Writing Your Rough Draft

The rough draft is my favorite part. This is where you can just let it all go. The whole point of the first draft is to get your ideas on paper. There's time to worry about commas, spelling and all that stuff later.

Many elementary schools focus way too much on the basic mechanics of writing (the proper grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure you need), but they forget to teach the application of those skills. In other words, they don't teach you how to tell a good story. How to make your words important enough that someone would want to read them. Having good mechanics is useless if you're not writing anything interesting. So here are a few pointers to get you started.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Characters are the heart of any story. Many writers start with an idea for a character and then ask "What if" questions to build a story around them.

Characters can usually be broken into three categories. The protagonists (good guys); the antagonists, the people who stir up all the trouble in the story (bad guys); and finally, the minor characters, the ones who help move the story along, but who are less developed than the main characters. You, as the writer, want to find out as much about these people as you can, even the minor ones. So here are a few questions to ask yourself when you're thinking about your main characters.

  • Is this person male or female?
  • What is his/her name? You would be surprised at how something as simple as a name will make them more real.
  • How old is he/she?
  • What does he/she look like? I like to make a list of hair color, eye color, details like that. However, keep in mind that this is more for your own use right now. When you are writing your story, you don't want to just write down a list to describe your character's appearance. More information on this a little later on.
  • What is his/her job? Or what chores does he/she have to do?
  • Where does he/she live?
  • What clothes does he/she wear?
  • How does your character view him/herself? Pretty, smart, artistic, weak, something else?
  • Who are his/her friends?
  • What does your character want? This question will most affect the plot of your story. Your job as the author is to keep your characters from getting what they want for as long as possible, then either help them get it in the end, or throw some other kind of twist in there – maybe they thought they wanted one thing, when they actually wanted something else entirely. It's all up to you. In this world, you are the boss. Without a goal, there is no story to tell, so don't give your characters resolution of the goal until your story is truly ending.
  • What are some things in his/her past that effect who he/she is today? This is something else that might affect your story dramatically. A person's history is part of what motivates him, so give this some thought.

Those are just a few examples of questions to get you started. Try thinking of some more that will help you really get to know your character. Imagine you're meeting a person for the first time. What kinds of questions would you ask her? You can use the Advanced Character Sheet to help you create a character that is fully rounded if you prefer.

Characters come from all sorts of places. People you know, people you read about or see on TV. The mother in your story may be based on your mom. You may base your main character on yourself. All those things are okay. In fact, when you first start writing, the best place to find characters is in the people around you. Just keep in mind that your imagination has to fill in the holes. Say one of your characters is based on your best friend. In your story, you have that character come under attack by a dragon. Chances are, if your real best friend saw a dragon hovering above his house, he'd freak out. I know I would. But the character, who is based on your friend, might have to be a bit braver than that in order for the story to work. You have to use your imagination and try to figure out what your character would do given each unique situation. Would he run? Would he stay and fight? You can use the people around you for your stories, but at some point those characters are going to act differently from the people in your real life, and that's okay, in fact, you want that. Your characters will start to take on a life of their own.

There are other ways to make your characters come to life. One way is to pay attention to the way they move, or the gestures they make. Have you ever met someone who gestured a lot when they talked, or chewed their nails, or spoke so softly you could hardily hear them? This told you a lot about what that person was like before you ever really knew anything about them. Just like in real life, a character's body language and mannerisms give them away. Mannerisms are the unconscious things that people do everyday, like tapping your pencil on the desk when you're thinking, or toying with your hair when you're nervous.

An example of an effective way to use body language:

"What are you doing here? I told you, you're too little to play with us," John said, with a sigh.

Shane looked down at the ground, and scraped the toe of his sneaker into the dirt. "I only wanted to play."

John's shoulders slumped at the pleading note in his brother's voice. "Okay, okay, you can play with us. But try not to give the ball to the other team this time."

Shane looked up from the ground, with a huge grin that displayed his missing front tooth. "I promise."

An example of an effective way to use mannerisms:

"Hello, my name is Caleb."

The strange girl did not answer, just continued to stare at Caleb's horse, and chew thoughtfully on her lower lip.

Finally, she replied, "I'm Sally." She spoke so softly that Caleb had to lean forward to hear her clearly, and she did not look him directly in the eye. "Can I pet your horse?"

Notice that the references to body language and mannerisms are subtle. You don't want to beat the readers over the head with it, just give them an idea of what that person is like. In the first example, you get the feeling that Shane is younger than John, and that John is annoyed with him. The dialogue also gives this away, but the body language makes it easier to picture. In the second example, Sally seems shy, maybe even a little nervous. Though none of this is directly said, her manner gives her away.

Finally, another thing to think about for character development is the way they speak, and think. This comes with a lot of practice, but I'll touch on it here just to give you something to think about.

Everyone speaks differently. Someone highly educated will use bigger words and speak more formally, like, "Actually, I believe the true nature of the villain we face is openly displayed in his treachery."

A small town, lifetime fisherman might speak more simply and compare things to fish or water: "That man's as slippery as a cod fish."

Or the fisherman's thoughts might be: Her voice was loud and angry, like the tides crashing against the shore.

Other ideas for unique dialects and methods of speech you may want to toy with:

  • A speech impediment like: a lisp, stuttering, or "R"s and "L"s sound like "W"s. Example: "lollipop" becomes "woweepop."
  • Character uses too many words when she talks. She tends to drone on and on when she made her point ages ago.
  • Character regularly goes off track in his speech in a distracted sort of way. May begin one thought, then jump to something else, then to something else completely unrelated again and lose sight of what he was trying to say to begin with. Other characters could become frustrated with this character and constantly have to rein him in and get back on the topic at hand.
  • Character uses a lot of fillers in her speech such as "like" or "uh" or "um."
  • Character mumbles and is incomprehensible at times.
  • Character uses nicknames for everything and shortens words in a Southern fashion. Or character may use a lot of clichés, similes, or metaphors in his speech, turning everything into some kind of old saying.
  • Character may correct other people all the time and drive them crazy.
  • Character may use her hands excessively during speech
  • Character may have an accent (such as Indian, French, English, German, Irish).

Get the idea? Mess around a little bit with this. Pay attention to the different people around you and how they speak. Does your teacher use words your mother does not? Does your dad talk a lot about his work? Do your grandparents use phrases you've never even heard before? With lots of practice and listening closely to how people speak, you'll pick up on it sooner than you think. Writers are observers of human behavior. I like to take my notebook with me everywhere so I can jot down ideas or observations on the fly. Journaling is a good habit to get into if you want to improve your writing skills.

PLOT

Plot is the vehicle that moves your story along. Your job as the writer is to get your character stuck in a situation, get her more stuck, throw impossible obstacles in her way, and then when it all seems hopeless, show her a way out, and, if you're so inclined, hand her a happy ending.

Take the example I used in the previous section about someone who finds a treasure map hidden in his attic. To really make it interesting, let's pretend that this person, we'll call him Caleb, is broke. In fact he is so poor he's about to lose his house, or his only healthy horse, or something else important to him. The treasure map is just what he needs to help him out of his troubles. So, with map in hand, he begins his journey. The map is the first situation, the first turn of events that gets the reader interested. Then we throw in the troll infested mountains and the enchanted woods, and the people he meets along the way. Sometimes these people may help, sometimes they do not, but chances are they exist as further obstacles in Caleb's path.

Eventually Caleb reaches the treasure. Does he find what he's looking for? Is he rich? Is he happy after that? Does the map turn out to be nothing but a lure by a witch who captures him, and then he discovers that he isn't really human himself the way he thought he was? Maybe money wasn't really what he needed after all? Does Caleb die during his journey, giving the story a sad ending? However you decide to bring the story to a close, it must have closure. A sense that most of the mysteries have been solved, changes occurred and lessons were learned, and one way or another, we can stop worrying about Caleb.

And that, my friend, is a plot. Caleb wants something, he goes after it, obstacles get in his way, and at last there is some form of closure.

Plot is usually described as a curve or a hill. The beginning is the curve up the hill, the climax, or highest action point in the story, is the top of the hill, and the ending comes at the base of the downhill slope.

I prefer to think of it as a roller coaster ride. The beginning of a story is similar to being strapped into the seat and starting the climb up to the first big curve. Your stomach is churning a little. You're excited. You hit the apex of the hill and for that split second, paused on top of that coaster ride; you feel a moment of awe and fear. Then the drop starts, your stomach rides up into your throat, and you're sure you'll never make it through. There are many ups and downs during the ride, moments of lower stress and moments of higher stress. At last, the ride is over, the car comes to a stop, and as you get out, your knees feel wobbly.

Another thing to keep in mind when writing is the pace of the story. Pacing is how fast or slow the story moves. You don't want the story to be boring, but you don't want nonstop action without any room to breathe. Compare it to running on a track. If you sprint around the track quickly, you're going to wear yourself out; if you go too slowly, you may never get finished. You want to keep a nice steady pace, fast enough to keep people interested, but slow enough so as not to wear yourself out. Most stories vary between three speeds, the slower beginning where you're conserving your energy, then the pace picks up as the action comes in, then it's up and down hill for a while, with a few slower moments in between when the characters can rest, then the rapid sprint to the end. You can look at the stories you read now for an idea of what pacing is.

Let's take Harry Potter for example. The books always start in his aunt and uncle's house, where his cousin is making him miserable. Then there is usually a little misadventure that begins to pick up the pace of the story. He inflates his aunt, or is attacked by dementors. Then he's off to Hogwarts and within a few pages, he's started to uncover a mystery. As the mystery unfolds, we see Harry trying to pass tests, put up with professor Snape, and play Quidditch, in a series of ups and downs, like a roller coaster, until the climax comes; the moment he puts all the pieces together and faces his greatest foe. The ride comes to an end at last with Harry victorious in some way, or at least the immediate threat is resolved.

Pick up any other book you've read recently, or even short story, and break it down like that. What happens first, second, etc. Are there moments of intense action followed by moments where the characters get a break? Think about this as you start to write.

Finally a note on the ending. The ending of a book is the part your readers are most likely to remember. You want the end to occur as quickly after the climax as possible, and have a strong impact. You don't want to keep dragging the ending on and on. After the main character gets what they want, tie everything together, and type THE END.


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