“A book should be an ice axe to break the frozen seas within us” – Franz Kafka
“If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad.” – Byron
Writing is a great way to express yourself and it can be great fun. A well-written story can have a huge impact on someone. It can move them, inspire them or make them look at the world in a completely different way.
Too many people who dream of being a writer never actually write anything. For years people have been put off writing fiction by the fact that it is very hard to get published. That doesn’t really make any sense. Are people put off learning to play the guitar by the fact that they probably aren’t going to get a record deal? Musicians are less dispirited by the fear of failure because they have always had an underground scene to rely on. If you learn to play an instrument and form a band you should be able to get a gig somewhere, even if it is in some skanky pub in front of six people. On the other hand if you really pour your heart into writing and learn to create great stories where do you go if you want to share them?
Monsta is the literary equivalent of the pub local band night. Except that it’s not skanky, the floor isn’t sticky, we don”t make you drink piss, we reach a bigger audience, and they won’t be plastered (well not all of them, not all the time). Actually it”s better in every way but I”m sure you’ve got the idea. In the same way that pub band nights provide a space for budding musicians to let rip in front of an audience we provide a space where aspiring writers can share their work with eager readers.
Like all advice on writing stories this guide should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are no absolute rules in creative writing. At most there are vague guidelines and even those are there to be played with. Any rule that has been widely accepted as unbreakable is a rule that is begging to be subverted. Any advice can never be more than a suggestion.
This guide is based on what works for me and for other writers I’ve spoken to or read about. I hope that you will find at least some of it helpful but it isn’t a one-size fits all plan for creating the perfect story. Thankfully there is no such thing. It would be very dull if all stories were the same. You have to find out what works for you.
Creative writing can be a great adventure both for you and for the lucky people you are going to share your work with. The best reason to write is because you really, really want to. If you are going to get into it properly then it should be an addiction, a compulsion, almost a disease. If you don”t feel like that at the moment but you still fancy giving it a go for one reason or another then be warned that the addiction can gradually sneak up on you.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” – Red Smith
Writers get sick of people asking them where they get their ideas from but it”s not an unreasonable question, it’s just an unoriginal one. It’s also a hard question to answer. It’s like asking someone where they get their thoughts from. The answer is everywhere and nowhere.
Don’t despair I do have some actual advice to give you. The important thing is that this elusive thing called inspiration is all around you and it can jump out at you or sneak past you at any moment. You have to be prepared for it. Keep a notebook for writing down ideas in. If something comes to you write it down or you will forget it and that shred of inspiration will be lost. Any story ideas should go straight into your notebook and while you’re at it start collecting striking images, characters, bits of overheard conversations, imaginary worlds or inventions, dreams and daydreams.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is to just get on with it. Just sit down in front of your computer and write something, anything at all. It doesn’t have to be any good. The point is that you have to get things flowing. The very act of writing will inspire you.
The problem with that piece of advice is that it isn’t necessarily all that easy to follow. You might well be sitting there looking at a blank screen thinking that “just get on with it” is a totally useless piece of advice and that this guide is rubbish. You are missing the point. When you are trying to beat writer’s block the secret is to write anything. Rant about a lousy film you just saw or the government or the price of a bus ride or your boss or the melting ice caps. Write your life story or a joke or a weird thing that happened to you once. Rewrite an episode of your favourite TV show or imagine what your dog is thinking. You just have to get the words flowing.
Surrealist writers used to experiment with automatic writing. The idea was to try to write faster than you could consciously think. They would pick up a pen or sit at a typewriter and just write down whatever came into their head. The idea was that by writing faster than your conscious mind you can let your subconscious take over. This can be a really interesting technique to use but it doesn’t work for everyone and be careful not to freak yourself out too much.
One of the classic bits of advice that people give to aspiring writers is “write about what you know.” It is good advice but don’t take it too literally. Don’t make all of your stories thinly veiled chapters from your autobiography. Your imagination should be free to wander but your writing should be grounded in your own life, in your own experiences.
Writers often start by asking themselves a “what if?” question and then working out the answer in the form of a story. This is particularly helpful if you are writing science fiction. In a sense all science fiction stories are “what if?” stories. “What if time travel was really possible?” “What if people could live forever?” “What if you could make yourself invisible?” “What if photocopiers became sentient?” “What if geneticists created vampire Melons?”
Finding some good ideas is often the part of writing that worries people the most but actually it is probably the easiest bit. Inspiration really is all around you. Good ideas are lying around all over the place just waiting to be picked up. Start collecting them and then just get on with it. The real hard work starts when you have to turn your little piece of inspiration into an actual story.
- Keep a notebook
- Write 500 words on any subject
- Try automatic writing
- Think of some “what if” questions
“When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” – Raymond Chandler
The next step is to think about what is actually going to happen. Writers don’t always plan out their plot before they start writing. You need to have some kind of vague understanding of where the story is going but despite what you might have read in other writing guides it isn’t necessary to plan out every single detail. If you find that helpful than there’s nothing wrong with it but personally I think it takes some of the fun out of writing and it can stifle creativity.
I’ve read guides that recommend creating complicated diagrams with different coloured lines for different characters and similar nonsense. To me that kind of incredibly detailed planing sounds like it could easily become yet another excuse for not actually writing anything. Having said that maybe I don’t plan enough. Who knows? As always you should do what works for you.
The beginning of a story is very important. You need to grab the reader’s attention and drag them into your world. If your story is published in a magazine or on a web site people may well skim the first couple of paragraphs to see if the story is worth reading. Those first paragraphs have to make people want to know what is going to happen next. They should contain some mystery and suspense. You need a strong opening if you want people to actually read your story.
The beginning is also your chance to set the scene. Unless the plot demands that you keep them in the dark for a bit you should give people some idea of the setting. It is almost always better to describe it rather than simply saying where it is but if you are writing a short story I wouldn’t recommend going into excessive detail. You simply don’t have enough space. It is better to describe a few key details well and then let your readers own imaginations fill in the rest. As always that isn’t an absolute rule. If the story is set in a strange fantasy world or in a future society that is radically different from our own then you may well want to spend more time describing the scenery.
Think carefully about how you introduce your main characters. They have to seem like people that your readers want to be around for a few thousand words. They don’t have to be likeable but they shouldn’t seem bland, tedious or two-dimensional. If the reader isn’t interested in your protagonists then they won’t be interested in your story. In stories as in real life first impressions are important.
Conflict is the key to developing an interesting plot. The “conflict” in your story is the problem that your characters have to cope with. The conflict can take many different forms ranging from an alien invasion to unrequited love to a bad hair day or a murder. In fact there is probably an infinite number of possible conflicts. There is no shortage of problems in real life and in fictional worlds the options are limitless. Once you’ve decided what your conflict is going to be you can start thinking about your plot in terms of how your characters are going to try to overcome the challenge that you have given them.
Conflict can be internal or external. The latter involves facing a threat or problem that is outside the character. That would cover monsters, enemies, mountains, faithless lovers, tyrannical managers, stormy seas etc. Internal conflict is inside the character’s own mind. It includes doubts, depression, temptation, a tortured conscience and so on. Most stories involve a mixture of the two. Even if external problems are the driving force of your plot you shouldn’t forget your characters’ psychological or spiritual struggles. If they are in an intense situation they will endure some mental strain even if they are tough guy heroic types. Internal conflict adds depth to a story and helps us to identify with and understand the characters.
Most stories have a central conflict that the plot is built around and some secondary conflicts to keep things interesting. For example in Philip K Dick‘s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the central conflict is that six renegade androids are loose and it’s the hero’s job to track them down. The secondary conflicts include his doubts about his work, his marital problems and his desire to buy a real animal. Secondary conflicts are necessary in a novel but if you are writing short stories it is arguably better to focus on the central conflict as much as possible.
Endings can be tricky. A lazy ending can easily leave a reader feeling cheated. You need to either tie up all your loose ends or leave them floating in a way that satisfies the reader. Your endings should never feel tacked on. Don’t write and write and then suddenly think “oh dear, this is getting a bit long I better bring it to a close”. The end needs to fit in with the rest of the story. It should grow organically out of what has gone before. Don’t write yourself into a corner and then use a lazy ending out of desperation.
Never end a story by saying that it was all a dream. That is the stereotypical lazy ending. It’s the literary equivalent of a stand up comedian using mother-in-law jokes.
“Deus ex machina” endings should also be avoided. It means “the god from the machine.” It comes from ancient Greek plays. Heroes would often get into terrible muddles that would ultimately be magically resolved at the very end by a “god” descending onto the stage and making everything OK. Today a deus ex machina ending is one where the conflict is suddenly resolved by magical means.
If the supernatural is part of your story then there is nothing wrong with it playing a part in your conclusion just don’t wave a magic wand to make all of your hero’s problems go away. Well, not in less the whole story has been a quest to find a magic wand. If he has super powers then obviously he can use them to defeat the villain but don’t suddenly decide that he can fire lazers out of his eyes.
Traditionally short stories are meant to finish with a twist ending. The conclusion of the story is meant to come as a huge surprise to the reader and totally change the way they see the rest of the piece. If it’s done well this can be very effective and it can really make a story stick in a reader’s head. On the other hand twist endings are such a big part of the tradition of the short story that they’ve almost become a bit corny. Don’t use them for the sake of it or because you feel you have to.
When it comes to endings writers often fall into one of two traps. They either convince themselves that serious literary stories need to have unhappy endings or they decide that stories with happy endings are always more popular. These are twin traps and logically both sets of writers could be right but actually they are both completely wrong. Lots of the great classic works of literature have happy endings and lots of incredibly popular stories end in misery. Neither type of ending is inherently superior. It depends on what kind of story you are trying to write and on what kind of effect you want. When you think about it this is a bit of a simplistic distinction anyway. Endings usually mix happiness and unhappiness. Even “happily ever after” endings are unhappy from the perspective of the witch or the dragon.
- Think of a conflict or problem that you have faced in your life. Then write a mini-story about how you could have handled it differently.
- Make a list of possible conflicts or problems.
- Write a synopsis (basic outline) for a story. Go into as much or as little detail as you like.
- Write an opening paragraph. You can turn it into a story later but don’t worry about that at the moment just try to write something exciting or intriguing.
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” – E.L. Doctorow
You can come up with a plot that is a piece of pure, sparkling, inspired genius but if you people your stories with boring characters nobody is going to care. You need your readers to develop a real connection with your characters.
Characterization is a an area of writing that is full of potential hazards for the unwary and the inexperienced but once you know what the dangers are you should be able to avoid them.
Two-dimensional cliched characters will destroy your story. How can you create well-rounded, believable people who will draw readers into your world? The first step is that you need to know your characters really well. You should know them far better than you strictly speaking have to. If somebody asks you what your hero had for breakfast you should know straight away even if it has nothing to do with the plot. If you have that kind of depth of knowledge it will help you to be clear about your characters’ motivations. That will help you to ensure that their actions are consistent and believable. Characters can develop as the story goes along but the changes in their personality need to seem plausible or you will lose the reader.
It is important to observe how real people act and speak. You need to try to learn more about people. What makes them tick? How do they use language? In theory you can simply use people you know as characters but it’s a bit lazy and very risky. How much do you value your friendships and your front teeth?
One of the golden rules of creative writing is “show don’t tell.” This is especially important when you are trying to describe characters. It is far better to show your readers what your characters are like rather than simply telling them. If you want people to know your heroine is brave show her being brave. Describe her stopping a bank robbery or standing up to a bully. Don’t just say “she is really brave.” I know I said rules are there to be broken or subverted but this one is very effective. Use dramatic methods to flesh out your characters, action and dialogue rather than dry exposition.
In terms of characterization the single most common mistake is to use cliched stereotypes. Steer clear of drunken detectives with troubled pasts, priests who have lost their faith, damsels in distress or comical robot sidekicks. If you have a clever new twist on a tired idea then have fun but generally speaking try to avoid the obvious.
Creating interesting, believable characters is arguably the key to writing a good story. Readers have to care about what’s happening to your characters. If they don’t then all of your hard work will go to waste.
- Invent a character and create a profile for them: personality traits, background, likes and dislikes, what they had for breakfast and so on. You could create a profile for a character from a story you have already written.
- Note that none of this is set in stone. If you use the character in a story and it turns out that the plot works better if she had a fry-up for breakfast rather than museli then you can always change your mind.
- Describe your character doing something that reveals something important about them.
- Next time you are in a public space (i.e. a bus, a train or a café etc) observe how people speak and act. It’s not being nosy if it’s for art.
- Make a list of cliched characters and stereotypes.
Dialogue has several different important functions. It moves the plot along, gives some insight into the characters and it makes the story more interesting.
Lots of writers hate writing dialogue. I know how they feel. I sometimes find myself struggling to breathe life into my characters’ dusty conversations. It can be quite tricky but it is a vital skill to master.
The first step is to know your characters. Remember that you have created them, you should know them far better then you could ever know your lover or your best friend. How do you think they talk?
Sometimes you manage to create characters who seem so real to you that they almost take over the story. When that happens dialogue is easy because you can practically hear them talking in your head. Sadly you can’t rely on that but the lesson is that creating believable characters is the first step towards writing believable dialogue. I admit that there is a bit of a chicken and the egg issue there since dialogue is one of the tools writers use to bring their characters to life.
You have to think very carefully about how your characters should talk. Think about their speech in terms of their age, background and personality. An old man isn’t going to use teenage slang. An Australian isn’t going to use British phrases.
If you are writing historical fiction then avoid blatant anachronisms. A piece of twenty-first century slang on the lips of a medieval peasant is as out of place as the famous wristwatch in Ben Hur. Readers will usually politely ignore the fact that people in the distant past appear to be talking modern English but don’t draw attention to the issue by using obviously modern phrases. If you are writing an historical story with an English speaking setting, 1920’s America for example, then do a bit of research and try to make your dialogue sound authentic.
Listening to how real people speak is the key to making your dialogue seem realistic and life like. Have you ever really paid attention to how we talk to each other? During a conversation we tend to automatically ignore all the “ums” and “ers”. We accept strange jumps in topic because it all seems to flow together. Try recording a group of people talking. Play it back and really listen to how they communicate.
When you are writing dialogue realism isn’t your only goal. If your dialogue is too realistic it might well be unreadable because it will be full of ums and ers and irrelevant digressions. You have to strike a balance between realism and readability.
In real life conversations don’t have to move a plot along or reveal anything important, but in a story dialogue should serve a function. Talking for it’s own sake is part of life, but it doesn’t make for very interesting fiction and it takes up too much space in a short story. Avoid small talk.
Truly authentic speech patterns can be hard to read especially if your character has a strong accent or speaks a particular dialect. Be careful if you are trying to give your character an accent. It is easy to slip into caricature. It is probably best to just throw in the occasional dialect word or phrase rather than trying too hard and risking coming across as mocking or patronising.
When writing dialogue it is important to resist the temptation to use it for exposition. Don’t make a character say something that they would clearly never say just because you want to let the reader know something.
For example, “Hello George, my good friend, who only has one leg because when we were children I accidentally attacked you with a chainsaw.”
It is a good idea to test your dialogue. Read it out loud and see if it sounds reasonably natural. Try to picture two people actually having the conversation you have written. Can you hear it in your head? Does it sound realistic?
- Record a group of people talking. Play it back and listen to how they communicate with each other.
- Note it’s best to get their permission first. At the very least only record a group of people who you are fairly sure won’t mind.
- Listen closely to how people talk.
People sometimes get in a muddle about how dialogue should be laid out. Actually there are several acceptable ways of doing it but I’m going to tell you how it is usually done.
Dialogue should be in quote marks. You can use single quote marks ‘Hello’ or double quote marks “Hello”.
Each time a character starts to speak you should start a new line. That helps to make the dialogue easier to read:
“You don”t trust me do you? You think I’m going to turn you in.”
“No John. It’s not like that.”
Your readers have to know who is talking or they won’t be able to follow the action. The easiest why to let them know is to use speech tags, “he said”, “she said”.
There are other speech tags: yelled, exclaimed, screamed, asked, replied etc but don’t overlook said. It has the advantage of being less obtrusive than its longer cousins.
A comma usually separates the dialogue and the speech tag:
“I love you all,” said Alice.
The exceptions are that you wouldn”t use a comma if you wanted to end the dialogue with a question mark or an exclamation mark:
“What do you think he’s up to?” said Jane.
“Run for your life!” yelled the doctor.
If the speech tag comes before the dialogue then the dialogue starts with a capital letter as if it were a new sentence. The reverse is not true, if the speech tag comes second then it shouldn’t be capitalised:
She said, “You used me.”
“You used me,” she said.
If your character has a lot to say then put the speech tag quite near the beginning of their dialogue. As a general guideline put it at or before the end of their first sentence. Readers don’t want to plough through a long speech before they find out who is talking.
You don’t always have to use speech tags. If it is obvious from context who is talking then they aren’t needed. If two characters are having a conversation and you’ve already told us who they are then you don’t have to tag every single line. If a character has just performed an action and the next sentence is in quote marks then unless you tell them otherwise, your readers will assume that character is the one talking. If you’ve told us that a character is about to yell at her boyfriend then you can launch straight into her rant without using a speech tag.
The point of these conventions on layout is simply to make your dialogue clear and readable. Ask someone to read your work, and see if they can follow your characters’ conversation. If they can then you can’t be going too far wrong.
- Try writing a conversation between two characters.
Future & Fantasy Languages
Earlier I briefly mentioned the difficulties involved in writing dialogue for stories set in the past. Going forward in time also requires some thought about language. If your story is set in the future then try to avoid having your characters use phrases that are likely to seem dated in a few years. Think about how language might have changed. Obviously you don’t want to confuse people by writing in an indecipherable future dialect but throwing in a few words of futuristic slang can’t hurt.
Try to be original. Two hundred years from now people won’t be talking like characters from the pulp fiction of forty or twenty years ago so there’s no need to adopt words like “Zargon” or “Xeraz”.
If you want an example of how to create an authentic sounding but also readable future dialect then read Anthony Burgess‘ “A Clockwork Orange“. The “Nadsat” slang he created was partly based on Russian. He also drew on cockney slang and some other influences. Drawing on other languages or dialects is usually more effective than just making up words.
Putting existing words together is another useful trick. For example Burgess uses “horrorshow” to mean good and “in-out-in-out” to mean sex.
Using words from other languages and sticking existing words together will also help you to create believable dialects for alien cultures or fantasy worlds. Fantasy writers tend to be especially keen on using words from ancient languages. It helps to give their stories the desired mythological feel. The godfather of fantasy J.R.R Tolkien invented several languages for his “Lord of the Rings” saga. They were so sophisticated that he was able to write whole poems in them. He based his made-up languages on ancient Germanic tongues.
One small note of warning if you are just going to steal a word from another language then make sure that it doesn’t mean anything too silly. You probably don’t want to name your alien empire after an apron or a jellybean.
Points of View
Before you start writing a story you need to decide which point of view or voice you are going to use.
There are four different points of view. First person, second person, third person limited and third person omniscient. In practice the second person voice is rarely used and the omniscient third person is regarded as a bit old fashioned. Most modern writers use the first person or third person limited voices so I’m going to concentrate on those two.
If a story is written from a first person perspective then it seems like the main character is telling their own story. It involves using the word “I” a lot:
“I jumped out of the car.”
“I held her hand tightly.”
“By the time I’d managed to bust the monkey out of his prison the roaring flames had blocked all the exits. I dragged the nervous beast around the station frantically hunting for an escape route.” – “Shaving Monkeys” by Me (Alan Green)
The first person voice has a lot of advantages. We are inside the character’s head so their experiences seem more intense. Their psychological state can be reflected in your writing without it seeming cumbersome or interrupting the flow of the plot.
The downside is that the reader only experiences what the viewpoint character experiences. You can’t tell us what a secondary character is thinking or tell us about events that your narrator can’t have experienced. There are ways around these problems. The viewpoint character can tell us that someone she is talking to seems nervous or someone can tell her about something that has happened.
The negative aspects of this perspective are more troubling if you are trying to write longer works of fiction. If you are writing short stories then focusing on one character shouldn’t be a problem.
You can jump between the viewpoints of different characters but make sure that it is clear whose perspective you are writing from. You don’t want to confuse people.
One of the interesting things about the first person perspective is that the reader can’t be sure that the viewpoint character is telling them the whole story. Are they hiding things from us? Are they trying to justify things to us and to themselves? Are they simply insane? The same issues arise in third person stories that use a narrator character but they are inevitable if you use the first person. We only see things through the viewpoint character’s eyes. You can use that fact to keep your readers on their toes and play with their minds.
Third Person (limited)
These days most fiction is written using the third person limited voice.
The third person voice involves using “he” or “she”. It uses the perspective of a storyteller. The author or a narrator character is telling the readers what is happening.
“He grabbed the money and ran.”
“She slapped him in the face and spat at him.”
There are two types of third person voice: the third person limited and the third person omniscient.
The third person omniscient voice essentially involves telling the story from the perspective of the author or from the perspective of a narrator character who stands outside the story and is assumed to have absolute knowledge about everything. He or she knows what all the characters are thinking and what is going to happen next.
The defining feature of the third person limited voice is that it concentrates on the experiences of one character per scene.
“He had no idea who he was or how he got to being where he was, but he recognised the cryo-pod, and knew of the effects prolonged cryo-sleep could have on a man.” – “Cataclysm” by Chris Cooper
When you start a new scene you can shift your focus onto a new character. A “scene” is a continuous section of your story.
Focusing on a single character gives this point of view similar strengths to the first person perspective. Readers identify with your viewpoint character and share their experiences. That draws them into the story but it presents problems i.e. other characters’ thoughts and events outside the protagonist’s experience. As we saw those problems aren’t insurmountable when you are using the first person voice but the third person limited allows you to sidestep them completely. In the next scene you can simply shift to a different character’s perspective.
If it is really necessary you can momentarily step away from your characters and give us insight into things beyond their experience. Strictly speaking if you do that then you are moving towards the third person omniscient voice. Third person limited and third person omniscient should perhaps be seen as opposite ends of a spectrum rather then entirely separate voices. Whilst using the third person you can jump around at will as if you were writing from a divine perspective or you can focus completely on one character but there are various different stages between those two extremes.
Try not to jump around too much. If you do so you risk diluting the third person limited voice’s main strength; namely its’ ability to help readers identify with your characters.
If you go to a bookshop and have a quick look at the new releases you will notice that most of them are written using the third person limited voice. It has many advantages. It seems dynamic and it helps readers to relate to the main characters. It might well be the voice for you. Having said that don’t overlook the first person voice. It can really help you to pull your readers into your world and make them connect with your protagonist.
“I believe more in the scissors then I do in the pencil.” – Truman Capote
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and I took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again” – Oscar Wilde
The difference between a good story and a bad story is often a couple of drafts. If you want to create a good quality piece of fiction you simply have to reread and revise your work. You have to read it again and again and tweak it or totally overhaul parts of it until you are happy with it.
Try not to be too hard on yourself. I’m sure that millions of perfectly good stories have been thrown away because their authors were overly critical of their own work. If you find yourself really tearing your hair out trying to polish a story to absolute perfection you should show it to someone else and see what they think. They probably won’t notice all of the flaws that are driving you crazy.
The revision process can get a bit tedious and frustrating. Don’t push yourself over the edge. Give yourself a break between drafts, go and do something else for a bit. Leave it for a couple of days then come back to your story with fresh eyes.
Revision is a key part of writing. You don’t want to pour your heart and soul into something only to have a few jarring sentences and a couple of typos ruin it for your readers. If you want people to take your story seriously you need to spend some time perfecting it.
- Have a look at a story you’ve written (if you have) and see if there is anything you’d like to change.
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx
With the exception of practice, practice and then some more practice the best way to improve your writing is to read as much as possible. Don’t just skim through books; really think about what the writer is doing. How they create different effects, how they describe things, how they write dialogue and so on.
Even if you are confident with your own style or if you value originality above all else it is still a good idea to look closely at other writers work.
Don’t just read your own preferred genre or a few of your favorite writers, read widely and deeply. Immersing yourself in fiction will help to inspire you and it will have a huge positive impact on your writing.
- Read some stuff. If you’re stuck see our book review section for suggestions. If you want to read some short stories I’d recommend Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Roald Dahl, Will Self and Haruki Murakami.
“Be someone on whom nothing is lost” – Henry James
If you are writing a story about something that requires specialist knowledge it is a good idea to do a bit of research. You don’t want to spend days carefully crafting a deeply moving story only to have some philistine rip it to shreds because of some tiny historical or technical inaccuracy.
Don’t get too worked up about research. After all you are writing fiction. Who cares if your time machine violates the laws of physics or your knight couldn’t possibly have fought at battle x and battle y? It’s not real.
On the other hand if someone is reading a story about their pet subject then factual inaccuracies can be very jarring. Be particularly careful about technical details if you are writing science fiction. The thin wall between fantasy and science fiction rests on the foundation that sci-fi deals with things that are theoretically possible.
There is no denying that lots of science fiction stories bend or break that rule. Actually if you use that definition then real world scientific progress can change a story from science fiction to fantasy. Should old stories set on Mars or Venus that go against what we now know about those worlds be reclassified?
Despite all that sci-fi purists still jealously guard the border between their beloved genre and it’s neighbour. They will complain if you haven’t done your homework. Remember that you are entitled to tell them to get lost but you might be the one who is missing out. The discipline of sticking to the theoretically possible might force you to think in new ways. Apart from anything else it isn’t a good idea to alienate your readers.
If you are writing a story about historical events that are within living memory then you should be careful. History buffs will complain if you play loose with the fall of Rome but your story isn’t going to be read by someone whose sister was raped by the Visigoths. If you write a story about the holocaust or Hiroshima or 9 / 11 then you are treading on far more sensitive territory. Try to be responsible. When you turn to history for ideas you are borrowing other peoples’ plots, stories that they actually had to live through.
The Internet has made research a lot easier. You can get information on pretty much anything in seconds. Having said that remember that the downside of the treasured freedom of cyberspace is that there is a lot of rubbish out there. Use your common sense. Which site is more likely to have accurate historical information, a university site or a personal site run by someone who has a political axe to grind?
Libraries are the other great place to go to research a story. You might well be surprised by the ocean of information that is available in your local library. Books often go into more detail then web sites. Librarians will be happy to help you find whatever you are looking for. If you researching something obscure and they haven’t got anything suitable in stock then they should be able to order a relevant book for you.
If you are doing some research remember to take notes. Background reading is helpful but if you are really trying to get a handle on a subject then you need to write down the facts that you uncover. Jot down anything that seems relevant or interesting.
It is a good idea to do a bit of research. It helps to give your stories an air of authenticity and it gets your creative juices flowing.
- Look up some background information about something you would like to write a story about i.e. time travel, the inquisition, people smuggling, Siamese cats etc.
“…and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.” – Jack Kerouac
Get on with it
Once you’ve written some stories why not send them into us? It is always a good idea to share your stories with other people and to discuss them with your fellow scribblers. It helps you to develop as a writer.
If you send us a story and we put it up on this site, then you can discuss it with your adoring readers.
We also have an annual writing competition. The much loved and hopefully soon to be prestigious “Kevins”. Kevin is a punk rocker rubber duck by the way, just so you know.
Keep an eye out for more creative writing advice from Monsta. In the future we hope to bring you some guides that will focus on other aspects of short story writing.
If you want to be a writer just get on with it. Start writing and keep at it. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You might be hit by a bus and then the world will never have a chance to read [ insert name of your story here ].
- Surely it must be time to write a story? Have fun.