How to get started writing fiction
(Source: Penguin Random House)
The year: 2017. I had just created my Reddit account. Scrolling through the various subreddits, it was fun to look at Star Wars memes, but I felt like I needed something more.
I fancied upon a subreddit called r/WritingPrompts, responded to a prompt, and that started my on-and-off fiction writing stint. Over 3 years, I have written more stories than I probably should have. I’ve gotten my work published in a USP magazine which you can check out here. But today I will tell the story that I have only ever alluded to in all my previous entries: my own.
Don’t be afraid to get started
I was similarly intimidated all those years ago. With all the existing literature, you’re probably thinking “how can I surpass this?” or “how do I write something different and not merely derivative?” The answer to both questions is simple: you don’t have to.
I look to my favourite film series – Star Wars – for inspiration. George Lucas based the story of the original film off samurai films, like The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. These films also inspired Western movies like A Fistful of Dollars, so much so that the movie’s Italian filmmakers were sued by their Japanese progenitors. Looking to more recent examples, the Kingsman series is a homage to James Bond films, exaggerating some spy tropes while giving a new spin on others, especially for the villains.
Now, obviously, we can’t steal intellectual properties outright, but the fact remains.
Good ideas are universal, and many great works can be made with the same idea.
Even the experts know this; check out The Hero With A Thousand Faces for the “standard” flow of the hero’s journey (and feel free to play with it however).
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Don’t be afraid to step through the door.
Expand your repertoire
And no, I don’t mean in the primary school way of “memorise vocabulary just because”. Did anyone else low-key hate that part of writing compositions in primary school? I know I did.
More important than the verbosity of your language:
is the purpose of it. Why would some words fit better than others? What emotions are you implying? Okay, I guess this is starting to sound like a literature class, but it doesn’t need to be that complex.
Find your own style. Don’t let the old masters tell you what to write or how to write it.
Yes, I recognise the irony here.
But style was never my priority. I loved plot and characterisation. And where better to get started than TV Tropes? Originally just a place for me to check out my favourite films, books, and games, it soon became a good resource for me to find character traits, plot devices, etc. (By the way, those are collectively called “tropes”, if you’ve never seen the word before.) They have their own lingo for some terms, but don’t worry about it; their articles are well-explained. Heck, they even have an informal writing style (like this article?) so you don’t feel like you’re reading through Wikipedia.
I’d also recommend Overly Sarcastic Productions, a YouTube channel that does a fantastic job analysing, dissecting and giving examples of various common tropes in their series Trope Talks. Anything from magic to Mary Sues.
And yet, maybe writing all the tropes on the website isn’t really your thing. Maybe you want to experiment with them to create your own story. That’s exactly how Bojack Horseman was made. Who would have known that a cartoon about a talking horse could dive deep into alcoholism and depression? It’s a shame they didn’t win the Emmy Award for Best Animated Feature. Good job, however, to Rick and Morty for getting it with their own brand of craziness, based on Back to the Future but with two key differences: dimensional travel instead of time travel, and an (un)healthy dose of nihilism.
Be receptive to feedback
So, let’s say after all of that, you’ve finally reached the end of your first story. Excitedly, you hit submit. You see some upvotes, but that’s soon followed by your first comment:
“Meh, I didn’t get it.”
Your range of responses can go from annoyed gesticulating at the screen – what was so inaccessible about this story? – to quiet acceptance, that maybe this story really didn’t hit the mark. But what’s the right answer? I’m about to annoy you again because, as usual, there isn’t one.
Maybe the reviewers are of a different persuasion from you, which is especially so if you just shot your piece onto Reddit for the world to see. This isn’t any more obvious than with (again) Star Wars. The latest three movies have legions of haters online, very vocally expressing their discomfort, sometimes even cyberbullying the actresses in the film. And yet, Disney didn’t cave. They know that there will be haters, and they do learn from some mistakes (catch The Mandalorian to find out how), but they stood by their guns with the sequel trilogy and loved it all the same. Regardless of my feelings toward the sequels (I liked VII and VIII but not IX), I respect that.
Is it about self-inserts?
Well, yes and no. Your Mileage May Vary.
It’s common knowledge to Write What You Know. That makes sense because “who can be you but you?” (Snoop Dogg, 2018), and it adds your own flair to the story. But I can think of two instances where it may not work.
The first: if you create an overly idealised version of yourself in the story. Observe:
This is the first line of My Immortal, a Harry Potter fanfiction that’s… So Bad, It’s Good. The author – whether they were trolling or genuine – constructed a character based so deeply on personal preferences and teenage stereotypes that she became unlikable. The story doesn’t stand up to grammatical or narrative scrutiny either, so that’s a thing. Check it out here if you want a laugh.
The other case could be if accessing your own memories is painful. In Bojack Horseman’s sixth season, a character tries exactly that, but slips deeper into depression from thinking about her childhood trauma. The picture below perfectly summarises that: on the left, the archetypal “girl detective” that will sell well and which girls enjoy, but on the right: the bland visage that the author truly believes herself to be.
(Source: Bojack Horseman Wiki)
It can go both ways. Experiment and see what works best.
So, why write fiction?
I’ll bite. This article probably isn’t as immediately useful as the others that have been posted. And I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I still want to believe, and I hope you do too, that stories – fiction in particular – is a good way to cope.
Take it from the author of Narnia. If you know you want to write, you’ll love it. Ideas strike us from anywhere, and we have our own ways of getting our thoughts to paper or screen. More than just getting a career in writing (which is, admittedly, difficult), I hope this guide has helped you just a little bit with that apprehension against writing fiction. Maybe I’ll go more into techniques and specific tropes if you like reading this type of stuff.