Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fundamentals of Story Writing Part 2 ~ Jim Baumgardner

This is our 2nd installment of Fundamentals of Story Writing by Jim Baumgardner, author if the Sarah Books. You can visit Jim's Blog here. And you can learn more about the Sarah Books by visiting here.

Now, I would like to invite you and your children for our second lesson in the Fundamentals of Story Writing.  Here is Mr. Jim for our lesson.......

Fundamentals of Story Writing

Part 2

When I began writing my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing. Today, several years and many reams of paper later, I have a pretty good idea. It took a lot of work and study of writing techniques. I read about techniques—and I read books. I’m a visual person. I like to see it done and then I find it easier to do. So, I read each day and observe great authors of the past and how they keep my attention with their writing style. Do you want to improve your writing? If the answer is yes—then read.

There are key elements which must be incorporated into the writing of a story, whether a novel or short story. I want to mention five in these next two articles. There are more of course, but these five are fundamental and will lay a foundation on which you can build a good story.


You have decided on an idea for a short story, now ask yourself, “Can I actually write a story and make it believable.” If the idea involves a story about how a man survives a shipwreck near a small island in the South Pacific, yet you have never been there nor studied the area, and know nothing about ships—you may have problems. My advice is to select another idea. Pick something that can be set in an area in which you are familiar.

The Sarah Books are set in Western Ohio. I have been there many times. I know the lay of the land, but I also read about how the area appeared in the 19th Century. Set your story in an area you know. Maybe you live there or it’s a place you have visited. With that knowledge, and sometimes an emotional attachment to the area, your story will come alive through the five senses.

Consider these words from the introduction of Sarah’s Wish: ‘ your “mind’s eye” you see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and touch nineteenth century Ohio. The story begins one stifling hot afternoon. Do you feel the heat? Taste the dust? Smell the horseflesh? Hear the laughter of mother and daughter? And-see that snake! You are in 1858. Hang on-here we go!’

Please keep in mind your reader! Do not ramble on paragraph after paragraph describing a sunset, mountain, or anything else. It’s not necessary. Give your readers credit for having sense enough to picture a sunrise in their mind.

For example: “Morning dawned bright pink with shades of violet splashed across the eastern sky.” I would think most folks have seen a similar sunrise. Here is the first line from Sarah’s Promise: “Before the sun peeked over the horizon, while the morning star still shimmered in the western sky, they attacked.” The reader gets the picture. It’s just before dawn, not light, not dark, but gray; and all stars have disappeared except for the brightest. You can make out shapes, but no colors. That’s it. Now get on with the story. I did.

Your character’s actions and language must conform to the time period. Writing a story set in 2010 is easier than a setting in 1858. We are familiar with today’s language and customs, but how about the 19th century? If you want to identify a character’s race what terms would you use? Sarah’s friend Esther is called a Negro in the Sarah Books because that was the term used in Sarah’s day, today the term in African-American. Running Fox is called an Indian by Granny, and a half-breed (his father was Shawnee and mother English) by his enemies. Today many people use the term Native-American.

Actions are important, too. Men bowed to ladies in the 19th Century, but generally, unless there is some compelling reason, you wouldn’t have a character doing that in 2010. On the other hand Sarah is not giving high-fives or low-fives to anyone. She doesn’t greet her friends with, “What’s up dude”, either.

A word about order of events is needed, especially if you are attempting to write a book. Make sure the characters’ actions are kept in chronological order. Example: Last night in the woodshop Uncle Alvin slipped and cut off his hand with the table saw. Yet, this morning he’s holding a cup of coffee in one hand and with his other hand he’s eating toast. What? He’s got three arms? Be aware of what you have written previously.

A story would be meaningless without characters with which we can relate. In my first novel, Sarah’s Wish, Sarah is twelve, has dark hair falling in ringlets to her shoulders, dark eyes, dimples, and is short. Fine, that describes thousands, probably millions of girls. A good character is more than a good description of her or his physical attributes. You must get beyond the physical and show how she thinks, feels, her goals, why she acts as she does, and so much more. Why does Sarah continually refer to her mother in the present tense when Rachel has been dead for months? At the end of the third book she has a full blown character flaw—the question is: can she overcome it? Now developing a character to that extent is not possible in a short story, and not necessary. If you’re writing a novel it is vital.

Make the characters real to the reader. Give them flaws. Shortcomings can be made obvious by how they reason things out or maybe inter feelings of hate, greed or jealousy. There are numerous things from which to choose, just make it real to that character. As you read the Sarah Books you will see Sarah has flaws as does Granny Evans. No one is perfect, so don’t try to make your characters that way. It’s not believable. People understand imperfection, since we’re all in that condition.

On the other hand give the main characters something unique about themselves. Sarah is very smart, and you will see in the fourth book, The Making of a Spy, how that brilliance is put to use. Granny has her dialect and habits (smoking her corncob pipe and carrying a gun in her knitting bag) that set her apart.

To invent a likeable hero begin by listing the characteristics you want him to manifest. Include physical and emotional characteristics along with his values. Ask yourself what is it that defines my hero? Maybe it’s traits from someone you know or a combination of people. Granny Evans in the Sarah Books is a combination of my granny, her sister, and a television character of many years ago.

Allow your characters to tell the story through their actions and dialogue. A good story is made up of a logical beginning, an emotional, up and down, nail biting middle, and a satisfying end. But a good plot is made up of more than just these basics. Characters serve the plot; in fact they drive the plot. An interesting character is interesting because of what she does. Please understand; a story is in the mind of the reader, so give the reader just enough to picture the scene. What I see in my mind’s eye is not necessarily what you would see. It’s probably close, but not exactly the same. Have you ever seen a movie that is based on a book and went away saying the book was better? Maybe it’s because what you visualized about the story is not what was put on the screen.

A funny thing about readers, they don't want the hero to be happy all the time. A reader wants to see conflict, pain, troubles and sorrow. In the Sarah Books, Sarah’s mom dies, Sarah has a broken arm, her friends are kidnapped, she hides from someone chasing her, etc. These things keep the reader engaged in the story. They are fine as long as it works to a happy ending. People do not like crummy endings. We will talk more about conflict next time.

Students, now is the time to get a head start on the upcoming school year. You may be asked to write a story. Start now by using the things you have learned in these first two articles. Look back to the first lesson on how to finds ideas and writing what you know. Then, use the suggestions on selecting a setting and developing characters to begin putting a story on paper. I like to make a rough outline of the story idea. It always changes (for the better of course) and that is fine. At least you have an idea of where you want to take the story and how to get there.

If you have any question you are welcome to email me at:

I do have students who like to write and send me samples to read and comment on. I would be glad to do that for you. Thanks for reading and happy writing.

Next: We will look at using conflict, dialogue, and action in your stories.

Jim Baumgardner, author of the Sarah Books


  1. Excellent article. I'm going to print it out, so my daughter can read it. Thank you!!

  2. Hey, I gave ya an award you can get get here:

    Have a super weekend!