Monday, 23 November 2015

How to write a story: five guidelines gleaned in five years

Think of a story. Then cut it in half. Then in quarters. Pick up each quarter and isolate it. Bundle it up in such a way that it feels kind of complete in itself.  And then choose from the second, third or fourth where you're going to begin, maybe a point where the emotion's a little intense; or maybe cool, reflective. Pick a happening event and start in the middle of things.   That gives the story the narrative space to vault into the back story, which is not the back story at all, but the beginning.

In media res. In the middle of things.  Even the epics are written like this. What's good enough for Homer and Krishna Dwaipayana is certainly good enough for me the paler mortal.

Guideline no 1:  Never begin at the beginning.

Beginning anything is difficult.  Once a thing starts moving, it pretty much keeps on moving unless an effort is made to bring it to a stop.  Who said that? Newton, I think.  Ask any machinery operator, or an entrepreneur - start-ups require the maximum energy and attention.  Once things have started going, momentum carries them along, purring nicely.  What holds good for the entire solar system certainly holds good for me the tiny speck.

If the story begins in the middle somewhere, in the thick of action or plot, when it is three-quarters over in the writer's head, then obviously it is already more than half-done and done well.

Guideline no 2: A story well-begun is half done

Whatever it is you are writing, it must grab the reader's attention and keep it. The story must hook the reader with its beginning, and not let him go till the finish. Collude with him so that he is part of the action, part of the characters' psyche, living inside their heads almost as much as the writer.  Show him that only the paths are different but the choices and challenges, the indecision, the heartbreak, the triumph and tears, are the same.

Each of us lives in our separate bubble of time and place, with its own micro-environment, culture, mega-issues and stress. But a good yarn must break through all that and take him out of himself, engage him in another, perhaps unknown place, an imaginary bubble that doesn't exist in the physical world. Ensure familiarity by telling him mini-tales he already knows, motifs so familiar in our collective culture that he recognises them instantly and unconsciously. But also challenge him by not spelling out every little detail, let him fill in some blanks himself.  

The epics do it by referring to well-known oral traditions, crystallising them and embedding them into the narrative.  Modern writers do it by drawing upon the epics, on the collective art and literature of the world.  And like I said, what's good enough for Vyasa...

So, Guideline no 3: Collude and allude

A short story does its work in max 7500 words, most of them less than half that amount nowadays to accommodate changing tastes and shortening attention-spans.  Micro-stories pare it down to less than 100 words sometimes, poetry even less.  

The reader however sees a couple of pages, reads it in a few minutes. He doesn't even get a whiff of the internal madness that has gone into the making of it, however short or long.  The agony of where exactly to start, how to build the tension, what motifs to stud into the narrative, the meticulousness that has gone into choosing one particular word over another, he will see none of it. A tale well-told must always appear effortless, but there must be madness in the method. Otherwise the story will be lifeless and dry. That is the covert madness, the writer's passion.

What the reader will see is the conflict and the climax, where the story peaks, the characters and action go a little mad.  And then they make their choices, the action falls gradually away into the end.  Things going a bit mad in the story somewhere is what makes or breaks the middle.  Unless the plot 'thickens' the story flags and the readers yawn, put the book down, or click away to another site.

Guideline no 4: There must be madness in the middle, and in the method

Ever notice that a story is supposed to be an arc? Even a storyline is an arc, because a straight line is really a curve, a segment from a circle of an infinite radius.  Everything is a cycle, a circle, a loop. The show always goes on.  With or without you, the narrator.  The show must go on in the readers' head, there are no endings; only a point where you must judge your exit and finish speaking. Timing is crucial.  

All good stories stop short of an ending and let the reader carry on with the denouement.   And if the beginning has been chosen well, the ending is a piece of cake.  

Sometimes, even the writer himself can pick up the threads and carry on - writing a trilogy or septet as is the favoured mode nowadays. 

Guideline no 5:  In my end is my beginning.

Let me just say here that these guidelines, and I use the word guidelines loosely, apply outside of fiction as well.  To poetry for instance. They even apply to blog posts. Actually this blog post starts with Guideline 5 and not 1. But I sliced it up and started with the end.  Which could double up as easily as an actual ending too.  See what I mean?


  1. Very informative! I found that I follow most of the points instinctively. However, it felt good to realize that I'm on the right track. Also learned a few ones. Thanks for sharing! :)

    1. Those who do it by instinct are the natural story-tellers. Thanks for reading!

  2. A lot of food for thought Nila! Definitely start in media res! I do long for the days of the classic where an author could take their time and ramble on with pages of glorious descriptions. Never mind. My bookshelves are crammed with them! :-)

    1. I actually quite like rambling descriptions. And in media res and length need not be mutually exclusive.

      You can't get more rambling than the Mahabharata, estimated word count at 1.8 million! :) :O But even that starts in media res..

      May not work with modern readers feeding off micro-poetry of 140 characters though, just saying :D