“It’s easy once you get started.”
“Just make it up – how is that difficult?”
“Write anything you like.”
Ever heard these reassuring phrases before? Perhaps when you’ve asked people how to start writing something, or improve it, or what makes for good creative fiction. Fat lot of good they do when you’ve asked, “How do I write a story well?”
Contrary to what a lot of people think, there is no gradual climb towards writing well. Sure, writing and reading a lot helps but it doesn’t necessarily teach. Especially if you read something that’s commercial, ‘page-turning’ or pretty common denominator – looking at you, Fifty Shades and Twilight; neither of these is perfectly written. I’d go as far to say neither is even well written. This doesn’t stop them being enjoyable – for some – but it does stop them being used as a good example of how to write well. If I’m turning pages in a book too quickly, I’m not reading everything on the page. If I’m not reading everything on the page, then something about the writing has made me feel that not all of it is worth reading. If it’s not worth reading, why am I reading it?
Is this an elitist view? Not exactly – sure, there’s an elitist slant there, or what you could interpret as one, but in fairness demanding quality from my reading material is only fair. I’m usually paying for the pleasure of reading something, and if I’m not satisfied with all of it then I get to comment and criticise it. If you went to a restaurant and the meal wasn’t satisfactory, you’d tell your friends what wasn’t great if they asked. If it was actually bad, you would complain about it and most likely not go again unless the restaurant manager was very good at customer services. So if you ever think that something isn’t well written, or you don’t enjoy it, please do express that opinion when asked for it – even if it’s about my work! Especially if it is – I’ll hear any feedback, good or bad, that has a decent explanation attached to it. What better way is there to improve?
Having excused my critical nature of other texts (not always negatively critical; criticism can be constructive and/or positive) and accepted that writers should and do have valid concerns about the quality of their work, what am I going to do about it? I’m going to start posting up examples! Show Don’t Tell and all that! I’m also going to be offering explanations of phrases like that – there’ll be links to a ‘definitions’ page to explain helpful looking phrases like that. If there’s no link then I haven’t added it to the page yet… #amateur I know, but this is a free to read blog!
What am I looking at this week? As noted above, and in several other posts, starting to write is pretty difficult, even when you have a galaxy of ideas swirling around in your head. The blank page just stares at you, daring you to sully its crisp perfection with your inept and poorly forms prose. I get it with nearly every blog entry I write, which is why they sometimes seem very Train Of Thought. What’s my top tip for getting past this problem?
It helps an awful lot to know who your characters are and what they want to achieve. As regular readers of this blog, and anyone who knows me, will know, I often play RPG’s with friends – I’m real old school about it so the platform I play on is paper & pen, tabletop. In the digital age people can play with others around the world in virtual environments using a wealth of technology to recreate physical interaction, but my best times have been sitting about a kitchen table with a bunch of mates and a few beers, laughing uproariously as one of us rolls a critical failure on a persuasion check and has to explain to an orc jai lure that he wasn’t actually soliciting him for sexual favours, or confounding a GM by refusing all plot hooks in a horror campaign and proceeding to play bridge with the other players – in character.
Why is that relevant? It means I create an impressive amount of characters, and see an equal impressive amount of them created by others. The good ones have more flaws than they have virtues, they have a drive or reason for being with the group and their backstory, no matter how short, always gives you as a player an idea of how they will behave in certain situations. The best characters always have a flaw or three, something that challenges them, that they have to hide, or that they have to overcome or make amends for. I often created less combat-focused characters, as newer players usually want to be the hero and do the most damage – all well and good, but that low Charisma score isn’t going to help get away with the murder you just committed because you wanted to prove what a bad-ass you were in town.
I’m also going to take from one of these RPG campaigns as an inspiration for my written example. The setting is the Wild West, but with a Lovecraftian Horror twist; demonic and nightmarish creatures are escaping from twisted, otherworldly planes and invading the local area! The campaign setting demands that we, as a party, go out and fight these horrors and stop the invasion. The motivation for the players is money, mainly, which is somewhat limited so we all came up with our own additional reasons. Below is a list of characters who will feature in this example story, and their reasons for doing so:
Hank McGuinness, US Marshall. Lost his wife when the invading creatures attacked his homestead and then turned to drink to drown his sorrows. At the beginning of the story, he drops the bottle and goes on a vengeful mission to destroy all of the monsters and their homes.
Sapphire, Saloon Girl. Having watched Hank slowly slide into despair she can’t stand by, as a long time friend, and let him get himself killed. She’s ready to stand by his side, mainly to make sure he makes it back alive.
Jude, Gunslinger. Showman and good at it, Jude wants to prove he’s the best their ever was, or will be. He joins the party hoping that they’ll find the biggest, meanest beast from the Other-world so he can bring it down – ideally, in a single shot with his eyes closed.
Javier Cortez, Bandido. Separated from his family at both, the Mexican born bandit grew up in Texas and quickly turned to stealing and rustling to get by. He made a name as a man good with explosives, but was brought in by Hank. However, rather than hang him, Hank gave him the chance to serve as an unofficial deputy. Having got bored in Hank’s absence, and the lack of violence that entails, he is only to happy to help him wreck vengeance upon the monsters invading the area.
Lilith, Psychic. A woman who has an air of something not right about her, Lilith has joined the party for her own inscrutable reasons. She says she’s on instruction from a higher power, a rival for the demonic lords sending their minions into the area, but from the way she talks the others don’t think she’s talking about the good Lord
John F. Cena, Railroad worker. As a black man, John has few options in life. His strong back and willing-to-work nature have given him a fairly easy ride so for, being able to look after himself if things got ugly. Traveling alone isn’t too smart though for a black in this time, so he’s joined the group for what he sees as a safe and steady job – or at least less dangerous than being afraid you’re going to wake up swinging from the gallows on account of your colour.
I have made some very minor embellishments but right away the party have a few strong bonds to encourage teamwork, and all them have good reasons to be doing what they’re doing. They are all also driven to continue with the campaign objective, so it’s not a case for any of them that they’re arbitrarily involved. These aspects of their characters are key in maintain party or group cohesion – really important in RPGs, but also for any group of main characters in fiction. As you can tell, we’re leaning towards a SciFi, Fantasy and Horror theme here, so that’s the kind of story I’ll have as an example. Fear not; there will be character development, friction and more complicated action than, “He shot it with his gun. It died.”
The story opening is below. I’m looking to Show Not Tell some of the characters’ motivations and attitudes as well as creating a convincing enough plot hook to entice people to read further. Hopefully I’ll do well. With the character backgrounds above I’ve got a good starting point for how to begin – “But Chad, you’re basing this off an RPG! The story’s already written so you know how it starts!” No, no, no, dear Reader; the campaign gives us the magnificent starting line, “The heroes start in town, ready for their first mission.” Hopefully I can manage better than that!
Saphi slouched over the bar, drawing patterns in a beer stain. It was barely past ten in the morning, and the saloon was still quiet. Except for a few regulars, or farm hands that started before sunrise, the place was empty. Getting the early shift meant more pay for Saphi, but it was awful dull.
The doors swung as a dark, dishevelled figure entered. He wore a rough, worn jacket over rough, worn trousers. A marshall’s badge glinted in the low light. The early risers made way as the town’s most regular patron stumbled to the bar.
“Hank! You been gone less than six hours!” Saphi caught the man as he nearly fell. He stunk of the night before; whiskey, shame and despair.
“Hay bail got cold,” Hank muttered. The barman wordlessly pulled out a new bottle of whiskey and set it down. It had been three weeks since Hank’s family died, and ten days since his savings had. He’d earned enough in the bank of karma with the townsfolk that they were willing to overlook that, for the time being.
“You gotta get past this, Hank-”
“Get past it? She’s dead, Saphi!” Hank slammed his hand down on the table. “That ain’t changing!”
“An’ is the drink gonna bring her back? Hell, you ain’t the only one lost people to those creatures!” Saphi glared at the broken man. “I told you it won’t yesterday, an’ the day before that, an’ the whole God-damned week before that!”
“It…it helps me forget. Sometimes,” Hank muttered and poured a measure of whiskey.
The doors swung open a second time, a shadow falling into the saloon. It wore riding boots, a poncho and a sombrero; every man present tensed as a sinister laugh echoed around the room, “That’s a funny looking gun, amigo. What’s a lawman doing drinking that mierda this time of day, huh?”
“We ain’t got no money,” the barman said slowly, hand reaching under the bar. He froze at a look from Hank.
“I’d know that laugh anywhere. What the fuck are you doing here, Javier?” the marshall spun on his stool and fixed the Mexican with a flat look. “I tol’ you, I ain’t doing any work any more.”
“I told him to come,” Saphi’s hand fell heavily on Hank’s shoulder and she gestured the other man to join them.
“He’s your friend, Hank, and so am I. We’re gonna help you get over this,” the saloon girl said carefully as Javier sat down beside the marshall.
“He’s a no-good son of a bitch; how’s he going to help me?” Hank’s words were hard but the edge had gone out of his voice. He reached for his glass but Javier grabbed it first, shooting the whole thing before handing it back with a greasy grin.
“You remember what I did when I found the puta that killed my parents?” Javier asked as Hank poured himself another measure.
“You strung him up and shoved a stick of dynamite up his ass,” Hank snatched a solitary laugh. “Lit the match on his own face.”
“And I barely knew my folks.”
“How long did he cry about it?” Saphi asked. Hank went to drink again but she pushed the glass and it slid across to Javier. The other man picked up and saluted her with it before emptying it again.
“I’m going to cry about a lot more if I don’t get breakfast,” Hank muttered darkly.
“No man started a day happy on this mierda,’ Javier shook his head.
“We’ll be outside – let us know when you’re ready to talk. Jack, don’t give him no more to drink after that one, y’hear?” Saphi nodded to Javier who shrugged and followed her outside, patting his old friend on the back as left.
Hank swiped the bottle of whiskey off the bar angrily, glaring through the glass at his reflection. They didn’t know loss, not like he did; this was all he had left. Javier was right though, it did taste like shit. Maybe getting angry was better than getting drunk, Hank reflected. Saphi was right too; he’d had more shit in his life than he deserved – he didn’t need to drink any more.
“You got a cork, son?” Hank drawled at the barman.
“Do you reckon he’ll listen?” Saphi asked, leaning on a decking post and shielding her eyes from the sun. More bounties were going up on the local board – none of them were going up on the human side; people didn’t want to kill each other that much with demons and other things roaming around.
“Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, señorita,” Javier shrugged, pulling a sheaf of something out of his boot and beginning to wrap it. When he’d secured it top to bottom he gently pulled a bottle from his other boot and trickled some of the clear contents into his bootleg container.
“You’re a great help, Javier. And don’t do that here!” the saloon girl scolded him when she saw what he was doing. “People could get hurt! I can’t believe you keep that in your god-damned boots!”
“Ain’t got a safer place – ain’t easy to come by,” Javier laughed again, a low and dirty noise that held as much threat as humour.
“You piss that stuff, we both know it,” Hank said brusquely. The others turned to look at him, one hand on the saloon door to stop it swinging. The bottle of whiskey was in his other, stoppered and unfinished. Saphi smiled and Javier chuckled again.
“So you got a plan then, hombre?”
“What’s it gonna be?” Saphi brushed her hair behind her ear as she straightened.
“I’m going get my gun and go to the mine those things came from,” Hank said grimly.
“We gonna blow it up?” Javier’s leaned forwards with undisguised enthusiasm.
“There ain’t no we.”
“There ain’t no choice in that,” Saphi squared off in front of the marshall. “You can barely walk, Mr McGuiness. There’s no way we’d let you go without us, and there’s no way you’re in any fit state to stop us!”
“I guess there’s a we then,” Hank grimaced, the closest he’d come to smiling in a long time. “We’re gonna blow that mine up. We’re gonna blow them all up.”
“Sounds like a blast,” Javier stood and held his hand out to Hank. The marshall hesitated a moment then shook it.
“Is he going to make jokes like that the whole time?” Saphi sighed.
“He ain’t that quick, but he’ll put the effort in when he can,” Hank nodded.
“Let’s get to the bounty board before he tries again then – there’ll be a map there. You guns upstairs in your room, where you asked me to keep it. Be a dear and get my things to,” Saphi smiled sweetly and gave a small curtsy before swaggering over to the bounty board.
“You need anything, hombre?” Hank asked Javier.
“I got a gun of the last guy who thought too much of himself amigo – but gracias. I’ll just meet you back here and get on with some brewin’.”
“Meet you here in a few, then,” Hank nodded and went back into the saloon. The barman didn’t stop him as he went up the stairs, probably glad he wasn’t causing trouble and asking for more drink. He knew where Saphi’s room was; he’d cried himself to sleep on the floor the night after…the night after his wife had died. He swallowed and started collecting up the things they needed. In the small, shuttered room, a small warm glow grew inside Hank; he was going use it to burn those bastards hotter than the fires of hell.
Just to reiterate my point about not stealing much from the campaign for this story apart from the loose framework of the plot none of the above happened in our replay session. This is all extracted and embellished upon based on the brief character backgrounds above. There’s also a bit of artistic license; this story won’t match exactly the events of the campaign, as I’m using it to highlight and demonstrate different elements, styles and tools of writing.
This section clearly sets out three of the characters as being close and loyal. I don’t think that is belaboured or overly emphasised; I hope the reader just gets a sense of that from their interactions. You get hints of Hank’s past, but more strongly the sense that he’s going to move past it, or at least move on from mourning it. There’s a clear goal for the characters – blowing up the mines – and their proactive about getting under way. I wanted that enthusiasm and energy there to bull through the initial inertia that Hank’s depression carries. So we have some characters, some plot and a bit of story. This is how you start creative fiction – hinting at events before (background, setting) introducing some key characters and showing how they interact and relate to one another (character introduction, character development) and letting the reader know what they want, and where the story’s going (character drive, character development, story development, plot development). I also hope it’s interesting!
If you have any questions please throw them at me, anything specific you want me demonstrate or highlight regarding writing, or if there’s something you find particularly difficult when writing creative fiction. I’ll try to explain, demonstrate and describe ways I find useful in overcoming those writing challenges!