As with many skills, the best way to get better at writing is by writing more. Unfortunately, practicing isn't as simple as it sounds. If you've ever tried to "just write", you've probably run head-first into the brick wall of writer's block: the paralyzing feeling of staring at a blank screen and trying to figure out what words to fill it with. Fortunately, there is a solution.
You may have heard of the terms "pantser" and "plotter" as archetypes of writers. In a nutshell, pantsers are the people who can just writer -- to them, a blank screen is an invitation, not a wall. They like to grow their stories organically, allowing them to sprawl into a tangled jungle governed by no particular order.
Plotters are the opposite. They like to meticulously outline their stories, write extensive character biographies, and plan every last beat. Only once The Plan is complete do they start typing out the story itself.
If you haven't spent a lot of time writing, you might not feeling like you fit into either archetype. That's okay. Most people are a combination of pantser and plotter, and the remainder of this lesson will assume that you're a mix as well. I'll give you enough structure to break through writer's block, but not so much that it stifles your creativity.
One of the benefits of practice is that you learn what works for you and what doesn't. If you feel like the archetypes don't describe you, then take them more as two extremes than strict ideals to live up to. The same goes for the rest of the advice in this lesson. Remember, it doesn't matter how you reach you goal, so long as you get there.
Note. Examples in the rest of the lesson reference the Practitioner short stories, which I co-wrote with David Youssef. You don't need to read them to understand the lesson, but it will help.
Each of the steps in the process should have at least a day in between them. This might seem like a waste of time, but it gives your intuition time to chew on the story.
Step 1: Outline
The first step in writing a story is outlining. This isn't your average high school outline, though, where you have a nice template (such as the Hero's Journey) and you're just filling in the boxes. That kind of outlining tends to create a boring, formulaic plot.
No, the kind of outlining we're going to do is quite different. Start with the following question: Where does the story start?
Picture it in your head, those first moments with your main character. Are they in the middle of a fight? Maybe they're planning a robbery with their friend, or sharpening their sword in anticipation of an upcoming duel. Don't worry too much about picking the perfect point. You can come back to change it later.
Example. My original starting point for Practitioner: Novice was Taman waking up in bed, going through his mundane routine as he thinks about his shitty life. This isn't what I ended up using as the final draft's starting point, but it was enough to get me through the first draft of Novice.
Once you've got a starting point, open up a text editor and write it down as if you're talking to your future self (hint: you are).
After you figure out your starting point, it's time to find your ending point. Where do you want your story to end? Is your main character (MC) going to get their just deserts, and die at the end of a hero's blade? Maybe it ends with the MC sitting on a log, talking peacefully to her alters who she's finally accepted. Or maybe the MC is standing on the deck of a ship, staring out into the setting sun after having freed herself from a cursed lich's phylactery. Much like the starting point, don't sweat the details. You can always change this later.
Example. My original ending point for Practitioner: Novice was Taman fights off a gang in an alley after dealing with his loan shark.
Now that you've got your beginning and end, it's time to fill in the gaps. In your text editor, create a numbered list. For item #1, describe your starting point in one or two sentences. If you feel the urge to write more, do so. I can't emphasize this enough -- creativity is hard, and the last thing you want is to discourage your intuition from being creative by providing negative feedback.
After creating your starting point, add a blank item to the end of the list. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What would the characters involved in the scene do next, if the story featured them as the protagonist? Spend five minutes by the clock thinking about this. Put yourself in their shoes, try to empathize with them as if they were full people in their own right. If you realize someone would do something inconvenient for your plot or MC -- good! Write that down. This is how you avoid idiot balls and other unsavory cliches.
- What would happen next, realistically speaking? The most important thing is that your story make sense, not that it's the fastest path from where you are in the story to the end or the idea that made you want to write the story.
Keep the details fairly high level.
After you've got your second item filled out with one or two sentences (or more, if inspiration struck), repeat the process. You want about 1 item in the list for every 1000-2000 words, though that's just a guideline. Don't force yourself to write down lots of detail (but if you get inspired, keep going until the well dries up).
Example. For Practitioner, my bullets were as follows.
- Taman goes through his mundane routine.
- Taman visits the Guild office
- Taman talks to the Guild and gets them to agree to help
- Scene with Taman's loan shark, convincing the shark to forgive Taman's debt
- Fighting a gang in the alley behind the loan shark's building
Notice how there's not a lot of detail. If you read Novice, you might have also noticed that this... isn't quite how the story was written. That's because this is just the first step, and there are four more. Your plot will evolve considerably through the process -- right now, you just want to get something down. It doesn't matter too much how good or bad it is, as long as it's written down.
Step 2: First Expansion
The second step is first expansion. For those of you writing a longer story (>10k words), each bullet in your outline represents a single chapter in your story. Each chapter is then comprised of 2-3 scenes. Our job in this step is to outline those scenes.
Note. A scene is a section of a story where characters engage in dialogue or action. Scenes are generally from 700-1500 words in length. An easy way to determine where a scene break occurs is to ask yourself whether there was a change in location, characters, time, or point-of-view. Generally speaking, if one of those items changes, the scene also changed. This is only a rule of thumb, however, and other lessons in this course will discuss scenes in more depth.
If you're writing a short story (<10k words), you can skip this step. Your bullet points represent individual scenes, because you don't have enough space to have full chapters. Go directly to the second expansion step.
For each bullet in your outline, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the 1-3 most important scenes in this chapter?
- What has to happen to get to the next bullet?
- What would my characters realistically do next, if they were the main character?
This should be enough to give you two or three scene ideas. Write down a sentence or two describing them as nested bullets underneath the chapter descriptions from the outlining step. Again, if inspiration strikes, let it flow. One sentence is a minimum, not a maximum.
If, while doing this step, you realize that a chapter no longer makes sense because...
- a character would do something that doesn't fit the plot
- a character wouldn't let the next chapter happen as it's written
- it no longer makes sense for the next chapter to happen in the way it's written
... then you should stop and change the next chapter. Go back to the outlining step and repeat the instructions for that chapter. Depending on how big the change is, you may also need to repeat the work for all the chapters following it as well. Do not ignore that quiet voice in the back of your head saying that the plot doesn't make sense. It should only take a few minutes to rework the plot at this stage, and it's critical to have a solid foundation to build on later.
Step 3: Second Expansion
Congratulations! You made it through the outlining -- everything from here on out involves actual writing.
If you're writing a short story, your outline should look like a list of three to six scenes. If you're writing a long story, you should have a list of chapters, where each chapter has 2-3 scenes nested underneath it.
In a fresh text file, copy the description of your first scene from your outline. As if you're talking to your future self, write down a minimum of 100 words explaining what happens in the scene. Don't bother trying to make it nicely formatted -- just stream-of-consciousness dump it on the page. Pretend you're really excited about the scene and you just have to tell your future self all about it.
As always, if inspiration strikes, keep writing until it's gone.
If you're writing a long story, repeat this process for all the scenes in your first chapter. Don't do it for the other chapters (or scenes, if you're writing a short story). If you prematurely expand those scenes, you'll lose the ability to change them as the story takes unexpected turns.
Example. Taman standing outside Guild HQ. Panicking. He shouldn't have taken out the loan from Wu, but dad needed medicine and now Wu is going to kill Taman. He crosses the road. Glass door, Guild logo, he opens it and steps inside. Big lobby, nice wood, looks very old-fashioned but there's a gigantic backlit Guild logo. Ashuwanda sitting at a receptionist's desk. Jet black skin, stark white robes. She greets him. He's intimidated. She tries to calm him down and invites him backstage for a cup of coffee. She's wearing a bizarre beehive hat; Taman thinks its Virtual and almost shuts off his Glass Eye (use this to introduce the Eye).
Step 4: Third Expansion
Repeat the process of second expansion, but now write a minimum of 400 words. Second expansion produced a word-vomit. Third expansion should be a little more organized, but not by much -- the important thing is more to fill in some of the details that were omitted in second expansion.
Example. Taman standing outside the Guild HQ, across the street. He's lost in his head, very nervous. It's early in the morning, and there's no pedestrians and very little car traffic. Taman stares across the street at the Guildhall, thinking about how the name doesn't fit the building. It looks more like a florist's shop, with rose bushes out in the front. Thinking about how his friend told him they were a cult, but Taman is out of options because the Triad is going to kill him. After working up the nerve, Taman crosses the street. Frosted glass door with an etched Guild logo. He pulls it open and steps inside.
Spacious lobby. Hardwood floor, wood paneled walls, it makes Taman think of an antiques shop. Glowing golden backlighting, very modern and luxurious. There are some chairs off to one side and before him is a receptionist's desk. On the wall behind it is a huge Guild logo made of golden metal and backlit by a blood-colored glow. Taman finds the decorations amusing. Receptionist's desk. Wood. There's a woman reclining in a leather chair behind it. Ashuwanda. Jet black skin, she's from an African village. Watching something on her Glass Eye. She's wearing a beehive hat.
Taman stands at the door, rolls his eyes and reaches to turn off his Glass Eye, he calls the hat a "tacky AR gimmick". Ashuwanda notices him first though, Glass Eye turning off as she sits up straight and greets him. Taman standing frozen, Ashuwanda smiles and notices his nerves (she's a trained cold reader). She invites him backstage for a cup of tea. Taman stammers out an acceptance and trails behind her. Mention of cohorts, mention of hive minds.
Ashuwanda making tea, asks if he wants honey. Reveal that the hat is real, Taman flabbergasted. Ashuwanda starts asking him questions, he answers, begs her for help. 25k loan. Medical bills. Taman bet the 25k on an MMA fight, lost it (prediction market?), bookie blames the fine print and tells him to gtfo. Triad wants their money in a few days.
Ashuwanda says it's a difficult problem, asks for five minutes. Virtual clock. Taman tries not to panic, doesn't do a great job. After the five minutes, Ashuwanda has no answers. Says she needs to get her cohort.
You'll notice that there's a few differences in the examples at this point. In second expansion, my first scene was Taman going through his mundane routine. I decided to drop that scene because it's boring -- nobody cares how Taman brushes his teeth and gets ready for his day; that's what makes it mundane. However, there's another major change: I fused bullets #2 and #3 into a single scene, and then added another scene where Taman talks to the Guild cohort. These changes happened as I did third expansion and realized that the story needed to grow in an unanticipated way.
At this point, my revised outline looked something like this:
- Taman visits the Guild office and talks to Ashuwanda.
- Taman talks to the Guild cohort and gets them to agree to help
- Scene with Taman's loan shark, convincing the shark to forgive Taman's debt
- Fighting a gang in the alley behind the loan shark's building
This process of changing the outline as your story evolves is critical. Don't ignore it just because it's inconvenient.
Step 5: Draft
After you've got you 400 word summary of the scene, you're ready to write it as a draft. Remember to wait at least a day before doing so.
The final result of this step should be text that looks like it was written in a book. That means nice grammar, formatting dialogue, paragraphs. Don't worry too much about making it a flawless product -- later on, you'll be able to come back and polish it.
- Read the five steps above
- Complete steps 1-5 for at least one scene
Exchange completed scenes with a cohort mate and critique each others' drafts. Critiques should be at least 1/3 as long as the text they're critiquing. Try to leave comments that focus on word choice, awkward sentences, choppy dialogue, bad grammar, etc -- but at the end, write a few hundred words summarizing the text and how you felt about it. Don't hold criticism back, but also don't be needlessly cruel. If you think something is bad, say so and then explain why.
Critiquing someone else's work helps you improve your writing skills because it teaches you to see flaws and errors. You can certainly develop that intuitive sense on your own work, but it's a lot harder since your emotional attachment gets in the way.
As a group, read the sample scene below. After each section, stop and criticize it. Have the facilitator write down each point of criticism, and count them up at the end of the meeting.
Note. Most cohorts only get halfway through the scene. The expectation is that there's more than enough content to work on for the duration of the meeting, not that you finish all of the sections.
Some sample macro questions to consider:
- What job did the section do? What information was conveyed about the world, the characters, and the plot?
- What was the primary emotion?
- What was the subtext? (Did the narrator or another character explicitly say one thing, but give the impression that they felt/believed another?)
Some sample micro questions to consider:
- Were there moments where the text conveyed a feeling and then a different one in the next instant?
- How did the sentences flow? Were they choppy, smooth, or disjointed?
- Were there any sentences that started with the same word?
- Were there any duplicate phrases?
- Was there too much description? Too little? Why did the author describe the things she did?
If someone in your cohort completed the optional homework and is willing, use their drafted scene instead of the sample scene below.
I broke the text up into numbered sections to facilitate the group criticism process. Why did I choose the exact breaks that I did? For example, why are section 1 and section 2 separate, instead of being a single section?
[Section 1] I pressed my ear against my house's front door and listened, straining to hear past the rustle of wind and rain behind me. No sound came through the decaying wooden door, but that meant little. Father was quiet enough as long as no one was around. For all I knew, the crazy scab could be sitting in his molding old couch, a mug of beer in his hand as he waited for me.
[Section 2] Squaring my shoulders, I pushed the door open, clutching my oilcloth bag like a shield. My eyes darted first to the grimy floorboards in front of the door -- no fresh mud -- then the living room. A small brick hearth was set into the far wall, and a couch sat at an angle to it so its occupant could see front door and fireplace alike. There were cold, dead ashes behind the grate, and the couch sat in lonely darkness.
[Section 3] I let out a relieved breath and stepped inside. Water dripped from me as I flipped my hood back and unhooked the oil lantern from the wall. Father refused to pay for gas lamps, calling them overpriced Order technology.
"Abby?" I lit the lantern and replaced the lid. "You here?"
Footsteps clattered down the hallway, and my little sister hurtled out of the darkness, latching onto me with a tight hug. "Eliot! You're home!"
I hugged her back with one arm, chuckling as she squeezed me. I touched her on the nose with the tip of a finger, and she leaned back, giggling as her wavy brown hair fell over her face.
"How were the rats?"
[Section 4] "Not bad," I pulled myself from her grasp and made for the kitchen. She followed, staying within the circle of dim light from my lantern. "We got hired to clean out a mage's house and found a nest of scavenger spiders burrowing in the cellar."
Abby blinked at me. "Scavenger spiders?"
I set my bag of food on the pitted kitchen counter. Dishes lay scattered across it, their chipped ceramic flashing yellow in my lantern's light. A bucket sat in one corner, droplets slowly plinking into it from the leak in the roof. I would have to empty it before sleeping, or it would overflow during the night.
Abby skipped to the side as I headed for the hallway, reaching beneath my shirt for the fist-sized leather bag strung around my neck. "Fist-sized spider monsters made of rust. They eat iron and steel, and use it to reproduce."
[Section 5] "Are they dangerous?" Abby asked from behind me as we entered my room.
I scanned the floorboards, searching for the one with the knot at one corner. There. I knelt next to it, my fingers probing for its edge.
"Nah, they're small, fragile, and there were only half a dozen of them. Farley kicked the last one clear across the room. Little bugger broke apart when it hit the wall."
My fingernails caught on the floorboard's edge. It lifted, revealing a narrow space beneath filled with canvas purses -- the accumulated copper bits and occasional silver thaler from a lifetime of odd jobs.
"One more year," I told her, tossing the day's purse into the treasure trove. "Then we'll have enough money to get us both out of here. We're going to buy a real house. Something in --"
[Section 6] The front door slammed. Father. A moment later, his shout rang through the house. "Eliot!"
I flinched, hating myself for doing it. My hands scrabbled with the board, shoving it back into place my eyes met Abby's. "Go to your room and don't come out."
She hurried away.
I left my room at a run. Father stood in the entryway, a broad smile on his craggy, bearded face and two big canvas bags in his hands. I frowned. He didn't look drunk.
[Section 7] "There you are!" Father said, chuckling as he held up a bag. "I got us some food."
Taking the bag, I stared at it in disbelief. Sure enough, it was filled with a loaf of bread, a couple tomatoes, half a ham. "You went shopping?"
"I thought we could cook dinner together."
I lowered the bag and blinked. "You want to cook. Together." My voice came out flat. "What's going on?"
He grinned and pointed at the kitchen. "Come on."
I trailed behind him, struggling to figure out what was going on. Father always came home drunk. And he never wanted to cook.
[Section 8] Father set his bag on the counter and lit the lanterns hanging on the walls, then set about unpacking. Footsteps scraped on the floor behind me. Abby. She stared with wide eyes as I moved to shield her from Father's sight.
"I told you to stay in your room," I whispered.
"I -- I needed a fresh candle. Mine's almost out."
Father looked over. "Abby? Good, I was wondering where you were."
[Section 9] Abby swallowed, eyes dropping.
I hated how Father made her withdraw into herself. The way he sucked all the air and light out of the room just by being present.
"I'm quitting," Father announced. "Drinking, I mean."
Abby let out a questioning grunt, but nothing more. She had to be thinking the same as me: Quitting? Yeah, right.
"Go back to your room," I said. "I'll bring you a candle in a moment."
[Section 10] "No, wait." Father looked at the ground and sighed, clutching a withered zucchini in one thick hand. "Look, I know I haven't been the most responsible since Elise died."
"It's fine." I shook my head. "No. It's not fine."
How long had I waited to say this? The words poured from me in a cold torrent. "We've missed her too, but it's been eight years, Father. You talk about manliness but you're the one coping with a bottle. We lost both our parents that night."
I yanked my right sleeve up, revealing the splotchy burn scar on my wrist. "Remember this?" I angled it so he could see. "The night a week after she'd died? All I'd asked for was a few coppers to buy food!"
Father's face went stony. I stared at the counter and clamped my jaw shut before I could dig my grave any deeper. Sober or not, he had a nasty temper -- and the fighting skills to back it up.
[Section 11] Father sighed. I risked a glance. He didn't look angry anymore, just... sad.
"I'm sorry, son. But can't we put the past behind us? I'm going to be promoted. Most of the other foundry workers don't know the value of being friends with the boss. But I do."
"A promotion?" I laughed. "Who in their right mind would promote someone who shows up drunk half the time?"
[Section 12] Father took a step towards me, fists balling up. I skipped backwards, staying out of his reach. Dark eyes regarded me for a moment, then he looked away and uncurled his fingers. His voice was a tense growl. "I'm trying to change. You don't have to make it so damned difficult."
Blaming me for his temper. Classic Father. I opened my mouth, intending to tell him exactly what I thought of his pathetic excuse for an olive branch.
[Section 13] Abby's whisper came from behind me. "Please don't make him angry. I just... I just wanted a candle."
She stood in the doorway, trembling arms wrapped around her chest, eyes fixed on her feet. Small, vulnerable, scared. What had I been thinking, picking a fight with her right there?
[Section 14] Father's rasp intruded. "I've been harsh. About stuff. All I'm asking for is a second chance. Let me start by cooking you both dinner."
I glanced at Abby, then back to Father. "You want to prove that you're trying to change?" I stepped close and stared into his black eyes. "Let Abby leave."
His cracked lips flattened to a thin line. "This is my house. I'm in charge here."
There it was. "Sure. You're in charge. Do you want to throw the lantern at me, just to drive the point home? Maybe take my pocket coin, like you normally do? Or maybe you'd prefer -- "
He slammed a heavy fist down on the counter. The loaf of bread jumped and nearly fell off the edge. "Shut up!"
The shout echoed through the house. I raised my eyebrows and backed off a step in case he tried to hit me.
[Section 15] Father flinched and raised his hands, palms out. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. She can go, if that's what she really wants."
He took a deep breath and took a fresh paper-wrapped candle from the cabinet, offering it to me. I eyed him as I took it, half expecting him to grab my arm. He stood there, shoulders slumped.
I handed the candle to Abby and she disappeared into the dark depths of the house.
"See?" Father said. "I'm really trying here."
But how long would it last?