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Lesson 1: The Purpose of Writing & General Writing Advice

 

Many of you may be seeing this and thinking who is this person and why should I listen to his advice on writing and you are correct to question me. I am a self-published author of 2 books. Neither are famous, I have not sold millions of copies, honestly if any one reads this other than myself that’s basically a miracle. I have been writing for some time now and I would like to share what I have learned alone the way. Best of luck on your writing Journey. If you are also a writer feel free to send me any tips and tricks you have learned over the years.

 

To begin, I would like to pose the question: Why do you write? 

 

Do you believe you are called to do it? Did you wake up with a story one day that you knew would be a best seller? Are you doing it to try make a second income?

 

I would like to share the next three quotes with you for your consideration.

 

“An essay is a relatively short piece of writing on a particular topic. However, the word. Essay also means attempt or try. An essay is, therefore, a short piece written by someone attempting to explore a topic or answer a question.” (Jordan Peterson, Essay Writing Guide)

 

“Why do people tell stories? The stories that tend to stick to our bones are those the teacher something. This I believe is the primary reason we tell stories - to teach.” (Brian Macdonald, Invisible Ink)

 

“What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning towards some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It's morally wonky for one thing – the job of fiction is to find the truth inside of the story's web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

 

I believe that there are many personal reasons to write but, whether you are writing an academic paper (see lesson 6) or a fantasy novel, I believe that the purpose of the written word is to teach and explore.

 

With that in mind let us continue to Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: How to Write a Good Story: Understanding Story Structure 

In my studies and contemplations I have come to the conclusion that there are two general ways to write a good story. The first, is to explore a theme or prove a point. The second, is to tell a story which follows the Hero’s Journey.

Writing to a Point: Fairytales & Fables 

Writing to a point is very much like writing a paper but in story form. You start with a thesis and then support or explore it with three major events or challenges. Going back to the earlier blog writing was to teach, to exchange information. Some of the earliest stories that we have (not that they were written) were parables and fairy tales. These are perfect examples of writing to a point.

 

Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs comes to mind. If you have never read it I highly recommend it.

I have used this style many times and it is particularly good for short stories.

The Hero’s Journey 

The Hero’s Journey is an idea attributed to the work and studies of Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied mythology from around the world and found parallels between them. This led to the discovery of what resonated with people all around the world and thus the Hero’s Journey was born.

 

If you are looking for a guide that will walk you through this story structure chapter by chapter and explain in great detail how you can map your book to it, I highly recommend The Plot Dot by Derek Murphy, as it is presented in a much more digestible format than Campbell’s.

 

A quick high level view of the Hero’s Journey looks like this:

   

  • Normal World

The normal world is where the Main Character and the world they live in is established by giving the viewer a look at “a day in the life of”. For example, in Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast the opening scene is a song which introduces the Main character, several side characters, and Belles love of books. The world is happy and bright.

  • Call to Adventure

This is when the something happens that upsets the MCs world and the MC is faced with a choice to fight fate or accept it. It could be a cheerful wizard offering adventures or, to continue with our prior example, it could be when a beloved father goes missing and the horse returns without its rider.

  • The Choice

The MC has to commit to the adventure or refuse and be dragged along anyway. In Beauty and the Beast, this is where Belle meets the beast in the dungeon and offers to take the place of her father.

  • Friends and Teachers

This is where you introduce your side characters. We will talk about writing good side characters in the next lesson. In our example, this is where Belle meets Lumier, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Pots.

  • Trials

The trials are where the Main Character explores their strengths and weaknesses. In Beauty and the Beast, this Him inviting her to dinner along with several other moments such as the montage of them getting to know each other.

  • The First Failure

Pretty self-explanatory - the MC screws up. The part where, Belle try’s to leave the castle.

  • The Dark Night of the Soul

The dark night is where the MC realizes that in spite of all their efforts it is not enough. They become overwhelm and don’t know where to turn or what to do. This is when Belle is locked in the coach with her father and the townspeople leave to kill the beast.

  • Spiritual Renewal

The MC turns the corner and finds a way to confront there issue in a new light. This is the part where Chip saves the day.

  • The Final Battle

Again, pretty self-explanatory, that being said, this is the part where the MC confronts the issue head on. They don’t hold back. It is all or nothing. You as a writer will want to raise the stakes here. Gaston and the beast battle to the death.

  • Return to Normal but Changed

The battle is over. The confrontation is resolved and the MC walks away changed. This can be a very celebratory moment like in or a very somber moment like in the . In Beauty and the Beast, Belle has her father back but now she also has a man as well (not a beast).

How many movies, books, or video games can you think of that follow this pattern? I know what you are thinking. I don’t write fantasy I write romance! Guess what? It’s the same thing. Mean Girls followed this formula just like Star Wars.

This isn’t to say that there is no other way to write a story. These are the two major ways I see used that are generally successful. And you have to know the rules before you can break them.

Many years ago, I went to an Art School for a summer program. The strange thing about those types of classes is how much time is spent doing. They teach you a handful of techniques and then leave you for hours to just do it over and over again. Writing is very similar. There are a handful of insights that can be offered and after that you just have to do it to get better at it – and you have to do it a lot. You don’t have to write from beginning to end and you shouldn’t write chapter by chapter and editing along the way. Write as much as you can while you still have the magic of the story in you, before you get to old for it or bored with it.

Lesson 3: Side Characters

There is a trick (I am not sure who coined this first) to showing character development which I believe is rather cliché but is still worth mentioning. When you are designing your MC you must provide them with a strength and a weakness (much like a video game) and a goal. This way you can easily document the progression of your character and the lesson (or theme) you want them to learn.

With that in mind, you must remember that side characters and story must be related to the theme as well.

What is the Point of a Side Character?

Side characters are not arbitrary. They should be in your story to support the MC and the point you are trying to make. The way to do this is to have them be at different stages (so that they can offer different perspectives) of the same journey.

For example: If your story is about the MC is looking for a meaningful relationship, you would have one side character be a happily married friend and the other, a friend who can’t hold a relationship to save his life.

Or: If your story is about the MC being diagnosed with cancer, maybe they meet someone who is a cancer survivor and another person who is losing the battle.

All Characters are Connected.

The Protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (villain) are tied together like the Yin and Yang. The Yin and Yang show the co-existence of good and evil together. Note: it is in a circle and that the hero’s journey is also a circle. The Yin and Yang show two sides of the same story. The same journey can be vastly different depending on who is taking it.

The Yin and Yang also the dot of each in the other. Carl Jung talks about the integration of the shadow self. That is something to keep in mind here part of the story is about the temptation to become the villain. I think almost ever Super hero franchise has at least one “we are not so different” moment with the villain.

A few examples of these types of relationships are:

  • The two brothers – both seeking the same thing in different ways

  • The hero and the villain - good vs. evil

  • The journey of self – one person struggling with the man and monster within

Characters Have Different Worldviews.

I was recently listening to a review of Stephen Kings: Dark Tower Series (forgive me I don’t recall which review this was or who gave it) and one of the accolades the reviewer gave was that the character’s King created had real issues with each other which went beyond simple miscommunication.

But this got me thinking about the story, some of my favorite characters, and my own friends in life. Friends have different worldviews and different goals. Sometimes your friends help you with your goals but not always. Friends require time, energy, and sometime the sacrifice of something that is important to you. Family is the same way. Friends and family are roadblocks to your characters.

A few examples of this are: 

  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – Luke has to stop his training to save his friends who are in peril. He is warned that if he leaves he may never come back.

  • Lord of the Rings: Pippin is constantly hindering the mission.

  • The Emperor’s New Groove: Kuzco has to choose between saving his friend or the vial of serum that will cure him.

  • 17 Again: Zac Effron’s character is frustrated with the consequences of his choice to stand by his family as it required him to sacrifice his basketball career.

  • Romeo and Juliet: Both families do not support their relationship.     

Good side characters should hinder the hero as much as help him and they should represent a different state of the same journey. Don’t rely on miscommunication. If your characters could all sit down and fix everything with one conversation, its comedy or its sloppy writing. The exception to this being Oedipus Rex.  

Worldviews: What planet is each of you Characters From?

Another thing this comment helped me realize is that I have written all of my characters as trying to be their best all the time. I assume this stems from watching horror and thriller films with my father who would point out everything the MC was doing wrong in their attempts to escape.  

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where your favorite character goes off the reservation and all you can do is watch in horror while screaming “No! I loved you!”? Yeah, me neither. Seriously though, if you want to give your readers that type of emotional journey you have to remember that your characters will not be at their best all the time, they won’t believe the same things, and they will all have different (and sometimes conflicting) goals.

Again, beware of sloppy writing. Character decisions still have to make sense.

   

Lesson 4: The Devil and Hannibal Lector - A Study in Villainy

Several years ago, my friend told me that he had been watching a movie and he was disappointed in the villain. The character had no real back story or depth, he just showed up on screen and did something terrible so the audience knew he was the bad guy and then waited for the heroes to come fight him.

I admit at the time I didn’t think much of my friend’s complaint but as I have begun working on one of my upcoming books I thought to myself, what makes a villain a good villain?  

 

After much reflection I have come to the conclusion that there are three main types of villains. But before we get to that let’s talk about the importance of a good villain.

 

Why is the Villain Important?

I would like to be clear not all stories require a villain but if a story has a villain it needs to have a good villain. Fr. Gabriele Amorth writes, “Whoever denies Satan also denies sin and no longer understands the actions of Christ.” (An Exorcist Tells His Story, Fr. Gabriele Amorth) The villain is important because he/she gives context and purpose to the actions of the hero, even if they are not in the majority of the book like in the instance of Hannibal Lector in the silence of the lambs.

But what makes a good villain? The villain must be appropriate for the story.

I recently watched a martial arts movie, Kill Zone 2 starring Tony Jaa. It is a decent flick and poses the classic question: How far are you willing to go to save someone you love? We have seen this done countless times, the villain testing the hero with this question, trying to get him to break. What made this movie more interesting is that this question was posed to both the hero and the villain. Both the hero and the villain are fighting the same battle, struggling with the same problem but they both approach it entirely differently. If the villain had just been a nameless faceless bad guy it still would have been a decent movie but this mirroring added another level of depth to the film.

 

So how do we pick the right type of villain for our stories as writers?

First you need to know what your options are.

The Three Major Types of villains:

Villains can be broken down into three major categories; absolute order, absolute chaos, and the corruptor.

Absolute Order:

The general idea behind villains who seek absolute order is the desire to be a god, a king, or to bring balance to the world or a society. This may not be explicitly stated but the fundamental idea behind absolute order is the destruction of free will. This type of villain is good for stories where the hero is seeking freedom from slavery, an oppressive culture or ruling power.

Some examples of this include:

  • Sauron from the Lord of the Rings

  • Agent Smith from the Matrix.

  • We see this a lot in dystopian novels (The Hunger Games)

  • Also in superhero movies (Avengers: Infinity War)

 

Absolute Chaos:

The next type of villain are the agents of Chaos. As Alfred says in the Dark knight, “Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”(The Dark Knight). These types of villains are good for stories where society is still functioning as they represent the scourge of the unknown. They are the “what if?” scenarios.

Some examples of this are:

  • Batman’s, Joker is a prime example of this

  • You see this in thriller stories like the Zodiak killer or Stephen King’s Misery

  • In romance, this would be the crazy ex-boyfriend

  • In dystopian fiction it would be the crazy/animal-like evil leader like the Tick-Tock Man in Stephen Kings Dark Tower series or Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road

  • Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds  

The Corruptor:

Finally, we have the corruptor. “He comes in the guise of a mentor, but it’s the distress that excites him.” (Hannibal, Thomas Harris). These types of villains thrive of the destruction of innocence. They tend to be more complex than straightforward killers, they are pathological manipulators. Keep in mind they tend to prey on the weak and the young as they are more easily influenced.

Some examples of this include:

  • Dr. Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs

  • Satan from the Bible

  • Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars

These villains are good for all genres but they are particularly good in instances where characters are discovering new found powers and are unsure of themselves. So for example, this would work better with Harry Potter or Anikan Skywalker as opposed to Batman or the Witcher. 

Conclusion:

It’s not enough to give your villain a tragic back story or have him kill a puppy just to show he is evil. The best villains are the ones that are true counter points to our heroes. Make sure you have chosen the right villain for your work.

Lesson 5: Read a lot. What should you read to be a better writer?

If you are going to be a writer you need to read a lot. No excuses! It doesn’t matter if you are a slow reader, can’t afford books, or just hate reading all together (granted if you hate reading all together I would seriously question your desire to be a writer).

There are so many free books and free audio books out there for the taking.

Read often and read good books. Don’t limit yourself to one genre. There are great writers and stories across all genres and you can learn from each of them.

Additional Resources:

  • The library – Library cards are free and not only does the library let you borrow books they usually have some you can purchase for cheap as well.

  • Overdrive – Some library’s also offer free logins to Overdrive which allows you to borrow audio books digitally. Definitely ask your librarian about this.

  • Used book Stores and Goodwill – I have found many great books extremely underpriced at used bookstores and Goodwill.

  • Hannaford’s – every Hannaford’s I have been to has a cheap books bin by the door. 

  • YouTube – Many Audiobooks can be found on YouTube. 

  • LibriVox – Offers many of the classics as free audiobooks for download.

Recommended Reading:

Though everyone suggests reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I recommend:

  • Invisible Ink - Brian MacDonald

This book talks about Themes of stories and is chalk full of tips like: how to add suspense, how to use clone characters, etc. This is a great book for people who are looking to get deeper than general theory.

  • The Plot Dot - Derek Murphy

This is an extremely granular yet practical explanation of the Hero’s Journey format with instructions for how you can map your story to it chapter by chapter. Even if you are familiar with the Hero’s Journey I highly recommend this as a refresher.

  • Maps of Meaning / Analysis of Genesis - Jordan Peterson

These are actually both lecture series free on YouTube. The first is a college psychology lecture and the second I believe he did as it was wanted by request (I could be wrong) but I think they are worth the listen to, to better understand stories, their power, and their construction.

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces / The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell

For people who are really ambitious and interested in world building and mythic structure

Lesson 6: The Basics of Writing an Academic Paper

 

The goal of this section is to assist high school and college students who have a difficult time writing academic papers and essays. It will explain the structure in which a paper should be written to obtain a decent grade. This will not dive into the nuanced areas of paper writing such as how to properly quote a book in MLA or APA format. Consider this simply a crash course in how to frame your ideas and make your paragraphs work together so that your point packs the most punch. With that let us begin!

 

I will not dwell on the philosophical reasons for which we write but I think it is good to note as (particularly in high school) we tend to believe writing is a cruel form of torture we perform for a grade. Jordan Peterson writes, “The word essay also means attempt or try. An essay is, therefore, a short piece written by someone attempting to explore a topic or answer a question.” The reason we practice writing in schools is to learn how to properly formulate thoughts by exploring new questions and reasoning through them. If you are in college or university I highly recommend reading Peterson’s Essay Writing Guide.

 

There several types of papers you will be asked to write the two most common being: compare-and-contrast essays and arguments.

 

NOTE: These examples are amended excerpts I have pulled from an Essay I wrote in College.

 

Step 1: The Thesis statement

The first step in writing an argument (and arguably the most difficult) is to find your thesis, decide what stance you wish to take. A thesis should be only one sentence. It is important to pick a good thesis as this will impress the teacher. Nobody wants to read a paper with an obvious answer. It needs to be exciting. Additionally, if your teacher has asked you to read a book it will be much easier to formulate a thesis if you have actually read it, however I understand that is not always the case. 

 

Another important thing to note when writing but especially when writing your thesis statement is - avoid opinion statements - you are trying to prove a point. The strongest way to do that is with facts. The phrases “I feel”, “I think”, “I believe”, should never show up in your papers unless they are works of fiction. No one cares how you feel or think, nor should they.

 

Good Example:

Characters who lack self-knowledge add more to the play other than comic relief, and this can be seen quite clearly through Puck and King Lear.

 

Bad Example:

I feel like Character’s who lack self-awareness might be more than just filler to the story.

 

Step 2: How to write an introduction Paragraph

Once you have your Thesis statement, you are going to want to put it at the bottom of the first paragraph which is your introduction paragraph. The introduction paragraph should be no more than half a page.

 

One trick I learned with writing introductions is to use the funnel strategy. Start with a very general statement about your topic, then have a more limiting statement, then narrow it down further with your thesis statement.

 

For Example:

Shakespeare writes with a vast array of characters in each of his plays and it is not hard to imagine that he wrote each character with a specific purpose in mind. One major line that may be drawn, to distinguish between characters types, would be the line of self-knowledge. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are intelligent, quick witted, and manipulative, while others are irresponsible, dimwitted, and obnoxious. Whether tragedy or comedy both of these character types always seem to be present. At first glance it would seem that the intelligent characters all know themselves and the ignorant are the buffoons. This fosters the concept that perhaps the only point to a character lacking self-knowledge is to provide comic relief and that notion is incorrect. Characters who lack self-knowledge add more to the play other than comic relief, and this can be seen quite clearly through Puck and King Lear.

 

Example - Broken Down:

Shakespeare writes with a vast array of characters in each of his plays and it is not hard to imagine that he wrote each character with a specific purpose in mind.

 

(See how the first sentence is general)

 

One major line that may be drawn, to distinguish between characters types, would be the line of self-knowledge. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are intelligent, quick witted, and manipulative, while others are irresponsible, dimwitted, and obnoxious. Whether tragedy or comedy both of these character types always seem to be present.

(Now, the topic is narrowed to two specific types of reoccurring characters)

 

At first glance it would seem that the intelligent characters all know themselves and the ignorant are the buffoons. This fosters the concept that perhaps the only point to a character lacking self-knowledge is to provide comic relief and that notion is incorrect. (Now, we are setting up for the thesis)

 

Characters who lack self-knowledge add more to the play other than comic relief, and this can be seen quite clearly through Puck and King Lear.

(We end the first paragraph with the thesis)

 

Another thing to consider is making your first sentence a hook. A hook is just an interesting line designed to grab the viewer’s attention.

 

NOTE: If you are writing on a college level, or just a very intense high school, paper you may add a second paragraph after the introduction to define your terms. If your thesis was that “real heroes never die” this would be the section where you would explain what you are referring to when you say “real heroes” and “death”. Other examples include, quantifying the time period of history you will be looking at with specific dates, or confirming that for the purposes of the paper you will only be addressing the books and not the film adaptation.    

 

Step 3: How to write the body of your paper

The body of your paper should be at least three paragraphs long. These paragraphs are going to state and  explain three strong statements to defend your initial thesis. Before writing the body you should have these three reasons planned and ordered from least compelling to strongest.

 

For Example: 

  1. Nature of a creature vs their title – Just because you are named a king does not make you wise and just because you are a clown that does not make you fool.

  2. Puck, though he adds comic relief, is actually very intelligent.

  3. King Lear, though he is quite foolish, is not amusing at all.

 

You explain these with summaries (parts of the story and characters actions), logic (if it’s a complex idea explain it in your own words), statistical proof, and examples from other books or people’s lives. Again do not use the phrases “I feel”, “I think”, “I believe”.

 

For Example: 

King Lear, on the other hand, is the subject of a tremendous tragedy. He is a character who not only loses himself but never really seemed to know himself to begin with. It is not quite as obvious as some of Shakespeare’s other characters such as Bottom, the Weaver (Midsummer) or Falstaff (Henry IV)…. King Lear’s problem is first exposed when he asks his daughters how much they love him. In this moment, he is not looking to know the truth but rather to be flattered, implicative that he needs affirmation and is insecure in himself. When Cordelia responds, “I love your majesty According to my bond, no more and no less.” (King Lear, A.1,S.1,L.94-5) and Lear chooses to disown her, inadvertently revealing that he also does not understand natural order and bonds of family.

As the play goes on, Lear surrenders his authority but at the first sign of dissension, questions, “Does any here know me? This is not Lear…Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Lear, A,1.S.4,L.233-236) This question becomes the “Rosetta Stone” that is the key to understanding the rest of the play. Who is Lear? Who is the king? Which is the man who now is in the midst of a great storm? These questions are part of what drives Lear to the brink of sanity, and Lear continues to lose his identity the more his power is stripped away from him.

 

In the end, Lear loses everything. His daughters are dead, his country is in shambles, and his sanity is torn. It is possible that he finds himself and his humanity as her cradles the form of his beloved daughter in his arms, but it’s also possible that he is merely a rambling madman. It is a tragic story of a very serious nature, addressing the problem of the lack of self-knowledge and how it leads to utter destruction. For if a man cannot understand himself, how can he understand the forces around him. Had Lear known who he was as a man, perhaps he would have seen that he could not divide his kingdom and still rule it. More importantly, perhaps he would have known which of his three daughters truly loved him. 

Shakespeare shows through Lear that a character without self-knowledge is not necessarily comic relief. In fact, it seems that he finds these characters to be quite pitiable.

 

Quotes

Another thing to use is quotes, whether they are from the book you read or from another book you believe is relevant. When adding quotes try to work it into what you are talking about instead of just throwing it in there and explaining it later

               

Good Example:

As the play goes on, Lear surrenders his authority but at the first sign of dissension, questions, “Does any here know me? This is not Lear…Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Lear, A,1.S.4,L.233-236) This question becomes the “Rosetta Stone” that is the key to understanding the rest of the play. Who is Lear? Who is the king?

 

Bad Example:

Who is Lear? Who is the king? “Does any here know me? This is not Lear…Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Lear, A,1.S.4,L.233-236) This question becomes the “Rosetta Stone” that is the key to understanding the rest of the play.

 

For short essays this should be enough to get the job done. If you are writing at a college level, or need more pages, you can always add three additional paragraphs with counterpoints to your points and a quick explanation of what they mean and why they are wrong and your point is right. A master of this style is St. Thomas Aquinas. I highly recommend reading at least one of his arguments (and then searching a site that explains it). I will link one here for convenience.   

 

Step 4: How to write a conclusion paragraph

Finally, you write a closing paragraph. The closing paragraph should be a recap. Say “In conclusion,” then restate your thesis and relist the three points defending it. Then add a closing statement or question at the very end so that the audience continues to ponder the concepts you discussed in your paper.

               

For Example:

In Conclusion, it would seem that characters who lacks self-knowledge are designed only for comic relief, however, Puck and King Lear prove that this is not the case. The title of king does not make you wise just as the title of clown does not make you fool. Shakespeare writes these characters with specific intention and purpose. Puck, though foolish at times, is no fool. King Lear, though a fool, offers no amusement. Their stories should teach us. There is another character in King Lear, Shakespeare calls “the fool”. Just the name “fool” is telling that the man should be stupid but, on the contrary, there is a wisdom beneath his jest. This is an odd name for a character, unless Shakespeare is perhaps hinting that, a man who should be a fool, may be wise if he knows he’s a fool, and a man who should be wise, may be a fool. 

 

Additional Notes:

  1. If you ever have to read a book that is a play (Shakespeare, Sophocles) you can probably watch it online.

  2. Whatever you read (classical literature, contemporary romance, horror, thrillers, young adult coming-of-age novels) - write down anything that strikes you as interesting: ideas, concepts, or specific lines, along with what book they are from, and keep them in a word document. This way when you are writing a paper you can easily search for quotes that may be applicable to your argument from other works you have read.

 

I hope this helps!

 

Best of luck writing your paper!