Lately, I’ve done a few talks for high school students who are writers, or are interested in becoming one. In addition to disabusing them of the idea that becoming an author is a fast and easy ticket to fame and fortune, I’ve shared with them a lot of tips and experiences, including the core of my rules for writing: the “5 to 10”:
5 big rules + 10 smaller “Do’s and Don’t’s”
In Part 1 of this series, I told them about the 5 big rules. Here’s what I had to say to them about the 10 smaller rules that follow from the 5:
- Have a great hook
- Start your story where the conflict begins
- Point of view and tense depend on the story
- Be able to describe your story in 30 seconds or less
- Don’t overtell on what your characters look like
- Only explain what you have to
- End chapters on cliffhangers
- Use the three-act structure
- Develop your characters, then discover them
- Do what works for you
1. Have a great hook. The very first words, or the “hook” of your story, need to snag your reader’s attention and intrigue them in the first few seconds, or people will give up. Here are some examples of hooks that I think work really, really well:
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I’m pretty much [screwed].
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
…and, my favorite:
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
How can you read any of those opening passages and NOT want to keep reading?
2. Start your story where the conflict begins. That might not be the very beginning. In Avengers: Infinity War, the beginning of the actual story is Thanos realizing that his home world of Titan is headed for ecological disaster unless something drastic is done, whereupon he decides he’s the guy to do “something drastic.”
But the movie starts when the conflict begins, where the story gets interesting: when Thanos and his henchmen slaughter the Asgardians, capture Thor, and take the Tesseract (holding the Space Stone) from Loki.
By starting at the interesting part, when the conflict begins, you get to the “good stuff” right away—because people are impatient—and once the story is up and fully running, you can always use flashbacks to present the essential but not as interesting parts of the overall story.
3. Point of view and tense depend on the story. There’s no “one-way-is-best.” I wrote This Wasted Land in first-person present tense (like a lot of young adult novels do) to put readers into a stream of consciousness so they could get immersed into Alyx’s character:
“Hold on,” I tell Sam.
His arms wrap tight around me. “Alyx, just for once, please don’t go so fa—”
I thumb the switch, and the bike—a red Ninja 250R—fires up. My left hand pops the clutch, and we take off down the long gravel driveway. My foot hits first gear, second gear, third, pebbles and dust flying up behind us.
I did limited third-person present for Lost Dogs (dogs live in the present, have trouble remembering the past, and can’t conceive of the future), keeping the perspective only to what my protagonist, Buddy, senses, again to confine the narrative to him.
At first, Buddy can’t see the Plane—it’s too far away for his eyes—but he heard it from a long way off, and he knows something’s wrong. It’s not high enough, it’s coming too fast, and it shrieks like it’s angry, not making its usual low, soothing noise. It screeches into view, flames and smoke spewing from it, right over the Home where Buddy lives. Then it’s gone and there’s a THOOOOOOOOM that fills the Everything, too loud for Buddy’s pointed ears, and he barks, NO NO NO NO NO! to the uncaring blue Empty sky above him. The Ground under him shakes as what’s left of the Plane smashes into the Bay, whose shore is only one street from here.
In Dragontamer’s Daughters, I used third-person omniscient past tense and changed perspectives because I needed to show things that were happening to characters who were in separate places (but mostly, it’s told from Isabella’s POV).
Something gray and furry was lying dead at the edge of town. Two vultures with wrinkled red heads and thick, clawed feet watched it from the sagging roof of the ramshackle mill nearby. They must have just gotten here, Isabella thought, otherwise, they’d be…bothering it.
She covered her little sister’s eyes. “Don’t look,” Isabella said.
“I want to see,” Alijandra insisted. She pulled Isabella’s hands away. “Ugh. What is it?”
4. Be able to describe your story in 30 seconds or less. If you can distill your story down to its essence and share that quickly and succinctly, then you have a good handle on what your story’s about. Bonus: you can then tell people about it in a way that they can relate to, and find interesting.
Pro writers have a version of this called the elevator pitch: imagine if you were going up in an elevator with a big-time publishing magnate or movie producer, and you only had a minute to tell them how awesome your story was. I call my approach the 3-floor elevator pitch, because you have to snag their interest with only a line or two.
Sounds difficult? It’s not, really. You can do this with any book:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Young boy goes to school to become a wizard.
The Hunger Games: Girl fights other kids to the death on live TV.
The Lord of the Rings: Unlikely hero tries to destroy magic ring to save fantasy world from evil overlord.
I did it with my own books:
Dragontamer’s Daughters is Little House on the Prairie with dragons: you hear that, you think “Old West,” you think “family,” you think “it’s a story about girls,” and you think, “fire-breathing monsters.” And that’s mostly accurate (there are monsters in DTD, but none of them breathe fire….).
Lost Dogs: The end of the world as seen, heard, and smelled by a German Shepherd.
This Wasted Land: It’s not your typical teenage love story: it’s more like, Boy meets Girl; Evil Witch takes Boy; Girl goes to get Boy back.
5. Don’t overtell me what your characters look like. A lot of writers feel like they need to describe in great detail what their characters look like: how tall they are, how much they weigh, what color their eyes and hair are, all the clothes they’re wearing, etc.
This just slows down the story. In fact, I would say that unless a character’s appearance matters to the story, don’t mention it. Just let the readers use their imagination.
If it does matter, avoid front-loading that description on the reader, if at all possible. Instead, sprinkle that info in here and there. Case in point:
TWL‘s Feisty Teenage Heroine Alyx feels like a misfit because she’s half Korean in an almost all-white school, and even when she’s among the Asian students, she doesn’t feel like she belongs with them because she has blue eyes from her dad (btw, at no time, do I say whether the non-Korean half is white or black: it could be either, as black people can have blue eyes—it’s a recessive gene).
Furthermore, she makes this idea of being a misfit a self-fulfilling prophecy because she dresses differently from the other kids, cuts her hair short, and dyes part of it. She’s also skinny and not at all curvy—one character tells her that she has “Popsicle sticks for arms” and tells her that she’s so flat-chested, she looks like a boy.
Conversely, I don’t describe her uncle at all, other than saying he’s much older than her dad, and that he used to be an offensive lineman in the NFL (so you can probably gather that he’s pretty big).
If you feel like you must data-dump a character’s description on the reader right out of the starting gate, do it with at least half the style of Mr. Michael Moorcock describing his anti-hero Elric:
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.
6. Only explain what you have to. This is particularly applicable to fantasy and sci-fi. While you need to provide some exposition for your story—who’s who, and what’s what, and why things are the way they are—after a point, the more you explain, the less interesting your story is.
A perfect example is an old TV show called Lost, about people whose plane crashes on an island in the middle of the Pacific. All sorts of weird stuff happens on this island: there are polar bears in the jungle, there are these abandoned science labs and hints about a strange project that was being done back in the 1970’s; these secretive menacing people live on the other side of the island, and—oh yeah—there’s this immense monster that the audience doesn’t see who randomly shows up and kills people.
The first two seasons of the show were fantastic. And then, about Season 3, the writers decided they needed to start explaining stuff, and they went too far—one episode was about how and why and when a main character got the tattoos that cover his arm—and it stopped being as interesting.
Because often, if you don’t explain too much, readers will come up with their own theories, and that really engages them, and makes them want to talk about it with other readers, and share those stories with people who haven’t heard of it yet.
7. End chapters on cliffhangers. Give people a reason to turn the page and keep reading. Have something dramatic—good or bad—happen. Introduce a plot twist. Have an urgent question pop up. Something to keep your readers engaged, so that they’re staying up late to find out what happens next.
8. Use the three-act structure (for novels). It’s a formula, but it works. Either when you’re outlining your entire story (if, like me, you’re a planner), or after you’ve written it and you’re revising it (if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer), then look at the whole thing and divide into three parts, which need not be equal length (usually, the second act is the longest).
In the first act, you introduce most, if not all, of your main characters, set up the situation that they find themselves in, and move toward an exciting and significant event in the story.
In the second act, the plot intensifies, there are numerous challenges, and the act usually ends with the protagonist suffering some kind of significant setback or injury that makes the reader wonder how they’re going to get out of their predicament.
In the third act, the action moves on the climax, where the conflict of the story is resolved, and the protagonist either overcomes or succumbs to their antagonist. Then there’s usually a short wrap-up of loose ends, unless the book is meant to have a sequel, in which case, one or more “loose ends” are pointedly left dangling there to entice the reader to pick up the next book in the series.
As an example, let’s go back to the Avengers, but let’s use the first Avengers movie, because Infinity War is really only Acts 1 and 2; the third act comes out later this month.
In Act 1, Loki appears, steals the Tesseract, and brainwashes a lot of people to help him set it up to bring his army to Earth. SHIELD recruits the heroes who will become the Avengers, and they capture Loki.
In Act 2, Thor arrives, he and Iron Man fight, and he comes along to take Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard. The newly-formed Avengers squabble about various things. The mind-controlled Hawkeye and Loki’s henchmen attack the Helicarrier, crippling it. Banner hulks out and attacks the others, Iron Man and Cap have to save the carrier from crashing, and in the commotion, Loki escapes, the Hulk is gone, and the team feels like they’ve failed.
In Act 3, the Avengers rally and determine where Loki will stage his invasion: New York City, right over Stark’s tower. The Avengers rush to stop him, but his army of aliens arrive, and the Avengers battle and defeat them, and recapture Loki. Thor takes Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard; the Avengers take some time off but they’re now a strong, united team; and we get the first glimpse of Thanos—the “loose end” that runs through the MCU—to get us excited about future movies.
You don’t have to use the three-act structure, but it’s very effective, and people subconsciously expect it, because most popular novels and movies use it.
9. Develop your characters, and then discover them. People have asked me, “How do you come up with characters?” First, I develop them, and I have two methods for them, which are not mutually exclusive.
The first method is that I pattern a character after one or more people I know in real life, or characters in other books or movies. For example, there’s a major character named Mike in TWL, and he’s pretty much a mash up of Sawyer from Lost, Logan from the last Wolverine movie, and a smidge of my cousin Ron.
Mike’s hard-bitten, he’s tough, he’s a smart mouth, he’s offensive, but he slowly develops a bond with Our Feisty Teenage Heroine Alyx, looks out for her (even though at first, it’s for selfish motives), and eventually, very grudgingly lets his guard down to her. When the reader first meets him, he comes across as complete a-hole, but by the end, I think many—if not most people—will like him.
The second method I have is to write up a few paragraphs about each character, and list all the basic things about them, like you would if you had just met someone and were asking them questions:
- How old are they?
- What do they look like (not that I’m going to tell the reader necessarily, but so I know)?
- Where were they born?
- Where do they live now?
- How educated are they?
- How do they speak? Very formal and stiff, or loud and obnoxious, or with a lot of profanity, or what?
- What do they do for a living?
- Are they married? Have kids? Have pets?
- Are they religious?
- Do they speak more than one language?
- Have they ever traveled, and if so, where?
- What’s their favorite food/clothes/music/hobby?
- What is the most unusual thing about them? Because everyone has something really interesting about them.
You might not use all of those facts about the character, and you certainly wouldn’t spill all of those at once. Instead, you let those facts come out, bubble up out of the character bit by bit, like in a scene, someone might offer them a steak dinner, and they say, “I don’t eat meat.”
So, that’s developing a character, and like I say, you can use both methods, even on the same character. I wrote up a whole lot about Mike, and then I put him out there like that mashup of Sawyer and Logan and my smartass cousin Ron. And as you walk your characters through your story, you discover how they are.
It sounds strange, but after a while, characters almost take on a life of their own in your head, so that after you’ve been writing about them, you’ll find yourself saying, “Mike would never do this,” or “Alyx would never say that,” or “Sam is totally going to be all about this thing right here.” Just like the longer you know a person, the more you find out about them and connect with them, characters can be like that.
And sometimes when you’re writing, characters will—just like real people—do and say things that surprise even you, and it’s worth considering whether you’ll let that into your story.
I was writing a very tense scene, and it occurred to me—in a surprise insight—that in this situation, Alyx would do this one particular thing, even though it was incredibly reckless and colossally stupid, because she has very poor impulse control. And it made for a great scene. Which I can’t tell you about, but if you read the book, it’s in the basement of the library, when Thorvald comes looking for Ōth.
10. Do what works for you. I can tell you these rules, and you can get other tips from other writers, and you can take all the writing classes you want in this school or college, but ultimately, you have to go with what works best for you and your story.
I do outlines: if you don’t want to, don’t. I edit as I go, which takes a long time for me to finish anything; if you’d rather just write it all out and not worry if it’s pretty, and then do your edits at the end, go ahead.
That even goes for what you’ve learned about basic spelling, grammar, and composition. I’ve read a novel where one paragraph goes on for literally 86 pages. I’ve read books where the author doesn’t use quotation marks when characters are speaking. I’ve read books where there’s hardly any dialogue.
In TWL, it’s told from Alyx’s point of view, and she’s a poor student, not particularly intelligent, who doesn’t even like school, so I was able to ignore good grammar, to the point where Mike tells her, “Your grammar sucks.” Because it wouldn’t have made sense to have her narrate the story in flawless English.
So, there you have it: 5 big, overall rules, that lead to 10 smaller, more specific ones. Use these as you see fit, and I think they’ll improve your writing. Good luck!
Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. In addition to This Wasted Land, he is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.
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