Features: Bare bones – a button for choosing a noun, a button for choosing a verb phrase, and a button to replace the existing sentence (‘Generate!’).
Pros: The element of surprise is fun. There are no testimonials but we tried it out and came up with the following interesting story ideas:
– A fly is not yet ready to die. – A caring mother visits Japan. – Clear water is not enough. – A cranky old lady shakes beliefs widely held.
Cons: Not every sentence is usable.
Average rating: N/A
What users say: ‘Some of the writing prompts the tool generated were broad enough (e.g. ‘clear water is not enough’) to make me think deeper about the sentence and multiple things it could come to mean if developed into a story.’ – Now Novel staff member Jordan.
C) Now Novel dashboard
Screenshot of the Now Novel dashboard on a mobile device.
What is it? ‘The Dashboard’ is our browser-based tool that walks you through outlining a story in easy step-by-step prompts, generating your outline as you go.
Platform: Any (browser-based, works on desktop and mobile – learn more here).
Cost: Free to find ideas and outline a character (trial), $15/month for full access with multi-story support.
Features: Story outline generator (automatic outline creation as you answer step-wise prompts). In-tool examples and recommended reading. Store multiple outlines and toggle between them (premium feature). Scene Outlining and World Building tools (premium features). Free critique forum. Google Docs integration.
Pros: ‘A wealth of information in small, easy to digest, doses’. ‘Very easy to navigate and use, and the features in it are so useful for brainstorming and writing’.
Cons: ‘Great tool for quickly roughing out an idea – or birthing the pieces of your masterpiece that are missing. I’d still use another tool, Scriviner [sic], to manage the entire project.’
Average rating: 4.6/5
What users say: ‘I LOVE THIS!!! I’ve had this story in my head (and sketchbooks) for years, but struggled with how to set it down. Thank you, this tool is amazing and I’m finally able to lay all of this out in a way that is accessible to me. I’m seeing patterns that I hadn’t noticed before and I’m able to restructure the entire story.’ – User Josh (read more reviews on TrustSpot)
2. Writing productivity apps
Use these apps to stay productive and finish your writing project:
D) Google Calendar
Add writing goals to Google Calendar, and schedule weekly sessions with alarms.
What is it? Google Calendar is a mobile app and browser-based tool with useful task-planning features for making time to write.
Platform: Any (browser-based, apps for iOS and Android devices – learn more here).
Cost: Free to use.
Features: Create schedules for specific tasks (such as writing or editing your story). Batch alarm notifications to go off at a set time before your scheduled writing/revision sessions. Send yourself email reminders. Track and monitor how many sessions you complete weekly.
Pros: ‘Helps me keep things organized’. ‘[I] never forget a task’. ‘Works very well, I particularly like to colour-code’.
Cons: ‘Editing already created events is not so fluid’. ‘Could get a bit cluttered up especially when you have many items on the agenda.’
Features: Set YouTube Videos to play when time’s up (choose a motivating favourite song, for example).
Pros: Browser tab displays time left. Basic stopwatch, countdown and alarm functions.
Cons: Completely minimalist (if you prefer more features). No mobile app.
Average rating: N/A
What users say: ‘I like that when you have many tabs open (as I often tend to have when working in multiple platforms/tools at once), you can see the time left or elapsed in miniature in the window’s tab itself without having to click it.’ – Jordan
3. Apps for organising writing and research
Example of Evernote template for managing a story draft, including task checklist.
What is it? A feature rich note-taking application for storing ideas, articles, research and more.
Platform: Desktop and mobile (Android and iOS, website here).
Cost: Free to use, premium features (e.g. more storage space) available on plans starting at $7.99.
Features: Save extracts or whole articles from the web to notes. Write and save handwritten and text notes on your device. Add attachments to notes. Use templates (such as the story tracking template in the screenshot above).
Pros: Take notes for your story on the go and sync to your desktop device. Organise articles and other information into collections to keep related information grouped together. Create checklists for tasks such as the stages of completing, type-setting and marketing your book.
Cons: ‘Useful but imperfect.’ ‘Newly edited notes take a surprising amount of time to be saved.’ (iTunes US reviews)
What users say: ‘What I love the most about Evernote is being able to start a thought on my phone then finish flushing [sic] it out once at my computer (with a keyboard) and not miss a beat.’ – User Auntee R
What is it? A useful browser-based tool for creating visual timelines of events such as key events in a chapter or your story’s historical background.
Cost: Free to use, premium features such as saving private timelines begin at $3.9 for one day’s pass (and $14.9 for one month).
Features: Export timelines to multiple formats including spreadsheets and images. Toggle between a timeline view and a simpler sequence of items stacked vertically according to chronology.
Pros: Add images to timeline events. Change events’ background colours (for example you could colour-code rising action red and falling action blue).
Cons: Having to pay to save your timelines privately.
Average rating: N/A
What users say: ‘EASY to use – just point & click!’ – Facebook review.
Crete lists to organise sections of your story and add descriptions and links to individual summaries.
What is it? A list-making, information organising tool.
Platform: Desktop and mobile (browser-based mobile-responsive app – try it here).
Cost: Free to use for unlimited lists and cards, premium features start at $9.99 per month.
Features: Create colums of lists containing cards and give each list and card its own title and description (you can create a list per chapter, as in the screenshot above, and a card per scene summary, for example). Add checklists to cards and attachments (you could add a draft of each scene to its summary card and track versions).
Pros: ‘I love the simple layout and easy drag and drop option to move a card from one column to the next.’ ‘Using their card system, it’s easy to define top level projects and then layer in a hierarchy of tasks necessary to achieve those projects.’
Cons: ‘Linking cards between boards still lacks in simplicity.’ ‘Simple image editing tools are not available, but would be of great value.’ (More reviews here).
Average rating: 4.5/5 (average on Capterra)
What users say: ‘You can use Trello as an elaborate link dump outlet during web surfing sessions. As a writer, i often find a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit any category but begs to be saved for later – Trello is perfect for that kind of stuff.’ – User Volodymyr B.
4. Tools for writing your draft
I) Google Docs
Google Docs app – find spelling errors and sync versions of your drafts between mobile and desktop easily.
What is it? Google’s free writing app and cloud-based word processor.
Features: Work offline and sync to your Google account when you have internet. Format your writing with basic formatting including fonts, bolding, italics and more. Find-and-replace and spell check features (as per the screenshot above). You can also import your Now Novel outline directly into Google Docs using our add-on.
Cons: ‘Sometimes the formatting that you see in the Google Doc version of what you’ve created doesn’t match with the output that you get when exporting.’ ‘Too many overlapping services (Docs and Drive e.g.) make it confusing to navigate and find files again.’ (More pros and cons of Google..
First draft writing is hard, because you’re still finding how your story fits together. Try a few (or all) of these 7 steps to simplify and organize your draft so you can get version one of your story down:
1. Schedule dedicated writing sessions
If you seldom create plans and schedules, start with a schedule for a small span of time. Set achievable goals. Plan to write three times over the next two weeks, for example.
When you create a writing plan and do your best to stick to it:
You stay focused on your writing goals
You get blocked less easily as you’re in the flow of writing, week to week, and can pick up where you left off easier
Writing regularly trains your unconscious mind to find story ideas (as this article on Medium describes) and scenario solutions in the background while you aren’t actively writing
4 quick steps to create your next few weeks’ schedule:
Example of how to split up writing your first draft
Work out your approximate word count (Writer’s Digest suggests a word count of 80 000 to 100 000 words for commercial or literary fiction)
Divide your word count between the number of days you have to finish your novel. If you have a year to write a shorter novel, 80 000 divided by 365 means just 219 words per day to your finished first draft – this is entirely manageable!
Note in your schedule which weeks you’ll spend working on which chapter (you don’t necessarily have to write them in the order they will appear in your book).
Make sure each story unit you’ll be working on excites you in some way. It could be that one section will feature a gripping showdown between protagonist and villain, while another will give you a chance to bring intriguing research you’ve conducted into your story.
Once you’ve set a deadline for your first draft and have a clear idea of how many words you’ll be writing per week you can start drafting in earnest:
3. Specify your aims at the start of every writing session
Writing a first draft is easier when we think a little ahead as we draft, to what we need each scene to do. When you sit down for a scheduled writing session:
Write a heading to remind yourself of what part of your draft you’ll work on today (e.g. ‘First Scene – Sarah’s Trip Preparation’).
Write down your core character, setting and plot objectives for this writing session (Example: ‘Introduce protagonist and set up her anticipation (and anxieties) about her trip to South America’.)
If, as you’re writing, inspiration takes the story in a different direction, add a note to your header information including any changes to your original goals for the scene.
Identifying the purpose of each scene in this way will help you keep your first draft focused on key story scenarios.
It’s natural to want every line of your prose to sing. Even so, limit the amount of self-editing you do as you go.
It might feel as though this will lengthen the entire process. Because you’ll have to rewrite more later. Yet it’s easier to make changes and tidy up the text when you have a macro perspective of the full story.
A finished first draft is a tangible story you can work on with an editor until it’s ready to submit to publishers. The important thing is to reach that stage where you have more freedom (and material) to revise and refine.
If you need to, use an online app that doesn’t let you go back to edit as you write. Blind Write is an online writing tool that blurs everything you’ve just written as you go, preventing you from editing too much prematurely.
5. Jot down basic research without allowing distraction
A point raised by author Kathy Leonard Czepiel is that wanting to get every factual detail right while you draft can slow you down. Instead, do as Czepiel advises and leave the bulk of research for a later stage. Just find all the basic information you need to set the story in motion.
A particularly good piece of advice is to make up factual elements (for example the lie of a real-world setting that you need to describe). Leave a mark in the text that will tell you to expand with the right facts later.
Keep research using an organized tool. Evernote is an information organising tool that lets you clip full articles or sections of pages to a virtual notebook. You can name each notebook according to the kind of information it contains (for example ‘Setting research’) for quick reference.
6. Try different writing productivity techniques
In a survey we ran, blog readers reported ‘lack of focus’ as one of the biggest challenges to finishing a novel.
Besides breaking first draft writing into manageable units, try techniques aimed to help you stay productive.
You decide the task you want to achieve (in your case, completing a unit or section of your first draft).
You set a timer for a fairly short duration (25-minute working intervals are good because they let you focus without burnout).
You write your unit until the timer runs out, noting any distractions briefly as you go and resuming the task immediately.
When the timer rings, you make a mark on a piece of paper and take a 5 minute break.
You continue this process until you have four marks noted.
Once you have four marks earned, you can take a longer break (up to 30 minutes)
Structuring your process this way helps you to work with time rather than against it.
7. Write wherever, whenever you can
You might have read about how ‘X famous author would only write in in a small log cabin’ or’ Y writer only wrote in the bath while listening to recorded whale sounds’.
The truth is that fixing your writing productivity to a particular place and environment too strongly can create writer’s block. Instead, make first draft writing an ‘everywhere’ activity.
Try dictating parts in the voice recorder on your phone, or writing short text messages. You could create a private group for just yourself in a messenger app and send yourself brief notes whenever a phrase or image pops into your head. Treating creation as play and a game helps to avoid the self-applied pressure that becomes writer’s block.
Setting the scene for a story is important. Giving readers a vivid sense of where and when events take place anchors action and dialogue. When readers are able to picture the environment clearly, the story is more immersive. Read 6 creative ways to set the scene:
Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.
Alice Munro, ‘Runaway’, p. 3. Runaway, 2004
This scene-setting communicates the scale of where the story takes place (a small mobile home park). The words ‘…the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill’ tell us a lot about place. They suggest a quaint, smaller setting where there aren’t dramatic contrasts in landscape. A rise in the road is taken for a hill. ‘Around here’ and ‘they’ also suggest that Carla isn’t from the area, originally.
We learn that Carla and her partner live in a mobile home in the woods, where they keep horses and earn a living by giving tourists trail rides.
Carla’s story traces the ways relationships and places stifle people sometimes. How one or the other party sometimes wants to escape (and may attempt to do so). And also how people embellish the truth. The way Munro sets the scene, by suggesting differences in perception of place (some see a hill in the rising road, some don’t), fits the story’s development.
Giving your reader a sense of how small (or vast) a place is is one way to introduce a story setting.
Another option is to open with what is strange, unusual, mystifying or odd about a place. Try starting a story, scene or chapter with scene-setting that shows some of the ways places are unique:
Example of setting the scene with ‘strangeness’: Tokyo in Number9dream
Take, for example, David Mitchell’s scene-setting near the start of his novel Number9dream (2001), about a boy’s search for his father in Tokyo:
PanOpticon’s lobby – cavernous as the belly of a stone whale – swallows me whole. Arrows in the floorpads sense my feet, and guide me to a vacant reception booth. A door hisses shut behind me, sealing subterranean blackness.
Mitchell uses the poetic device simile, comparing the lobby to a whale’s belly, to make the place seem vast and prison-like. Like The whale swallowing Jonah, the lobby swallows Eiji whole and plunges him into darkness. (The ‘PanOpticon’ is also the name for a famous jail concept in which a warden could see into every cell from a central tower).
Mitchell extends these images of the setting as a strange, almost living being in the futuristic feet-sensing floorpads and automatic hissing doors.
Mitchell’s scene-setting effectively evokes a place that makes Eiji seem a little lost and vulnerable. He is at the mercy of this clinical, automated urban space.
Take, for example, the sorrowful sense of place in the opening chapter of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved (1987):
Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinatti horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed.
Toni Morrison, Beloved, p. 4. 1987
To create scene-setting that builds affect (emotional tone or quality) like this, show:
Aspects of your setting a character feels strongly about – what do they love (or loathe) about this place?
Setting details that suggest and evoke abstract feelings. Use concrete images to convey abstract feelings. For example, a park bench with weeds growing through its slats may suggest neglect
4. Give immersive details
Instead of the broad sweep of what a Cincinnati winter is like (as in the Morrison example above), you may want to set your scene in minute, intriguing detail to start.
Take, for example, the opening to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998):
Example of setting the scene using descriptive detail
Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), p. 5.
The story follows the lives of a family of missionaries from the US in the colonial times of the Belgian-occupied Congo. The rich detail in how Kingsolver sets the scene evokes the intensity, the vivid life, of a jungle wilderness to western eyes.
One disadvantage of detailed scene-setting is that it unfolds slower than the kind in David Mitchell’s example. Yet Kingsolver is also writing in a more ‘literary’ style that allows for slower scene-setting. Mitchell’s novels tend to straddle literary style and genre elements (such as adventure novel and sci-fi).
Use whichever you prefer – a slow build-up of introductory detail or a short, sharp setting intro. Only make it fit your story. Both kinds have their value and help to create immersion in a story’s world.
Time period, the era or epoch in which a story is set, contributes many interesting constraints and details. For example, whether or not women had the vote yet. Or what people wear. What medical treatment involves. Time frame refers to the duration the story spans (a few hours, weeks, years, decades).
When setting the scene, giving your reader a sense of time period gives context. This is particularly important when you are creating a historical setting that differs from its modern counterpart. Read this example:
Historical scene-setting in Ragtime
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1974), p.3.
This simple scene-setting opening the first chapter gives a clear idea of when Doctorow’s historical story is set. Early 1900s, pre-War New York.
Simple details of the year and the the home’s architecture are all it takes Doctorow to establish a sense of time period, and the year date gives us a specific time-frame for the start of the family’s story.
6. Show characters interacting with their surrounds
Setting the scene with action that draws us into your setting is another simple and effective way to introduce place. Every place has its specific details.
For example, if introducing the pilot’s cabin in a commercial aircraft, your opening scene setting might focus on the many lights on the dashboard, or the view of the runway, people waving in the distance from the departure terminal.
Find details that lead your reader into what makes your setting interesting. For example:
Example of setting the scene via interaction in Oryx and Crake
He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoning is the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scales and tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003), p. 4
In the opening chapter of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction novel Oryx and Crake, we see the character Snowman waking in a tree in an environment that Atwood gives us clues is post-apocalyptic in some way:
On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender.
Atwood, Oryx and Crake, p. 3
The slightly ominous environment (the ‘deadly glow’ giving away the first hint Snowman is living after a calamity of some kind) mixes with Snowman’s actions. He sleeps in a tree for shelter, as we learn from the narration on page 4. Simple acts of climbing a tree for shelter, noticing ‘deadly glows’ and dangerous wildlife, give us the signs we need to begin realizing important details about Snowman’s environment.
When you introduce a place in your story, think what small interactions between your characters’ and their environment can give your readers an idea of where your story unfolds.
What do we mean when we talk about ‘exposition’ in stories? ‘Narrative exposition’ is important information that gives readers your story’s background (e.g. character backstory or historical setting). Read effective exposition examples from celebrated novels:
1: Craft vivid exposition using dialogue
Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining (1977) gives a strong example of good story exposition.
Using dialogue for exposition: The Shining
King’s opening gives us plenty of character and setting exposition without info-dumping. In the opening chapter, ‘Job Interview’, the protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewed by a man named Ullman for the winter caretaker position at the creepy Overlook Hotel:
Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration.
“I asked if your wife fully understands what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”
“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”
“And your son is also extraordinary?”
King, The Shining (1977), p. 2.
King gives us character exposition via dialogue. We learn Jack has a wife and son. We also get setting exposition. King sows the idea of the hotel being ominous when Ullman asks if Jack’s wife will be intimidated.
If you use dialogue for exposition, make sure it fills in information central to your plot. By page two of The Shining, we already know King’s setting is intimidating and have been introduced to the story’s central characters.
2: Create a sense of history and place
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez blends personal and social history brilliantly in his novels. His novel Cien años de soledad (translated as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’) opens with historical exposition:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.
Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), p. 3.
Note how expertly Marquez blends his character’s past (and foreshadows his dramatic future) with history and setting. Marquez moves seamlessly from describing an intimate memory of the Colonel’s father to describing their hometown Macondo. We get a sense of its size and surrounds.
Similarly, use characters’ present and past in exposition to flesh out historical details of their lives and surrounds to create a sense of place.
3: Write setting exposition rich with atmosphere
Immersive settings help us to picture the scene where events unfold, heightening their impact.
Toni Morrison’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning novel about the cruelties of slavery, Beloved (1987) opens with clear setting exposition.
Morrison creates the haunted atmosphere of a home that holds traumatic history:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it.
Morrison, Beloved (1987), p. 2
Morrison uses personification (the technique of giving an inanimate object human-like character) to show her setting’s atmosphere. The home, like an embittered person, is ‘spiteful’. Morrison’s exposition example shows how experiences and memories attach themselves to place, colouring how we relate to places like ‘home’.
Like Morrison, make your setting exposition characterful. Show the atmosphere of your setting, the memories, fears or joys it holds for your characters. It’s all a matter of balance. [Develop effective settings using the ‘Core Setting’ and ‘World Builder’ sections of our outlining tool.]
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4: Show your characters’ personalities in exposition
Where possible, show characters’ development. Your characters’ choices and interactions should show readers crucial information about them. Reveal their flaws, loves, hates, passions, goals, fears.
Exposition in narration is often as useful as showing, however. You can share a characters’ outlook in a paragraph rather than a whole scene.
Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye (1988) tells the story of an artist, Elaine Risley. Elaine returns to her childhood stomping grounds in Toronto at the start of the book, for a retrospective of her art. This leads her to remember her childhood (via flashbacks) and the complex friendship she had with another girl, Cordelia.
Atwood writes vivid flashback scenes that show her characters’ natures. When the novel shifts from childhood flashbacks to the older Elaine, however, there is more exposition. Here, Atwood uses first person narration in the present tense. For example:
This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance. But since coming back here I don’t feel weightier. I feel lighter, as if I’m shedding matter, losing molecules, calcium from my bones, cells from my blood…
Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988), p. 13.
This exposition example works because the introspection of the older Elaine fills in the gaps, suggesting her development. Her more inward-looking voice contrasts with the bright, descriptive showing scenes from Elaine’s childhood.
Similarly, blend scenes that show events with briefer pieces of narrative exposition that condense information about your characters. Showing gives the reader concrete examples. Yet well-written exposition also broadens the reader’s understanding of characters’ natures.
5: Describe key events that took place before your novel begins
There are countless exposition examples where the story opens with a concise description of a key event that set the story in motion. In mystery novels in particular, authors often open by describing puzzling, dramatic events that the rest of the novel attempts to explain.
This is the case in Jeffrey Eugenides debut novel The Virgin Suicides (1993).
The boys who live across the street from the beautiful Lisbon sisters narrate the story in first person plural, as they (now older) try to make sense of the sisters’ teenage suicides. We read of the sisters’ suicides early, in the exposition of the first paragraph:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides, p. 1.
This dark exposition gives us the core information: A group of sisters, the story’s central characters, all commit suicide. Yet it leaves us with the same question that perplexes the novel’s narrators: Why? The question of character motivation.
Character tropes (common stock characters) have their place in stories. Satires and spoofs, for example, use types such as the ‘cool mom’ or ‘orphan who must save the world’. Yet character tropes quickly dull a story when characters read as too predictable. To avoid tropes:
1. Know your character tropes
Common character tropes include:
Perfect, very skilled lead female character who everybody can’t help adoring, even characters whose opposite traits would normally lead to conflict (the ‘Mary Sue’ trope)
Orphan whose parents’ are conveniently (for the story) deceased, allowing great adventures and close scrapes without the hassle of family ties (the ‘Conveniently an Orphan’ trope)
Exploring websites such as TVtropes.org (‘the all-devouring pop culture wiki’) will keep you informed of common tropes that could provoke eye-rolling.
2. Give characters full complexity
It’s easy to see why using the above three character tropes could dull your characters.
A ‘Mary Sue’ character appears so faultless and universally likeable that we lose conflict and its opportunity for small tensions. Internal and external conflict drive and shape character arcs, at least in part.
The second trope character, the ‘convenient orphan’, has no roots. Often in ways that don’t seem credible. Consider how other characters might have stepped in to fulfill guardian-like or child-rearing roles, for example. (An example: Harry’s neglectful aunt and uncle who become his legal guardians in Harry Potter).
The third example, the wise ‘other’ who helps the (often white) hero, may seem virtuous and thus a ‘good character’. Yet these characters often perpetuate society’s received power relations without challenging or questioning them. A perceptive reader might ask whether this type of character is really true to life today (or to history).
Make sure the ‘others’ your protagonist encounters truly reflect their time and place, strengths,flaws, desires and fallible aspects as much as your protagonist does.
3. Show how characters’ relationships change
A common issue with character tropes is characters relate to each other in predictable ways. ‘Jocks’ bully ‘nerds’. ‘Damsel in distress’ wilts at first sight of ‘rugged rescuer’.
Although some genres embrace stock character types, real relationships have:
Specific qualities and features (ask, what gives this specific relationship chemistry, or makes it teeter constantly towards conflict?)
Change (for example the initial ‘honeymoon phase’ of seeing everything a lover does through rose-tinted glasses, versus when reality sets in)
Of course, you may want to tell a traditional romance or underdog story. Yet developing how characters feel about each other gives depth. For example, perhaps the bullies gain a little perspective and respect when the ‘nerd’ character’s band plays at school and they are awed by their talent. Change creates character development. An essential part of good character writing.
Character goals and motivations that don’t make sense are some signs of character tropes.
Take, for example, the ‘convenient orphan’. They may be motivated to hunt down their parents’ killers. Yet a fearful or trigger-averse character could just as easily run from any situation that they even vaguely associate with their past.
To ensure characters’ motivations don’t just repeat stock ideas about characters who have X traits or Y history, ask:
You can easily find a novel outline template such as a spreadsheet full of empty fields to fill. Yet columns and rows of blank space are also daunting. Here are 5 tips for an easier outlining process:
1. Choose a flexible story outline template
The word ‘template’ has connotations of stencil-like rigidity. The thing about storytelling is it’s fluid, creative, and often full of surprises and new discoveries, whether you’re outlining or drafting.
For these reasons, many writers prefer a flexible approach. Joseph Heller used a grid-style template showing time on the vertical/y-axis and events/characters on the horizontal/x-axis when he wrote Catch-22.
This isn’t as much a template as it is a visual aid for organizing the sequence of events and the characters they involve. It’s a messy, ‘customized’ solution to specific challenges (chronology, cause and effect).
The word ‘template’ (in its ‘writing tool’ sense) literally means ‘something that serves as a model for others to copy.’
The problem with ‘copying’ is that each writer follows a distinct, slightly different path to working out their story.
Whatever you prefer to work on first, whether it’s characters and a timeline of events or an outline of scene and setting ideas, make sure you focus on a few elements at most at a time.
The advantage of a step-by-step novel outlining process that leads you through small, manageable tasks (such as profiling individual characters’ goals and motivations), is it’s less daunting than a massive, sprawling template like Heller’s. Small wins and gains are fun, and before you know it, the bigger picture has emerged.
3. Update your outline while drafting
We often think of outlining and drafting as linear, sequential processes. Outline done? You’ll write a flawless draft in one push next. Except that it often doesn’t work out like this. It’s common to have two or more drafts, and to get so lost in scene-level detail that it becomes hard to know the way forward.
If you have an idea for a new character, ora transitional scene between key events, you can always step out of the detail-focused process to create a quick character sketch or outline. Use outlining this way, not as a process of setting in stone. Rather, a process of finding stepping stones, whenever you need, wherever you need, to forge a few scenes ahead.
4. Use your novel outline to create scene prompts
Outlining a story in full is useful for several reasons. As you think about the individual elements of a story – characters, plot points, settings and conflicts – pieces start falling into place. Yet it’s also easy to spend time creating a story outline you don’t use to its full potential.
Say, for example, you’ve brainstormed a chain of rising and falling events that bring a main character closer to their goals (with complications along the way). Open these plot point summaries out alongside your current draft. If you have summarized plot points such as:
Cinderella finds out about the ball
Cinderella’s stepmother finds out and plots to stop Cinderella attending
Cinderella gets help from her fairy godmother
Each of these could be a heading you write down at the start of drafting a scene that involves narration, dialogue and action.
Use the broad points of your outline to decide the focus and purpose of each scene. You can also dive back into your outline to add more when, for example, you find you want to introduce a secondary character and would like to visualize their appearance or work out their backstory to a fuller degree, first.
5. Treat your template as your ‘zero draft’
A crucial thing to remember when you use either a novel outline template or a more flexible prompted process is to keep the process playful and free.
Many writers think everything that makes it onto the page has to be polished, sacrosanct.
It’s more productive to think of an outline as a ‘zero draft’. This term is often used (especially in script-writing) to refer to an unstructured, very rough draft whose purpose is brainstorming the general contours of the story rather than any kind of polished, nuanced ‘final’ version.
The advantage of treating outlining this way – with creative freedom and flexibility – is you can depart from your finished outline whenever you like, turfing some parts and adding in others. By the time you get to drafting, you’ll already have a compelling story in summary form.
‘Motivation’ is a word that comes up time and again when we survey readers and members on writing challenges. There may not be a single, exclusive solution for how to find motivation to write. Yet here are 5 ways to stay fired up and on track:
1. Focus on writing tasks that give intrinsic value
Murayama describes studies in which participants were rewarded for answering trivia questions. Rewards increasing motivation when questions were boring. Rewards were less necessary when the questions themselves created interest and had intrisic value (for example, by giving mental stimulation).
The link between intrinsic value and the motivation to write
How does this relate to writing? Often when we write, we focus on extrinsic value. For example, anticipated external validation or approval: ‘I can’t wait for publishers to read my manuscript.’ Or, ‘I can’t wait until I sell my first book download on Amazon’s Kindle Store.’
Extrinsic goals are important if you have ambitions for your story to reach a wider audience. Yet making the process itself rewarding and interesting, too, means motivation continues even when rewards are delayed. This is key to perseverance.
Writing tasks that create intrinsic motivation include:
Setting a date and time for a writing session (and keeping it)
Completing a task that gives you a tangible step towards your finished book (such as brainstorming a character. Create your first profile free in our story outlining tool)
Putting the final full stop at the end of a chapter
Shifting your focus from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators helps you to persevere in the face of every ‘no’.
2. Make writing sociable and engaging
One of the challenges of writing is that it’s a solitary, often lonely activity. Writers often speak of ‘losing objectivity’ and the issue of perspective. ‘How do I know if it’s good?’
Writers’ groups have long been making writing a more sociable, less lonely act. Titans of epic fantasy, C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, were both members of a writing group called ‘The Inklings’ in their native UK. A group such as this gives a safe space to share ideas; get second opinions.
To bolster your writing motivation:
Join a writing group (our critique forum is free to use, and you’ll find writers of all ages and genres trading critiques)
Remember to take breaks and engage generally in social time with family and friends. Many writers are introverts, yet being curious and listening to others’ stories is important for sparking ideas, too
3. Reward yourself for the duller parts
Some writing tasks simply are more boring than others. You might have a ball creating character profiles but completely dread the revision phase where you spot plot hole after plot hole.
As Murayama’s research survey examines, rewards do create motivation for boring tasks. Have you ever felt tired in the middle of mundane task (e.g. washing dishes) and thought, ‘I’ll make a cup of tea or coffee when I’m done?’ That’s extrinsic reward at work.
Competition is an interesting part of how to find motivation to write. In his article linked above, Murayama teases out the complexities of competition. He explains how, when a situation requires us to compete, we may either respond with ‘I want to do better than others’. Or, if more self-doubting, ‘I want to not do worse than others’.
When writing a large project such as a book, create the first type of competition. But with yourself. For example, you could:
Try to beat yesterday’s word-count in a fixed period of time such as an hour
See how many typos or grammar mistakes you can spot in last week’s pages in 30 seconds
Making more mundane tasks fun and challenging is a great way to turn writing into an interesting game.
Entering flash fiction and other short writing contests is also a fun way to vary your writing routine and add interesting (yet not too distracting) side projects (but only when you don’t have a pressing deadline – there’s a thin line between play and procrastination).
5. Have an action plan
When you’re feeling fired up to tell your story is a great time to sit down and knuckle down. However, there’s that old saying: ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish.’
When it comes to writing, everyone has a different idea of planning. For some, it’s daydreaming about characters and the events in their lives until they feel real enough to reach out and touch, then getting it all onto the page.
For others, planning also requires creating prior structure: Outlining, summarizing, taking notes on characters, plot points, settings and more. However you prefer to create a plan, Decide what task you will complete today to bring your end-goal – a complete, ready-to-print manuscript – closer.
The word ‘motif’ is often used interchangeably with the word ‘theme’ in writing about stories. What exactly are motifs in stories, and how can you use them effectively? Read a definition followed by tips to use them imaginatively:
Like Beethoven developing his four opening notes, a writer can take a motif’s first image, phrase or idea and repeat and develop it in various ways. Although a motif is similar to a theme, there are some differences:
Motif vs theme: What’s the difference?
In The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, H. Porter Abbott describes the relationship between motifs and themes thus:
‘Themes and motifs are the two terms most frequently used for the repetitions in narrative. As technical terms, they are often used interchangeably [… but] a theme is abstract and a motif is concrete. Beauty, nature, violence and love can be themes; roses, gardens, fists, and the phrase “Barkis is willin’ ” can be motifs. Themes are implicit in motifs, but not the other way around.’
Porter Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, ‘Interpreting Narrative’, p. 95
To summarize, a motif is:
A concrete word, image, idea or phrase that’s repeated throughout a story (Porter Abbot gives the example of ‘widows’ in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë)
Different to abstract themes like ‘honour’, ‘pride’ and ‘beauty’ in that it is the smaller, concrete element that contributes to our perception of themes (e.g. recurring widowed characters – a ‘widow motif’ – may draw our attention to themes of death, mourning or traditional gender roles)
Something that recurs throughout a narrative, creating a sense of relationship between disparate events or character arcs
So how can you use motifs in interesting ways in stories?
1. Find motifs that connect your story’s separate threads
Many authors have used motifs to explore and develop story themes. For example, in Arthurian legends about the quest for the ‘Holy Grail’. In these legends, the motif of the ‘riddle’ (a puzzling question that creates a test of wisdom or character) crops up many times.
Riddles fool or trick some knights, while others are wiser in interpreting. The motif of the riddle is one element that unites their separate stories around the shared quest.
Look at the events of your story and think about what actions or emblems you could repeat in different characters’ arcs to create a sense of connection between them.
This in effect makes each death in the story feel equivalent in some way, no more important than any other. It also creates the sense that death is unavoidable, coming to high and low places and people – regardless of their surface differences – alike.
2. Use motifs for descriptive unity
In James Joyce’s famous modernist novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist Stephen describes the sounds of a game of cricket more than once:
”…the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.’
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 63
This recurring description shows the development of Stephen’s artistic imagination, as he finds ways to describe the world around him using poetic language.
Recurring motifs in description provide many effects. They may:
Symbolize themes important to the story (for example, a description of a family of animals observed in a park might draw our attention to the theme of ‘family ties’ in a story)
Create a cohesive tone and mood (for example, a novel filled with motifs of dark, candlelit rooms and shadowy figures may create a Gothic, gloomy tone and mood)
In an episode of the sci-fi TV series Black Mirror, near the beginning of the episode we see characters in a video game arcade. In the game intro flashing on a screen, a car crashes off the road into a building.
Later in the episode, we learn that one of the main characters was once in a near-fatal car accident and is living on life support in virtual reality. The early visual introduces the ‘accident’ motif in the story. It introduces the related themes of the unpredictability and fragility of life, and the various ways technology is used to delay or avoid ‘game over’.
When you use a motif to foreshadow events:
Find a concrete image that clearly relates to a later development (in the example above, we can easily recognize parallels between the virtual and ‘real world’ accidents)
Vary motifs’ repetition: The first accident in the example is virtual, on a screen. The second is real, throwing a character into a perpetual virtual life (a cycle of immortal death and rebirth in a simulated reality). These two appearances of the ‘accident’ motif are varied enough to be interesting but also relate to each other
4. Draw on your central idea for motif ideas
Where can you find ideas for motifs your story could develop? A simple place to look is your central idea – the concise summary that gives the founding scenario for your story. [You can brainstorm your Central Idea at the start of our story outlining tool.]
For example, consider this summary of a Pulitzer-winning bestseller that could be the story’s central idea:
‘The lives of a blind French girl and a gadget-obsessed German boy before and during World War II.’
Blurb describing Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light we Cannot See
Immediately we could think of possible motifs:
Motifs having to do with vision (relating to the theme of blindness) – e.g. prescription glasses, blindfolds, closed eyes, hide and seek
Motifs having to do with war (e.g. military drills, news broadcasts, marches, rallies, political arguments, etc.)
Each of these images itself could provide creative fodder for interesting scenes – a scene where a man drops his glasses fleeing cruel military men, for example. Look at your central idea and ask ‘what repeated images or motifs can I mine this idea for? How can I repeat and develop them in different, interesting, varied ways?
In classic stories, characters often step off the page from their first introduction, fully realized. How do you write good character description that reveals enough to hook readers? Try these 5 techniques:
1. Give character description via action
Writer’s who are still developing their craft often give ‘laundry list’ description. This is where a character’s physical attributes appear in a list, such as:
‘She had green eyes, long, tawny hair, a scruffy tracksuit that was stained, and a loud laugh.’
This may not be terrible, as far as descriptions go. Yet when you introduce every character using a list of what attributes they have, we start to see the author’s presence behind the story’s stage curtains.
She looked up from dusting fallen lunch off her scruffy tracksuit, and gazed across the university cafeteria, towards where I was sitting, trying not to stand out. In that moment I noticed how piercing her green eyes were.
Here, a narrating character’s in-the-moment perception of another character’s actions drops in descriptive elements. It also, at the same time, reveals a little about the observer.
Framing description relevant to a person’s actions make us notice the writer’s device a little less. Actions sweep us up in the scene. Description becomes incidental to what’s going on. This makes it stick out as a storytelling device a little less.
2. Use figurative language such as simile and metaphor
Figurative language such as simile (comparing objects using ‘like’ or ‘as though’) and metaphor (stating two unlike objects are the same) is effective for describing subtle precise qualities and appearances. For example:
His dopey expression made him look as though he was always half-sedated.
Her thin, uptight mouth was a door on a latch, poised to shut fast at any sign of trouble or disagreement and stay that way ’til the coast was clear.
The first example (simile) conveys a character’s sleepy, befuddled appearance.
The second (a metaphor) gives us associations by stating one thing is another. The stand-in object (the latched door) tells us something about the first, the character’s mouth (in this case, the image suggests a mistrustful and conflict-averse person).
Using these physical details doesn’t tell us much about a person, beyond personality elements revealed by details such as what sort of haircut the person has. (For example, a quirky, avant-garde hairstyle could suggest a creative, edgy or bohemian personality.)
Examples of facial description with personality
Consider these character description examples:
Her peroxide job has gone wrong, so that her hair has turned a strange yellow colour, standing out in angry spikes from her head. But more than this, something has changed inside her, which you can see from a long way off. She seems to burn with a luminous white light. Her face is knotted and anxious, bunched in on itself, and it takes her a long time to notice him.
Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room (2010), p. 149
Two of the boys wore glasses, curiously enough the same kind: tiny, old-fashioned, with round steel rims. The larger of the two – and he was quite large, well over six feet – was dark-haired, with a square jaw and coarse, pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992), p. 18.
Each of these examples gives an idea of character, of who the people are.
Galgut’s example describes his narrator’s volatile friend whom he travels with in India. The description gives clues to her personality. Her changeable nature (frequent hair dyeing), the intensity of her emotions (‘angry spikes’ and her seeming ‘to burn’). Her face is ‘bunched in on itself’ and ‘knotted and anxious’. The overarching, immediate effect is of a troubled, vulnerable and scattered person.
Tartt’s character description conveys the world her characters inhabit. As classics students, they have a love of the old-fashioned. Tartt also uses shadowy suppositions (one ‘might have been handsome’) to layer personality over immediate appearance. Her descriptions show how mannerisms, facial expressions, and personal tics modify the raw physical facts of people’s appearances.
4. Combine physical descriptions with movement and gesture
A big part of how to write good character descriptions is understanding how physical appearance combines with movement, habits and tics. For example, a character may be beautiful, but roll theirs eyes constantly. This gives them a sullen, negative appearance that limits others’ awareness of their beauty.
In English, we have urban slang terms such as ‘resting bitch face’ (to describe someone whose neutral facial expression looks mean). These suggest how small details such as the faces we often make can shape our impressions of people. Sometimes accurately, sometimes misleadingly.
Movement and gesture in physical description can thus surprise readers. People aren’t always what they first appear. A very elderly lady seated at a restaurant table might surprise the reader when she stands up and strides across the room. We’re surprised by the strength and energy that gives her the aura of a person thirty years younger.
Think of what movement can suggest about characters. The example above could indicate, for example, that the lady was a professional ballet dancer for 30 years. Her description shows she has good posture and other physical benefits of years of dance with her. Her movement itself tells a story.
5. Use character description to reveal the observer, too
Whether the narrator is judgmental, critical, or kind
The nature of the observer’s interest (for example, whether they like or dislike the person they describe, or even have romantic interest)
How observant they are and what their focus is (what do they pick up on, and what do they miss?)
Examples of character descriptions that describe observers
Consider these examples where one character’s description of another reveals a little about the describer:
My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what that expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-61), pp. 7-8
The waitress had a black dress and a white cap and eyebrows plucked to thin curves, and a red mouth shiny as jam. She called my father Captain Chase and he called her Agnes. By this, and by the way he leaned his elbows on the table, I realized he must already be familiar with this place. Agnes said was this his little girl, and how sweet; she threw me a glance of dislike. She brought him his coffee almost immediately, wobbling a little on her high heels, and when she set it down she touched his hand briefly.
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2001), p. 103
How character descriptions reveal the narrator
In the first example, the lead character of Dickens’ famous coming-of-age novel, Pip, describes his sister. The way Pip describes Mrs Joe reveals the retrospective insight he’s gained with age. It also reveals his wry, subtle sense of humour about the past.
Pip’s description reveals his younger self’s relative ignorance (he doesn’t understand the expression ‘to raise by hand’). It also reveals he is aware of how mean his sister was, letting everyone know raising him was such a chore.
Yet while Pip describes Mrs Joe’s tough, somewhat unloving character, he does so with characterful wry humour, too. For example, in how he jokes that Mrs Joe also ‘raised [her husband] by hand’ because she would hit both him and Pip. This mix of honest reflection and making light of the situation suggests the wisdom, forgiveness and perspective that may come with age.
Iris’s description of getting a soda with her father in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin conveys the perspective of a child in the process of losing her innocence. Her description of the waitress’s over-familiar gestures shows a child’s dawning realization of adults’ (mis)behaviours.
Atwood shows Iris at a moment when she is recognizing the double-ness of people’s words and actions (the waitress calling her ‘sweet’ to butter up her father, while covertly also looking at her with dislike). The scene is just as revealing of the process of Iris’s ‘growing up’ as it is of the characters she describes.
Dystopian stories about characters or societies grappling with ‘bad places’ like post-apocalyptic wastelands remain popular for several reasons. For one, their situations naturally supply intense conflict, drama and suspense. How do you write a dystopian story? Start with these 5 tips:
The word is often contrasted with utopia. Thomas More coined utopia in 1516. It was the title of his book about an imaginary island where legal, political and social systems all create social harmony. The word thus suggests ‘paradise’ and is often taken to mean a ‘good place’, even though utopia’s roots actually mean ‘no place’.
In fiction, a ‘dystopia’ is:
‘An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.’
Famous dystopian novels include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In Orwell’s classic, Great Britain has become a totalitarian province and the government has outlawed ‘thought crimes’.
Another example is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In this novel, women are kept as baby-making servants with scarcely any basic rights.
How do you write a good dystopian story?
1. Start with a strong scenario
Classic dystopian novels and stories begin with a troubled scenario. For example:
Great Britain, now named ‘Airstrip One’, has become a province of a greater territory named ‘Oceania’ ruled by the ‘Party’. The Party uses ruthless ‘Thought Police’ to persecute individualism and independent thought (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
A radical religious group calling itself ‘The Sons of Jacob’ overthrows the United States government. It replaces it with a religious political system based on Old Testament fanaticism, removing women’s rights to read, write, own property and handle money (The Handmaid’s Tale)
We can easily see why each of these would be ‘bad places’ (or dystopian settings) for characters who value their freedoms and rights.
What makes these good dystopian scenarios?
Each of the above scenarios is strong. It presents a situation that would give any character interesting motivations, to either uphold the system or destroy (or simply survive) it.
The two dystopia examples above are both political dystopias.
In this novel, characters struggle in the fallout caused by scientific, medical experimentation. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), a father and son must journey and survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where some unnamed catastrophe has destroyed most of civilization.
These are all dramatic situations that give rise to interesting stories of hope, resistance, survival, memory and loss. They’re cautionary tales about the dangers of power or the fragility of the lives or rights we might take for granted. And sometimes they’re optimistic stories too, showing the power of the human spirit to endure the difficult and painful.
2. Create a believable dystopian world
A believable dystopian world typically presents a keen sense of threat, menace or discomfort.
Example of a fantasy dystopian world
Even though it is not a ‘dystopian novel’ in the strict sense of the word, C.S. Lewis’s beloved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) from his Chronicles of Narnia series has elements of dystopian fiction.
In The Lion […], four siblings stumble upon a magic world where the ‘White Witch’, Jadis, has stopped the seasons. By magic, Jadis keeps Narnia in eternal winter. This dystopian environment affects Narnia’s talking animals who plead with the siblings to help free them from Jadis’ spell.
At the start of Lewis’ novel, Narnia is a world that used to be better, freer, easier to live in. It has become a dystopia through the abuse or misuse of power (in this case, magical power). This is a common theme in dystopian fiction.
To create a believable dystopian world:
Know how your world got to its current state: Lewis’s shows us early in the children’s adventures in Narnia why things are in their sorry state. It’s up to you whether you reveal the origin of your dystopia early, later, or keep it as a mysterious background detail that shapes characters’ arcs.
Describe dystopian settings well: What is a dystopian setting? It’s a ‘bad place’ of suffering and injustice, like the winter world in Narnia that disrupts animals’ life cycles. Describe these settings so we can tell clearly what makes them so uncomfortable.
Brainstorm and imagine details: Think of details down to what characters are able to eat, wear, do. How might their altered social, natural or political environment change ordinary interactions and activities?
3. Develop your dystopian settings
Dystopian settings such as cities razed by global conflicts will naturally present characters with many challenges, from dangerous, crumbling infrastructure (environmental challenges) to social issues such as increased lawlessness, mutual mistrust and other social effects.
When developing a dystopian setting, ask questions such as:
Who now has power now, and why?
Who is the most vulnerable in this dystopian society and why?
What still works and what no longer exists?
What do people remember and what have they forgotten (e.g. names, cultural practices, people, places)?
Example of an effective dystopian setting
In David Mitchell’s era-hopping adventure novel Cloud Atlas (2004), the middle section is set in a time that could be post-apocalyptic or ‘pre-civilization’. It’s hard to tell, at first. In this section of the story titled ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, Zachry, an old man, narrates his memories of an event called ‘The Fall’ that wiped out his people’s predecessors.
Mitchell brilliantly camouflages familiar places and names using deliberate misspellings, so we gradually see pieces of Zachry’s past (the earth we know today) emerge. He writes ‘Hawaii’, for example, as ‘Ha-why’ in Zachry’s narration.
Mitchell uses shifting language to show what changes in a place after a catastrophe. We see history’s process of holding onto and forgetting in action. This creates a sense of Zachry’s world spanning a long, partially forgotten history. Some events are remembered in detail, while others fade, enter folklore.
4. Create conflicts, threats and challenges
Because a dystopia is a ‘bad place’, it follows they are usually places rich in conflict and ‘trouble’.
In ‘Sloosha’s Crossing’ in Cloud Atlas, Zachry recalls cannibal raids by rival tribes. In The Handmaid’s Tale ‘Unwomen’ are women unable to bear children, and are banished to highly polluted areas called ‘The Colonies’.
Where there is a system of injustice, unfairness, danger or oppression, there are interesting situations for characters to resist, avoid, escape or confront.
When writing a dystopian story, it’s helpful to think about best- and worst-case scenarios. These help us identify what characters want to do, and also what they want to avoid.
Bringing characters into close scrapes with worst-case scenarios is good for creating tension and conflict.
5. Give characters credible motivations
In dystopian fiction, as in other types of stories, character motivations are important. There has to be a reason why the government bans free thought, or decides to meddle with women’s reproductive rights and other liberties.
A tyrant, such as the leader of the ‘Sons of Jacob’ in Atwood’s novel, may be motivated by:
Ideology – the set of beliefs they hold (tyrants may believe, for example, that a fanatically literal interpretation of the Old Testament is the only ‘right’ way while quietly ignoring how it also gives them extreme gender or other privilege)
Lust for power
Backstory such as personal trauma that has left them embittered
Whatever your characters’ reasons for upholding or demolishing your story’s dystopia, it has to make sense for the story. Ask yourself:
What does my character gain if they choose to be complicit with the ‘bad’ aspects of this dystopia?
What could my character gain if they attempt to fight or overcome the underlying situation?
We see these differences in how people respond to tough environments in a story with dystopian elements like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. One sibling, Edmund, is more selfish and less immune to flattery. He is thus easily charmed and manipulated by Jadis to do her bidding, betraying the others.
Get feedback on your dystopian story idea or extracts from your draft, and use Now Novel’s story outlining tools to brainstorm the many settings, characters and situations that will shape your story.