Guest blog: “What if…?” The secret of writing a story

March 27, 2018

Kjartan Poskitt is the author of the Murderous Maths series, and has also written about space, puzzles, codes, magic, biographies, five historical musicals and several funny novels including his “Agatha Parrot” series. Kjartan shares his secret to writing a story in his guest blog post…

Kjartan Poskitt on writing


“All the authors I know have completely different ways of writing stories, but I’ve always thought it depends on three vital things.

The first vital thing is the very shortest bit, the bit that everybody reads first. If you get it right, then they won’t be able to resist reading more! Of course, I’m talking about the title.

About 20 years ago, a very nice lady called Helen phoned me up and asked if I’d like to write one book called ‘Murderous Maths’. Goodness me! With just two words, Helen had set me off on what turned out to be one of the biggest and most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. Even now I’m still coming up with new maths ideas, updating the website and answering emails from all over the world. So if you’re thinking of writing something, that’s my first tip. Get a good punchy title!

The second vital thing is that you must always tell a story. Even maths has stories because you start with a puzzle, you solve it and there’s a happy ending! So how do you put a story together?

Obviously you have to start with a general idea, such as a boy opening an unexpected parcel and finding a framed photo of himself inside, but taken 50 years ago. (Ooh, that’s good! I just thought of that. Don’t you pinch it.) The way to move forward is to keep asking yourself “What if…?”.

With this story, what if there’s a peculiar building in the back of the photo? Then the boy goes to find it, and it’s all been boarded up for years… But then what if he hears somebody moving around inside? Or what if it’s been snowing* and then when he turns round, what if he sees he hasn’t left any foot prints? Spooky stuff!

(*If you want to know where I get these crazy ideas from, today when I’m writing this, it’s snowing!)

And so, you keep saying “what if…?” to yourself until hopefully, a story starts telling itself in your head, with a catchy start, interesting middle and, best of all, a surprise ending.

The third thing is that you need a few strong characters. One of the best ever examples of this is Walt Disney’s seven dwarves. They each had a name to describe them (Happy, Sleepy, Bashful etc.) and immediately we knew what they were like. Although you’ll probably want to give people normal names, it really helps to have a different one-word description for each one in the back of your mind such as cheeky, loud, sneaky and so on. That way, they’ll come to life when you write about them.

Hopefully these three things will help you find writing is fun, but for the best results, there’s one more important thing you need to do – cross some of it out!

Nearly everybody writes too much at first, so even though you might feel like you’ve wasted some time, you have to see what you can get rid of. The best way of doing this is to read your story out loud to a friend. As soon as you find yourself ‘skipping to the next good bit’, then you know you’ve got some crossing out to do!  And just in case you’re wondering, when I first wrote this it was three times longer than what you’ve just read. I bet you’re glad I crossed most of it out, aren’t you?

Have fun and good luck!”

If Kjartan’s advice has inspired your young writer to put pen to paper and ask ‘What if…?’ then check out our free writing competition – their story could be picked as the winner by David Walliams!


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