Tips for young writers: How to make your story more exciting

Update, May 2015:

Margaret Pearce’s creepy new science fiction/fantasy novel, The Year of our Invasion, was recently published by Ravenswood. Cath Isakson – blogger here at Great (book) expectations – was the editor.

In this guest post, Margaret demonstrates ways to make your creative stories more exciting.

Tip #1

Book cover for The Year of our Invasion by Margaret Pearce

Cover for Margaret’s new book, The Year of our Invasion. Cath was the editor!

For a story to be exciting it has to show not tell what is happening. You want your reader to feel that he or she is there experiencing what is going on.

For example, being told that ‘the dog bit the man, and the man bit back’ is telling and not showing.

Instead of telling, try Tip #2.

Tip #2

It’s always good to start your story with something happening. A story that begins with action is more likely to be gripping for the reader than, say, description.

‘Ouch!’ the man yelled when the dog bit him.

Tip #3

We live in a technicolour world. Bring attention to the vivid colours around us.

The man’s blood dripped down into the hole the dog had dug. The ripe tomatoes on the dug-up tomato plants exactly matched the colour of the bright red blood dripping from the man’s hand.

Tip #4

Try a different perspective or point of view. Another way to think of point of view is to imagine the story as it is seen through another character’s eyes. Sometimes writing your story from a different point of view can change the effect completely.

In the following section, the focus shifts from the man’s point of view to the dog’s.

The dog snarled, baring his white sharp teeth. He’d thought burying his bone would keep it safe, but this intruder had found it anyway.

Tip #5

Add dialogue. Too much narrative (telling) can bog a story down. Adding dialogue can make it more exciting for your reader.

‘Digging holes in my garden!’ the man yelled. He wound his white handkerchief around his hand, and it quickly grew spotted with red. ‘Look what you’ve done to my prize tomatoes!’

Tip #6

Show emotions through action. If I write that the man was so upset at the dog burying a bone in his tomato patch that he got angry, I would be telling, not showing. In the next passage, the man’s loss of control and temper are shown by his shouting, high face colour, heavy breathing and irrational behaviour.

The dog didn’t care about the prize tomatoes. He dragged his large bone further into the shelter of the tomatoes, destroying more of the plants.

The man’s face was now as red as his spotted handkerchief.  He was breathing heavily. If he had been a steam engine there would have been steam coming from his nose.

‘My tomatoes. My prize tomatoes!’ he howled.

He ran after the dog through the tomato plants. He swung his heavy, mud-laden garden boot forward into a kick. But the dog ducked low to the ground. The man missed the dog and overbalanced.  He fell down, flattening even more of his precious tomato plants.

Even on the ground, the man flailed about, trying to grab the dog. The dog dropped his bone and turned to have another go at the man. But the man managed to clamp the dog’s muzzle shut. He pulled the dog’s head closer.

Tip #7

Think of an original ending. For a short story that is funny, an unusual finish can be exciting.

‘Bite me, would you?’ the man shouted. ‘How do you like being bitten?’

The man chomped his large teeth on the floppy dog’s ear. He bit down, hard. The dog howled in pain and tried to pull away, but the man’s teeth were too firmly attached.

The dog whined and stopped struggling. He was beaten. He had never heard of humans biting dogs before. The man let go. He spat out dog hair and blood and stood up.

‘Now get out of my garden and stay out,’ he screamed. ‘And take your bone with you!’ he yelled and hurled the bone after the fleeing dog.

Margaret Pearce, author of children's fiction

The elusive Margaret Pearce.

Margaret Pearce has had around 28 books published, mostly for children and teenagers. She can be found lurking in an underground house in the hills near Melbourne, writing.

Margaret uses many of the techniques described in this article in her writing. Find out more about her very creepy new science fiction/fantasy novel for young adults on the Ravenswood website. There are tentacled aliens that communicate telepathically! (Told you it was creepy!)

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Tips for young writers: How to make your story more interesting

Sometimes it’s hard to make your stories sound exciting. In this guest blog, author Marianne Musgrove gives tips to make your next story more interesting.

Tip One: Begin at an exciting moment
Read the two story openings below. Which do you think is more interesting? Why?

A:

Amal was nine years old. She loved animals and running. One day, she went to the zoo. A lion escaped and chased her down the path.

B:

‘Run!’ shouted the zoo keeper. ‘Or you’ll be eaten!’
Though only nine years old, Amal was a fast runner. She raced down the path away from the roaring lion. ‘I normally love animals,’ she thought. ‘Today, I’m not so sure.’

Even though the same information is in both openings, B is worded in a more interesting way. The word ‘Run!’ makes you wonder what will happen next.

Exercise: Take a look at one of your old stories, or write a new one. Choose an exciting part of the story and begin it there.

Marianne Musgrove

Marianne Musgrove

Tip Two: Make life hard for your character
Have you ever read a story where a character has an interesting problem that gets solved too easily? Eg. a character is stuck in a bog and a genie suddenly appears and rescues her. Think about this: what if the genie didn’t appear? What would your character do then? Be creative. Make things hard for your character and the story will be more interesting.

Exercise:
Write a story where you and a friend are marooned on an island. A boat lands on the shore. How would you finish this story? The easy way would be to make the boat owners nice people who offer to give you a ride home. As an ending, it’s okay, but it’s not terribly exciting. What if the boat owners turn out to be pirates? Or what if they’re runaways with a secret? What if your friend is ill and needs urgent medical attention?

Come up with your own way of making life hard for your characters and see what happens next.

Tip Three: Describe how your character feels
It’s one thing to say ‘Taylor is angry’ but another thing to show Taylor is angry. What do I mean by this? Here are two very short stories. Which one do you think is better? Why?

A:

Max’s teacher, Ms Anders, was very strict about students handing in their homework on time. Max hadn’t finished his. When Ms Anders walked into the classroom, Max was very scared.

B:

Max’s teacher, Ms Anders, was very strict about students handing in their homework on time. When Ms Anders walked into the classroom, Max’s hands began to sweat and his heart thudded. ‘Oh, why hadn’t he done his homework?’ he wondered, sinking into his chair.

Reading about how a character feels in their body helps the reader feel the same thing.

Lucy The Lie DetectorExercise:
What happens in your body when you feel relieved? Do you sigh? Do your shoulders and head droop because they were tense just before? Does your heart slow down? Write a list of feelings, eg, relieved, angry, scared, sad. Under each feeling, write down what happens in your body.

Next time you write a story, rather than saying, eg. ‘Jenna was angry’, describe how Jenna feels the anger in her body.

Good luck!

Marianne has a new book out: Lucy the Lie Detector. She has written many other books for children, including The Worry Tree (also with Random House Australia).

Click here to visit Marianne’s website.

Tips for young writers: 10 steps to becoming a good writer

As a student of English, you are required to write lucidly and in an informed way about the texts you are studying and issues in our society. Here are 10 steps to help you on your way to writing success.

1. Write regularly
Just like an athelete, you need to warm up your writing muscles. ‘Freewriting’ is the writer’s equivalent of stretches. Write ‘freely’ — rapidly and without pause — for at least 15 minutes every day. Write about anything that you feel like, anywhere, anytime. Use your computer, write by hand — it doesn’t matter. With regular practice, your expression and fluency will improve. You will also find writing in stressful situations, such as exams, much easier.

2. Make reading a habit
As a writer, you need to read. Reading written language will give you a template for what is possible in writing. Read diverse texts: newspapers, novels, play and film scripts. Notice what authors do with word choice, tone and sentence structure. Developing an awareness of writers’ techniques will develop your own writer’s ‘toolbox’.

Think of yourself as an independent, competent and knowledgeable writer

3. Learn from your mistakes
When you get back an essay or creative writing piece, take note of your teacher’s comments and learn from them. What kinds of errors do you make regularly? If you make the same old spelling and grammar mistakes all the time, learn the correct ways. If you are unsure about how to fix your errors, ask your teacher for help. Learning from your own mistakes is the quickest way to improve your writing.

4. Learn from others
Educate yourself about how others write essays. Read sample essays, and with their permission, read other students’ essays. Notice the good and the bad. Notice the effect of spelling mistakes and awkward expression, and the effect of lucid arguments and well-used quotes. What appropriate words and phrases do others use and how do they use them? How do they structure their essays? Do they do drafts, and if so, how many? Learn from others and you will quickly discover that you have a lot more resources available to you than you thought.

5. Wait before criticising your work
Most writers are their own worst critic. Take a short break from the piece you have been working on before editing it. You will see the writing for what it is, where you have made errors and how you can fix them.

6. Expand your repertoire
Try out new writing techniques to expand your repertoire. Discover ways to strengthen your introductions and conclusions. Look up words you are unsure of and practise using them in sentences. Try out new words and phrases to link your paragraphs. Then, when the pressure is on, your new skills will help you get a better mark.

7. Become passionate about your opinions
Become passionate about the texts you are studying and the world around you. In class discussions, state your opinion. If you strongly like or dislike a text, explain why. Listen to what others have to say, then contribute further to the discussion. This is an excellent chance for you to develop your ideas and arguments before you put them down on paper.

8. Polish your work

Good writers take the time to polish their writing. After a short break, go back and see what can be improved. Correct the obvious errors, remove unnecessary words, and consider the bigger picture. Are sentences and paragraphs ordered in a logical way? Is the introduction and conclusion strong enough? The practice that you do now will refine your skills as a writer. When you get to the exams, you can polish as you write.

9. Presentation is important
How you present your work will have a bearing on your marks. During term time, format your essays so that they are easy to read. During tests and exams, make sure your writing is legible. If you’ve written a wonderful essay and it’s unreadable, it won’t do well. Good writers know that their writing has to be presented well to be taken seriously.

10. Expand your horizons
Being a writer isn’t just about writing! Writers also explore what is available to help them. Use your initiative during the year and take advantage of any opportunities to learn more about topical issues or the texts that you are studying. Think of yourself as an independent, competent and knowledgeable writer … and student.

This piece was previously published in an edited form in the ‘Education’ section of The Age, back in 2004.

© Cathryn Isakson 2010