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The Toolbox: 19 Tips and Tropes I Enjoy Seeing

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First of all, I freely admit that what I say isn't gospel. I am a total amateur at art and writing. I've learned everything that I know via the internet and a few drawing books. It's just that I appreciate all of the tutorials here on dA that have helped me out, and I want to put a little bit of my own methods back in.


If you’re a regular reader of mine, you might think that I’m an overly negative person.  The truth is that I’m really not.  It’s so easy to get passionate over things that you dislike that you forget to remember the things that you do like.  I don’t make these guides because I think that deviantART is full of bad writers.  I make these because I think that deviantART is full of constantly improving writers with limitless potential.  But I understand that I can seem a little overly negative at times when I only get on your case for doing things that I don’t like.

This brings me to a new resolution that I’ve made for myself: make more guides that give instead of just guides that take.  I make a lot of guides telling you how not to make a bad story.  Now, I want to give you tools that you can use to make a good or okay story even better.  Of course, these are just things that I enjoy, your opinions may vary.  Now, I present to you nineteen tropes/devices that I personally love that you might want to try out.  Why nineteen?  Because I’ve got to match the number of tropes I told you not to use here, after all.

Let’s get started!  Personally, I love seeing…


Energy

No, not bright, shining hadoukens (though those are awesome too).  I’m talking about characters with energetic personalities.  I often see a lot of characters who don’t do much or who just mope around all the time, but I rarely see characters who act like someone that I might genuinely want to go hang out with.  These are characters that get out there and do things in their spare time, or who are passionate about something that they love to do or learn and show it to the audience.

I love characters that go to the story instead of just letting the story come to them.  Even if a character is normally stoic or a wallflower, they become instantly more endearing and human to me if they show some energy once in a while.  I think a lot of writers think that angsty people or introverts are the only characters that can be interesting.  They absolutely can be, but don’t forget that energetic, passionate people can be just as complex and interesting as anyone else.

I also love when nature gets a little bit of energy, especially when it comes to…


Weather

I often come across universes in which there only seems to be mild weather.  That’s a shame though. There’s so much that you can do with weather that it’s not even funny! Blizzards, heat waves, thunderstorms, wind, sunshine, overcast skies, and drizzling rain are all great natural phenomena that can really set a mood.  

Also keep in mind that the weather doesn’t always have to match the emotional state of a character.  Just because it’s pouring rain doesn’t mean that your character has to be moping and listening to The Smiths (or Adele, for you damn youngsters).  Juxtaposing weather and emotion can be really effective as well and is sometimes a little more realistic.

A quick note that I’d like to make here is that too much description of things like weather and setting can be very boring and make people not want to read your story anymore.  After all, how often do you skip past lengthy passages of description just so you can get to the action?  This goes double if it’s at the very beginning of a story, because you need to try to get a reader interested in what they’re reading so that they’ll read the entire piece.  Try dropping hints of things like weather either in brief descriptive passages or in dialogue.  People love to talk about the weather, so dropping this in will seem like natural small talk.

Changing weather is also really good at making the audience believe in your world, which brings me to…


Attention to Setting

Especially important in episodic material or anything in a visual medium, really working on your setting can make your world feel amazingly real to the audience.  Say what you want about Twilight (I have a lot of things I could say…), but one of the things that I do credit to Meyer is that I absolutely believed in the setting of Forks.  I could visualize every detail of every location, and it felt like a real place to me.  Many amateur stories I read seem to take place in a vague-ish void full of generic locations that never feel real.  For example, compare the following:


“The group entered the cafeteria for lunch.”

“The group walked in through the open double doors that led into the cafeteria.  Annie noticed the fundraising table that the chess club had set up on the opposite side and made a mental note to avoid it.  She was out of money, and she didn’t want to face Jon when he realized that she wouldn’t be donating to them for the third month in a row.  Luckily, the line for food wrapped around so far that the table was reasonably obscured from her view.  Maybe she could just pretend that she hadn’t seen them.  

You know, she thought as she looked away.  This place could really use some windows.  I always feel like I’m eating in a cellar.”


While not perfect, the second passage gives you enough of an idea of the location that you can visualize what is going on.  It’s especially helpful to take the time to plan out the area on paper, especially if it’s a location that is frequently visited.  That way, you can keep building the setting up over time.  You can reinforce the details you’ve already told the reader as well as add a couple new ones so that you don’t have to do an info-dump on them the first time the location is entered.

While we’re on the subject of settings, I should probably encourage you to use…


Varied Locations

Related to the previous point, I actively encourage writers to take their characters to new locations sometimes.  Imagine spending your whole life only going to a couple of different locations.  Pretend that you only go to school/work, your house, your friend’s house, and the mall.  Ever.  That would be awful.

Now of course, sometimes your plot requires there to be few locations, which is fine.  But if you can, try having your characters visit a new location!  There are restaurants, fairs, museums, parks, bars, shops, other cities/states/countries, and lots more.  Doing this can be a great opportunity to add interest and new material to a story.  This can also make your world feel a bit more concrete, since it feels like lots of locations exist here.  I like well-made worlds, if you can’t tell.

If you’re looking to broaden your world to the audience, I recommend using…


Area-wide phenomena

The point I’ve been making here is that your characters don’t live in a bubble that only involves that which pertains to them.  There is a huge world out there (presumably) with a lot of things going on at all times.  Basically, I recommend trying to have large-scale events happen that don’t just involve them (or maybe don’t involve them at all).  What’s the newest craze that’s sweeping the nation?  What’s the smash hit of the summer?  Is there a massive tragedy in another country that your characters might want to donate to?  Is it election time?  Are the Olympics going on?  The possibilities are endless.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to give these a lot of attention.  Doing so could distract from the overall plot.  But a few sprinkled around can really give the feeling that there is a world that exists beyond your character’s viewpoint.  It also gives them something in common with other people that they meet.  All of this builds the culture of your world, which can be awesome.

Ok, I promise that’s it for world-building.  Next up is…


Neighbors

Haha, I lied.  But only a little, I promise.

First of all, neighbors are excellent for world building.  They show that there are other people in your world who have their own lives going on in ways unrelated to the plot.  Secondly, writing neighbors are a great opportunity to build the main characters up.  It can be very telling to see how they interact and it shows the audience the character’s place in his local community.  Are the neighbors friendly?  Do they hang out?  Do they have disputes?  Do they hate each other (Dinklebeeeeeerg!!!)?  Do they never, ever speak to each other?

Personally, I’ve lived in several different neighborhoods.  The one I’m in right now is awful because nobody speaks to each other.  Not unless they’re complaining, at least.  But I’ve lived in neighborhood where almost everyone was a friend, and it was great.  We had parties and events and everyone helped each other out at some point in their life.  So I know from experience how such a close sense of community can bring together a huge cast of interesting people.  But it can also give a sense of isolation and coldness, if that’s what you need.

But if you’re looking to try something interesting, maybe you’d like to try having…


Unique Descriptions

First of all, let me just get one thing out of the way.  I’m not advocating purple prose.   Purple prose is irritating and distracts from the story.  But there’s a fine line that can be walked here.  Personally, I don’t get much when I see phrases like “snow white” or “blood red.”  I’ve seen them everywhere, so they just make a generic image in my head.  But what about “eggshell white” or “cranberry red?”  Those conjure up much more specific colors to me and make the scene more vivid in my head and have added description in them.  

Tweaking a couple of descriptive areas can really add to a story and make it more memorable.  If you find yourself using a lot of stock phrases, it might help for you to try playing with them to see what you can come up with.  But don’t forget that what you make up has to add to the story, not detract or distract from it.

On a more specific note, you can really pack a punch with your descriptions by incorporating…


Smell

Smell is one of the most powerful human senses, and you can use that to your advantage.  I find that personally, I have a more vivid experience when I’m given a smell to go along with a scene.  I also recommend using smell to set a mood, you don’t have to be too literal when it comes to smells.  What mood do you feel when I mention the word “mint?”  Do you have a stronger mental experience of a seaside storm when I describe the salty, heavy, humid musk that sits in the air before the dark clouds break over the ocean?  Try figuring out what a scene or location smells like and describing it in a way so that a reader can imagine and recreate that smell in their mind.

Now that you’re a total expert at description and world building, you might enjoy giving this prompt a spin…


Absent Characters

If you’re looking for a writing prompt in your story that has a group of main characters, why not make one of the main characters go away for a bit?  Maybe they have a doctor’s appointment.  Having one important person go away upsets a group and makes them temporarily rework their dynamics.  It also gives other characters a reason to interact with people that they usually wouldn’t and gives everyone a chance to shine.  It’s even good for the absent character, as it gives the audience a chance to miss and appreciate them and want them back.  This may not be the case if the character is awful though.

Of course, this tactic may not be an appropriate tactic for all stories.  But it’s also one of the better “Mary Sue” tests that I find actually helps.  A Mary Sue is defined by the hold that that he/she has on the plot and the constant attention they get from every character.  If your other characters don’t really have a compelling story without the missing character and the plot doesn’t move forward because the missing character is the only one who ever moves it forward, you may have a problem.  Again, if the story is centered around one main character, this doesn’t really matter because they’re the focus of the story by design.  But if it’s supposed to be a group effort, then take a good, hard look at the character.

Now, if you want to make your group of characters seem more cohesive and close, try incorporating a…


Common Negative Experience

A neat trick that I commonly see writers using is the Common Negative Experience.  This is when there is a group of main characters who go through an unhappy experience together early in the story (that is not the direct fault of one of the characters), which serves to make group ties closer and even establish them as a group.  A bad experience together gives the characters something in common that they can all agree about, solidifying their group identity.  It also allows for friendships to grow because it is an opportunity for one or more people to act kindly in the face of hardship, however slight it might be.  Everyone has to help each other bear the experience, so in the end it only makes them closer.

For example, I once went on a vacation to Florida, during which a small hurricane hit.  The weather was terrible, but my family and I spent the whole day inside playing games together and watching movies.  Compare that to another trip I went on to a theme park, where it poured all day and I had no friends or family with me. (it was a high school trip, and none of my friends could go).  I had a miserable time, and all I wanted to do was to go home instead of sitting alone in the rain.  If I had friends with me, I bet we could have turned the situation around and had fun, or at least had each other’s company to make the situation less lonely.

Improving the lives of others is one of the best ways to make a character likable, a specific application of which can be seen with…


Concern for the Little Guys

I’m hoping on making a guide to lead characters and character likability, but for now, I’ve got a couple tips that might help.  One good way to make somebody likable is for them to have concern for the well-being of others.  But I’ve found that this works best when the character that they worry about is neither a main character nor a love interest.  I feel this way because it’s easy to care about someone that you’re regularly involved with, but far more impressive to worry about someone that you hardly know.

I once heard it said that, “The measure of a man is not by how he treats his equals, but how he treats his inferiors.”  In a way, side characters are “inferior” to main characters, and showing concern for them in a small way shows that a character cares about more than just his circle of family and friends.

The example that comes to my mind is in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, during which the cold-hearted Scrooge suddenly begins to worry about the life of Tiny Tim when he realizes how sick he is.  Scrooge has had no reason to care about Tim up until this point.  He has had no involvement or interaction with him.  However, Dickens uses this concern to show how Scrooge is changing as a man, and I feel that this is one of the biggest turning points for the character’s inner change.

Another way to make a character more likable is to display…


Effort

I seem to read about a lot of characters that do nothing but sit around and argue or talk with each other.  A character that does nothing usually isn’t very endearing, interesting as they might be.  By showing characters who try to get things done or learn skills, you show that they are willing to try to do things instead of just sit on the couch all day.  Even if a character fails, the fact that they’ve tried their hardest to do something still has merit.

I often see the opposite of this in pieces in which the author has spent a lot of time figuring out who the character is, but doesn’t know how to communicate that to the audience.  So they spend a lot of time telling us how we should like and understand the character, but don’t show them taking their life into their own hands and proving themselves to the audience.  Besides, when a character shows effort, you might even find yourself a plot.

When I think about creating likable characters through effort, I think about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  The main character, Dr. Horrible, is so likeable because although he’s failure at being a supervillain, he is constantly trying his best even in the face of failure.  That’s something that a lot of people can respect.

Of course, in mentioning such a funny movie, I’m now obliged to talk about comedy.  Let’s take a look at…


Non-Character-Based Comedy

This is an easy one, so I’ll be brief.  I love comedy.  I love jokes that hinge on the concept of one character not acting as they usually do or being put in a situation that’s conflicting with their personality.  It’s a lot of fun.  But sometimes it feels like that’s the only kind of comedy that’s present in some stories.  The downside of this is that the joke is only funny if you understand the character, which can alienate new readers.  Not the mention the fact that while funny, you can render this joke unfunny if you constantly use it over and over.

There are lots of other kinds of jokes out there, so go get ‘em!  Innuendo, hyperbole, absurdity, slapstick, reference jokes, even puns; there’s a whole world of comedy for the taking. Personally, I feel that if the joke is only funny if you know the character well, it might not be that good of a joke to begin with.  Try making your character-based jokes funny to both those who know them well and those who don’t know them at all.  The bonus is that if you use jokes that are funny without having to have a bunch of background knowledge, you might just grab the attention of a new audience member.

If you’re looking to go the opposite way and add drama to your story instead, you can always try having…


No Villain

Villains and antagonists are not the same thing.  I’m not saying to not have an antagonist; I don’t even know how you would do that in a functional plot.  But if you want to add a layer of complexity, consider not having an obvious villain at all.  You can humanize both sides of a dispute or issue enough so that there is no clear person who is right or wrong.

I found that The Walking Dead video game did a great job of this.  There were characters who did things that you didn’t like, but their feelings were completely understandable and it’s hard to say whether or not their decision was right or wrong.  It’s pretty much impossible to go through the whole game without upsetting someone, no matter how neutral you try to be.

While we’re going on about complex relationships between people, let’s not forget the…


Happy, Mature, Functional Romance

Hey, when was the last time that you saw a fictional romance in which the two lovers actually got along, cooperated, and generally had a smooth-sailing romantic life with each other?  I certainly can’t remember.  It seems like all romances that I see nowadays fall into the same three categories:

1. We act like we hate each other, but we secretly have a huuuuuuge crush on each other!  Will we get together?  Who knows!
2. We constantly exist in a will-they-won’t-they relationship in which we pussyfoot around the topic until we randomly kiss, act embarrassed, then have sex and act embarrassed because neither of us will just freaking commit to a relationship arglebarglebah.
3. I’m a girl who’s in love with the lead male, but also with a bad boy.  Who will I choose?!

I know that writers usually want their relationships to be exciting, but these tropes are so common that they’re dreadfully boring.  The first two tropes always wait until the final moment for the two characters will declare their love for each other and the third trope almost always has the girl choosing the lead male (but the bad boy keeps the fangirls, so it’s a wash).  In these situations, I never honestly believe that the lovers will stay together.  None of them ever seem like they have any idea how to act like a mature romantic partner, so I just assume that everyone’s going to break up after the story officially concludes.

Why are writers so afraid of writing romances between two people who listen to each other and act like a happy couple?  I personally think it’s usually for (coincidentally) three reasons:

1. They’re lazy and need a subplot, so it’s going to be a lazy romantic subplot.
2. They’ve never actually been in a mature, happy relationship.
3. They think that happy couples are always boring.  Always.  Relationships are only cool up until commitment.  After that, you might as well break up and start all over again with a new crush.

Happy couples exist and can be great characters.  They have great chemistry, a deep bond, and know each other better than they know themselves.  Does that description have no potential for a pair of characters?  Occasional bumps and fights are normal, but they’re not the only things that can be exciting in a relationship.  Besides, when I see a happy relationship put into some kind of jeopardy, those stakes are always higher to me because their bond is so strong and intimate.  To be clear, while unhappy and uncertain romances can be really exciting, you might also strike a winner with a happy romance.

I can’t think of a good transition.  Sorry.  But I deserve it, and it’s all because of…


Karma

Another cool trick that I see writers doing is to use a sort of karma to drive home main themes and give a character an opportunity for change.  Imagine a story in which the main character is drafted for war.  I feel that in this instance, it’s more interesting if this main character has done something recently that shows that he needs to change as a person.  His drafting, while random, is the perfect catalyst for his change and gives the event significance.

Doing this also avoids creating martyr characters, who I honestly don’t enjoy much.  Most of the story is used to make you feel pity for them because they’re such a good person and don’t deserve all the bad stuff that happens to them and blahblahblah.  I don’t find that situation interesting because it reaffirms the idea that the main character doesn’t need to change at all and that the world is just mean to them for no good reason.

For example, I don’t really enjoy the trope of a prison story in which the main character is actually innocent.  Most writers use this because they either don’t want to have to write a real character arc or don’t think that a guilty main character could be likable or identifiable (I’m looking at you, Con Air).  I have seen this trope used very well in the past, especially when the focus isn’t really on the main character but the prison system itself (I’m looking at you, The Shawshank Redemption), but most writers I’ve seen use it don’t have the skill to do something so cool with it.

By having the character in some way deserve the events that befall them, they are usually forced to change and the bad events hold that much more meaning and impact on the character’s life.  There’s a point to the bad events that are happening.

This trope is also really, really important when it comes to my favorite genre…


Horror

I love good horror.  I don’t often see it done well, but I love it when it works out.  By horror, I don’t mean monsters, guts, and gore.  I don’t even necessarily mean horror stories or even the genre of horror.  When I talk about horror, I mean the feeling of being unsettled and unsure of what will happen.  I love feeling genuinely scared and full of suspense, whether it’s in a horror story or any other genre.  

I feel that many dramatic stories could be bettered with some sort of horrifying moment, full of tension and suspense.  The best part is that you might not even have to rewrite the drama to make this happen.  Horror is all in the details, and by reworking a scene to be more lengthy and uncertain, you can really make it stick out.

Horror is about suspense and danger.  Make the audience fear for what might happen and make them worry for a while.  Don’t rush to reassure them.  Let them simmer in it for a bit.  Horror moments have a lot of potential in stories, and it makes me sad when I see a good moment for horror wasted.  This is especially true when I see a moment that is supposed to be horrifying squandered by a writer who bypasses it too quickly and doesn’t allow me to be afraid or unsettled for a little while.

If you’re looking to try a concept with a lot of built-in potential for any genre, try…


Sets

A.k.a.: the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” strategy.  I’ve noticed that a lot of fictional pieces do well when they create a “set” of characters or objects, as seen in things like Sailor Moon, Harry Potter, and Kill Bill among others.  When it is established that there is a set of things that will be seen, it creates some automatic build-up for the audience.  From the get-go, there is the mystery of the identity of the pieces of the set, and the audience gets curious and wants to find out what they are.

It’s pre-made setup and payoff, but be careful.  It’s so easy to screw this up, and you’re going to need to have a handle on pacing and self-restraint to use this effectively.  Also, if you fail to make the individual pieces interesting and worth the anticipation, a reader may feel disappointed, cheated, and angry.  That’s when they close the book or turn off the TV and don’t come back to your work.  

This is a concept that an author has to commit to from the beginning for it to fully work, so I wouldn’t recommend just throwing this in to any old story.  But it can be fun when it does work, so I thought I’d include it.

Now for something that a writer of any skill level can commit to…


Clear Overarching Goals

One thing that many beginning writers forget to do is make the point of the story clear to the audience.  They get excited and introduce characters and exposition, but often forget to make clear what the characters’ end goal is.  What do they want?  What is the plot about?  Why should I watch what is happening?  What is even happening?

I also like when in episodic material, the writer sometimes gives a character a shorter goal that is mentioned and referred to again.  Like if a student character says he’s got an essay to do tonight in one episode or chapter, he might bring up that he got a bad grade on it in a later episode or chapter.  It’s a small thing to do, but it makes the audience feel like the characters have lives even when the audience is not watching them.  I always appreciate small things like this, and it also makes me trust the writer a bit more to not forget to tie up loose ends and to not disappoint me.

And finally, one big tip I want to give you to try in your writing is…


Have Consequences

I sometimes have people who tell me that they have a hard time coming up with plots for their stories.  I am one of those people.  It’s easier for some people to come up with characters and disjointed scenarios, but hard for them to figure out what the heck their plot is going to be.  I hope to someday have a guide on this as well, but the biggest help I’ve found is to add conflict.  One way to do this is to explore the consequences of every action a character takes.  

I’ve joked about this in the opposite list to this one, but it can be disappointing when a writer has a character do something without having to deal with the consequences.   Consequences are a great opportunity to figure out what choices the character has to make, and it gets you thinking about plot.  Note that consequences aren’t only bad.  Good consequences are just as important, as they validate actions that a character made in the past.  Plot is a series of actions and reactions, and consequences limit the actions and reactions a character is allowed to have (that is, without causing more consequences).


So there.  Hopefully these are nineteen tools that you now have at your disposal to try to add some interest to and improve your story.  I don’t have examples for everything, but if I find an example that applies to something, I’ll add it in in the future.  These are just things that I like, but hopefully you enjoy seeing them too.  Not all of these are appropriate for all stories.  But by pulling them out in the right situation, you might find them useful.  Time to cover myself with my disclaimer:


Never, ever forget: I might be wrong. I try not to be, but nobody's perfect.  Art is one giant matter of opinion.  Feel totally free to disagree or to only utilize the bits that you agree with.  If you found this helpful, disagree with me, or just prefer another method to my own, feel free to tell me about it in the comments.  After all, I'm here to learn too.
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Rexart35's avatar
"No Villain"

WHAT? No, I'd rather have a villian in my stories and villian and antagonist ARE the same thing (since you don't know an antagonists is idk why yo bothered to put that up) having a obvious villian allow the audience to hate an evil character and be satisfied over when that villian meets defeat.

Sorry if I sounded but...I disagree with you on the villian things...makes no sense to me at all