Writing a Story: Steps, Tips, and Ideas
The Writing Life
I find writing fiction to be a creative, challenging, frustrating, discouraging, satisfying and very fulfilling activity—and often all of these on the same day! It’s often sad to see the problems that exist when a piece of writing is finished and then read the next day with fresh eyes. Occasionally, it's exciting to discover that my creation matches my intent. Despite the difficulties, I enjoy the creative process and the challenge of trying to express my thoughts in written words.
Writing enables me to explore new ideas. Observation and research are the starting points for me, but then my imagination takes over. I love those occasions when I'm so caught up in my ideas that I enter another world. This state can’t be forced but is wonderful when it occurs.
There are many ways to get topic ideas for stories and many ways to actually write a story. In this article I describe methods that work for me and share suggestions from writing teachers and well-known story writers. The "story" could be a short one or a longer tale. I also share a poem that I wrote about a writer and her story. The poem may sound like a fantasy, but for me it contains a large dose of reality.
Steps in Writing a Story
Writers have their own preferences for the best way to write a story. "Rules" don't have to be followed in creative writing. According to many writing teachers, however, an efficient way for beginners to create a story is to follow the steps below. More experienced writers may blend steps or change some of them.
John Dufresne Shares Advice for Writing a Short Story
Exploring the Steps
In general, the following activities occur in each step of the writing process. Individual writers may have their own ideas about what should be done in each of the steps, however.
- Prewriting: the writer chooses a topic for their story and creates a brief plot outline or synopsis. They also decide on the setting and create a rough outline of the characters. In addition, they decide on the intended audience for the story and the voice to be used.
- Writing: a person creates the first draft of their story. During this stage, the person is more concerned with the actual story than with the mechanics of writing. The decisions made in the prewriting step are the basis for the writing step. As the story progresses, though, the writer may change some of their previous decisions.
- Editing or Revision: the writer makes alterations in order to improve the story. Although glaring spelling and grammar errors may be corrected during this step, the emphasis is on editing the story instead of the writing mechanics.
- Proofreading: the writer checks for spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar errors. They also look for sentence structure and flow problems.
- Publishing: the writer shares the story with others in some way.
Some people may add additional steps to this sequence. After the editing step is finished, a writer may ask for peer reviews from other writers. Based on these reviews, the person may re-edit the story. In addition, after they have proofread their work, they may ask someone whose skills they trust to also proofread the story.
Prewriting: Generate Ideas
There are many strategies that can be used to come up with ideas for writing topics. Some of the ones that I use are described below.
- Walk in new environments and observe people, places, buildings, plants, animals, and objects. Use as many senses as possible in your observations.
- Record your observations and thoughts in a small notebook that you carry around with you. Make sure that you have quick and easy access to the notebook and a pencil or pen.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Even advertisements and posters seen on a walk can provide inspiration for a writer.
- Record interesting snippets of conversation that you hear.
- Also record interesting words or phrases that enter your mind during the day. These may provide inspiration for future writing.
- Record your dreams in your notebook. Keep a pen and paper beside your bed so that you can write a description of a dream. Write the description as soon as you wake up and before you get out of bed. Memories of dreams fade quickly.
- Use brainstorming or mind mapping techniques to think of writing ideas.
- Keep a diary or journal. Although many people use these words interchangeably, some use a diary to describe daily events and a journal to describe thoughts and feelings.
Learn New Facts to Get Writing Ideas
- Read nonfiction widely to learn new facts and stimulate the imagination. This is not as simple as it sounds. There is a huge amount of information available in books, magazines, and newspapers and on websites. Most of us need to limit our reading so that we have time to write. This means that we need to choose which information sources to explore and which to ignore.
- Listen to the news or read news reports in a printed source or online.
- Try to get information from a variety of sources instead of relying on the same newspaper or the same website all the time.
- Visit a library. Libraries are often a wonderful source of novel information.
- If you have time, attend special events to observe or learn new things. Events in which you actively participate may be even more valuable than ones in which you are a passive observer.
- Read fiction in order to discover how other writers handle writing challenges.
Get Writing Topic Ideas From Photography and Art
- Carry a lightweight camera with you when you leave your home in order to take photos. Looking for good items to photograph improves observational skills. As you examine your photos, you may get new ideas for your writing.
- Photograph familiar objects from unusual angles or examine objects with a magnifying glass to get a different view.
- Using the filters in a digital imaging program to play with a photo may enable it to "speak" to you in a new way.
- Look at photos in your family photo album to trigger memories and thoughts.
- Doodle, sketch, or draw as a way to stimulate your imagination. Tell a story in your illustrations. Creating collages and mini-collages from random items can also help to generate ideas.
Create the Story Synopsis or Outline
At some point, the preliminary exploration for ideas must end if a person wants to write a story. The writer must eventually create a written synopsis or outline for their story (or a mental one in the case of some writers). Some people may be able to simply start writing on a sheet of paper or a computer screen and find that a story appears. For many people, though, a plan is helpful before the story is actually started.
The degree of detail in the outline is up to the writer. Some writers find that a brief overview is sufficient. Others prefer to flesh out characters and/or create a detailed overview of the plot, especially when they hope to write a long story.
The Value of Persistence in Writing
Writing: Create the Story
- Write your story—or a section of the story—while trying to ignore your inner critic. Start in the middle or the end of the story if that works best for you.
- Write random words, nonsense, or stream of consciousness thoughts—whatever pops into your mind—if you're having trouble starting your story.
- Describe the objects around you if you don't know what to write. (What do the keys of the keyboard feel like? What sound are they making? What type of mark does your pen or pencil make on the paper? What can you hear or smell? How do you feel at the moment? etc.) Writing the first words or paragraph can help you clarify your thoughts and also help you produce the next section of your composition. This section may be more closely related to your story. It may even give you an idea for a new story.
- Describe a character that you know, have observed, or have created. Some story writers find that the best way to start their stories is with a character description. Plot can flow from character.
- Don't worry too much about spelling or punctuation at this stage, unless these are essential in order for you to understand what you write. Your writing can be revised and improved later.
- Try to resist the urge to edit and proofread until the first draft of the story is finished.
Editing and Proofreading
Once a person has edited and proofread their story on their own, it's a good idea to ask someone else to do the same thing. Trusted acquaintances can be a valuable asset for a writer. Constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement can help the writer to grow. It's important to ask more than one person to review a story, though. Different reviewers may notice different strengths and weaknesses in a story, which can be both useful and thought provoking. If all the reviewers notice the same problems with the story, that's useful information, too.
A writer may be convinced that their work is error free. It they ask someone else to proofread it, however, they may be surprised to discover that they haven't noticed spelling or grammar errors. There is a strong tendency for writers to see what they expect to see on a page instead of what is actually there. They may even discover that they've been consistently making a grammar, spelling, or punctuation error for a long time without ever realizing that it was an error.
A reviewer may also notice factors such as confusing or ineffective sentences, descriptions, or explanations. In addition, they may point out style, flow, plot, or character problems.
If there is no one available to review the writer's work, it's important that the writer moves away from the story for a while before it's published. (This is a good idea even if a reviewer is available.) When the person returns to their story with fresh eyes, they may see problems that they never noticed before. I often do.
Publishing a Story
Publishing a story can be the hardest part of the writing process for a new writer or for one who lacks confidence. A completed story can be left in a notebook or on a computer and kept private, which may be what the creator wants. Many writers want to be read, though, even though the process can be intimidating.
"Publishing" doesn't necessarily mean sending a story to a traditional publisher. There are many ways to show people the story. For example, the writer may show or read the story to a friend, relative, or writing group, hand it in to a teacher, post it on a blog or online writing site, enter it in a competition, submit it to a publisher, or create an e-book.
A Poem About a Story Writer's Experiences
In my poem below, a writer is disappointed to discover the flaws in her story, which seemed wonderful before she examined it closely. I sometimes go through this experience too, although I’m never as confident as the narrator at the start of the poem. However, like the narrator, if I “walk away” from a piece of writing that is giving me problems, I often find fresh inspiration and think of new ways to solve the problems. Tenacity is important for a writer.
“There’s a hole in your plot,” the critic said,
so I dove right in to see,
eager to investigate
and prove the critic wrong.
The story pulled me in at once
and steered me on my way.
I entered scenes with confidence
to meet my characters again.
Suddenly I had to stop,
confused by ambiguity,
embarrassed by silly wordiness
and struck by lack of clarity.
Then grammar errors screamed their worst
and claimed that I wrote carelessly.
A subject was disagreeing with its verb
and Possessive was missing Apostrophe.
A run-on sentence roared ahead
until stopped by Dangling Participle.
Sentence Fragment had lost its clause
and was subordinate and incomplete.
My characters tried to speak to me
but I rushed by them all,
afraid to hear some more complaints
and find Lack of Realism, too.
Miserably, I soldiered on,
and found more problems as I went;
language that was trite and dull,
and purposeless redundancies.
It was a sad state of affairs for sure,
though not too hard to fix, I thought—
but then I saw the major flaws
produced by Plot Inconsistencies.
I surfaced sad though not forlorn,
but chastened and depressed.
A major rewrite, nothing less
was needed for success.
I walked away despondently,
the story left behind, untouched;
but soon the urge to re-create
returned to give encouragement.
The next day I was keen to start again
and ready to progress,
Despite the pain, I know what’s true—
Write On for Happiness.
© 2011 Linda Crampton