(~7 Minute Read)
We want our story to be gripping. We want it to stay in our reader's minds. We want to entertain, we want to challenge, we want to fire our reader's passion so that they'll read our next story.
But writing away doesn't necessarily result in a story people want to read. Sometimes it does, but more often I'm left with a lot of words that lack... something. It's the 'something' I want to talk about now.
I don't know if you will agree with me at the end of this post, but the following is condensed from 'Writing the Heart of your Story' (C.S. Larkin, Ubiquitous Press 2014), 'The Emotional Craft of Fiction (Donald Maas, Writers' Digest Books 2016), 'Save the Cat' (Blake Snyder, Publishers Group UK, 2005), and 'Outlining your Novel' (K.M. Weiland, PenForASword 2011), in no particular order. It's a lot to take in, and all of the bullet points deserve a dedicated article, so... stay tuned for refinements in later ones.
The first questions every new writer inevitably ask themselves when they embark on a brand new, sparkling story are...
Sadly, most inexperinced writers stop here, and then cynics (or publishers, or agents) will ask one or more of the following: Why should I care; So what; and/or Why does it matter? Let's examine them for a moment.
- What is the plot? (What's it about?)
- Who do I want as viewpoint character? (Who's it about?)
- If you have to field the question 'Why should I care', it means you failed to make the protagonist multi-dimensional. Give your protagonist faults but don't stop there. Every character has backstory, a childhood or grown-up experiences that hurt him or her and which created a need that this person has. As opposed to a 'want' that is more superficial, like pursuing an exalted career (want) for the security it brings (need).
- 'So what' really asks if the struggles your protagonist faces are not only personal but general to your story world (does something happen to change your story world? Is something different after the events of your story?), or the opposite, if the plot is not only about some nebulous goal like saving the world but means something deeply personal to the protagonist as well (Is there a lesson that your protagonist learns as he goes through your plot? Does it make him a different human being?) Both, general and personal change should take place.
Let's examine a storyline in detail: How a horde of cavemen defeated the wholly mammoth instructs as well as makes for a gripping evening around the campfire. The listeners get entertained and learned something new. Right here, you have two things a story needs:
- And 'Why does it matter' means 'Is there a more general lesson, something that will enhance the reader's life afterwards?'. Is there a moral? What question does the story ask? What feeling should the reader have at the end? If you the writer show me a bit of life I've missed, an experience that I haven't had, a lesson that will resonate with me after I've read through to 'The End', then I'll remember your story when others fade.
- Tension, which is not dependent on change, but when change happens you always have tension. And when you have tension in your story (and you've made your protagonist relatable), the reader will care about your story;
What more do you need? What about theme?
- Something that the reader takes away from it, entertainment or new information. The Premise.
Theme is the underlying truth in your story; and truth comes from the Author’s Stakes: What do you want to write about? What does matter so much to you that you'll spend rather a lot of hours with this story? A reader can tell if the author writes passionately. These stories carry more weight than others. Now, you needn't write a memoir or make your protagonist a template of yourself, but it does mean that in your story there should be a grain of truth, however it is shaped.
And before we go on to examine Characters and Plot in detail, let's spend a moment on SETTING. Consider
Your world must come alive for you, the protagonist, and only then will it come alive for the reader as well. It takes the reader somewhere else, gives him the feeling to be in another place. A story alive with details will be remembered. A surgeon's office and a glass of whiskey will do. Or a framed certificate that gathers dust behind the wedding photograph.
- What would we love about this world?
- What is it like; and what is it Not Like?
A story rips you from your home and shows you a different life. Make the setting complex so I can imagine myself there and yes, detailed, because details are what define a story. Describe it to me so when I close my eyes, I can see this room/garden/landscape as real. For more on details, read the article on 'Details in Writing'.
See it? Good. Then we can go on to CHARACTERS:
The big question here is 'who carries the story'? I'll write an article about characters as well. Later.
Who is this person? I'm not asking for stuff like you might find in a character questionary (colour of hair and eyes, likes/dislikes, and friendships), but more character-defining questions:
A three-dimensional character has all or most of the above, and it gives you the opportunity to make the plot a personal challenge to them.
- Opinions, attitudes, frustrations, and values
- Principles (strong conscious values that are not to be compromised)
- Core beliefs (what is the truth the protagonists believes without examination, often something unconscious, ties in with his past and background)
- Greatest fear (what makes your protagonist vulnerable, defined by past and background)
- Self-Lie (what he doesn't accept about himself)
- Facade and Self-image (the image he's presenting to the world)
Your characters all want something, fight for something. And what your protagonist unconsciously fights for is the Spiritual Dramatic Goal. The protagonist can have any number of personal stakes, but what he yearns for but can't admit carries the story.
However, your protagonist doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are secondary characters who may help or hinder him. What would a secondary character’s life look like without the protagonist? Consider how each of them stands to the protagonist. What do they like, what do they hate about each other? Even the best friendship is fraught with misunderstandings and small conflicts.
And even beside other people, your protagonist has had a life growing up before your story, and he has memories that are associated with a certain stone that fits neatly in the palm of his hand, or the smell of freshly baked bread. Include these small details in your story and it'll be the better for it, because they matter to your protagonist. Don't let him go through the world as a bystander.
Your world changes the protagonist, and great people shouldn't leave the world unchanged. We're writing about great people aren't we? Of course we are. Whether your protagonist lives a quiet life in the suburbs or is the manager of an international company, everyone has a story to tell. Even the smallest and most insignificant of your characters can enrich the lives of your readers.
The last thing I want to talk about is PLOT. I'll stay away from structure (three-act or whatever because that's a big topic and beyond the scope of this article), but just some thoughts here:
Plot is what happens when the protagonist goes through the story and leaves mayhem in his wake. Or when the story happens to the protagonist and again mayhem results (but your protagonist should get perceived as active, not passive). Be careful with chances because when they happen too often, it takes away from the reality of the story. How often in real life do you get a lucky break? Exactly. Everything in your story should be linked by either deed or thought in action and reaction. Check out the related article on 'Paragraphs and Pacing'.
It's not all one plot either: You can employ ever smaller subplots that trigger the breakdown. With every obstacle your protagonist encounters, his temper will rise, like a boiling kettle. The trigger for the breakdown at the climax can be something as insignificant as a leaking faucet. Bonus points if that's a symbol of your protagonists unconscious self-lie. Imagine a cascade: Not only a big stone tumbling down the mountainside is a problem, but the smaller ones accompanying it grow into a landslide until they level a village.
And finally, what is the plot goal, the Major Dramatic Question? What are the Public Stakes? What happens when the protagonist fails to the world at large? Is there a consequence that everyone has to live with afterwards? Ideally, the public stakes link to and enhance the spiritual dramatic question.
Your protagonists comes out of your story with an altered worldview. At The End, show me who this person now is and contrast it to the beginning. This is called framing. It links the arc from beginning to end. Check out the article on 'The First Chapter' while you're about it.
And I leave you with a last question: Are you ready for your story to end? For the purposes of this article, I'm not talking about sequels, but about a closed story arc. If you aren't ready for your story to end, chances are your reader won't be as well. There's something you missed, either in the story itself or the conclusion is not complete. And if it is, in the last scene, get the reader to envision the future, because even if your story ended, your reader wants to feel the end as well. He wants to know that he knows all.
This article consists of questions, and it's your job to answer them in your own unique way. On you go, and conquer your world.