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A Guide to Storytelling

by dianacat777


Hello! I'm Diana, and I'm here to tell you about Storytelling.

...Okay, so that wasn't my best shoehorn into an article. I've had a lot of cool debut lines in my time, but seriously...

Fine. Let's try this again, thematically.

It's Friday. Or maybe it's not. It probably is. Either way, you find yourself sitting at a computer, reading the latest issue of the Neopian Times newspaper. Many wonderful stories and hilarious comics await you, thanks to those elusive writer-types that you sometimes find skulking around the boards. To your right lies the Editorial. It's probably really funny. Maybe Hanso and Jazan will show up again!

Scanning through the articles, a title catches your eye; 'A Guide to Storytelling'. This is relevant to my interests, you think, and follow the link, where you begin to read...

...That was hardly better, but at least I can pretend I'm witty. Okay. Onwards. I'm Dianacat777. Call me Diana; I could do without the 'cat' or the '777'. I've been writing for the Storytelling since competition number #323, an adorable little tale about a superhero Doglefox and a plot against the Defenders of Neopia. Six years' worth of stories and a hundred and twenty wins later, I'm still writing avidly for this contest. However, I've noticed that it doesn't get a lot of attention. I want to remedy that!

The Storytelling Competition is a weekly contest that runs from every Monday to Friday. You may have seen it in the New Features from time to time. It used to be that the contest judge wrote each story's beginning, but now they're purely user-submitted. I'll talk about this later, but keep any cool ideas you get in mind!

Each story begins with a different beginning, leaving off at some cliffhanger. Your job, as a storyteller, is to fill in the next few paragraphs of what happens next, before leaving off at another cliffhanger. Another storyteller will carry on where you left off, and so on. Nine segments later, you've got a complete story!

The glory of Storytelling is that you don't even really have to know what you're doing. You don't need to know where the characters will end up – in fact, planning ahead is practically impossible, given the myriad different ways that things can go. You can't micromanage things. You can try to give it a push in whatever direction you want, but it's just as much everyone else's story as it is yours. Everyone has different styles, different tastes, different visions. Sometimes, this causes a story to run in circles. Other times, you get a melting pot of ideas that's absolutely beautiful. You would never imagine the twists some people manage to dream up, or the wonderful scenes they write out.

When you submit an entry, it's going against every other entry that's been submitted for that slot. The competition isn't as daunting as you might be expecting – like I said, the Storytelling doesn't get a lot of attention. It's not like restocking or feeding Kadoaties, completely barring the fact that success is based on creativity and skill, not connection speed. But don't think that just because you submitted something, you're going to win. The competition can be fierce, sometimes... but that just makes victory all the sweeter.

Now, I know everyone likes getting their name out there, but there are other motives that tend to draw a wider audience. The Storytelling is very generous with prizes. Every time your entry is selected, you get 2000 neopoints and a dip into the prize pool. It's fairly wildcard; the possible items include codestones, dubloons, rare petpets, paint brushes, petpet paint brushes, map pieces, and a few other select items, like Kauvara's Potion and Cool Negg. I've gotten codestones, and I've gotten Maraquan paint brushes. Maybe all you'll get is the satisfaction of seeing your entry up there, but you could also walk out several million NP richer, all for fifteen minutes of your time.

So – what kind of advice can I give?

First off, I'd like to post a sort of chart. Over time, I've gradually gotten a good idea of how the storytelling contest flows; what happens on each day, and what you should try to enter with.

Monday – The first day of the story. For the slot directly after the beginning, you can do a lot of background building. Define the setting, bring in characters, add backstory. Drop hints here and there if you want, but generally this is too early to bring in a villain. Overall, 'rising action'. Stir in bouillon cube and let simmer.

Tuesday – More rising action. A lot of the same as yesterday – backstory, setting, characters. Around today, the 'problem' of the story is usually getting defined. The villain might show up around the late Tuesday slot.

Wednesday – If the villain didn't show up on Tuesday, they'll probably appear here. This is the point where you probably don't want to add any more important characters unless they've been alluded to earlier – it's too late in the story to neatly bring them in, in most cases.

Thursday – Now we're in the real meat of the story. The action's happening (or getting more actiony), you've got the whole cast here; all that's left to do is cast the dice. Throw in some plot twists, keep the action rolling – but don't get too close to resolving things. That's tomorrow's job. You could call today 'falling action', but it's usually a lot more action-filled than that term implies!

Friday – The last day of the story. The events of the story are rising to a boil – the penultimate slot usually ends with the greatest cliffhanger in the story, and the ending gives the story's resolution. Extra tip here; while you can set things in motion or lead up to it, try not to solve the story's problems in the second-last slot. That's the ending's job!

This isn't set in stone, of course. There's no set 'Today-We're-Introducing-The-Villain' day; things vary story by story. Nobody's going to say 'That was a great idea, but no new characters after Thursday, sorry!' It's very fluid. But as a general rule, things tend to fall into these lines.

'What should I try and write' is the first most common question I receive. The second is 'How long should my entry be?' This is another vague question. I'll try to explain, but... 'as long or short as you need to be'. Yes, nobody likes those kinds of answers... but basically, it really varies, depending what you're writing about. How long does your entry need to be to get across your ideas? I guess all I can say is that remember your entry shouldn't be a sentence and it shouldn't be a full-length novel. If you only have three or four paragraphs, you probably didn't advance the plot enough in your submission – if you submit three thousand words, you might be moving the plot a bit too much. Remember that everyone writing needs to read every entry to see what's going on in the story – huge text blocks in the middle of a story tend to scare people off, and the judge knows it.

Over more recent contests, the entry length has shifted from longer to shorter. And generally, endings are longer than normal entries – indeed, I've seen some that were quite massive! Since nobody has to follow them up, they can be however long you want. As for your average entry... there's an old trick that's been passed down by Storytellers. Put your entry in the submission box and place your cursor next to the scroll bar. If your mouse is smaller than the scroll bar, your entry is probably too short. I don't know of any such trick for a hazy 'max length', so all I can really say is to keep in mind that you're not writing a whole story, just a fraction of it.

And here are some more general bits of advice.

*Keep the plot moving. An entry in which nothing really happens is unlikely to win; always make sure something worth noting happens in your submission.

*Save old entries! You never know when you can reuse something.

*The best way to learn what kind of entries will get into the Storytelling is to read past Storytellings. Really, there's no better way to learn.

*Pay attention to earlier entries! Tying in details mentioned earlier in the story is a plus. From my experience, those kinds of twists go over really well.

*Don't try to add a ton of characters! I know everyone wants to see their own pet in writing, but trying to shoehorn in your own characters is a bad idea (I would know). For that matter, keep in mind that it can be hard to write several characters at once; you generally don't want more than three main characters in a 'party' at a given time.

*Pay attention to the story's mood. If it's a happy story, keep your entries upbeat. If the current story is about a Werelupe fleeing for his life in the Haunted Woods, being pursued by his ex-best-friend, don't make a bunch of Chia Clowns appear and save the day with pie. It doesn't fit. (Unless that was somehow alluded to earlier. Somehow. Storytelling – anything is possible.)

*On that train of thought, endings; tough to write, but often the least contested slot of the week if you're willing to rise up to the challenge. Avoid deus ex machina endings unless the story really calls for it; the age-old 'And then Fyora floated down and made everything right' isn't winning you any points. :P Again, keep the story's tone in mind. Remember what the characters want and what the story's been leading towards, so you can wrap things up in a way that's as fitting as possible. The heroes don't have to win – I can think of a couple 'bad end' stories off the top of my head. But trying to tack a downer ending onto a comedy probably isn't a good idea.

*This goes for all of Neopets, but you should try to avoid grittier subjects. Characters do explicitly die sometimes, but it's a rarity, and never in any heavy detail. Excessive violence, gore, adult themes – this isn't the place for it. Don't submit anything you wouldn't want children to read. After all, children are reading it. :P This doesn't mean stories can't be deep and meaningful! Just remember that this is still Neopets while you're writing.

*Keep the update times in mind! They're not wholly clear-cut, but the competition usually updates twice a day; once at about 1-3 NST, and once at 5-7 NST. Don't cut it close – you don't want to submit something, only to see that an entry has already been picked.

*Don't get discouraged! It can get frustrating if you spend a long time pouring your heart into words, only to see that somebody else won. But there's always next time, and if you keep being persistent, you'll make it eventually! My first win was by no means my first submission. I think it might have been my eighth.

*EXCESSIVE PUNCTUATION AND CAPITAL LETTERS!!!!!!??!!!??!?! Decide for yourself if they look good. :P But keep in mind that when you're writing, italics can do emphasis just as well as capslock, and personally, I think it looks prettier. If a character is shouting, well... okay.

"What was that for?" Bob yelled.

"WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!?!?!" Bob yelled.

The capital letters aren't really necessary because the words 'Bob yelled' already defines the way that Bob is speaking – you don't need to capitalize everything he yells, because the yelling bit already covers that; the reader is already picturing Bob yelling. The italics give emphasis on the 'that', something that you can't even see in the second example because everything has been capitalized. Same with the ? versus the ?!?!?!; yelling plus a question mark lets the reader see that Bob is phrasing an indignant question. Use your punctuation marks sparingly – there are poor, underprivileged writers out there who need their exclamation points :'(

*In line with italics... learn from my mistakes. It took me about 75 storytellings of wondering why the judge kept hating on my beloved italics and erasing them before I figured out what was really going on. When you submit italicized or bolded font, do it in BBCode. HTML, like the stuff you use on your petpages, gets eaten by the submission form and the judge won't even see it.

*Try to give your scenes some body to them. If you're trying to leave something open to interpretation or to be defined later, sure, gloss over it – but if you're writing an important scene, try to write out the character dialogue and reactions. So instead of just saying...

Character X told Character Y to do this, then talked with Character Z for five minutes.

... try to write something a little more substantial. It doesn't have to be huge, but even a little more than that will give your entry a lot more substance, such as this.

"Are you sure about this?" Character Y asked nervously.

Character X gave him a reassuring grin. "Trust me, it'll all go smoothly. Just remember the plan."

"Well, if you're sure..."

Character X watched impassively as Character Y scurried off. Once he was out of sight, a much darker grin spread across his face. "Character Z, you can come out now," he murmured. "We've got a lot to discuss..."

A little extra effort goes a long way here.

*I mentioned beginnings earlier. You can submit a beginning in the submissions box, just like any other entry. However, to make the judge's life a little easier, you might want to add a note saying that it's a beginning, especially if you're submitting it in the middle of the week, during an ongoing story. I prefer to submit any beginning ideas I get on weekends to prevent confusion. Your beginning probably won't show up right away, as there are a lot in queue – don't worry! The judge saves all the ones she plans on using, so you don't have to submit again. Unlike the Neopian Times, though, there's no sort of held over notice.

Another thing I should note, and this is pretty important; around storytelling 520 or so, the contest judge changed. This new judge is openly seeking new participants, so you have an even better chance of getting in when you've just started. :) Don't let the repeated names discourage you – everyone starts out sometime, and everyone has a chance!

I hope to see you there! If you have any more questions, drop me a neomail! I'll be happy to explain what I can.


PS: Lastly; if you're interested, there are some truly great reads in the Storytelling Archives. I personally recommend 327, 400, 362, 506, 472, and 600; they were all weeks that turned out beautifully, and I'm overjoyed to be a part of them.

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