How to Start as a Writer: A List of Writers’ Questions

writers 101 - a graphic about a list of writers questions - faq

Think of this as Writers 101

Have you been thinking, “I want to write a book. Help!” Overwhelmed with what information is important and what isn’t? Are you trying to cut through the noise just trying to find the simple answers? You’ve come to the right place.

Let’s look at the basics of how to start as a writer. Knowing what different fiction writing terminology means can clear up a few things for you. Here are some commonly asked questions when it comes to fiction writing.

Take a deep breath. I’m here to help you with the craft of writing. Just a reminder, that this is a fiction writing blog. If you’re looking to write an essay or non-fiction book, most of these ideas won’t help you. Okay. Are you ready to get started?

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is the lead character in your story, often referred to as the hero or heroine. The story revolves around this character, and we watch them change and grow over the course of the events as they try to reach their goal.

What is an antagonist?

An antagonist is the character working against the protagonist. Sometimes they are considered a villain, but not always. It’s the character that is opposite of your antagonist and is standing in the way of the hero reaching their goal. Here’s a small, important twist. While an antagonist is usually thought of as a person, sometimes it can be something else. Take a story like Cast Away with Tom Hanks. There is not another person, but he is isolated on an island and must deal with nature. In this instance, nature (think weather, survival) is the antagonist. It creates conflict for the character.

What is conflict?

Conflict is tension. It’s an obstacle, either external or internal that causes the character to make a choice. Without conflict, the story lacks tension. Without tension, your reader will be bored!

What is theme?

Theme is the overarching idea of the story. What is the author trying to examine or say? What is the book about? Good vs Evil, Love Conquers All, Power Corrupts? It’s the element that ties all of the pieces together. I wrote a much longer, detailed piece on story themes here.

What is the difference between internal conflict and external conflict?

Internal conflict mentally challenges the hero. For example, he needs to make a choice that goes against his values. Maybe he doesn’t do something, because he believes he’s not good enough. Either way, he is the one stopping himself. His choices are made based on his thoughts and beliefs.

External conflict is an obstacle from an outside source. An example: Your heroine races to her child’s school after hearing about a threat, but there are barricades stopping her. (See how it’s something physically stopping her?) In another instance, think about a character who is working hard to get a promotion. Maybe their boss dislikes them and stands in their way. The boss may refuse them a recommendation for the new position your character wants. Again, this is external, something other than herself standing in her way.

What is backstory?

Backstory is what happened in the character’s life prior to the start of the story. It’s the information the writer knows about the character to help them understand their wants and needs. Many new authors try to jam those details in early and with too much detail, which slows the story down.

What is showing vs. telling?

Showing is when a character does something without the writer using passive language. Telling is passive.

Ex: She looked at the photograph. (The writer is telling you what the character is doing, in a passive phrase)

Showing, you’d “visualize” the experience.
She ran her finger over the edge of the frame. Had it really been so long since she’d been truly happy? (now we see what she’s doing, and can understand the moment.)

What is a prologue?

A prologue is in the beginning of a book, prior to chapter one. Not all books have a prologue. The purpose is to fill in details that may be important to the story, without putting an info dump into the first chapter.

What is an epilogue?

An epilogue is at the end of a story. It tells you about what happens after the main story has ended. Example: in a romance, the final chapter may show a couple getting married. An epilogue might show you a year later, them welcoming a child. It’s showing you that the happily ever after lasted.

What is an info dump?

This is when a writer “dumps” way too much information about a story in the beginning, that is not necessary. They might feel like people won’t understand if they don’t describe every single detail that led them up to their start point. Backstory is a good example. The better way to do this is to slowly weave bits and pieces through the story.

What is point of view? (POV)

Point of view determines whose eyes we see the story through. Is it via the main character, a secondary character or a narrator?

The most common points of view currently are 1st and 3rd. There is also 2nd and omniscient. In first person POV the story is seen through the hero’s perspective. It generally reads like this: I staggered to the door. (Notice the use of “I”). Third person POV is from an outside perspective. He staggered to the door. (Notice the use of “He”).

2nd POV is also from an outside perspective, and generally uses the term you. As if someone is telling you the story. You staggered to the door. Omniscient is an all-knowing and all-seeing narrator POV. While in first person, we’re getting the story from one person’s view. In this one, we know not only what the main character is thinking, but maybe the butler, the milkman, and the mother-in-law is thinking. Now, this was more common in early literature, but today is frowned upon as it can be confusing if it isn’t used well. You’ll sometimes hear the phrase “head-hopping” which means, we know the thoughts of all of the characters, and the story will bounce between them, sometimes too quickly. It can be confusing to the reader and often takes them away from the story, due to irrelevant information.

What is the Hero's Journey?

There is a type of structure that uses something called the Hero’s Journey. It started with Joseph Campbell naming a specific plot of a hero that goes through certain patterns.

In a three-act story, the basis is the hero goes on a journey, faces obstacles, overcomes them and reaches his/her goal. The are actually twelve steps of the Hero’s Journey which are broken down in multiple phases which show change and growth.

What is a story hook?

The story hook is what draws your reader into the story. It’s the intricate tidbit that makes them go, I need to read that. It grabs the reader’s attention. You’ll want a unique twist to your story, so that it stands out. First you need your reader to want to pick up the book and read it. Once they’re there, you want them to keep turning the pages. You’ll want a hook directly in the beginning, so they’ll need to know what happens.

What is high concept?

It means you immediately recognize the basis of the story. It’s easy to explain. For example, the movie Speed. Don’t stop the bus or a bomb will explode. You know in that simple sentence what the story is about. It’s easy to understand, and it demands your attention.

Here is how Wikipedia describes it.

What are flawed characters?

A character that’s perfect is boring. Period. A flaw allows your character to become more human, more relatable to the reader. It can be something like, being afraid to trust anyone if they’ve been betrayed in the past. That flaw causes them to react in certain ways. Maybe their flaw is that they over compensate because they don’t feel good enough due to emotional abuse as a child. It could be as simple as a physical flaw, a hero with a limp, but is an action hero that must remain very active. Each movement is painful. I find that emotional flaws are easier to work with, because you can get deeper into the character. Think of that physical flaw, and now the emotional scar that it will cause. They feel like less of a hero, because of their imperfection. How does that play on their ego?

How are flaws and fears different?

Flaws are often based on past events that cause a character to react a certain way. Fears are generally based on what might happen in the future. They are guided in ways to avoid the fear.

What is a plotter vs. a pantser?

A plotter is somebody who outlines a story before writing it. A pantser tends to “write by the seat of their pants” and figures it out as they go. There is no right way or wrong way. Some people are more analytical and like to delve into details before they start, others don’t. There are all levels of each of these, but we each have to find what works for us. Do what feels right to you. Try a little of both if you’re feeling stuck.

When should I spell out numbers?

There are two schools of thought. You spell out numbers one through ten, and type out numerically 11 and up. The other says you spell out numbers one through one hundred, then from 101 up you write numerically. The Chicago Manual of Style goes by the latter. Associated Press has different answers based on money and other issues. I tend to lean toward the Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s your choice to do as you please. Often times, it’s writers who are more concerned with details like those, more so than readers.

What is a plot hole?

A plot hole is when there’s something missing in the story structure. If your character starts in a field, and the next scene is in a space ship with no explanation, that would be a massive plot hole. The reader would be lost. Now, on a smaller scale, a more common situation would be it’s more about inconsistency. Something doesn’t quite make sense in the sequence of things. This illogical situations can occur with the direction of the story or within a character who takes actions that don’t make sense.

Generally, people think of plot holes in terms of the flow of the story. Analogy: Picture a bridge over a river. You need to drive across it, but there’s a segment missing in the center. That missing piece is the plot hole.

What is a pseudonym?

It’s a fancy way to say pen name. It’s a fictitious name the author or publisher chooses that a writer will be known for. It can be for privacy reasons, or due to difficult to spell names that would make marketing not as effective, or maybe your given name is too similar to an already well-known and established author.

What is the difference between a serial and a series?

A serial is an ongoing story, written through multiple books. Think about how a soap opera continues from day to day. That is serialized. The stories continue through each piece of the story, but new situations arise for them to tackle.

A series is a group of book written around a common theme, whether it’s tied together by characters, a location, or a specific theme. There is more closure at the end of each series book. You might read a romance, and another couple is featured. They will then be the main characters in the next book, but couple one’s story has been completed.

What is story pacing?

It is how quickly or slowly your story moves. You can control the flow of the story by actions, sentence structure, and more. A quick, paced thriller will be written differently than a slow, moving family saga. Word choice, how quickly events transpire, and even dialogue can dictate how your reader feels.

Example: consider a short, punchy sentence of a man on the run, and then the conversation of a man sitting and reminiscing with his grandmother on the front porch of their southern spread. When looking at these, you can see how long, flowing sentences would slow the reader down. These scenes are bathed in description, and are meant to move slower. You’ll often find these “breather” scenes after a fast, paced action scene. That way the faster scenes has more impact.

Those are a few of the more common questions people ask, based on places like writing forums or message boards. You’ll find the same questions popping up in multiple places. Hopefully, this reference helped answer your questions. When it comes down to brass tacks, and how to write a story, knowledge is power.

There are so many different questions, I couldn’t get to them all, but I’ll revisit this and add more over time. Whether you’re looking for something as simple as how many spaces go after a period, or how many words are in a chapter, or how long is a novel, I’ll knock them out as I have time.

Otherwise, the twenty-two questions listed above should give you a solid understanding to help you move forward.

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