The following was written for spexguy718, but this guide is for everyone.
Update, November 28: Now featuring a simplified Drafting section and advanced Presentation!
Update, January 20: Reworded some of the examples so they are more understandable.
There's four ways to go about writing stories: by instinct (learning to write by copying other stories), by feedback (learning to write through operant conditioning, which means you stop doing things based on negative feedback and you keep doing things based on positive feedback), by tactics (learning to write by holding people's attention by any means necessary, no matter how dirty or cliched), or by craft (learning to write by understanding what makes scenes, characters, and stuff work). Most (terrible) writers write by instinct, better writers write by feedback, hacks write by tactics, and the best writers write by craft.
I'm going to teach you craft.
First, here's a bare-bones version if the below guide is too advanced:
Character: An actor in the plot composed of surface traits (what they look like on the surface) and deep traits (how they work under pressure).
Theme: The point of the story and how conflict operates. There are multiple sides to each theme, often in the form of good, bad, neutral, and evil. Each Character illustrates the theme, and each scene caps at a turning point, illustrating one of the sides of the theme. However, when these themes go against eachother, like, "Crime doesn't pay because the heroes are smarter," and, "Crime does pay because the criminals are more ruthless and powerful," both sides will be locked in an even battle up until that turning point, to which one side will win.
Plot: The organization of scenes, building in size as it goes, starting at the inciting incident (the first scene's turning point) and tipping at the climax (the final and largest turning point). To really get the tension going, it's best to have one side of the theme win, then the other side tries harder and wins, and then the other side tries harder and wins, and this all builds until it can't go any higher at the climax.
And here's a writing process guide:
Brainstorm Treatment: A short summary (about a few paragraphs long) of what happens in the story without paying any attention to story structure or inconsistencies. In this draft, there's no such thing as failure: this is where anything and everything is possible, and you can worry about fixing that bad parts later. Sadly, most bad writers stop here, but good writers use this as a jumping-off point and a wishlist. You can fix plot holes and stuff in the next step...
Thematic Treatment: Building off of the Brainstorm Treatment, this is a short summary that narrows down the events to a pattern of behaviors illustrated by the characters. This is where you cut out the scenes (or "scenes" in big quotes since nothing really happens) that don't matter. Going a step further, you can limit even more scenes by applying a genre to the work: action stories only focus on action, romances only focus on relationships, horror focuses on survival, and so on (though you may mix genres to say more complex things).
Outline: The story divided by units of structural framework, which are how you organize turning points. The most basic unit is the scene: a single event of character action that illustrates a thematic value winning over another thematic value (a turning point), no matter how small or ridiculous. Scenes can be organized in any number of ways, with the most common organizational units being Plot Points and Sequences, which are a series of scenes leading up to a larger turning point. You can also organize these larger units with Acts, which are a series of sequences. To make things easier, start with the story as a whole, work your way down to writing the acts, then write the sequences, then the scenes.
Drafting: The process of writing the story proper. Beginner writers should start from an outline to organize their thoughts. Intermediate writers can start from a less-detailed outline since detailed outlines are of no help since they know what to do. Advanced writers can start from a treatment since they know story structure. Expert writers can start without a treatment since they're in control of their craft.
Those tools alone ought to put you greatly ahead of everyone else, but below I have some even more powerful storytelling components. To consolidate ALL of my storytelling concepts, I divided them all into five sections: Psychological Principles, the Objective Premise, the Subjective Premise, the Plot, and the Presentation.
Psychological Principles (as psychobabbly or philosophical as this sounds, it's what a lot of people miss):
-Stories illustrate truths about human experience, regardless of time, culture, or experience. ALL stories about about human behavior, no matter how muted or ridiculous, and told in a way that just about anyone can understand. There are tales of love, heroism, war, fear, and more dating back to the 5000 BCs: same people, same emotions, way different era.
-Because stories regard how *YOU* believe life works, to steal ideas from other stories means you have nothing to say, resulting in cliches: rather than writing how you believe romance works, you show two people declaring their love to eachother by a beach; rather than show a meaningful climax, you flood your climax with explosions and chases because "that's how climaxes work." Your job is to write original ideas. You may only use cliches if you are going to twist them into your own original ideas: how *YOU* think they'd work in the real world.
-Every person (in fact, every animal) wants to head towards pleasure and away from pain. HOWEVER, every person has their own model of how reality works, so each person has a different idea/methodology of how to achieve what they want, what's pleasurable, and what's painful. One underlying principal of conflict is that each character has a set view of the patterns of life and how it works (turn a door knob, the door opens), but if that pattern gets interrupted (turn a door knob, it's locked/the knob breaks), then the character is forced to figure out what to do next, revealing the inner workings of human behavior (the character picks the lock, asks for help, kicks the door down, or sulks off). On the surface, we'll meet many characters who seem good or bad, but it's those second/third/fourth/continuing actions that define who they really are.
-Every person has a different way of communicating, a different way of emphasizing things, and a different way of organizing thoughts. There are a dozen representational systems (for example, the Myer Briggs indicator, the Enneagram, NLP's submodalities or Primary Representational System, which you can look up) that can illustrate how this work, but people don't conform to just one: everyone at their core develops some kind of way to make sense of reality.
-The cycle of behavior runs like this: the more references we get towards a behavior or idea, the more we believe in it. To adopt a new trait, a character will need several positive references towards adopting the trait and several negative references for not adopting the trait. The same works in reverse for losing a trait. Basically, all character development is basically building neurons.
Objective Premise: What the story is about at its surface level. In Star Wars, it's "A farmboy joins a galactic rebellion to stop an evil Empire and save a princess."
-Character: The physical subject of a story and prime agent of action. Here, write the characterization traits: history, personality, ideas, the character as you'd see them at first glance.
-Setting: The story's location in time, duration of story, physical place, and inherent level of conflict.
-Events: The basic history, story events, and future events. Mind you, this is not the story, but basically a wish list of what you want to happen or can later be justified.
-Design: Will the story be told Archetypically, Minimalistically, or Antithetically? Archetypal stories are how stories are normally told, Minimalist stories just reduce the Archetypal stories, and Antiplot stories reverse the archetypes. For further details, I made this playlist: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=…
Application of the Objective Premise: With the Objective Premise, you can brainstorm your story ideas into a fuller, larger story. Here, just write the events in a brief treatment or synopsis. Don't worry about being ridiculous or too "out there": at this point, you're writing at a place of absolute certainty that this story will work. Right now, you're going to come up with the ideas and you'll figure out how to make them work later. Most writers stop here and just start writing, but these surface events are not a story: they're just a retelling of events, and unless they are justified, they are often with cliched content copying from other stories. The next step, the Subjective Premise, cleans it up.
Subjective Premise: What the story is REALLY about: the inner meaning of the story and where the fun of the story comes from. In Star Wars, "A meek, whiny boy must trust in himself to overcome a technology powerful empire: the classic battle of the human will vs. machine."
-Theme: Why things happen the way they do in the story; the common behaviors that lead the certain outcomes in the story. Theme takes multiple forms and many names, but the idea is the same: you have the main theme (e.g. "Crime doesn't pay because the heroes are smarter than the bad guys."), the counter theme (e.g. "Crime DOES pay because the criminals are stronger."), a neutral theme ("Neither side pays because they're selfish."), an evil theme ("Who cares about what's 'right' when you can make your own rules."), and any other variation you can think of. In Campbellian thematic structure, that's the Higher Self, Threshold Guardians, [no neutral archetype, but I could be wrong], and Shadow. For McKee thematic structure, that's the Controlling Idea, Counter Idea, Contrary Idea, and Double-Counter Idea. Remember your theme, because this becomes the building block for your scenes, because each scene will end on a turning point that results in one side of the theme winning.
-Deep Character: Character traits forced out through conflict. Conflict is just a fancy way of saying, "a character wants something, does the normal method based on their ideology, and it doesn't work, so what will the character do next?" This can be caused by internal conflict (the character's own thoughts/feelings working against them), interpersonal conflict (character a wants a, character b wants b, and a and b are mutually exclusive), or external conflict (character vs. society as a whole, nature, God, and so on). Beneath the character's personality and surface traits, what are these characters willing to do? If a character encounters a burning build, do they rush in and save people or walk by? And if they run in and save people, who would they save if they could only save one? And why not?
-Genre: Similar to theme, this limits the scenes down to a specific archetypal pattern. For example, comedies focus only on funny scenes (usually poking fun at a concept/institution or being witty about things we could only imagine), romances focus on relationships coming together or falling apart, horror focuses on people in serious danger or reaching survival, and so on.
-Symbolism: The internal or external meaning behind a story's location or arrangement of objects. Some symbolism is external (seasons, visual symbols, colors, and so on), but you can also make it self-contained (for example, the plant's health in "A Raisin In The Sun" that coincides with the family's well-being).
-Cast Dynamics: Using the character's characterization and deep character, arrange the cast and scenes in a way so each character brings out eachother's traits to further the theme and meaning. One way to tell you've got a well-designed cast is the wine test: if a character drops an EXTREMELY expensive bottle of wine at a fancy dinner party, how would they all react? If each character has a vastly different reaction, whether it's at the wine spilling or somebody else reacting (but it's preferably more people reacting to the spill than eachother), you've got a dynamic cast. If two or more characters have the exact same reaction, they can easily be combined without anyone noticing. If the entire cast reacts the same way, you have a flat cast or don't understand human nature very well.
Application of the Subjective Premise: Using the Subjective Premise, you can clean the Objective Premise of scenes that do not further the story's meaning. We all do boring things every day, like get dressed or check the mail, but none of this teaches us anything about life: rather, it's those moments where life *doesn't* react the way we want that we're most interested in, but never get the answers to except in stories. Rewrite the previous treatment so now we get to a concrete and easily-understandable reason *why* these people are behaving the way they are, revealing their deepest traits along the way. These big reveals of character and thematic reversals are where the meat of the story come from: where every scream, laugh, gasp, and sigh of relief comes from. Once you've done this, you will have cut out most, if not all, of the scenes that don't work or don't make any sense. However, you still have to organize it with the Plot.
Plot: The organization of events to illustrate the theme.
-Scene: A single event illustrating the theme, done with characters, negated through thematic conflict and amplified by cast dynamics, all within a specific setting to influence their behaviors, capped by a turning point where one side of the theme wins out. Turning points don't need to be big, but meaningful and appropriate to the story's inherent level of conflict (a quiet drama doesn't need a dramatic fight, but something quiet and moving; an action story shouldn't end on a peaceful talk, but frenetic action [whoda thunk?]). If your scene doesn't have a turning point, chances are it's only there for exposition and can be cut entirely without anyone noticing. (Hint: In a story with 45 scenes, there should be 45 turning points. If there are only 44, that one scene will stick out as a Big Lipped Alligator Moment: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php…)
-Design Framework: How you write/arrange/organize scenes. There are a dozen ways, but I'll make it easy and give you Robert McKee's (my favorite writing teacher) framework: beats are units of action/reaction that build scenes, with the final beat acting as the turning point; sequences are a series of scenes that build up to a larger turning point; acts are a series of sequences that build up to a HUGE turning point; the first turning point that throws the main character's or characters' life out of balance is the inciting incident; the final turning point and largest is the climax, acting as a turning point for the whole story; beats, scenes, sequences, and acts do not repeat behaviors, but constantly change, so if one scene has a positive turning point, it's best to then switch to a larger negative turning point, and finally an even larger positive turning point. This is the appeal of Three Act Structure: the First Act Break (the Act's turning point) is a major positive moment that propels the story into the middle, the Second Act Break is a huge negative moment (known in other frameworks as the "Dark Night Of The Soul"), and the Third Act accelerates into the Climax. You are not limited to three acts: one act is sufficient for shorter stories, and five acts is typical of Shakespeare. Note that even numbers of acts/sequences/scenes will end of the same thematic note it starts on, so unless the point of the story is to venture off and return to the same place, stick to odd numbers.
-Paradigm Structure: A larger organizing framework, often to shortcut the drafting process. As outlined above, Three Act is the most popular, but there's also the Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's structure), Blake Snyder's Save The Cat Beat Sheet, and Syd Field's Paradigm. For the sake of difficult/time, let's just stick to Three Act. Basically, you start by writing the largest elements (in this case, acts), then work your way down once you've solidified the story (write the sequences from the acts, write the scenes from the sequences, then, if you prefer, the beats from the scenes). If it helps, you can write upwards to repair acts/sequences/scenes, but never start with the scenes and then build up to sequences/acts unless you're absolutely in control of your writing craft. You may write by the seat of your pants if you're good at it, but it's quicker to outline from the top-down.
-Event Timeline: How the events unfold chronologically within the presentation of the story. Your story can be out of order, but you must then build by meaning instead of magnitude.
-Narrative Perspective: There are three ways to unfold information: through mystery (the characters know more than the audience), suspense (the characters/audience know the same information), and dramatic irony (the audience knows more than the characters). Mystery runs on the audience's curiosity, dramatic irony runs on the audience's sense of dread of the finality of events, and suspense runs on a little of both. Be warned that curiosity only works once: after repeat viewings, it switches to dramatic irony by default.
-Application of Plot: Now you're ready to take the events of your edited treatment/synopsis and organize it into something more structured for maximum impact. Divide the story into Acts (a one-act works, too: it's mainly to organize the story), then once you're satisfied with the way the act(s) play out, divide the act(s) into sequences, then repeat the same with the scenes. Once you've outlined enough to feel comfortable with, you're ready to start drafting: some can start with just the acts, others need to go all the way down to the beats.
A common way to outline is "The Snowflake Method": start by describing the story in a sentence. Then, divide that sentence into Acts, with the most common form being three acts: the First Act Break (i.e. its turning point) is a small victory that propels the hero into the Second Act, the Second Act Break is a major defeat that must be resolved in the Third Act, and the Third Act Break (the climax) resolves the entire story in one final victory (for tragedies, just reverse this concept: small setback, big victory, crushing defeat). Take note of the pattern: to keep the story from getting repetitive, as well as increase tension and keep the theme fair, there is an increasingly powerful swing between two thematic values. If there are too many scenes where the good/bad guys win/lose in a row, it feels contrived, preachy, and shallow. From these acts, divide them into sequences leading up to the Act Breaks. If you're doing a short work, simply have one act and three sequences. If you want a quick method of structuring sequences for a three-act work, try this on for size: four sequences for Act 1 (the first being the Inciting Incident), seven for Act 2, and three for Act 3. Again, if you're doing a shorter work, exchange Acts for Sequences and Sequences for Scenes: Sequence 1 has four scenes, Sequence 2 has seven, and Sequence 3 has three. Then, with your sequences, divide them all into scenes: usually one big scene, three normal scenes, five fast scenes, or (if you're doing a montage) seven lightning-quick vignettes. Notice how these are all on odd numbers: that's because even-numbered acts/sequences/scenes often end on the same place they start: if scene one starts out at the Main Theme and ends on the Counter-Theme, then scene two (to avoid repetition) would switch back to the Main Theme. It could happen two more times, four more times, or even sixteen to forty more times, but in the end, if you start with a theme like, "Money can't buy you happiness because it's only a means to an end: only your intentions and love of others can do that," and end with the same message, the journey through the story feels like in never went anywhere. This can be remedied by going deeply into the opposite theme, "Money *CAN* buy happiness because you can buy things to help you learn to make yourself happy," before going back, but the structure has a static feel that should only be done if you're doing it on purpose.
Finally, here are some topics on Presentation.
Presentation: Actually telling the story proper.
Medium: How you convey the story. Each medium has its own strengths and weakness: static works (like prose or comics) require less attention than temporal works (music, voice, or moving images), and static works are better at conveying thoughts and feelings than temporal works; visual works (comics, movies, animations) are better at capturing external conflict, vocal works (plays and radioplays) are better at capturing interpersonal conflict, and prose works are best at capturing internal conflict; it is easier to hide information in prose works than radioplays, which can hide more than plays, which can hide more than movies/animation; prose works only require one writer, while more complex projects require more and more people.
Marketing: How you portray the work itself outside of the telling. I don't mean this in the commercial "gotta make money off this project" sense, but to let people who would like the see the story see it and who would like to avoid the story avoid it.
Reaction/Feedback: How the audience takes in the story itself. The story you write and how you envision it will be different from how other people envision due to the previously stated psychological principle that everyone has their own view of the world and how it works. Do not be surprised if they either miss information or add more onto what is there, like the classic story about Flannery O'Connor after writing, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find": an interviewer asked her about the symbolic significance of The Maniac's hat, and she replied, "It was to cover his head." In my own "Diamond In The Rough," people misinterpret the seven skeletons at the bottom of the Sanzu River to be Brolli's previous incarnations, and while I appreciate the coincidence, those are just random other Stus she tossed in (and yes, since they were already dead when they were tossed in, they are sentient, but so withered away that they cannot move). Speaking of which...
Word Of God: Authorial statements about your work. While you shouldn't depend on these to explain your work, these are fun trivia facts/clarifications you give to viewers: it's a chance to say, "Here's what I wanted to do," and give everyone a deeper understanding of how both the story works, how the author works, and how writing works. I personally love these, and so do authors from Flannery O'Connor to Joss Whedon to Ken Akumatsu. Of course, there are also writers like Hidaeki Anno and David Lynch who basically say, "I don't know. The story just wills itself, and I am the conduit." And I say SCREW THAT: you should have some sobriety about what you're doing for maximum control of your writing abilities. You can tease the audience, but never just say, "I don't know." Even if you didn't know while writing, at least come up with an interpretation: it'll give you the chance to at least say something funny or thought-provoking.
Hope this helps/good luck in all of your writing ventures,