Storytelling is much harder than it looks, so I have composed a list of DON’Ts to think about when writing your story. If you find this post useful, please pass it on to your writer friends and followers. Ready? Let’s go …
1) DON’T: Start Too Early
If you begin too early in your story, you end up with a ‘top-heavy’ draft. This is no good, because modern readers and viewers do NOT want to wait for your story to start.
But how do we avoid starting too early? Well, think about beginning with some kind of EVENT or ACTION with your characters actually doing something. Ensure that event introduces your characters and the story hand-in-hand.
Look to your favourite stories and see where they start for tips. For example, one of my favourite novels and movies The Hunger Games starts with Katniss illegally hunting deer with a bow and arrow. This shows us she is a capable young woman who can look after herself, plus she is the main provider for her family. This reveals character, but also pushes the story forward because she will need to use these skills in the arena.
2) DON’T: Forget to put your characters through the s***
Many writers have great concepts, but shy away from putting their characters through the s*** in the plotting. This is because the characters are their babies. Yet drama is conflict and characters NEED to struggle somehow, otherwise it’s not a story. It’s just an account of someone living their life without obstacles. Oops!
3) DON’T: Forget The Plot
Spec screenplays and unpublished novels are often VERY light on plot. This may be connected to #2 on this list, or it may be because the writer does not understand how plotting (aka structure) really works.
This is why it’s important to use an outline … But you can do this any way you like. It does NOT have to be a dry, boring document of every event in the story. You could also use bullet points, post-its, drawings – WHATEVER YOU LIKE!
If you have already written a draft that’s very light on plot, create a list of every single scene or chapter. Then ask yourself 3 questions for each one …
- What is PHYSICALLY happening here on the page? (Keep it very short and simple, 1-2 sentences maximum – Characters X and Y are travelling to a new village)
- HOW does it reveal character? (ie. This scene chapter shows Character X thinks Character Y is lying about z)
- HOW does it push the story forward? (ie. Character X finds an artefact in the new village that PROVES character Y is lying)
By asking yourself these questions for EVERY scene or chapter, you can focus on the POINT of each scene/chapter. This means each one will add up to the WHOLE STORY overall, so it will no longer feel so light on plot. MORE: How To Write A Perfect Scene
4) DON’T: Drop A ‘Signal From Fred’
A Signal From Fred is when a writer subconsciously dislikes where their story is going, so their own characters make comments on it. Common examples include characters saying: ‘This is really boring‘ or ‘this doesn’t make sense’. Eeek! Avoidavoidavoid.
5) DON’T: Chop & Change POV
In novel writing, POV (‘point of view’) generally needs to start as it means to go on. So if you start with first person present for your protagonist, continue with that. DON’T suddenly change from your protagonist’s POV to another character’s **in the same chapter**. (It’s fine to have separate chapters for different characters, obviously).
In screenwriting, it may be a little more malleable but generally speaking, the same roles apply. It’s confusing for the viewer if you set someone up as the protagonist and then spend a good portion away from them. Even in ensemble pieces, we start as we mean to to go on. This means all important characters must be set up from the beginning so we can follow their arcs.
6) DON’T: Be A Facts Purist
Every year I work with writers who don’t want to make things up. Usually this is because they’re writing a period drama, or a true story. Yet it’s not only okay to sacrifice facts for drama, it’s actually desirable. Storytelling is NOT real life!
7) DON’T: Use Incorrect Format
In screenwriting, spec screenplays MUST be laid out a special way: courier 12 point, normal margins. That’s it. If it is not laid out like this, people will NOT read your screenplay. There’s a one page format reference guide which you can download from the PDF gallery on the B2W resources page, HERE.
In novel writing, use a nice clear font like Times New Roman, double-spaced, indented paragraphs.
8) DON’T: Rush
Lots of writers screw up their stories because they rush the drafting process. Yet if no one has commissioned your screenplay or novel , there is no deadline. You are not running out of time. Better to ensure it’s the best it can be … it’s far more likely to get an industry pro’s attention that way.
9) DON’T: Play It Safe
Taking risks is the lifeblood of creativity. Don’t let yourself get tied in knots by what you THINK industry pros, the marketplace, your peers, Twitter etc want from you. Whilst it’s good to learn about your own industry, don’t let it choke your spark.
10) DON’T: Forget To Have Fun!!!
Don’t be an unhappy writer. This writing lark is supposed to be FUN. If you find yourself no longer having fun, ask yourself why. Is it time to retire a particular draft that’s going nowhere? Or swap mediums or genres? Or try another thing altogether?
If so, you haven’t wasted your time. You’ve learned what doesn’t work and doesn’t make you happy. That’s worthwhile.
Summing Up …
These DON’Ts are important to keep you on track. If you find yourself doing any of these DON’Ts, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Every single writer alive – including your heroes – has fallen foul of these DON’Ts at some point in their career. Really!
So if you find you’ve done any of them, think about WHY you have … and WHAT you should do instead.