I Are Wants To Wright Good
Basics for Beginners
By Average Joe
There's a whole lot of fan fiction authors out there. Countless scores
of people have put to words what they think about nearly every video game,
TV show, movie, comic book and what have you that is in existence today.
Yet only a few of them really get any serious recognition. How
do they do it? What's their magical secret of uber-happiness that the
rest of the mediocre authors (myself included) seem to lack?
In other words, how does one write a phenomenal-or at least fairly good-story?
Well, really, there is no secret. Ask any author what basic tips they have and they'll all tell you pretty much the same thing. Ask any good author what esoteric knowledge they have, and they'll tell you a bit more, but it's nothing that you probably couldn't figure out on your own.
So what secrets are these? What arcane wisdom do they have?
Really, it just boils down to common sense. Know your language. Know your characters. Know your audience. Know your direction. Be patient.
Section 1: Know your language
Know your language. Sure, seems easy enough. You speak it every day, after all. You write in it all the time. You can even recite every letter of the alphabet right off the top of your head. But really, there's more to it than that. Much more.
The first part is to know the actual words. Spelling is important. Vitally so. If you spell a word incorrectly, the effect that you were going for will be lost. Many people can read over an incorrect spelling without giving it a second thought because they don't know how to spell the word, either. Yet many words are spelled similarly to other words, and if it happens to look like one of those other words, the reader may read it as the wrong word, then get confused when it doesn't make any sense. Then they will have to go back and read the passage over again, wasting their time when they could be reading further along. An incorrectly spelled word can completely detract from the whole; avoid misspellings and typographical errors (typos) at all costs.
The second part is to know how the words are used. Your thesaurus may carry forty synonyms for the word you're looking for, yet perhaps only two can be used in the manner that you are intending it. You, as the author, will have to know which words you will be able to use, and if you don't know how to use the word correctly in a sentence, I would suggest you not use it. Sentence structure is also vitally important. If you did not pay much attention in your English class, you probably should have. The best help in this particular area is to read. A lot. Read things that will challenge your intellect. If you're not learning new words, new ways to write a sentence, or how subtleties and plots and various other nuances of writing work, then you're probably wasting your time. A good author is always a good reader. If you don't like reading, then you shouldn't be forcing others to read your writing.
The third part is flavor. "Variety is the spice of life," as the old adage goes. Flex your creative muscle and use a different word for what you're trying to say, or figure out a new way to write that tired old rehash of a standard sentence. Just don't go breaking the rules of the language; this is fiction, not poetry. Even in this article, there are numerous types of sentences, varying from the standard "subject, predicate" to more intricate sentence structures. Yet all of them follow the basic rules of the language, in this case, American English. Some things that will help with this are reading, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, and two absolutely invaluable books: a dictionary and a thesaurus. I recommend a dictionary of 200,000 or more entries, and a thesaurus of 30,000 or greater unique entries. No one has absolute mastery of every single word in the English language. Know how to use these books, and use them often.
Section 2: Know your characters
So you know the names of the people you're going to be writing about. You may even know what they are supposed to look like. But take into consideration that perhaps the reader does not know who the characters are or what they look like. Think of every reader as a blank slate in this particular area.
When you introduce your characters, be sure to paint a picture in the reader's mind of what they look like. Humans are mostly visual creatures, and having an image of the character is vital. The physical description is often the bias for how the reader views the character, and can make for some interesting plot developments. Characters can look like people following the ways of Good, but in fact actually be the leaders of Evil. Contrasts like this can be a good thing.
Important note: Contrasts of any kind are often a good thing. Contrasts are often given by posing one extreme against another. Giving sharp contrasts between characters makes them stand out more. Giving sharp contrasts in the backgrounds makes them stand out more. Giving sharp contrasts to established characters from what they are supposed to be is bad. This goes back to knowing your characters.
Know your characters personalities, and play them up in your writings. Sure, you can say that a character is constantly cheerful, but if they are always taking cheap shots at the main character, people will just think of them as sarcastic or bitter, not constantly cheerful. If a character is very moody, have them act moody. Don't have them say something like, "Hi, pal, it's a really nice day out, isn't it?" unless you're trying to make it sound like they're acting strangely. Stick with a personality trait unless the situation calls for them to act differently.
Early on in a story you'll have to force a character to act a certain way. Because there's no history to base their current actions on, you'll have to decide for the character how they are going to act. As the story progresses, you'll find them making decisions on their own, usually concurring with actions they've taken previously. This is not necessarily a problem with characters established from previous written works or games. By the time they enter your story, they already have a personality, and if you want them to act differently, you'll need to give their actions a rationale. Rationales can include alternate realities, events before or during the story, or basing it off a previous work that had the characters acting in the manner intended.
Also, have your characters interact believably with each other and their environment. Having an obese character run hurdles in the hot sun for four hours is unbelievable enough, but having them be cheerful to a bitter enemy immediately afterward is completely unfeasible. Granted, this is a bit of an extreme form of interaction implausibility, but, as intoned in the note on contrasts, giving the extremes is what makes things stand out.
Now, during the course of the adventure, the reader should get to know your characters. After reading your work, do you feel you got to know your characters better? If you said yes, then you should probably work a lot harder on exposing what your characters think and how they react to the world around them. If you said no, then at least you're not lying to yourself, and you should put forth even more effort into showing through thoughts, speech and action what your character is really like.
Section 3: Know your audience
Do you know who you're writing for? The audience for a fan fiction usually consists of other fans. As such, a majority of your readers will want you to stick with the previously established "facts". Granted, a skilled author can deviate from this, bending or even breaking the rules and still look good doing it, but any novice writer should stick with what they know. Rewriting the already widely-known history of a world is very difficult, and should not be attempted by the unskilled.
This is not to say that you can't write anything about previous timelines. There are many holes in history, and you can use this to your advantage. Numerous fan fictions have been written about the many gaps, and yet they still manage to fit within the established boundaries of the fictional world. All you need to do is find one of these gaps, and choose to fill it.
Once you feel more comfortable with your capabilities, then it is probably safer to be rewriting history. I only say this because many new authors have started out with a history rewrite and had their "careers" end before they started. A very limited few have been successful, but I, again, strongly discourage the more difficult tasks until you feel more comfortable with your skills.
The audience's intellectual level is also important. You must know your audience so that you can target just above their current intellectual level. If you're below the audience's level, they'll disregard you as being unintelligent. If you're at the audience's level, then they will have no problems reading your work, but will not learn anything particularly special from it. If you're far above the audience's level, they will be unable to read it at a comfortable speed and stop not too far into the story. Yet if you're just barely above the audience's level, they will be able to read comfortably and learn, as well.
These rules do not particularly apply to a humorous piece. Humor must be specially targeted, and the author must be prepared for a bit of flack, due to different opinions on what "humor" is. A humorous story can be uproarious to one, yet rather dull to another. Intellectual levels do not particularly apply because some people enjoy lowbrow humor while others prefer dry intellectual wit. When writing a piece of fiction that is intended to be funny, please keep this in mind, as you may receive mixed signals on whether the work is good or not.
And don't destroy your fan base. The details on how this is done are rather sketchy, though tactlessly doing the exact opposite of what everyone was expecting and not giving any explanation or resolution to unusual situations are a couple of ways that this might be done. If you're going to go against the grain, give a good reason for doing so. Killing off a very likable main character can be a high point of a story, if done tastefully. Having a character suddenly hit by a bus, and then the other characters simply moving on without giving it a second thought would be tactless. Having that same character interpose themselves between the world and a death ray in order to keep everything from being destroyed could be a good way to end the character's life, if that's the type of life they led.
Section 4: Know your direction
Many stories get rather dull after a while. You're reading them, the text itself is good, but it just seems to be going nowhere. This comes from the author not knowing their direction.
What do you mean, "Know your direction"? Well, every complete story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You, as the author, have to draw the map for the reader to get from the beginning to the end. As such, you need to have at least a general idea of where you want to go. Some people can write where they just pick a direction and go, but they often appear to be doing just that; there is no sense of purpose to the writing. Try to get a general idea what you want to accomplish. You don't need to outline the whole plot right at the outset (although, for some people, it helps), but at least know what you want to say with it.
As for the middle, sure, you could just go straight through the plot without deviating even slightly. "There's a bad guy. There's a good guy. Bad guy and good guy fight. Good guy wins. The end." Sure, you could do a story like that. But frankly, not only would it be uninteresting in the long run, but there could be no long run. Stories that don't meander around the main plot are typically very short. And those of that type that aren't short, aren't read.
Yet if you add complications to the main plot, it not only becomes more interesting, but it gets a bit longer, as well. Let's work with the previous example. "There's a bad guy. There's a good guy. The good guy needs a special weapon to beat the bad guy. Good guy gets the special weapon. Bad guy and good guy fight. Good guy wins." There we've added a complication. The good guy now has to do something else in order to further the plot. Let's add another complication. "There's a bad guy. There's a good guy. The good guy needs a special weapon to beat the bad guy. Good guy gets the special weapon. Bad guy hides. Good guy finds him. Bad guy and good guy fight. Good guy wins." Though it's still rather dull, this plot is far more interesting than the first one, no? You can even compound complications. "There's a bad guy. There's a good guy. The good guy needs a special weapon to beat the bad guy. The weapon is hidden, and only one guy knows where it is. One guy wants a stick from a special forest. Good guy gets the stick. Good guy gets the information. Good guy gets the special weapon. Bad guy hides. Good guy finds bad guy. Bad guy and good guy fight. Good guy wins." Not too hard, now is it? Now all you need is some actual text describing the surroundings and the characters' actions, perhaps some dialogue, and you've got yourself a story.
Yet, as I had said before, you do not need to map out the entire plot just like that. First of all, there are other ways to map out the plot. Ask other authors what techniques they like to use, if any. Second of all, not all authors map out the plot. Some just have a general idea of where they'd like to go, what they'd like to do, and what they want you as the reader to see in their story.
Section 5: Be patient
Patience is invaluable. It takes time to write a good story. It takes time to get fan approval. It takes time to develop writing skills. And while all this time is passing, you'll need to wait.
Don't expect to get your story done to the best of your ability on your first draft. There are probably many changes you can make that will further the plot, add character depth, make the scenery more realistic, and plenty of other little things, as well. Read over everything you've written. Read it silently, read it aloud, read it to yourself, read it to someone else. Just read it. Often. You'll need to be able to distinguish what is good and what works from what reeks of fetid donkey urine and works as well as a triangular wheel. Don't look at your story as if you wrote it. If you do, then you're bound to think it's just fine as is, and not make any changes to it. Look at the piece as if someone you don't even know wrote it, and make corrections accordingly. Never expect to be without need of corrections. Even the best authors need adjustments to their works. They often get these done before submission of the final draft, yet many still insist that they could have done more. When doing these corrections, though, try to avoid over-correcting. Many works have been ruined by authors that were overzealous in correcting mistakes.
Don't worry if you don't get any feedback right off. It takes time for your piece to be recognized for what it is, especially if you start off in a thoroughly explored area. There are many excellent authors that have never received any fan appreciation at all, and some that have received only one or two short notes to the effect of, "Hey, I liked your story. You should write more." In fact, a majority of readers send no response at all to a majority of pieces they read.
Be humble. If you start off thinking you're a great author, you'll never be as good as you could be. You won't seek corrections as often, you won't ask for help, and so, you won't develop. As I said, it takes time to develop writing skills. Be patient, keep writing, and the skills will develop. Just be sure to listen to your readers.
Your readers often have a good deal of information, as well. You know what you want them to read, and they know what they want to read. If these two happen to coincide, great. If not, then you have to find out how to incorporate what you want them to see with what they want to see. This is why you must listen, as well. The better readers will have suggestions to help you improve. Most often they are not voiced, but when they are, listen. Don't completely change just to service that one person, but keep their suggestion in mind while you write.
While disparaging remarks are meant to discourage you from writing again, ignore them. Take them, instead, as encouragement to improve. If they say you're not very good, then practice writing enough to be so good that you can wipe that comment in their face like the soiled baby-wipe it is. Every author can improve. You can, too. If you're determined enough to do so, you can develop your skills to world-class levels.
But this takes practice.
Practice takes time.
And time takes patience.
Be patient, young author, your time will come.
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