Novel Thoughts blog

How To Write a Story

March 19, 2014 11:40 am | 2 Comments


I am a writer. I write almost every day. Inspired by a strict Presbyterian friend, I have chosen not to write on Sundays.

Although I make money through writing, I do not make very much. Apart from blogging, I make the least amount of money by writing fiction. In the year 2000, I made $500 for a humorous article about Keanu Reeves. That was for Canada’s National Post, and I don’t think the Post shells out that kind of money for single articles anymore. If I told you the standard advance a Catholic publisher offers for a book, you would weep, so I won’t.

Most writers write for the sheer joy of writing, and bless whatever or whoever it is that keeps a roof over the head of the writer and food in the tummy of the writer so that the writer can write. Writing is a compulsion, a habit that goes out of control. And like compulsive sketching, the more you do it, the better you get.

1. Thus, the first step in learning to write a story is to sit down at a computer or in front of piece of paper and write something. Imagine that you are telling a friend an anecdote, an amusing anecdote with a protagonist (perhaps yourself), an interesting place and a problem.

[Dear Trish]

My train arrived in Paris at 1 AM. Tired but excited, I tumbled onto the platform with my backpack to greet John. I looked left: no John. I looked right: no John. My fellow passengers rushed past me like a cataract around a stone. A handsome, bespectacled Frenchman bumped into me as I craned my neck and made his apologies. The cataract slowed to a trickle. The platform emptied. But there was no John.


2. The second step is to decide whether you are writing a comedy or a tragedy. Personally I prefer comedies. Even if the task I have set myself is to write a ghost or horror story, I cannot resist a few dark jokes. So even though it is rather uncomfortable for a woman to find herself alone in a foreign railway station at 1 AM, my story will be comic. And one great comic tool is the understatement.

From some unknown direction, invisible young men were hooting and cat-calling in the strangest French I had ever heard. From inside the station, a large man with a cigarette and a trench coat was eyeing me up and down. A dozen tales of young women abducted from railway stations sped through my mind.

I began to feel somewhat alarmed.


3. The third step is to write the middle. You have your character and his/her problem. Where does he or she go? What are her initial attempts to resolve the problem?

Steeling myself not to run, I walked past the man in the trench coat with my head high. The station was so brightly lit, it hurt my eyes. I narrowed them and peered around, calm smile plastered to my face. No John. I saw an exit to the street. I went through and discovered a dozen North African youths, the source of the hoots and cat-calls, loitering on the steps. I hurried back in.


You may be tempted to cross out “North African youths” out of fear that someone might call you a nasty name. However, I can tell you that North African youths standing on the steps of Parisian railway stations shouting at women is within the realm of 21st century possibilities. A writer cannot be a coward, and self-censorship is death.

4. Fourth, you must offer some hope to your character so as to bring some relief to your reader. Our character has been disappointed, creeped out and then frightened by the unexpected. Both she and we need a break:

Suddenly I remembered that all foreigners in France have to register with the police. Even though I did not know John’s new address, the police must know it. Hope flooded my heart, and with renewed confidence I began to look for the station’s poste de police.


Using foreign words is okay as long as they resemble English words, their meaning is clear from the context and they agree with the setting.

5. Fifth, don’t let your character off the hook too soon. A story needs sustained tension:

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it.


6. Sixth, nothing livens up a story like some dialogue:

In desperation, I gathered up my last ounce of courage and approached a mustachioed man sweeping the platform floor.

“Ex–Excusez-moi, monsieur,” I stammered.

He looked up, took me in and smiled. It was a nice smile.

“Oui, madame!” he said. “Je vous en prie.”

‘Madame’ instead of ‘mademoiselle’ momentarily took me aback, but I plunged forward.

“Ah. Um. Ah. Merci beaucoup. Um. Ou est la poste de police?”

The man’s smile faded. His mustaches quivered as he shook his head.

“Comment? Je ne comprends pas, mademoiselle.”

My heart sank to my toes…


7. Seventh, for some psychological reason I do not know, the Anglo-Saxon sense of humour relies on the number three. Result + result + unexpected result = laughter.

…but I tried again.

“I am looking for… Je cherche les polices. Les polices?”

But the man once again shook his head.

“Mademoiselle, je regrette…”

In desperation, I sent my memory rummaging through five years of Toronto high school French, eight years of Toronto elementary school French, thousands of Canadian bilingual cereal boxes, twenty trips to Montreal and ten months of dating a slang-loving Quebecois. Surely, surely somewhere in my head there was a word that this man would recognize. From some comic, some billboard, some police-resenting joke–!

Les flics!” I gasped. “Je cherches les flics!”

(Wait for it….)

“Ah!” cried the man, face radiant. “Les flics!”

He pointed down the platform.

Lá-bas, madame!”


This is usually where I end that anecdote, the climax and punchline being simultaneously the sweeper’s recognition of a frightful slang word no Canadian child would dare to use in French class.

8. But a written story deserves the eighth step, the denouement, or winding down. The secret is to keep it short.

So I went to the station, and upon discovering that John had not yet registered, I booked into the nearest hotel and went thankfully to bed.


Of course, we have not resolved the mystery of John’s absence. If I wanted to continue the story later, I would mark my place by writing “In the morning…” But as happens to so many writers, it is half past three in the afternoon, and I haven’t dressed yet. I must leap up, have a shower, get dressed, do my shopping and buy my husband a bottle of beer as a St. Joseph’s Day treat. I must do all that ASAP. However, first I must

9. edit


10. use spell check.


Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: creative process creativity publishing writing


  1. March 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Engaging thank you!

  2. […] lines, the author of Seraphic Singles had a great post at her current fiction publisher about how to write a good story. Her example is delightful and very true to her blogging voice. It reminded me of how much I used […]

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