In this first tutorial, we’ll be discussing:
- How to critically examine and develop your initial ideas
- How to identify scenes and pauses
- The importance of recognising and exploiting themes
- Why research matters, and how to improve your research skills
The first and most important part of setting out on your writing adventure is knowing where to begin. Lara may well venture into uncharted territory on a regular basis, but you’re going to have to know in advance what lies ahead.
You’ll probably already have a rough idea of what it is you want to write about. It’s good practise to pin down your initial inspiration with notes – even if they’re only scribbled down in a dog-eared notepad at 3 a.m. Maybe you’ve heard a piece of music, or seen a piece of artwork that’s gotten under your skin and suddenly you just KNOW that you have to commit your thoughts to paper.
For example, here is a simple introductory paragraph that could be the inspiration for a new story:
“At this altitude the ice was as black and unyielding as iron. Driven sleet froze to her eyelids. Her shattered snow goggles dangled useless from their strap. Blinking furiously, Lara glared through the narrow gap between her scarf and hat and hurled every last ounce of strength into her barely-responsive arm. Her curse of defiance turned to a triumphant grunt as the ice pick gained purchase, and she hauled herself a few more precious inches up the cliff.”
The creative urge is a lot of fun, but it’s going nowhere as a story if you don’t ask yourself how it fits into a larger narrative. So jot down your initial ideas and get ready for the next step: asking questions.
Good writers are always asking questions. The best questions are those that start with what, where, when, why, and how. Sit back and allow yourself to explore your inspiration with these questions in mind. This is where your sense of exploration can roam freely and, with luck, bring back some intriguing ideas as souvenirs.
Using the above paragraph as an example, we might ask:
- What exactly is happening in this scene? Think of the important details that will be relevant to the wider story, but that also make this scene stand out from all those that came before or will come later. What makes this scene unique?
- Where is it taking place? Is this a real location? Is it a place from mythology? Is it both, or neither of these?
- When does it take place? At what point in the story does it take place – beginning, middle, end? Where is Lara in her life at this point? What period in history are we in?
- Why is Lara here at this moment? What has made Lara come to this place, at this time, under these circumstances? Where did she come from and where is she going? What are her goals in the short-, medium, and long-term?
- How did Lara come to be in this position? How did Lara physically, emotionally, and intellectually get to this point in the story?
After you’ve grabbed hold of your initial ideas and given them a thorough talking-to, you’ll need to decide roughly how long you want your story to be. This isn’t a straightforward step, because you have to consider the depth of your initial ideas and their potential for exploration. The typical length of a short story is usually up to 5,000 words, whereas a novel can easily run to 40,000 – 90,000 words, with novellas or novelettes fitting somewhere in between these brackets. Word counts, however, can be deceiving. On their own, they give no indication whether a story is tightly-written or crammed with pointless waffle. It’s important to decide how far you want to go in exploring your story, whether it includes sub-plots, how many characters and locations are involved, and so on. It’s often a good exercise to practise writing to specific word counts, because it can help you build discipline and make you more familiar with these rather abstract numbers (e.g. what does 2,000 words look like, and how long does it take to write that amount?). It’s also sage advice to start with shorter stories and work your way up, rather than diving straight in with a full-length novel (walk before you run!).
Scenes and pauses
The most basic components of stories are scenes and pauses. They advance the plot in small but crucial steps, just like Lara collecting a dozen scattered fragments that will eventually be reconstructed into a fully-functioning artefact. If you miss a piece out, or try to use one that doesn’t slot neatly into place alongside all of the others, then Lara’s going to be the proud owner of a mangled paperweight instead of the Jewelled Crown of Queen Hapshetsut. Likewise, missing out a crucial component will lead to plot holes in your story, and confusion or annoyance on behalf of your readers.
Scenes are the moments when things are happening or your characters are doing something, e.g. action set-pieces. Conversely, pauses are the moments when your characters stop and think about what has happened, plan what to do next, and show the reader their emotions and thought processes. To work well, your story needs to incorporate a balance of well-executed events (scenes) and deliberate catch-up moments (pauses).
For example, in the first movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, there is a major action-scene where Lara grabs the first Triangle of Light fragment in Cambodia; we have a fight with stone monkeys and mercenaries, a climax battle with a giant Brahma, and Lara’s frantic escape through the jungle culminating in a swan dive off a waterfall. This is exemplary Tomb Raider action! However, what follows is a much gentler, calmer sequence of Lara having a conversation with Powell via satellite phone, and a meditative reflection with the monks in Angkor Wat. This is the pause – the period after a rip-roaring action sequence where the reader (or viewer, in this case), can catch their breath, relax for a moment, and prepare for the next big action scene. The pause contains crucial information about what the characters are thinking and planning.
Another aspect of story-telling is a theme or themes. It’s possible to decide on a theme first, and then gather inspiration for how to convey that theme in your story; however, it is also acceptable to come up with a great story idea and then decide what themes it contains.
Themes are the central message (or messages) that your story conveys, whether you explicitly say so or not. You’ll often hear them called ‘the big idea’ or central topic. In Tomb Raider, the themes are often ‘exploration’ or ‘discovery’, but can also include ‘mystery’, a ‘race-against-time’, or others. For example, in the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot the central theme was ‘survival’, but there was also ‘loss of innocence’ and ‘self-discovery’ in there, too.
As a writer, it’s extremely useful to identify and exploit your themes. Not only does knowing your theme help you understand what kind of story you are trying to tell, but it can also help you get back on track when a plot seems to have lost its direction, or characters don’t seem to know what to do next.
The importance of research
Once you have started developing your initial ideas into possible scenes, and worked out what kind of theme you’d like your story to pursue, you can start organising the story’s overall structure and do your background research. We’ll tackle the overall structure in more detail in Part 2: Shape of the Story. For now, let’s take a look at research and why it’s so important.
There has never been a better time to be a researcher. There is more and better-quality information available through the Internet than ever before. However, researching is actually quite a complex skill that requires you to sift through seemingly endless quantities of data to find exactly the information you need. Anyone can type ‘Aztecs’ into a search engine and get fifteen-million hits, but it takes a certain amount of patience to specifically discover what political policies were adopted towards prisoners of war in Aztec culture between 1365 and 1401 A.D.!
There are a few simple ways you can improve your research skills when you’re preparing to write a story:
- Decide what you want to achieve before you begin. It’s terribly tempting to spend hours meandering from one fascinating article to the next, drawn along by curiosity rather than your initial objective. Before you know it you’ve spent an hour reading around the edges of your subject, instead of getting an answer to a specific question that will be central to your plot.
- Get a broad understanding of the subject first, then narrow it down. For example, I would not dream about writing a story set in northern India without first reading about its climate, famous locations, cultures, and history. Wikipedia is brilliant for gaining this kind of broad overview.
- When narrowing down your research, choose credible specialist sources. For example, having given myself a crash course in northern India, I might decide to check out legends of a famous duel between two deities that supposedly took place at a particular temple. For this I would look at websites and books by people who have spent time studying this in great detail, who cite their sources in references, and who are mentioned by others in the same field. Don’t assume that just because something is written down on a shiny website that it’s correct.
- Use Boolean operators to help refine your searches. Boolean operators are the terms ‘AND’, ‘OR’, and ‘NOT’. You can use them when you use a search engine to radically improve the specificity of your results. For example, typing ‘”northern India” AND Shiva NOT monkeys’ will return a list of hits that specifically mention the phrase ‘northern India’ and that include mentions of Shiva, but that don’t mention ‘monkeys’.
Why is research so important? After all, you might argue, we’re writing fiction. Our stories are made-up fantasies.
It’s important because believable fiction is grounded in stone-cold reality. A reader is not going to suspend their disbelief or empathise with an otherwise well-realised character if your facts turn out to be wrong. For example, in order to believe that Lara Croft exists and is a world-famous archaeologist, you can’t have her confidently declare that the great Pharaoh Tutankhamen fought in the Battle of Waterloo. Such a mistake would destroy Lara’s credibility – and yours.
Readers will quickly spot if you haven’t done your homework properly. Having a good grasp of your topic, in addition to researching authentic information and details, will keep your reader immersed and not jar them out of the narrative and back into the real world (we call reading ‘escapism’, after all). For example, I once made the mistake of assuming that the Czech Republic was subject to Schengen in 2003. I later found out that it wasn’t, but that error really spoiled the illusion for one of my readers. By all means invent your own lost kingdoms for Lara to discover, but make sure that you ground the details of the location and its culture so that they are believable. We can swallow the notion that Lara discovered a living tyrannosaurus in the Peruvian Andes, but we would choke on our own incredulity if the dinosaur turned out to be buttercup yellow and playing a bassoon.
It is possible to combine the need to research with the single most important rule of writing fiction. In fact, it’s been done so many times in ‘how to write fiction’ books that it’s become a mantra in its own right. Put simply: Real life doesn’t have to make sense, but your fiction does.
In real life events can happen at random, people do things according to internal logic rather than external stimuli, and coincidences are rife. However, you cannot get away with any of these in fiction. A work of fiction is not simply a chronicle of real events. It is a carefully-constructed edifice of causes and effects, where every stimulus has an appropriate and logical response.
For example, we could write about a break-in at Lara’s mansion where armed thieves steal an artefact from her private collection. If Lara was a real person, she would likely be woken up by a burglar alarm and call the police. The thieves would make off with the artefact, get into a getaway car, and drive off into the night. The police would appear a few minutes later, statements would be taken, a forensics team would arrive to dust for prints, Lara would be on the phone to her lawyer… and well, you get the picture. The reason why we find Lara Croft and her Tomb Raider universe so fascinating is that it isn’t real life. It’s fictional, which means that it’s bigger and better than real life. It also has the luxury of making sense, which is not a requirement of real life!
The mantra of stimulus and response / cause and effect applies to every aspect of your storytelling. Moreover, each response also acts as the stimulus for the next response, which is the stimulus for the following response, and so on. We’ll examine how this mantra applies to different areas of creative writing in later tutorials.
Key points for Part 1: Planning your Adventure:
- Keep a journal or notepad for recording your inspirations, ideas, and observations.
- Stories are made up of scenes and pauses.
- Identify your story’s theme(s) early on.
- Research as thoroughly as possible: if you aren’t sure or don’t know, find out!
- Remember that nothing happens by accident – everything that happens in your story must happen for a reason.
Next time – Part 2: The Shape of the Story
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 1: Planning Your Adventure by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.