholder. Anyone could run into the burning building and it would make no difference. Consider:

The ruined city smoldered around Lucy. She choked back the smoke as she ran into a burning building to save her trapped friend.

With just five words Lucy becomes a character that the reader can identify with. She's empathetic and willing to sacrifice herself for a friend. The audience has a reason to care about what happens to her.

What are the stakes?

Another area I struggled with is explaining what's at stake in the story. Even now as I'm world-building I have to remind myself to stop and ensure that there's a conflict. Lucy or her friend could lose their lives but why are either of them important to the rest of the story?

The ruined city smoldered around Lucy. She choked back the smoke as she ran into a burning building to save her trapped friend, Marcy. Marcy carried the secret plans to destroy the alien spaceship. Without those plans, humanity is doomed.

Boom, there's a story here. The world, or at least the character's part of it, is destroyed, presumably by evil aliens. Marcy carries the plans that will save everyone but she's trapped in the burning rubble and it's up to her friend Lucy to save her.

None of that is to say an author must reveal everything. There can be smaller stakes in a chapter that lead up to a bigger reveal. The point is to give the reader something to latch on to and keep them hooked. In my example, the reader forms questions that require further reading. Do Lucy and Marcy escape? Are they able to secure the plans? Do they beat back the aliens?

Writing with a goal

For me, the hardest part of the story is the end. I don't go as far as writing the end first (though, I know authors that do, and that's valid), but I will say as I've practiced it helps to have some idea of how the story will end.

Lucy gazed at the uncanny creature. Their dark skin dripped with slimy mucus as they inspected her with giant colorless eyes. The creature raised a limb and held out what Lucy perceived as a hand. Even with her weapon at the ready, she shrunk back, unsure of their intentions.

"Make ... peace?" the creature asked in a broken high-pitched tone.

For our example, I've insinuated there can be peace with one or more of the creatures having a change of heart. I tend to write scenes based on related ideas and having a goal ensures that I move things forward. Without it I've written whole chapters only to later realize they didn't move the story forward.

The heart of the story

There's a plot, some characters, and a goal. At that point, it's a matter of moving things forward to tell the story. What happens to the characters? What challenges do they face?

I've relied on stories from my life in my current work in progress. This works well because my books are colored by my past religious upbringing (it's a whole thing) so I can tell stories that happened to me or that I was adjacent to that fit with things my characters would experience.

Writing chapters is much like writing the whole story, each scene has a hook, some things that happen, and then a resolution or a new hook to lead into the next chapter. They're like building blocks that move the story forward. I strive to either build my character or build the plot. Along the way, I can reveal secrets about the world. Every paragraph should further those goals or an author must be prepared to throw it out.

It won't be perfect

The thing that I'm learning to accept is that no story will be perfect. Perfection has held me back so far but I'm determined to get my work finished and find a way to publish it (I'm not sure on the avenue yet!). "Just finish the book" is sound advice. Finish it, rewrite it a few times, craft it, and hope to find someone else who loves it as much as you do.

As for me, I've taken the first steps by publishing a few things here. Check out my short stories (set in the same world as my novel) and subscribe for more musings and rants. Thanks for reading.

  1. I'm also an INTJ personality type. Balance in all things!
  2. Every modern story is arguably a retelling of the Hero's Journey anyway.
  3. Sadly that short story was lost to time.
  4. I decided not to go off in the main paragraph but in Ahsoka when Sabine gives the stupid map device to Baylon because it might be a way to go find Ezra, she betrays her entire character built up over four seasons of Rebels. Good god, do the writers of this stuff not reference the source material???

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Jamie Larson