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500 Words Story Surgery

Expert judges Francesca Simon and Frank Cottrell-Boyce answered your burning questions to help bust that dreaded writer’s block.

"Q: Do my characters have to live happily every after?


FCB: Definitely not!"

"Q: My character is quite ordinary but the plot is fun. Is that ok?

FS: Sounds good to me."

"Q: How do you create an original idea for a very popular genre like romance?

FS: Mix up genres. So do an animal romance, or a ghost romance, or an alien romance."

Q: My story is a mystery but I can’t think of how to write a good twist. Everything I think of isn’t very surprising! Any advice?

FS: Ask yourself lots of 'what if' questions about your story, often times you will surprise yourself that one of your answers provides the twist.

FCB: the twist isn't everything! Just let your mystery hang in the air if you want to. The best place to look for an ending is at the beginning of what you've already written.

"Q: At school, we were given a strategy of 'who, what, why, when' - do you have any strategies to help think of a story?

FS: Think of story types, like ghost, or school, or comedy, or family, or adventure, or romance, or science fiction, or sports, or animals, or magic, etc. And smash two of them together. So a ghost romance, or an outer space sports day. Harry Potter is magic/school for example

FCB: Look into your heart. Ask yourself - what makes me scared, what makes me sad, what makes me happy … what are the things that matter to you. What’s your worst nightmare, your greatest ambition, your best memory. Start with passion. Then just jump in and get going! Get something … anything … down on paper to start with. The real work isn’t writing, it’s rewriting. So don’t worry. Jump in. Get going.

"Q: I want to write a scary story but I don’t want to set it in a graveyard. Does my setting have to be spooky to be scary?

FS: No, in fact I think it’s scarier to have spooky things happen in an ordinary setting.

FCB: Oooh. I can already feel that that’s a great idea … it’s always AMAZING when something strange happens in an ordinary place. Like when the Daleks invade London. Or Wheelie bins turn out to be aliens."

"Q: Are stories more interesting if they’re written in the first person?

FS: No, but a first person story can be easier to write, if you have a unique voice

FCB: That depends who the person is! Stories work in the first person if the character telling the story is an interesting character, with an interesting way of talking. They should always have a good reason for telling the story."

"Q: I sometimes struggle finding exciting words…will I be marked better if I use long words?

FS: Absolutely not! Short words are great. You need to choose the right words for your story.

FCB: NO NO NO … words are for communicating with people, NOT for showing off. Always use the simplest, clearest word you can."

"Q: Is the only way to create a brilliant ending to close on a cliffhanger?

FS: That’s one way, but that could also be annoying if we are desperate to know what happens. That said, a 500 word story doesn’t have to be the whole story.

FCB: No! There are lots of ways to end a story. It doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger at all. A story ends when it ends."

"Q: I normally write about one character I’ve made up. Is it ok for me to write about only one chapter of his life?

FCB: Absolutely. Or even one moment of his life. As long as it’s an interesting moment."

"Q: I love history, do you think it might be interesting if I use historical characters?

FS: There are no rules. Historical characters could be fun.

FCB: Definitely. Some of the past winners have been set in the past. We’ve had stories about Stone Henge and the First World War. History is a great place to find a story."

"Q: Do I have to use all 500 words to write a brilliant story?

FS: If you can tell a brilliant story in fewer words then go ahead. We’re not counting : )

FCB: If you can do it shorter that’s fine but most people struggle to get a good story told in 500 words."

"Q: My story is quite sad, I’m worried people won’t enjoy it! Will I be marked down?

FS: If you look at last year’s winning stories, you will see that some are funny, some are sad, some are scary, some are surprising.

FCB: NO!!! We LOVE a sad story."

"Q: I’m trying to write a funny story but I don’t want it to be just a series of jokes. Do you have any tips?

FS: A series of jokes wouldn’t be a funny story. Humour comes from character or situation, and/or a quirky, unique way of looking at the world."

"Q: It’s difficult to come up with an evil baddies that hasn’t been done brilliantly before. How do you create an original hero or a really evil, believable baddie?

FS: By making the hero your hero. Think of a hero you admire, and see how you can twist her or him to make him/her a bit different. Try the same with an evil baddie."

"Q: I haven’t started my story yet….am I too late?

FS: Get off Facebook and start writing…now!"

"Q: I’ve never written a story before and I struggle with spelling. Do I stand a chance?

FS: We’re not your teachers and we are looking for great stories, not great spellers! "

"Q: I want to have my characters talking a lot in my story. How do I write realistic speech?

FS: Let your characters talk through you. Put them in the situation and listen to what they say. They may surprise you."

"Q: Should I write about what I know, or can I make stuff up completely?

FS: Both are fine."

"Q: I'm having trouble cutting my story down to 500 Words. Can you suggest a way of doing this?

FS: Get rid of all those extra unnecessary superfluous adjectives. And long, flowery, descriptive, over-written sentences. Can you see how many words you could cut out of my sentences?"

"Q: What triggers your best original stories? Do you start with an event, or someone you know or do you research an idea?

FS: My best ideas have started with a character (‘horrid henry’); or an image (the Lewis Chessmen in ‘The Sleeping Army’ or a first sentence (‘The monstrous child’). Then I might research. But that’s why reading widely is such a help in triggering ideas. You never know when you’re going to get one so keep a notebook with you always."

"Q: Are there any practical things I can do to come up with a story, like writing about an object?

FS: Write about something that interests you. Or start with a snatch of conversation and see what happens."

Q: I have sent my story in but I am really worried and I rushed what shall I do?

FS: Don't worry!

FCB: often when you've written something really quickly, you sometimes find you've actually given it your best shot it's because you weren't thinking about anything else. So don't worry - my first novel was written in a few weeks and it did really well! Good luck!

Q: My story is set in school but my friend thinks that writing a story about school is boring. How can I make sure it’s not?

FS: Harry Potter, Worst Witch, Mallory Towers, Wimpy Kid, Horrid Henry are all set in a school and I don't find them boring. What you need to do is find out what is different and fun about the shcool you're writing about. Is it a school ghost story what kind of school is it?

FCB: Nothing is boring if you make it interesting. Harry Potter is set in a school!

Q: I’m not really sure how to get started, is it best to do a written plan of my story or should I just start writing?

FS: Just start writing. Some writers plan others don't. J.K Rowling is a planner, I'm not. It just depends what works for you! I like to suprise myself when I'm writing. I think it is important to have some idea of where you want to end up but I enjoy the journey of discovering how and why.

FCB: Just start writing. There's magic in beginning!

Q: I love animals and writing about their adventures, but a lot of stories are written about animals. Will I be marked down on Originality if I write about them too?

FS: It of course depends on how you write about them. Think about an animal story you write and then give it a bit of twist to make it original to you.

FCB: Absolutely not!

Q: I have thought of my superheroes and the adventure I want them to go on, but I’m really bad of thinking of names! How do you come up with really original character names?

FS: I try to come up with names that reflect the characters. If I'm writing Norse God characters I use Norse God names. With Horrid Henry I used alliterations, so I can up with horrible adjectives and came up with names that alliterated with them. Often names aren't that that important. Although some writers can't write unless they know they characters names - but I am not one of them.

FCB: I'm bad at thinking up names too! Get the telephone directory and open it at random.

Q: I really want to be an author when I grow up but I’m not sure my writing is good enough yet. Should I wait until I’m better at writing to send in my story?

FS: Absolute NOT! Send in the story you have written. The only way you will get better at writing is by writing!

FCB: No, never wait! An author writes all the time.

Q: In most of my favourite books, the main characters are really brave but I actually get scared really easily. Is it lying to write a character that’s not like you at all?

FS: Quite the opposite, it's nice to have the chance to explore life through a character that it different from you. I was always very well-behaved at school, so it was nice to write about a character like Horrid Hnery who is much more anarchic than I am in real life. We read (and write) to explore characters and worlds who are very different from who we are.

FCB: Yes but it's alright to lie in a story.

Q: I really hate showing my stories to other people because I’m scared they won’t like them. How do I stop worrying about it?

FS: You don't have to show your stories to other people if you don't want to. Show your stories to people... but ultimately you have to be your own editor.

FCB: Send it in to 500 Words where you won't be able to hear us reading it!

Q: I am trying to write my story but I keep getting distracted by my siblings and the telly. How can I concentrate better?

FS: Go and work in your library!

FCB: Write a story about how you got revenge on your siblings for distracting you!

Q: I’ve written my story and am really happy with it! But I can’t think of a title… how do you think of a really attention grabbing title?

FS: I've often find my titles buried within my stories.

FCB: You don't need to grab our attention because if you send it it, it will be read - so don't worry about that!

Q: What's more important to get right? - setting, character or plot?

FS: I think an attention grabbing character is the most important.

FCB: The truth is probably character - just like in life, it doesn't matter where you are if you're with somebody interesting!

Q: My story is set in a magical world. I know I'm supposed to write about the 5 senses, but how can I when my world isn't real?

FS: But the world is real to you and we are exploring these worlds through your eyes! What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell!

FCB: You don't have to write about the five sense, you just have to write about what's interesting in your world.

Q: Sometime told me I shouldn't write about dreams. Is that right?

FS: Yes and no! Reading a story where the eneding turns out to be a dream is always disappointing, that doesn't mean that you can't use a dream within your story!

FCB: No! Write about whatever you want to write about. Has 'someone' never heard of William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's DREAM?

Q: How do I create pace in my story? Should I use lots of short sentences?

FS: Short sentences are good, but it's important to have a sense of rhythm. I always read my stories out loud, if you bore yourself then you need to look again!

FCB: Short sentences are good and the best advice of all is leave out the bits that other people skip!

Q: I want to write a crime story told from different points of view. Is that too cliched?

FS: Not at all that sounds like a really good idea, especially if the points of view don't tally. FCB: Absolutely not! That sounds amazing.

Q: I love telling stories to friends at sleepovers...but I normally speak them. Can I just write down what I would tell a friend?

FS: Sure! Yes that is certainly a very good starting point, then you need to re-read and polish it up and make sure it hangs together as a story.

FCB: Yes! Worked for Homer (not Simpson)!

Q: I want to write a story inspired by Tim Peake. I LOVE space. I think lots of other people will be writing about it too. Does that make it a bad idea?

FS: Not necessarily; it depends how you do it. It depends how your idea is executed. You also don't have to limit yourself to Tim Peake, you can write about your own astronaut in space and it can be inspired by Tim as opposed to based on him.

FCB: Not at all - the more space stories, the better!

Q: When my mum brings home the newspaper, I sometime dream up stories based around headlines. Is it ok to write about the news?

FCB: It's brilliant to write about the news.

"Q: I have written my whole story but I want to make it better. Do you have any tips on improving language?

FS: Don’t use passive verbs. Or too many adjectives. The sky can just be blue.

FCB: My best tip is always … read it out loud to someone you like. Then you’ll be able to see which sentences are clumsy and which ones sing. It’s only 500 words. Make every word count."

"Q: I mostly write poems in my own time. Will my entry still be a story if it’s in rhyme?

FCB: We’ve had entries in rhyme before. You can see if you look at the past winners that so far none of them has won. So far. But quite a few have made it to the last stages."

"Q: Is it ok for my reader still to have questions at the end of my story or do I need to resolve everything?

FS: Questions at the end are absolutely okay. But at least one thing should be resolved. A surprise at the end is always welcome.

FCB: It’s very much OK to have questions at the end of a story. Some of my favourite stories are ones that have left me wondering. Was that really ghost? Did that really happen? Is that amazing person ever going to come back?"

"Q: Do you keep a book of ideas that you refer to, or is it better to write a whole story at once as soon as you think of it and keep going until it’s finished?

FS: It depends. I keep an ideas notebook, and a notebook for every story I’m writing. Once I start a story I always finish it. So keep going. Write the end first if that helps."

Q: I’ve written a story that’s set in America but I’ve never been there. How can I describe it well?

FS: I've written stories about the land of the dead and I've never been there either. Looking at pictures of the place you're describing is really helpful. Also reading books by American writers can help. You could always make your character British visiting America, that might get you out of trouble.

FCB: Your imaginary America is probably just as good as the real one. Don't try too hard!

Q: I’m always writing story titles and one line story ideas but struggle to write the full story. Is there a good way of developing a simple idea into a full, exciting story?

FS: Why not try to combine 2 or 3 ideas that seem unrelated. That might jolt you into a full story. The other way is to ask yourself how your characters are different at the end from the beginning. And the middle bit is how that changed happened.

FCB: Yes! Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character or the best thing and how would they react.

Q: My story is an adventure story about a mountain climber, but I’ve got halfway through and have no idea what my character should do next! Help!

FS: When I get stuck I just ask myself lots of questions. I also try to think about what the ending might be and how the character might get to the ending if often your middle bit.

FCB: You've still got 24 hours. Go for a walk or bake a cake and I promise an idea will drop into your head like a mountain rescue helicopter (have you thought about unexpected volcanoes?).

Q: My story is about a family of monkeys. Do I have to have one main character?

FCB: It helps but your idea sounds so great.

Q: Does a character have to be just good, or can they seem good but do evil things? I want to keep my reader guessing!

FCB: It's a great thing to keep a reader guessing. J. K. Rowling kept us guessing about Snape for seven novels.

Q: I want to include a made-up text exchange in my story. Is that ok? Can I include text-speak in my story?

FCB: That's a wonderful idea! There're so many ways to tell a story.

Q: I feel like I've got a great beginning and I'm happy with the end too. The middle gets a bit lost. What can I do?

FS: The middle bit is always awful. The middle is the twist, how your character has changed and gets from the start to the ending, because a story is always about change, ask your self what is different from the beginning to the end, we have to end up some where different from the beginning and that's your middle.

FCB: Middles are always hardest. Read it really closely and see if there's any sentence that you can cut.

Q: I've written my story about a society of giraffes living on Mars. My sister laughed at the idea and I'm scared of submitting it. Should I send it in anyway?

FS: yes! Last time I looked your sister wasn't a judge! The important thing is to write your story, finish your story and send it in!

FCB: Absolutely!

Q: How late is too late to introduce a new character?

FCB: I think introducing a new character right at the end is probably cheating - unless you've led us to expect them!