Thoughts on Writing: Odds and Ends

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Stories are dreams distilled. By them we explain and understand the world around us. By them them we make sense of the senseless. But how do you become a storyteller? There is no single correct way to accomplish this goal, but here are a collection of thoughts to help you on your way.

So What do I Write About?

To get ideas for your writing, choose something that inspires you and captures your imagination, and then ask questions about what might happen next. My thinking about Eragon, for example, began with three questions: what land would a dragon egg come from, who would find it, and—since dragon eggs can’t be common—who else would be looking for it? My quest to answer those questions led me to envision the story that became the Inheritance Cycle.

Write about what moves you, events and people who spark your interest. Compelling dramas play out around you every day. A good writer can make the ordinary extraordinary by focusing our attention and making us see and think about things in a different way.

Once you do have an idea, your challenge is to construct a solid plot to support it, and then to write it clearly, so others can enjoy your vision.

Plot the Story

Whether you are writing a nonfiction article or a story, knowing what information you want to convey, what characters you will introduce, and the order in which events will unfold gives you a clear structure to follow.

I tried to write several books before I wrote Eragon. They flatlined after five or six pages because I didn’t know where the story was going. It wasn’t until I learned how to plot a story that I was able to create the outline for the Inheritance Cycle. After a month of work, I had a rough outline that sketched the story arc through the characters’ actions and key scenes. In general, I followed my original outline. But over the years, as I daydreamed in the world of Alagaësia and imagined what it would be like to really live there, some changes became necessary. And new things that I discovered in this world found their way into my novels—like (thanks to my sister) how lace is made and how Native Americans made bows from horns.

So although the underlying structure of the Inheritance Cycle remained the same, I found many ways to improve upon it. Sometimes my characters—especially the dragon, Saphira, Arya, and the herbalist, Angela—refused to do what I’d planned, and then I had to change my preconceived notions to accommodate their wishes. . . . You really can’t say no to a fire-breathing dragon!

Is It Possible?

Could a knight in full armor climb a tree? Although possible, it’s improbable, given the weight of the knight’s armor and the degree to which it might restrict his movement. Readers will often accept without qualm large impossibilities, and then just as often stumble over small impossibilities. Tell someone that dragons exist in your world, and they’ll go, “Oh, okay. Dragons, great, gotcha. When do we see them breathing fire and being generally awesome?”

Whereas if you tell them that a pot of tea will boil in under ten seconds or that a horse’s tack is buttoned (and not buckled) or that a high-school senior would be attending football practice a week before the prom, you’re likely to jar readers out of their suspension of disbelief and make them say, “Hmm, I don’t think so.”

Be open with your readers about the impossibilities you’ve chosen, and then, no matter how fantastical your story might be, make the details elsewhere as realistic as possible. Your readers will thank you for it. Common sense and an appropriate amount of research goes a long way toward helping in this regard, as does having educated friends or family members who can look at your work and tell you when (or if) you’ve gotten something wrong.

How to Add Details

To help you fill in the details of the world you are creating, imagine that your characters inhabit a real world. Daydream what it would be like to be there. What would your characters eat, what would they talk about, where would they get their supplies, etc. Keep asking the question, “What happens next?” Show your characters actions and write down their thoughts.

When I began writing, I didn’t know if I would be able to write a book-length work. By continually asking what happens next I was able to fill in many details that I hadn’t thought of originally.

Here’s an exercise that might help you: Write two or three pages about five minutes in a character’s world. Base it on a choice that your character has to make. Write about the process of finding the problem, thinking through the options, making the decision, and the result. Include your character’s thoughts and feelings. Describe his or her surroundings, actions, and dialogue.

How to Slow the Story

One way to slow down the pace of your story is to explore what a character is thinking or to explore his or her motivations after an action scene. You can also slow the pace by writing about a curious or interesting aspect of your world, like when Eragon learns about the dwarves’ ascûdgamln or fists-of-steel in Eldest.

Introducing a Minor Character

My approach to bringing a minor character into the story is to ask as series of questions: Who is he or she related to? Who is friends with the character? Who is interested in him or her? Who might he or she encounter?

Once I have created a secondary character based on my answers to the above questions, I do my best to treat that character as a real person, just as I do the main character(s). Doing this gives the character a level of respect and a depth that they might not have had.

How to Find Good Names

If you like the sound of a particular language and want to use it as the foundation for your names, you could search the internet for Norse names or Anglo-Saxon names, for example. The telephone book and baby names books are other resources. And here’s a web site I’ve often turned to for inspiration: 20000-names.com. Trust yourself, the name should sound good to you and feel right for the character.

A good source for Old Norse words is the book A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, by Geir T. Zoëga, published by Dover Publications.

Creating a Language

Try typing invented languages and constructed languages into the Google search engine online. There you’ll find some great web sites that will get you headed in the right direction. Another idea is to find a language that you like the sound of and use it as the foundation for your language.

Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Try to eliminate distractions, and set times when you do nothing but write. Ultimately, it is force of will and love of the story that will pull you through. Without determination and courage, time will roll by and you will have accomplished nothing. It takes hard work to write a book. Also, I’ve found that taking a walk and talking or thinking about various solutions is a great way to untangle problems.

Read Your Writing Aloud

One of the best techniques for figuring out if something is working or not is to read your writing aloud. I do this all the time. Then go do the same for a chapter of a published book you like. Listen to the differences and try to figure out what they are and why the author did what he or she did.

How to Keep Inspired

For me, being an author is an exercise in discipline. While writing the Inheritance Cycle I worked every day, whether inspiration struck or not. It was that constant focus and determination that allowed me to finish the story. It was not easy, but I didn’t wait for that once-every-so-often magic burst of energy and inspiration to strike. I just sat down and wrote. I had a story to tell, and the only way people were going to get to read it was if I wrangled words into an order that allowed them to see the images that I clearly saw in my mind, and to feel the emotions I felt my characters experiencing.

So think about why you are writing and find a reason to give you the motivation to persevere. The end is won not by so called talent but the day to day determination to reach the goal.

Christopher Paolini

About Christopher Paolini

Christopher Paolini is the author of the international bestsellers Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance, along with Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia. He resides in Paradise Valley, Montana, USA.