Out of My Head 4: The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

The storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What’s happening?  Who’s it happening to?  Why should we care?

  • What’s happening is the plot
  • Who it’s happening to is the character
  • Why we should care is the emotional heart of the story, the most important part

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use language that fits the setting.  An earthy setting needs earthy language.  A sophisticated setting needs sophisticated language.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together in a natural fashion.

Writing is making decisions.  All the time.  Every moment of every story, every chapter, every paragraph, is a decision.


Story Form

  • Long Novel – 150,000 words and up
  • Mid-Sized Novel – 75,000 to 150,000 words
  • Short Novel – 40,000 to 75,000 words
  • Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – less than 7,500 words
  • Flash – 1,000 words or less.

Short Story – a singleness of event and decision.

Novella – events build one atop another in a more layered plot, often with progressing value systems; a single principal character is featured more often than not.

Novel – the central player is the society in which the story takes place; one or more principal characters within that society carry intertwining plots.



The first line can either set the stage or hook you into the character.  (And those that hook you almost always follow with a bit of scenery.)  It should be surprising enough to tease you into reading the second line and the third and the rest.  Let your line have some mystery to it, and the reader will keep going to find out why.

The last line should imply that the story will continue, and should hopefully leave you wondering what will happen next.

Short sentences provide clarity and a crisp readable style, very useful for writing action and short fiction.  Long and involved sentences create a flowing sense of motion, but use caution: long sentences can become labored and overwrought.

A paragraph is a complete moment.  Every sentence in the paragraph is a part of that moment.  Show not only what happens but also how it feels.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.

Every moment of action is an opportunity to add another line of description (just don’t overdo it).  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.

Try to capture four main thoughts per paragraph:

  • Set the scene
  • Show what’s happening
  • Color the setting and action with some description
  • Advance the plot to the next paragraph (the theme sentence).

Theme – what your story is really about.

Example:  What’s Gone with the Wind really about?  The death of a way of life and the struggle to build a new one, not just for Scarlett but an entire nation.

Ask yourself: What am I saying?  What effect do I want to produce?  Why am I writing this?



Style is the way the story is told.

Clarity requires that most of your sentences be simple and straightforward.  But storytelling also begs for vivid imagery and character, and it requires a distinctive voice to evoke that imagery.  Effectiveness vs elegance.  Decide which is best suited for the story you want to tell.

Language should always be clear.

Don’t choose frills over substance.  Don’t be pretentious.  When you focus on the language instead of the meaning, you’re putting your attention in the wrong place.  A writer’s job is to be invisible.  Focus on clarity.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip–thick paragraphs of prose that have too many words in them, or writing that’s overwrought and obvious.  Author Elmore Leonard calls this “perpetrating hoopedoodle.”

Accuracy is the most effective style of all.


Behind the Scenes

Authority – the writer’s ability to convince the reader he knows what he’s talking about.  Don’t undermine your own authority by losing the reader.

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.  Examples: Casablanca’s letters of transit; the Death Star plans; anything Indiana Jones is looking for.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

Word Echoes – the same word repeated in close proximity.  It draws attention to itself and distracts the reader.  However, there is a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.



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