What’s a story without conflict? What’s life without conflict? All of us have conflict in one form and to one degree or another. Sally is conflicted at breakfast. Does she have Cheerios or Wheaties? Sometimes it’s more serious. Which college should Sally attend?
Writing stories is life condensed onto a page. As a writer wanting to write a great story, ask what do people find interesting about others? Is it what Sally had for breakfast? I think not.
How about while Sally was eating breakfast she heard a thud against the outside wall and when she opened the backdoor a man fell through the doorway with a knife in his back? Trust me, the knife in the back story will keep a person reading longer, and with more interest, than anything you can write about the taste of cereal.
And, the reader will really be hooked when Sally finds a note in the man’s hand that reads ‘you are in grave danger’. Now what? Then, as she turns the note over Sally sees scrawled on the back the rest of the message—‘don’t go to the police or you will never see your children again’. Whoa!
This opening has satisfied two important elements in writing the beginning to your story: the hook and the conflict. The man with the knife in the back is the hook. It will keep the reader reading. The note produces the conflict which will make the reader want to know what happens next in Sally’s life. Of course, this scenario would be told over the first chapter. I have condensed it for illustration. Here are a couple of examples, and these are just excerpts.
From Sarah’s Wish chapter one:
The Hook - It all seemed to have happened in one of those slow-motion moments. Actually, the horse heard it first-the rattle sound. The sound that leaves goose bumps on a big man’s neck. By the time the girl caught eye of it, Blackie had instinctively shied to the right.
“Snake!” Rachel pointed at the coiled serpent, its mouth gaping, fangs laid bare.
Blackie bolted. The sudden jerk slammed Rachel against the seat, wrenching the reins from her hands. Immediately she reached for twelve-year-old Sarah. Careening wildly along the narrow lane they furiously clutched at the buggy seat.
The Conflict - Sarah leaned over and kissed her mother’s soft hand. “What will happen to Joseph and Polly? They need you, Mama. Tonight-what about tonight? I promised never to tell. What should I do now?” she begged, her tone frantic. “Tell me! Please wake up, Mama. Oh, Please! I need you. Oh, Mama, don’t leave me.”
From Sarah’s Promise chapter one:
The Hook - Before the sun peeked over the horizon, while the morning star still shimmered in the western sky, they attacked. The earth shook under the pounding hooves as two riders whipped their horses furiously, pushing them to the limit. Out of the dim eastern horizon they raced across the field, swiftly closing in on Sam and Eliza. Slowly, the Negroes turned to the sound and squinted into the first gray light of dawn. Graybeard jammed his boot into Eliza’s side, the blunt force slamming her to ground. She groaned pitifully. Then, holding her side, she curled into a ball. Finally, after catching her breath, she screamed for her husband. Sam started for his fallen wife, but never made it. Tall Man pistol-whipped him, opening a bloody gash on the black man’s forehead. Crumpling into a heap, Sam lay dazed, eyes half-closed. The brutal, hardhearted bounty hunters had the devil in their eyes. While gazing down at their terrible work those ice-cold eyes turned mean—real mean. Unhurried, they swung down from their snorting horses.
From chapter two: The Conflict - “Sarah, I’ve brought bad news to your door. The slave catchers kidnapped Sam and Eliza. Esther rode to our place on her mule, and she’s in a bad way.” His lip quivered. “I’m sorry…
Sarah’s face drained of color and she felt her heart quake. The news gave her a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and questions raced through her mind...
Sarah touched her chest. “Granny,” her voice trembled, dropping to little more than a whisper. “My heart is breaking!”
Doc pulled her closer. In a quiet, soothing voice he assured, “God will provide. He always does.”
“I believe it,” her hushed voice broke with emotion. “The Lord promised to be with us, even to the end of the world. I know He will be with Esther and her parents. I will, too. I promise! Somehow, I’ll help get Mr. Sam and Miss Eliza back. I promise I will!” Putting on a brave face, she continued. “I don’t know how, but I will!”
So, in Sarah’s Wish, what happens to Sarah and her mother? What will happen tonight? In Sarah’s Promise what happens to Sam and Eliza? Sarah promises to get them back, but how will she do it?
The first chapter is usually the most important in the book. For a short story the first paragraph or first page is critical. After that it becomes the writer’s job to resolve the conflict so the reader is satisfied with how the story ends.
Dialogue and action are the elements that put the wind in the sails of your story, propelling it forward. Without dialogue your story just sits there. Sure, you could tell your story without it; and then hand it out as a sleeping aid. “Read this if you cannot sleep at night.” To keep your reader engaged takes meaningful dialogue through which you develop plot, and in turn it develops your characters. The reader gains understanding of your characters through their words and actions.
In the Sarah Books the reader learns that Sarah has a sense of humor, can imitate voices, is caring, very smart, etc. This information about Sarah and other things is conveyed by means of dialogue and action. In writing your story, do not say: Jason is a jokester. Show the reader what makes him funny. Have him play practical jokes. Let the characters discuss it.
Always make the dialogue relevant to the story and what the characters are doing. Do not “throw in” paragraphs of dialogue or narrative that have nothing to do with moving the story along. Good dialogue has purpose.
I love cats. When I was a little boy I learned a cat is smart and very cagey. I came to know my cat’s feelings by her actions. When she lay on the floor with her paws up I knew she wanted to be petted. When she crouched low, creeping slowly next to the wall I knew she was about to pounce on something. Another thing—a cat doesn’t get its back up often, but when it does, look out. She’s ready to fight, and unless you want to wear claw marks for a few weeks get out of the way.
Actions tell a lot about cats, and so also people. Consider this statement: Sarah’s lips drew tight across her teeth. Depending on the context of the story you know she is angry or frightened. It is not necessary to tell the reader Sarah was scared. The action shows her emotion. Keep in mind that action is not all gunfights, car chases or throwing someone out a window. It is body movements, too. What do you think Sarah’s actions tell from the following description?
Sarah’s face grew ashen. Her eyes darted from one hard-faced man to the other; she swallowed hard. Taking a step back the girl slowly reached into her bag grasping the derringer. With shaking hand she raised it and eked out the words, “Don’t come any closer.”
I would think it is obvious what Sarah is feeling. Now, which is the better description? Is it the one written above or the following? Two mean-looking men confronted Sarah and she was scared. Hmmm, this also should be obvious.
Remember: action is as small as a wink or large as a train wreck. Write your story using actions and dialogue. An important writing rule is: show, don’t tell. As a reader I want to be shown that my hero is brave by what he does, not by being told that he is brave. As a writer you must give some examples—prove it.
So, you have a story to write. How are you going to approach it? Go back and review all three installments of my series on the Fundamentals of Story Writing. Then, take a sheet of paper and write down some ideas. Play the “what if” game mentioned under Ideas—Where Can I Find Them? Be sure to write what you know. This is a good way to start. Don’t pick a storyline that will take a lot of research. That story can come later after you have gotten your feet wet with an easier project.
Pick a setting for your story, one you know. And, as you write remember the five senses: hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. All five do not need to be in every paragraph, but make them part of the readers experience. Add to all of these things a likable character or two and you now have a beginning. Start writing your thoughts. Rough drafts are just that—rough. Later you can smooth it out with additional thoughts and remove other things that drag it down.
I hope these things will be helpful to you. I realize this is only a beginning and much more can be said and learned. If you love to write, do it. The more you write and use these methods the easier it becomes. It is like practicing your music lessons—repetition, repetition, repetition.
If you have any questions you are welcome to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit website:
God bless, and may you always have happy trails, partner.
Jim Baumgardner, author of the Sarah Books
When I began writing my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing. Today, several years and many reams of paper later, I have a pretty good idea. It took a lot of work and study of writing techniques. I read about techniques—and I read books. I’m a visual person. I like to see it done and then I find it easier to do. So, I read each day and observe great authors of the past and how they keep my attention with their writing style. Do you want to improve your writing? If the answer is yes—then read.
There are key elements which must be incorporated into the writing of a story, whether a novel or short story. I want to mention five in these next two articles. There are more of course, but these five are fundamental and will lay a foundation on which you can build a good story.
You have decided on an idea for a short story, now ask yourself, “Can I actually write a story and make it believable.” If the idea involves a story about how a man survives a shipwreck near a small island in the South Pacific, yet you have never been there nor studied the area, and know nothing about ships—you may have problems. My advice is to select another idea. Pick something that can be set in an area in which you are familiar.
The Sarah Books are set in
Consider these words from the introduction of Sarah’s Wish: ‘...in your “mind’s eye” you see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and touch nineteenth century
Please keep in mind your reader! Do not ramble on paragraph after paragraph describing a sunset, mountain, or anything else. It’s not necessary. Give your readers credit for having sense enough to picture a sunrise in their mind.
For example: “Morning dawned bright pink with shades of violet splashed across the eastern sky.” I would think most folks have seen a similar sunrise. Here is the first line from Sarah’s Promise: “Before the sun peeked over the horizon, while the morning star still shimmered in the western sky, they attacked.” The reader gets the picture. It’s just before dawn, not light, not dark, but gray; and all stars have disappeared except for the brightest. You can make out shapes, but no colors. That’s it. Now get on with the story. I did.
Your character’s actions and language must conform to the time period. Writing a story set in 2011 is easier than a setting in 1858. We are familiar with today’s language and customs, but how about the 19th century? If you want to identify a character’s race what terms would you use? Sarah’s friend Esther is called a Negro in the Sarah Books because that was the term used in Sarah’s day, today the term is African-American. Running Fox is called an Indian by Granny, and a half-breed (his father was
Actions are important, too. Men bowed to ladies in the 19th Century, but generally, unless there is some compelling reason, you wouldn’t have a character doing that in 2010. On the other hand Sarah is not giving high-fives or low-fives to anyone. She doesn’t greet her friends with, “What’s up dude”, either.
A word about order of events is needed, especially if you are attempting to write a book. Make sure the characters’ actions are kept in chronological order. Example: Last night in the woodshop Uncle Alvin slipped and cut off his hand with the table saw. Yet, this morning he’s holding a cup of coffee in one hand and with his other hand he’s eating toast. What? He’s got three arms? Be aware of what you have written previously.
A story would be meaningless without characters with which we can relate. In my first novel, Sarah’s Wish, Sarah is twelve, has dark hair falling in ringlets to her shoulders, dark eyes, dimples, and is short. Fine, that describes thousands, probably millions of girls. A good character is more than a good description of her or his physical attributes. You must get beyond the physical and show how she thinks, feels, her goals, why she acts as she does, and so much more. Why does Sarah continually refer to her mother in the present tense when Rachel has been dead for months? At the end of the third book she has a full blown character flaw—the question is: can she overcome it? Now developing a character to that extent is not possible in a short story, and not necessary. If you’re writing a novel it is vital.
Make the characters real to the reader. Give them flaws. Shortcomings can be made obvious by how they reason things out or maybe inter feelings of hate, greed or jealousy. There are numerous things from which to choose, just make it real to that character. As you read the Sarah Books you will see Sarah has flaws as does Granny Evans. No one is perfect, so don’t try to make your characters that way. It’s not believable. People understand imperfection, since we’re all in that condition.
On the other hand give the main characters something unique about themselves. Sarah is very smart, and you will see in the fourth book, The Making of a Spy, how that brilliance is put to use. Granny has her dialect and habits (smoking her corncob pipe and carrying a gun in her knitting bag) that set her apart.
To invent a likeable hero begin by listing the characteristics you want him to manifest. Include physical and emotional characteristics along with his values. Ask yourself what is it that defines my hero? Maybe it’s traits from someone you know or a combination of people. Granny Evans in the Sarah Books is a combination of my granny, her sister, and a television character of many years ago.
Allow your characters to tell the story through their actions and dialogue. A good story is made up of a logical beginning, an emotional, up and down, nail biting middle, and a satisfying end. But a good plot is made up of more than just these basics. Characters serve the plot; in fact they drive the plot. An interesting character is interesting because of what she does. Please understand; a story is in the mind of the reader, so give the reader just enough to picture the scene. What I see in my mind’s eye is not necessarily what you would see. It’s probably close, but not exactly the same. Have you ever seen a movie that is based on a book and went away saying the book was better? Maybe it’s because what you visualized about the story is not what was put on the screen.
A funny thing about readers, they don't want the hero to be happy all the time. A reader wants to see conflict, pain, troubles and sorrow. In the Sarah Books, Sarah’s mom dies, Sarah has a broken arm, her friends are kidnapped, she hides from someone chasing her, etc. These things keep the reader engaged in the story. They are fine as long as it works to a happy ending. People do not like crummy endings. We will talk more about conflict next time.
Students, now is the time to get a head start on the upcoming school year. You may be asked to write a story. Start now by using the things you have learned in these first two articles. Look back to the first lesson on how to finds ideas and writing what you know. Then, use the suggestions on selecting a setting and developing characters to begin putting a story on paper. I like to make a rough outline of the story idea. It always changes (for the better of course) and that is fine. At least you have an idea of where you want to take the story and how to get there.
If you have any question you are welcome to email me at: email@example.com
I do have students who like to write and send me samples to read and comment on. I would be glad to do that for you. Thanks for reading and happy writing.
Next: We will look at using conflict, dialogue, and action in your stories.
Ideas—Where Can I Find Them?
So you want write a novel. Or, maybe you have been given a school assignment to write a short story. Whatever the reason, you need a story that will capture the reader and keep him or her interested to the end. How do you go about it?
Whether it’s a short story or a novel the principals are much the same. You need a strong beginning, a satisfying middle, and a terrific ending that ties everything together. Now get a sheet of paper and start writing. What? Oh, you don’t have any ideas. Hmmm, that is a problem.
Let’s think this through and maybe an idea will come. You can find ideas everywhere: reading, television, at the mall, conversations with friends, the newspaper, things that anger you or make you happy, Bible stories, Mother Goose, Grimms Fairy Tales, history books, family history, and ______. You fill in the blank. Capturing the imagination is what you want to do, whether writing fiction or non-fiction. If your imagination isn’t stimulated, you’ll have nothing to say.
Another technique is to take a familiar story, like a fairy tale, and rewrite it. Let’s take for example: “Hansel and Gretel”. Make the children ornery, not the father and the step-mother. The witch’s challenge is to get rid of them. How about making “The Three Little Pigs” vicious razorback hogs that terrorize the countryside threatening a frail little mama wolf, weak from giving birth to her babies. You get the idea.
Play, “what if”. Take something you love to do or maybe a game you like and ask what if things were done differently. What if the sun didn’t come up one day? What would you think? How would you react? Where would you go? Why did it happen? Will this be forever?
What if Major League Baseball decided umpires are no longer needed? Write about what that would do to the game and fans. Who would be in charge?
The key with brainstorming is that no ideas are discarded. The trick is to come up with as many ideas as possible, regardless of how outlandish they may seem. Do this with friends, and write all the ideas down.
How about some ideas now? Okay, here are some starters and it should stimulate your mind to come up with others that interest you.
1. You find an old lamp that has washed up on the beach. Drying it off involves rubbing it, and when you do a genie pops out and offers to grant you three wishes. How do you answer?
2. You are riding in a car and your friend is driving. While listening to the radio the station breaks in with a news bulletin. You friend slams on the brakes, jams the car into park, and jumps out running down the street through traffic. Why?
3. Write about a family tradition. What does your family always do on a holiday or every summer?
4. Any strong emotion you have about something is a good place to start writing.
Within your story include descriptive details that convey the sights, sounds, textures, odors, and flavors of an experience. Can we hear the rumble of a stampede? Give us the smell of dust up our nostrils on the wind blown prairie? Describe the taste of stale water. Deliver to your readers the magnified squeak of the rusty hinges on the gate that leads to the old haunted house down the street.
Remember precise wording is better than vague words and phrases. "The
Instead of “He gave her some pretty roses” be more specific. “He gave her twelve, long stemmed, red roses.”
Write What You Know
The Sarah books are set in 1858
“What are those men doing in that field?” Sarah pressed her nose up tight against the window.
“Cain’t rightly say,” the old lady answered.
Everyone eyed the men as the cars began to slow to a stop at the station. Doctor Baum, Granny and Sarah had finally arrived in
“Sarah, I believe those men are playing the game of base ball.” Squinting his eyes in thought, he tried to recall a memory. “I heard of it when I went through
“Base ball.” The girl whispered the words that really meant little to her. “What does that man do with the big stick he’s holding?”
“He’s called the ‘striker,’ and he tries to hit the ball when it's thrown. If he does, then he runs to the first base.”
“What do the others do? When do they try to hit the ball? Or do they? Is there only one striker? What’s the ball made out of? How do you know who wins. What are…”
“Let’s go, girl!” Granny cut off the questions. “We gotta git one of them cabs to take us to the Burnett house. While we be fetchin’ to the hotel, Doc can sort out the questions.”
Notice three things the reader learns about baseball in the year 1858. The name of the game is written base ball not baseball, the batter is called the striker, and there were teams of which one is called the Knickerbockers.
If you are not writing a paper on an historical event or an historical fiction story, you still need to know your subject in order to write an effective and interesting paper. Example: You have decided to tell about your involvement with the Girl Scouts. The paper will include why you like the scouts, how long you have been with them, what you do in service, what friendships have developed because of scouting, and several other things that are important to you. To round out your paper you should give a brief history of the Girl Scouts, some examples of famous people who were scouts, and maybe even some objections offered by folks who are opposed to the Girl Scouts with your answers to those objections. The latter items involve research. When writing think of the following and answer them in the story: who, what, when, where, why and how.
Here are some places to get you started in doing research: The local library, local historical societies, visit historical sites, new and used bookstores, and the internet.
Next: Developing characters and choosing a setting for your story.
Offical release date of my new book is March 15. It cannot be purchased until then, except at Sarah's website. Get an autographed copy plus a huge discount. Click on "my website" above right and it will take you to Sarah's web. Thanks for reading! Jim Baumgardner
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, January 29, 1861, Kansas became a state. Abraham Lincoln celebrated that event in February of that year at a stop on his journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington for his inauguration. Another event took place that February, also. A plot to assassinate the President-elect was in the planning stages at Baltimore, Maryland. Fortunately certain people got wind of the plot and counter-measures were put into action to stop it.
In The Making of a Spy, Sarah Smith earns an opportunity to be part of the spy agency hired to stop the assassination of Lincoln. This becomes part of the process for Sarah to go from an agent on the Underground Railroad to a spy for the Union army. You don't want to miss this adventure!
Order now, the books will soon be in my hands and I will get them to you immediately. The official release date of my book in March 15, but you don't have to wait. Order now and be one of the first to read Sarah's heart-stopping adventure.
You do not need a PayPal account to order by credit card. Just click on the 'add to cart' button--it's easy.
21.99 Author's Price: $15.00 save 30%
Three months have passed since Sarah Smith escaped the ruthless hand of her relentless uncle, leaving him buried on the Kansas prairie.
Read the next post down for the answer to Virginia's question about Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the answer all along. No Santa? Why there might as well be no Easter Bunny! Sure there's a Santa, he's been bringing me presents since I was knee high to a duck. Merry Christmas to all!
Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun newspaper. A reply was posted on September 21, 1897.
"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?" --"VIRGINIA O'HANLON.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Thanks for reading Sarah's Newsletter. Tell others about it. Thanks!