I’m fully immersed in writing at the moment – with two projects on the go. I’m also reading a lot and thinking a bit about stories – why some work and others don’t.
I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes a good story, isn’t beautiful prose. It isn’t seamless sentence construction. It isn’t a passage of breathtaking description that makes you go “ahhh” when you reach the end.
Sure, all of the above make a story more pleasurable to read.
Instead, what sorts an average story from a really good one is an exciting – can’t stop turning the page because I have to know what happens next – story.
It might do – but looking back at my mindset when I started taking my writing seriously, it wasn’t something I really considered. In English classes at school, ‘creative writing’ consisted of writing descriptive passages about a member of my family, or a beautiful view. When I studied English Literature at university, very few of my lecturers (with a couple notable exceptions), talked about the strength of Shakespeare’s storytelling. Instead, we focused on symbolism and the deeper (and usually not immediately obvious) meaning beneath the action.
This is fine if you just want to study fiction rather than write it – but it sends out the wrong message to writers. We think that crafting a novel is a matter of writing beautifully, yet it’s about so much more.
Whatever novel you’re writing, it’s the story that matters most.
Call it plot, call it action – the story is what moves the novel forward. Think of your favorite novels, your favorite movies. I’d guess they all have powerful stories; they make you laugh, cry, get angry, or hold a pillow to your face in fear!
But don’t the characters matter?
Of course – but great characters don’t exist in isolation. They become great through being put through their paces, through living a story that tests them on every level.
Here are five of my top tips for making your story a strong one:
- Add conflict: this is what creates a sense of purpose and urgency in a story. Layer conflicts – they need to be both external (i.e. assassins hunting your protagonist) and internal (i.e. a paralyzing fear of conflict). Each chapter needs to have some form of conflict, where your characters push against inner and outer forces.
- Make things bad . . . and then make things worse: this just follows on from conflict. Readers don’t want stories about people who have easy, perfect lives where nothing happens and everyone’s happy. They want to see your characters get into strife (it’s not their life after all). They want to see things get diabolically bad for your heroes . . . and then they want to see them figure out how to put things right.
- Make the story a journey: it doesn’t have to be a physical one but we need to feel as if we’ve been through the wringer with the characters by the end. The world needs to look different by the time you reach the last page. We need to feel something massive has been gained or lost by the end.
- Give your characters room to grow: your main characters need to change. Give them a ‘flaw’ at the beginning, a ‘false identity’ that they’re living that’s not really who they truly are. See them fight against it as the story progresses and watch them take tiny steps forward and then big leaps back. Let the readers know that if your hero doesn’t change, he’ll never get what he wants. Cheer at the end when your protagonists face their deepest fears and become who they were meant to be – even if it means their own doom.
- Give your characters goals: I’ve put this last, although it’s probably one of the most important on the list. A hero who wants nothing, needs nothing and is working toward nothing is boring. He has to want something and there has to be someone or something that thwarts him. Just like each chapter needs a conflict, it also needs a goal. A story won’t have just one goal – there will be many – and this is what creates an exciting pace. Your hero might be out to save the world, but there will be many mini-goals on the way to him getting there. He’ll need to cross the enchanted forest, convince the reclusive wizard to join his quest, learn how to use a sword, save his travelling companions from goblins, and then wrestle with the troll gatekeeper before he gets to the big goal of killing the dragon at the end!
So next time you start agonizing over whether your prose is purple enough – stop yourself. Lovely writing won’t make readers love your novel. Focus instead on building a story that has them on the edge of their seats.
Want to know more?
Here are three of my favorite experts when it comes to storytelling. Their websites are mines of information and resources – I recommend you dive in!