Welcome to the first in a series of articles/videos where I talk about writing a good book. Advice, tips, examples and exercises that will help or challenge you to write a certain aspect of your story better, until it is at the very least...good. A good book is hard enough to find and a great book more so. However, what makes a great book depends on one’s opinion. Whether one likes a genre, a theme or even a character. However, most readers can agree on whether a book is good or not, bias cannot affect that.
I am going to show you how to write a good book.
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For the very article in this series, I will discuss the bigger picture. The entire overarching story that you plan to write, from the beginning to the end. I’ve discussed it many times before, but now I will explain in-depth what makes a good beginning, middle and end. Yes, there will be some generalisation, because the middle of one novel might be fundamentally different from another novel. Yet, that won’t stop me talking about what makes for good writing and good reading.
First, when plotting a story, you need to take what you already know and want and lay it all out. The story you think of, the story you dream of, is unique. Sure, there may be characters and scenes similar to many others, but the combination of that idea and your writing style will make a unique story. You need only feel confident enough about a scene or character to write it down.
It is very easy to take these daydreams for granted. All writers have an idea of what they want to write, but the anxiety of sticking to it, consistently writing, maintaining that passion, grinds these ideas down. That anxiety to write keeps you from putting a dream on paper. It keeps you from achieving a deep goal that you have had for a long time. However, you will notice I am not giving you instructions to sit down and write, even if that may be exactly what you need to do.
Forcing oneself to write a story rarely works out, that much is a fact. Forced writing is easy to spot and difficult to read. All I am saying is write your ideas out, not your novel. Finding the energy to write something is all on you. I have discussed methods that have worked for me in the past, but such topics don’t fit a series like this. Articles like that are just too airy-fairy.
Once you have the best ideas for your story, you need to lay them out chronologically. If you want to visualize this better, create a table in a new document and arrange these ideas row-by-row. Or, if you have paper/card on hand, write these out and place them on a table or corkboard. Whichever you feel is best.
Sorting these ideas out becomes a little more intense as you take a new parameter into account. The section/act you want to place these stories in. Does a scene read better in the beginning act, the mid-act or the final act? Some of these are more obvious, such as climatic battle. Some require a bit more thought.
For example, if you want to establish something in regards to a character, it is best to establish this at the beginning rather than the end. A mysterious character quickly loses their intrigue, no matter who they are. A reader wants to know what motivates them, which pushes them to take the steps they do. After all, if we take a simple plot such as John Wick, it would be rather silly to learn what the inciting incident was just before the credits roll. Not only does it take a lot of emotional impact from this scene, but also the whole movie.
Suddenly a revenge-fuelled action movie is turned into a drawn-out joke with a disappointing punchline.
Once you have your order sorted out, you no doubt notice there are a few gaps, or worse, an overabundance of scenes for specific acts. Such lopsided plots can be rectified by cutting out scenes or introducing more scenes in the right areas to balance things out. Whatever you choose to do, this stage of plotting a story involves a lot of imagination and a lot of clichés.
Now, you might be thinking, “Matthew, clichés are a bad thing, you must try to avoid them.” Any other day and I might agree with you, but when you are strapped for ideas and your imagination isn’t pulling its weight, a cliché can save you. When an idea does hit you, the cliché can be replaced with a more unique or entertaining scene. Don’t be afraid of clichés, be afraid of writing them poorly.
If you are ever thinking a cliché will bring your book down, I would like to remind you that ‘unique’ doesn’t necessarily mean good. There is a reason so many tropes work when backed by the right writer. You could take the most predictable characters and this most predictable plot and turn it into something...good.
You are plotting a story. You are creating new scenes and developing old scenes. Like pieces of a puzzle, some scenes will fit better between others, it then becomes a process of intuition, gut feeling. What you believe works, what you feel makes a scene better, and thus, the story. If you need help coming up with ideas, then you can talk with a friend, another fellow writer, or perhaps join my writer’s workshop.
Finally, you will have the skeleton of the plot laid out before you. Barebones. Hardly a speck of meat on them. Even some of these bones look a bit iffy, some are from an entirely different species. It’s messy, it’s lopsided, but it’s yours and it works. You have a plot, a story waiting to happen.
However, even the best-laid plans can be broken up by unforeseen problems. A contradiction of characters, of plot points. An error that has you scratching your head, going back-and-forth on whether you should try to fix the error or start again now that you know better. Oh, there’s that anxiety again. The fear of failure, of wasted time and broken dreams. It’s terrible and it’s all possible, BUT...it is so...very...easy...to overcome.
You can beat these pathetic plot-point problems by simply sharing them, discussing them, getting a second opinion. As a temperamental writer who has taught tens-of-thousands of other temperamental writers, I know that for most of you reading this that your biggest enemy is yourself. Many writers are so secure in their insecurity, confident about their lack of confidence, that their neuroticism will have them scrapping so much good writing over the slightest suggestive twinge of inadequacy.
It’s very difficult to spot the difference between these kinds of writers and the perfectionist. Well, to highlight which is which, the writer I am talking about will look at good writing, say it is bad and try again. A perfectionist will look at good writing, say it is good, but then try to write it better. I will say it again if you are not sure which of these you are, get a second opinion. Find another writer or ask a friend, let them read your story, let them give you an opinion.
A Good Beginning
You are trying to do three things in the beginning. Establish characters, establish the plot and sink your hooks into the reader. Establishing your characters should be easy, often the first few scenes are just there for the main character to demonstrate their personality. Establishing a plot can be done through mild exposition and then a clear inciting incident. Sinking your hooks into the reader is a little more of a challenge.
No, I am not going to give you a list of tips and advice you can use to do this. I have only one crucial rule that ensures I get the reader’s attention. I write what they want to read, what my whole story is about.
If you are writing an action story for action readers then your first chapters need some action. Even mild action, such as a single punch and a knockout, is enough.
For romance readers, a relatable spat between lovers or some heartfelt scene to set the tone of the novel.
For horror readers, a soft building of tension, an ever-present feeling of dread; perhaps a funeral or the presence of some unknown threat.
For science-fiction, some space-age technology or alien conspiracy.
For adventure, a sense of wondrous discovery, a promise of riches.
Take your favourite fantasy story, does the first chapter come off as a chapter from a fantasy story? Is there magic? Is there some mysterious figure? A tale of adventure? A mythical race of creatures? Knights? If you answered ‘yes’...who am I kidding, of course, you answered ‘yes’.
A chapter written as if from another story is not a good chapter. A good writer takes special care to establish what their story is about as soon as possible. You should too.
A Good Ending
A good ending can be many things. For many stories it is simply good triumphing over evil, the main character finding love, or reaching that goal they have been reaching for. Many others will choose the more harsh ending, where despite all the main character’s best efforts they end up missing the mark, dying of a disease or sacrificing themselves for the greater good.
Your ending depends on your story, your theme. If you are going for grim reality or an unstoppable antagonist of some kind, it stands to reason that the likelihood of anyone getting out alive is slim. However, if you are going for the light-hearted or good-beats-evil story, your ending will consist of an astounding victory over the bad guys and every side-character that lives goes on to achieve their dreams.
Something like that.
Once more, telling you how the ending of your story should go is like telling you the whole story. That leaves nothing for you to do when those last few chapters come along. You know how your story should end. What you need to know is how to write a good ending. The answer is simple; give the reader what they are not expecting/are expecting.
Let me clarify.
In a typical light-hearted story, the reader already knows what the ending will be. The reader knows that good wins. The reader just wants to know-how. Is it a struggle? Are there many close calls? Is it a big, awe-inspiring battle or a one-on-one fist-fight? Of course, this is all assuming if you have a fight in the end.
For the more general fiction writers, the same applies. That’s how you give the reader what they are expecting. Now, if you are a science-fiction writer or simply a writer that likes to give twist endings, your challenge is even greater as you need to now explain the twist. It can be difficult without exposition. Even if a twist is complex, you need to explain it simply.
Now, it is true that many twist endings aren’t satisfying. That is because these stories pull the rug out from under the reader. Suddenly things take a turn they cannot expect, so they are left confused and a little disappointed. After all, a few chapters before they were subconsciously expecting things to go a different way. However, that doesn’t make the ending bad.
Twist endings also have their select readers, some of them expecting a twist of some kind, but not sure what. Your job is to hide it well until it is revealed. That is what makes a good twist ending.
A Good Conclusion
Thank you for reading this piece on plotting a story for a good book. The advice I mention isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but for many writers out there it is exactly what they need. Writers need to tackle insecurities, they need to understand what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.
For many of you reading this, your writing is good, but it is being so unsure about the writing that holds you back. That is why it is always great to have a second opinion, either from a friend or family member or from a fellow writer.
With that said, the offer still stands to take part in my writer’s workshop. Depending on the tier you choose, you will gain access to the writer’s discussion group, where you can ask questions and even submit small sections of your writing for a review. No matter which tier you choose, you will receive access to all my writing courses, which tackle specific genres and subjects that you may be interested in.
With all that said, this is only the first in a series of articles in the making. Be sure to keep an eye out for the next.
As always, good day, goodnight and happy writing!