Chapter 53: STORY WRITING
How do you write a good story with a plot and
Problem and Assignment
The Steps of the Process
1. Rough Drafting
3. Final Drafting
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Introduction: A Definition
A story is a series of events, made up ("fictional")
or real ("true story"), that have a plot: they start with some kind of person
who is having a problem, and end with a solution or the promise of a solution.
A story is not just a series of events--it must have a plot. A story also
is not an essay with a main thesis and reasons why (though a story sometimes
does have a moral or purpose to it). A story also is not a poem or play:
those are different forms of creative writing (though a poem sometimes has a
story within it, and a play almost always has a story within it). A story
may be as short as a few paragraphs as long as it still has a plot, or it may be
as long as a series of books such as Tolkien's Trilogy. Examples of great
stories are all the short and long works of some of our favorite story authors
we've encountered in or out of school.
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Problem and Assignment
People want and need examples of human behavior,
both as lessons for living and as entertainment. Please write a story, real or imagined, with a clear main person, main
problem, solution, and a moral of the story. There should be a variety of
paragraph types and lengths, a realistic progression through the process of
solving the problem, and a great amount of detail using the 5 W's, the 5 senses,
and dialogue. Please also include an active introduction that clearly states
your person and problem, and an active conclusion which summarizes your problem
and solution and clearly states your moral of the story.
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(Here are three major steps of focusing during the writing process. Each is
further divided (in most chapters) into two sub-steps. Remember that the steps
shown here may be rearranged or otherwise changed to suit your individual
1. FOCUS ON A FIRST DRAFT (Brainstorm Ideas & Create a Rough Draft):
Brainstorm a story you'd like to tell--real, made up, or partly made
up--about how you or someone else took care of a problem. You may start with
"Once upon a time" if helpful. Use an idea list, story making, or
imaging. Write freely.
2. FOCUS ON ORGANIZING (Evaluate Your Needs and Organize):
Look at samples & make the basic form:
intro--Introduce a person and problem; use dialogue/action.
body--Show the person solving the problem with dialogue/action.
concl.Show (1) the problem & solution, (2) a moral to the story, and
(3) final dialogue or action.
3. FOCUS ON A FINAL DRAFT (Revise and Edit):
Develop the story in one-person, one-time, one-place detailed
form. Check use of 5 W's, 5 senses, colorful verbs, & quotations (dialogue). Are
beginning and end active?
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1. Rough Drafting
Start brainstorming by feeding your brain: read this whole chapter quickly
and casually; then look at the samples more carefully for a few minutes. Notice
that the heart of a story is a description of a person solving a problem.
Stories may be fiction or real and are used not only for creative writing but
also for newspaper writing and in advertising.
Story writing has many uses in school and work. In school, you may find it
most immediately useful when you are called upon to give extended examples of
your subjects in academic papers. Short examples are relatively easy to find or
create, but a longer example can be difficult. However, if you know the basic
elements of how to create a story, you can create small stories for your
examples. Such stories have a powerful effect on readers just because they are
so complete. You can give real example stories, or you can give made up ones as
long as you start with a phrase like this: "Here is a fictional example of
how this might happen...." Story writing also is good practice for writing
good research papers. The reason for this is that story writing usually involves
writing dialogue. Dialogue is a relatively painless way to practice quotations
and punctuation for them--skills you must use repeatedly in research writing.
In the world of work, the two most common uses of storytelling are, perhaps,
in journalism and in advertising. Journalists sometimes are called upon to write
profiles or in-depth examinations for magazines or "Style" sections of
newspapers, and these profiles or examinations require writing about how some
kind of problem was solved. Knowing how to create a story helps. In advertising,
storytelling is one of the most common forms of commercials and ads. Basic
advertising often uses storytelling to show a person (the consumer or client)
with a problem (lack of this or that) for which there is a solution (the product
When brainstorming a story, be creative. Everyone has at least one or two
stories he or she always has wanted to tell. You may make a completely invented
or "fiction" story, or you can make a completely true story. If you
wish, you can do what many famous writers do and make a true story which has
parts of it fictionalized: for example, changing the names, places, or times to
protect the innocent (such as you!), or changing some parts of the story to make
it more interesting than what happened in real life.
One way to start brainstorming is to write down (Once upon a time...."
This phrase is so deeply imbedded in our Western cultural ways of thinking that
often it, alone, is enough to get a story started within us. Other ways of
getting started include letting ourselves go and telling about the worst or best
thing that ever happened to us, telling our favorite fantasy, or inventing a new
fantasy on paper: there is no need for embarrassment because we can simply
change names, places, and times. And writing something personal often creates
the best stories and the best writing of which we are capable.
ALTERNATIVE PAPERS: Story Ads and Case Studies
The pattern for writing story ads is similar to that of writing a
story. The formula of person-problem-solution is used: the solution is the
product or service; the person is the consumer who is likely to be attracted to
the product, and the problem is the real (or, in the advertising world,
sometimes imaginary) problems that the consumer has, which the product will
solve. (See also the next chart below.)
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Before you begin writing your second draft, look carefully at the story map
and the sample stories. Give your first draft the parts needed, expand or
develop parts, and reorder and regroup ideas, sentences, and paragraphs as
needed. The basic organization of a story is its person, its problem, and its
Making a Plot
A story is a clear, simply ordered series of events showing how a person
solves a problem to become better or at least different--or helps others to
become better or different. Some stories show the opposite: someone becomes
worse because of something he or she did wrong. Stories can be long or short
--from a long novel to a short example or ad. Either way, a story simply tells
how is a person solves a problem.
One useful formula for organizing your story is this:
"Once upon a time, ____ had a problem with ____ and
solved it by ____ . The result was ____ ."
This formula and its parts are used in a number of fields. The most
common ways they are described are, perhaps, as follows:
Same Pattern as a Literary Story
In a Case Study
treatment & prognosis/result
(See the "Case
Your introduction should be organized on two principles: first, the principle
that all introductions should have some kind of summarizing beginning, and
second, the principle that you should grab readers' interest at the beginning.
The way to accomplish these is to have the following in the first half page:
(a) a mention of the main person,
(b) his/her main problem to be solved in the story, and
(c) action or dialogue throughout the introduction.
The body of your story should be organized in a very simple way: show the
progress of the hero or heroine toward solving the problem and reaching the
result. You may spend more time in detailing the problem, you may wish to
develop the steps of solving in more detail, or you may wish to emphasize
obstacles. Any one or more of these is appropriate for developing the body of
the story, as long as they move your story toward its end. You may develop this
body as you wish, but sometimes people use the following device to develop their
stories. This device is a graph or "mountain" showing levels of
tension created in the reader. The idea is to show the hero/heroine going
through several obstacles (three is common), easiest first and most difficult
last, to try to break through to the goal. As each obstacle is met and creates
problems for the hero/heroine, tension levels in the readers rise:
MOUNTAIN OF TENSION:
Final Obstacle (hardest one)
\ - -
hero or -
heroine = /
Another alternative in using the pattern above is to develop a rhythm or
division of three in the way you tell your story; in fact, this pattern often is
used in both literary writing and the making of Hollywood movies:
1st 1/3 of Story
or tragic end)
The conclusion of your story should once again embody the two
principles of summarizing and of having an interesting end. You can accomplish
this by having, somewhere in the last half page or so of your story, the
(a) a mention of the problem and of the specific solution,
(b) a clear mention of the result, and
(c) a mention of the moral of the story--the lesson to be learned.
(d) Remember to have dialogue or action throughout the conclusion, too.
The different parts of your story should, then,
have the following features:
(1) an intro with (a) hero/heroine, (b) problem that will be solved,
and (c) action/dialogue.
(2) a body with (a) details of progress toward solution, (b) several
stages or steps in progress, and (c) plenty of details--action/dialogue.
(3) a concl. with (a) problem that was solved, (b) result, (c) moral
or lesson of story, and (d) action/dialogue.
Provide plenty of details in an easy-to-read order.
Developing Details from a Summarizing First Draft
Many writers, especially those not used to writing stories or using a lot of
close, descriptive detail, tend to write a summary of events in their first
draft of a story, rather than an actual scene or set of scenes. Here, for
example, is the difference:
She shook her head and tried
to smile. "I knew we shouldn't have left without a compass.
Maybe we can find a stream to follow out." The flames made a huge
shadow of her on the trees, a shadow that danced madly in the flickering
My friend Sue and I were lost in
the woods. We made a campfire that night and talked about whether we'd
get out, and how we'd manage it. It was kind of scary.
We were so lost. I sat in the
dark on the moldy old log, put my hands out to the dying fire, and asked Sue,
"Do you think we'll find a way back tomorrow morning?"
The difference between the two, summary and
event, is that one just gives a general idea of what happened, but the other
gives descriptive, second-by-second detail.
One way to create a scene from a summary is to
use the five W's of journalism. These are discussed more thoroughly in the
section below called "3. FINAL DRAFTING (Revise and
Edit)." The five W's of journalism are "Who?, What?, Where?,
When?, and "Why or How?" Journalists use them to develop news
articles, and most professional storytellers use them to begin not only their
stories, but also each major scene within a story. Notice that all
five W's are answered in some way in the first two sentences above under
Another way to create a scene from a summary is
to describe thoroughly the sensory details of the place or people using most or
all of the five senses. Again, the five senses are discussed below as part
of the revising section. Briefly, they are sight, sound, taste, touch, and
smell. Most professional storytellers are carefully to use all the senses
to tell a story well. Notice in the "SCENE" paragraphs above
that all five senses are used in some way.
Yet a third way that some people enjoy using to
create a scene from a summary is to write the dialogue. What exactly did
the people in the scene say to each other? After you've provided some
dialogue, you can add other sensory details--the five senses--around and within
it, and you can add the five W's to the beginning of it to create a complete
Adding More Senses by Starting a Scene
with Action or Dialogue
Often the best way to start a
scene is to use all five W's of journalism in the first sentence or two.
Most good story authors use the five W's to develop the beginnings of their
scenes. Doing so immediately sets the basic details of the scene is the
reader's mind. You should not attempt this device for first drafts if it
hinders your writing in any way. However, it is an excellent organizing or
revising device if you are an experienced writer or you already have finished a
Once you've used the five W's
to start the first sentence or two of a scene, the next step might be to
immediately use the five senses to describe background or characters. Many
very famous stories and novels start this way: before the action starts, there
is a description of the scenery and even of the characters that may run from a
few sentences to as much as a few paragraphs. If you have trouble in
particular with getting enough of the five senses in your writing, try
describing the background at the beginning of each scene. Using this
organizing or revising device also is a good way to cure any problem you might
have with not developing scenes that are specific enough--that are not just
summaries of times or events in general: if you develop a specific set of
descriptions for just one setting--one set of scenery and background--by using
the five senses.
Of course you should not
limit your use of the five W's and the five senses to just the beginnings of
your scenes. The five senses especially can and should be sprinkled or
grouped in other places in your story so that your reader has a regular sense of
the sensory background and of the appearance of the characters. And the
five W's will occur in many places naturally if you are helping your reader
understand what is going on.
However, every scene should
start with the five W's, however subtly or obviously. And if you are
struggling with using sufficient sensory descriptions or with developing
detailed scenes, it is a good idea to also start your scenes by using the five
senses to describe the background or characters.
Critical Thinking Activity: Creating Similes and
One extra key--or at least a helpful device--to creative writing of stories
is worth mentioning: similes and metaphors. Similes are the devices that say
that something is like something else; metaphors say that something is something
else. For example, "Love is like a rose" is a simile; "Love is a
rose" is a metaphor. Creative writing often delivers quick similes and
metaphors in passing (for example, "He felt like a frog"; "As she
danced, she became a rainbow inside"). Sometimes such writing will pause
for a more leisurely and "full" simile or metaphor--one that explains
itself in more detail. Here are the formulas for creating a full simile and
metaphor, and examples:
____ is like a ____ : both are ____ , ____ , and ____ .
"Love is like a rose: both are sweet to smell and beautiful to
behold, and both have thorns." ____ is a ____ : ____ , ____ ,
and ____ .
"Love is a rose: sweetly scented, pretty, and thorny."
There are many versions of similes and metaphors other than these; the two
formulas above simply provide a starting point for learning to write good
metaphors. They are useful not only in creative writing but also, in more
straightforward and practical fashion, in trying to explain ideas or experiences
in other college papers and even in business and news writing and in
Critical Thinking Activity: Writing a Case Study
A basic "case study" paper in psychology, the social sciences, legal studies,
and nursing uses the person-problem-solution pattern of stories. For more
on this, see the chapter in this textbook called "Case
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3. Final Drafting
Rewrite what you have done. Remember to use your rewriting skills, especially
those which are good for making background settings and characters come alive.
Use as much dialogue and action as possible. Frequent use of the 5 senses, the 5
W's, and active verbs will help. Try to write the story with a natural, smooth
flow--as if you were telling a story to a close friend.
There are five main keys to telling a good story which are discussed here.
They are as follows:
(1) the 5 senses,
(2) the 5 W's of journalism,
(3) active verbs for active scenes,
(4) a variety of paragraph lengths, and
(5) dialogue with proper punctuation.
(6) Other descriptive systems: history, daily schedule, behaviors,
The first key is the 5 senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
They should be used regularly. The reason all 5 senses should be used is that
all of them together create a more full and realistic description. Often in our
first drafts we use only one or two of the senses--either sight and sound or
sight and touch--frequently. Our descriptions do not seem, at that point, nearly
as full or as real as those by professional writers. However, if we add, even if
briefly, more 5-sense descriptions, we often will be surprised at how much more
full our scenes become. For example, compare the two sentences below:
CHANGE THIS TWO-SENSES SENTENCE:
She used a match to light a fire from a dry log.
TO A FIVE-SENSES SENTENCE:
She scratched a match on a log as dry as her mouth and lit a smoky fire.
A good guideline is to use each sense at least once or twice per typed page
(double spaced) or computer screen (single spaced). For those of you writing by
hand, this means using each sense at least oonce every handwritten page.
A second key is the 5 W's of journalism. Like the 5 senses, they are quite
helpful in creating a story that seems full and real. They are useful especially
in the beginnings of new scenes. In a short story such as this chapter assigns,
the 5 W's should be used at least somewhere in the introduction. The 5 W's offer
a reader everything he or she should know about the scene or story at the very
beginning--who is involved, what is happening right then, where this is taking
place (the setting), when, and why or how. These can be added to the beginning
of a story in much the same way that you learned to add them to the beginning of
a News Release.
A third key to good revising of stories is to use active verbs which create
active scenes. One of the most important elements of good story revising is make
movies, not just paint pictures. Painting pictures--making colorful scenes--is
very important. But often your story will be even better if you make the
paintings come alive and move. Here is an example:
CHANGE THESE DULL VERBS:
The waves were going over the rocks as he went, feeling cold, into the
TO THESE ACTIVE VERBS:
The waves crashed over the teetering rocks as he ran, shivering, into the
There is an easy way to do this kind of revising: simply go through your
earlier draft, circle all the verbs, and then go back and, one by one, see if
you can make the verbs more lively. Notice that in the first example sentence
immediately above, the verbs are printed in bold in preparation for being
revised. You can revise not only the main verbs of the sentences and phrases,
but also the verbs that are acting like adjectives.
The fourth key to good revising of stories is to vary the lengths of
paragraphs. This has been discussed previously. However, story writing requires
even closer attention to paragraph length variety than do Releases, Proposals,
and Reports. Stories are one long, continuous progression of paragraphs--no
breaks, no subtitles, and no divisions into sections. For this reason, readers
can more quickly and easily become bored. Therefore it is very important to vary
the length of your paragraphs to keep reader attention. Stick short summarizing
paragraphs in between long and medium ones. Combine series of short or medium
paragraphs to create long ones. Paragraph making is a flexible craft. For more
ideas on how to build paragraphs, see the section later in this book on
A fifth key to good revising of stories is to be sure to add plenty of
dialogue. Dialogue is talk that involves two or more people. Most stories have
it, and some stories have more dialogue than any other kind of writing. Dialogue
helps the plot progress, it makes for more interesting reading, and it is a good
way to learn what the characters are thinking or feeling --let them explain
themselves out loud! The way to make good dialogue is to avoid normal,
day-to-day discussions--who wants to hear in a story about a character's laundry
list or shopping trip? Rather, dialogue should show or develop tension and
stress, and the way to do this is to make characters have tension between them.
They may be angry, manipulating, misunderstanding, hiding, or confusing each
other, or even coming from two entirely different wavelengths as they talk. And
as they talk, they must walk a thin line to keep talking: they must not talk
about boring things; however, they also must not develop so much tension that
they stop talking and either fight or walk away. Keep your characters talking,
and keep up the tension as they talk. And remember to put quotation marks around
everything they say: the use of quotation marks and other punctuation for
dialogue and quotations is discussed in a chapter of the grammar section of this
The final revised draft of your paper should have these characteristics:
(1) At least one use of each 5 sense on each typed page,
(2) All 5 W's somewhere in the beginning,
(3) Frequent use of active verbs that make scenes active,
(4) Frequent variety of paragraph lengths,
(5) Frequent dialogue with proper use of quotation marks, and
(6) Double check all the organizational requirements, grammar, spelling,
Critical Thinking Activity: the rhetorical modes of EXEMPLIFICATION,
NARRATION, CAUSE AND EFFECT, and DESCRIPTION
If you are working with the rhetorical modes, a story uses several of them.
It is especially useful for writing in the mode of exemplification. A story also
requires narration, cause/effect, and description. Here's what you need to know
to use these modes when writing a story.
"Exemplification" is "the giving of an example." An
exemplification paper usually starts with a main idea, belief, or
opinion--something abstract--and then gives one extended example or a series of
shorter examples to illustrate that main idea. In fact, an exemplification paper
is a paper that illustrates an abstract idea. For example, if I wished to write
an exemplification paper about "The Opposite Sex--Problems and
Pleasures" (as a man or as a woman), there might be two ways I could go
about this. One would be, after introducing my general idea, to tell several
little stories about how the opposite sex can be both a problem to deal with and
a pleasure to be with. The other way I might write the paper (and a stronger,
more unified way of doing it) might be to pick out one person of the opposite
sex I have dated or lived with and describe how this one person gave me both
problems and pleasures in my overall relationship with him or her.
Exemplification is useful in story writing in two ways. First, the general
meaning of the word "example" is that you should give specific details
about something. Certainly story writing requires this. A story is not an
abstract idea: it is the specific detail of some event. So in the sense of an
example being "something specific," an entire story is one long series
of examples. Second, in a deeper sense, a story is a type of giant example: it
shows some kind of moral, idea, or belief--except it does not show it by talking
about it or arguing for or against it logically. Rather, the whole story is the
example for what we might call the moral of the story. The moral of the story is
the main idea; the story is the exemplification paper about the idea.
"Narration" is "a giving of details of an event in
order." A narration paper describes, in a step-by-step order, the details
of something that has happened. It is a process paper (process papers give
directions, like recipes) that is past tense and describes an event: a
past-tense process paper that uses exemplification to illustrate what has
already happened in close detail. History books are filled with narrations. For
example, if I were to describe the visit of the Pope to Denver in 1993, I would
use his itinerary and give details of each major event in that visit. If I were
writing a book about it, I would give details of many of the more interesting
minor events as well. I would do this in the order in which they occurred.
Narration is necessary in story writing because a story is a narrated series
of events--an orderly, step-by-step description of something that happened. Most
stories are in the past tense, as are narrations, but some stories also are in
the present tense. One of the major differences between a story and a simple
narration is that sometimes a story is made up, wholly or partly, whereas a
narration paper almost always is supposed to be true.
"Cause/effect" has been described in the News writing and Proposal
chapters. It is particularly important in story writing because a story needs
something more than just a narrative to make it a true story. A Narrative is
just a detailed chain of events. The only way the vents are tied together is by
subject and time. However, a story has a plot: a person with a problem and a
solution. This person-problem-solution-result chain of events is called a plot.
And it is a chain of events ruled by cause and effect: the problem must lead to
a seeking of a solution, and the solution must lead to some kind of result. For
this reason, cause/effect reasoning is at the core of a story: cause/effect
forms the story's plot.
"Description" is "illustrative detail." A description
paper often takes a person or object and then describes that person or thing in
great illustrative detail. For example, a description paper about my best friend
might describe his appearance, his actions, and his personality, both through
direct descriptive words--like paintings of him in different poses--and through
stories or vignettes showing him in action.
Description is necessary in story writing because a good story is composed of
detail, detail, detail. Story writing uses a number of descriptive details
including the 5 W's of journalism, the 5 senses, and active verbs. All of these
help create close, full, and realistic detail.
When you are writing your story, put it into good typed or printed
format--dark and easily readable with approximate 1" margins. Be sure to
give it a title and have your name in an appropriate place. A story is simply a
description of a person solving a problem. This is how it is done.
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