I am committed to giving advice to any writer, anywhere, but today’s post is specifically for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who are deeply distressed by the thought of President Trump and deeply anxious about what comes next for the U.S. and the world. It’s a modified version of my post-election piece on goals and deadlines in a time of strong emotions. This one is more general, without the NaNo-specific content, and I hope it will be a post that you can come back to again and again.
As we face difficult times as creators of art, we will face a lot of pressure from different sides, and from within ourselves. We will be pressured to make art. We will be pressured to stop making art. We will be pressured to make different art, to be more radical or more moderate, to be commercial or to never sell out, to reach different audiences who are all in need of artistic sustenance. We will be pressured to depict the past, the present, and many possible futures.
Sometimes circumstances like these make it very easy to make art. Other times they make it very hard.
Dear Story Nurse,
You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?
I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.
It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.
They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.
In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”
Any advice is much appreciated!
All the best,
This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.
Dear Story Nurse,
How distinct do a writer’s stories need to be from one another?
A lot of authors have recurring themes, or recycle small details like names, or set several stories in the same universe.
But what about if it’s bigger things? If it’s a single change in how the physics of the world works, either way allowing for interesting and distinct things to happen. If it’s alternate endings to a story that could both work, or different story structures that could both fit the one plot.
Sometimes one version is clearly superior, but often not. It just splits off into a separate (but not entirely distinctive) story of its own.
I write science fiction, and short fiction—it’s very idea driven, I think that contributes to this problem. It feels like I have not so much a bunch of separate stories as a story/idea space, where story particles combine and mutate and split off in endless ways.
I find it very difficult to finish a story (instead spawning five new potential ones when I try).
My main concern is getting better at completing stories, but also is it unprofessional to send out stories for publication if they are similar to other stories I’ve written?
—Hydra wrangler (she/her)
Dear Hydra wrangler,
It sounds like you have two very different concerns that are all tangled up together. One is a commercial concern about how it looks to an editor or a reader if you have multiple very similar stories. The other is a craft concern about choosing from among multiple good ways to finish a particular story or develop a particular concept. In some ways these are the same concern: you do writing one way, and you think you should maybe do it a different way.
I have finally created a Twitter account for Story Hospital! It is, unsurprisingly, @StoryHospital, and you can chat with me there whenever you like. I’ll be tweeting links to posts—which will now go up at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesdays so that the automated tweets go out at a sensible hour, so Patreon patrons will get ten extra hours of exclusive access—and answering quick writing questions and joining Twitter chats about writing and all that sort of thing. Please do follow along and say hello.
Dear Story Nurse,
I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.
I use too many semicolons.
I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.
Here are some from the last story I wrote:
- She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
- The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
- The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.
Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?
Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)
—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)
Dear Independent Clause,
This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.
Hi Story Nurse,
I’m writing a short murder mystery story, ten people trapped in a house style. I want the murderer to turn out to be another person who was secretly hiding in the house the whole time, but… if I overdo the hinting, it’ll be pretty obvious, and if I don’t talk about him at all it’ll be cheap when it’s revealed at the end.
The main characters are all friends and knew the murderer personally before the story, so there might be good reason for them to mention him casually. I just don’t know how to do that without letting out huge warning bells! Especially since he has the most clear motivations to do the dirty deed, and there aren’t any other (living) outsider characters.
The murderer is the twin brother of the victim, so the characters toss around a few “maybe they swapped places”–style theories, which wouldn’t really work if he was right in front of them. I suppose I could do something like have him be in the house, but in such a state of “shock” that the characters can’t tell which twin he is or extract any information from him? But I don’t know, it still feels like as long as he’s directly around, he’s the most obvious killer.
—Clued Out (she/her)
Dear Clued Out,
You’ve painted yourself into a corner by eliminating all sources of tension from your story. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to fix.
Here’s the setup you have right now:
- Someone was killed
- By the person most motivated to do it
- Who is so obvious a culprit that if he appears in the story he will be immediately identified as the killer
- So you leave him out of the story
That’s not the setup of a murder mystery, because there’s no mystery to it. You need multiple plausible solutions and perhaps some implausible ones as well. And you’re right that if there’s only one plausible solution and the only reason characters (and readers) haven’t figured it out is that they’re missing information, the revelation of that information will probably be unsatisfying.
Satisfaction comes from sustained tension leading to a climax. The tension in a mystery is usually an unanswered question: who, why, or how. It sounds like how isn’t so much the issue in your mystery, and right now who and why have only one possible answer. So you need to set up some alternatives. Continue reading
Dear Story Nurse,
In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:
“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”
I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!
Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.
I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.
Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.
Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)
Dear Third Time,
Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.
This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!
Hello, fabulous Story Nurse! I was wondering if you have any advice about figuring out titles for pieces of writing. I feel like the titles that naturally come to me are either vague and unremarkable (e.g. my story “Free State,” which is about a queer woman shapeshifter in Bleeding Kansas, but you wouldn’t know that from the title) or entirely too on-the-nose (e.g. I was trying to come up with a working title for my novel-in-progress so I can put it on my CV, and the best thing I could come up with was “Stolen Sisters,” which is kind of okay, I guess, but one of the inciting incidents of the story is the protagonist’s sister getting abducted, so again, it feels a little obvious). As a result, then, any advice you might have about titles would be most welcome!
—What’s in a Name (she/her)
Dear What’s in a Name,
This is definitely a challenge, and it can feel like a really big challenge. A title is your very first interaction with the reader, and it carries significant weight. But if you think of it as communication, rather than as a summary that is somehow meant to encompass everything the story is while not giving anything important away, that can help you decide how to shape it.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m writing a fan fic as a low-key side project to keep writing fun, as opposed to the writing that I do professionally, which is of course work.
It’s a modern-day, angsty romance, where two people from totally different worlds fall for each other even though they don’t fit well into each other’s lives. They figure they can’t be together, but finally the tension gets too much and they have a wild night together. Then they spend some time angsting and avoiding each other. Your standard piece where the agonizing is part of the appeal.
But I can’t figure out where they go from there. Where should I take it next? I think I’d ultimately like them to get together (though I’m not married to it) but I can’t figure out what new element to introduce to change things. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!
—Beautiful Mistake (she/her)
Dear Beautiful Mistake,
You’re running up against a very common problem in genre writing: adherence to the genre’s conventions in spite of plausibility. And if you’re not even sure whether the two lovers will end up together, then you’re not fully committed to it being in the romance genre—the fundamental genre requirement of a romance is the happy ending—so no wonder you’re feeling a bit at sea.