to go about telling it, sometimes they are the story - they want to write about something interesting that’s happened to them in their lives, but again they don’t know where to begin. I thought I’d go talk about some of the barriers that people have told me stand in their way
and offer my thoughts on how to overcome them.
Read and Write
Sounds obvious, but it’s a good idea to read as much as possible, especially in the genre(s) that you want to write in and also practice your writing. By reading, you will be learning how other writers tell a story and you will also be constantly expanding your vocabulary, which will you help you to tell your story more effectively. With regular writing, you will find newer and better ways of describing people, places, thoughts and feelings. Imagination
might be something we are either blessed with or not, but writing is a skill that we can learn and constantly improve. You wouldn’t pick up a random musical instrument and attempt to perform in front of a crowd and it’s no different with writing. Writing improves dramatically with regular practice. Don’t be disheartened by early attempts, just keep practising.
But how do you actually tell a story?
You need at least three things:
A plot - what happens
A setting - where it happens
Characters - who it happens to.
Have you ever been out somewhere and someone is telling a funny story or a joke and you find yourself gripped and laughing in anticipation at the outcome? That is an example of a good story teller. They have the plot - what is going to happen - a setting, and characters, and they tell it in such a way that it grips your imagination and has you trying to guess what
happens next. If you have your story idea, you already have your basic plot. Now you need to come up with the best way of telling it. Like I said before, I think the best idea is to practice at writing. Try to write a little something every day. Write about the weather if you
like - but don’t just say it was raining. Describe the rain, how it moved the trees or how puddles formed and delighted the passing school children. And tomorrow, if it’s still raining, describe it differently.
Setting the scene - remember all your senses
An easy mistake to make is to just describe what you see. To make your story real, you need
to describe all your relevant senses - what you can hear, what you are touching, taste, smell and how you (or your characters) feel.
Imagine your character has just driven to the beach, describe what it was like to someone who hasn’t been. Don’t just say ‘Jane went to Clacton’. Anyone who’s never been there won’t be able to picture it. You could say something like:
Jane strutted along the wide concrete promenade, dodging dog walkers and families dawdling along with their straggling toddlers. The sickly scent of fish and chips filled the air and grew stronger as she approached the centre of town. An irritating cacophony of bleeps and 80s music boomed from the amusements on the pier and joyful teenage screams mingled with the screech of the gulls wheeling and bickering overhead. Jane stopped for a
moment, her heart pounding. Despite the cold wind, she felt hot. Her throat was dry and her hands felt clammy. Was she doing the right thing? She pulled out the tattered sheet of paper from her pocket and unfolded it. A name and a grainy black and white photograph. She was at the cafe now but paused to examine her reflection in the steamed up window. The wind had ruined her hair and she should have worn her other jacket. Well, it’s now or never, Jane thought. She drew in a large breath and pushed open the door. Her pulse quickening, she walked up to the counter.
‘Hello,’ said Jane, her voice trembling, ‘I’m sorry but I think you’re my mother.’
You could have just said: Jane met her birth mother in Clacton. But you can get so much more in. The above is just a quick draft I’ve come up with just now as an example but I’ve put in some details that not only set the scene but allow the reader to really feel who Jane is. The seaside sights, smells and sounds annoy her. I haven’t said that it’s Clacton. It might
be important to the story, or it might not be. Either way, Jane’s not there for a holiday and she’s nervous. She wonders whether she should just give up and go home. She worries about her appearance - perhaps she’s scared she’s not good enough, or not going to match up to expectations. Perhaps she’s the kind of person who always lacks confidence and worries endlessly about everything. But she has some grit, because despite all this, she opens the door and goes in. Then she apologises. She knows she’s intruding in this other woman’s life
and she may not be welcome. Perhaps she’s used to knock backs and apologising up front is a habit for her. A passage like this might be the beginning of a story, or it could be somewhere in the middle or even at the very end. Hopefully the reader is asking themselves,
what’s Jane there for? What’s going to happen next? That’s what you want from your story -
the reader constantly wondering and trying to guess what is going to happen next.
Colourful characters and cardboard cut outs
As well as having set the scene, you need to people it with your characters. The reader needs to know what sort of a person they are; kind, compassionate, nasty, cold, principled or deceitful? I remember a tutor at the Open University announcing during a lecture that everything is a text, the whole world is a text, what you wear is a text. What she meant is that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they present themselves to the world, because they have made a choice to look like that for a reason. You can read who they are by what they look like. This is by no means infallible - we all dress up for a job interview, don’t we?
It doesn’t mean that’s what we look like on a Friday night but it does mean we seriously want the job. It can be a useful way of hinting at a character’s personality. Many people love to belong. They will alter their appearance either deliberately or unconsciously so that they
conform to the expectations of their peers. You dress a certain way in an office. You dress in
a certain way at a football match or at a music festival. Fashion conscious teenage girls do not dress like their mothers. You can use this sort of thing to your advantage. It’s all part of the show don’t tell. If you have a character who is a fifteen year old girl who dresses like a middle aged woman, chances are she’s got some issues going on in her life. By presenting your characters in certain ways, you can hint at their personalities and even their motives. Their faded, out of fashion clothes might bely the fact they are poor, or they might just be tight with their money. Or, how they look just isn’t important to them. Other characters might be trying to look younger - because they are vain, or they’re on the lookout for a date, or they might be desperately trying to cling on to their job - or their past. When you’re describing your characters, you might need to think about what other parts of their lives say about them; the way they do their hair, the car they drive and where they live. Remember though, you can work it a number of ways - your neighbour with the sports car might be richer than everyone else in the street, or he might just want everyone to think that. He might have stacks of money in the bank or he might be drowning in debt. Maybe he just likes sports cars and has saved his whole life to get it. Then again, maybe he got the money for that car by other, more dubious means!
Describe how your characters treat each other. Are they envious of the neighbour with the sports car or do they think he’s a joke and isn’t fooling anyone except himself? Do they have suspicions about where the money came from?
Whenever you are out and about, have a look at the people around you. Make up a little story about them based only on how they appear. Write it down in your notebook. You could experiment by first inventing them in a kind way and then write a paragraph about them assuming them to be quite nasty! Watch how people interact with each other, are they kind and helpful, do they tease each other or seem to pick on just one person? Are they totally at ease or are they keeping up some sort of appearance?
‘Yeah, me and the squad are going down the pub now, innit,’ said the Queen, never.
As important as how your characters look is how they speak. Show don’t tell. You don’t need to say Sarah’s a posh bird, just have her speak that way. Listen out for little quirks in other people’s speech and write little snippets of overheard conversation in your notebook. Most people, other than the Queen, don’t speak perfect Queen’s English all the time, so don’t have your characters speak that way! We all mispronounce words, or use the wrong word, or have little phrases that we often repeat. Without becoming clichéd, give your characters little quirks and mannerisms that make them different to other people. Whether or not to spell out different dialects is open to debate and personal choice (see Wuthering Heights), but you can certainly use pet names, regional names for things, slang and unusual grammar in your dialogue, if you think your character would speak that way. How we speak is part of who we are, or, as with how we look, it might be who we want other people to think we are. Your character might think they are fooling everyone with their plummy voice, only to give the game away by always saying ta or cheers mate instead of thank you. It might be to comic effect or it might be a little bit sad. Don’t go overboard with this, don’t make every character the last character’s polar opposite. In any setting you are likely to have similar people. In a workplace, there could well be a group of people who live in the same area and went to the same school, so they are likely to have similar speech in a lot of
ways but there will still be differences you can use. Be alert to what people say and how they say it, and write anything interesting down in your notebook.
With dialogue, don’t stop at just thinking about the differences in speech between different
classes or people from different areas. Think about different ages, think about whether someone is speaking in a kind or condescending way. Are they saying one thing but meaning another?
I could go on and on but these are just a few thoughts on starting out and I hope it is helpful in some small way. If you want further advice, there are lots of books available on creative writing. I can recommend Stephen King’s On Writing. There may well be local writing clubs or creative writing courses at nearby colleges if you are interested in furthering your writing that way. As for me, I’m currently studying English Literature with the Open University and have included the modules A215 Creative Writing and A363 Advanced Creative Writing in my degree. I’m not at all suggesting that you need a degree to be a writer, but I’m doing it to improve my writing and to give myself confidence, and it seems to be helping!
Best wishes, good luck and keep writing!