Legit Author Bullsh*t Step Four
What makes a story interesting? A character you can connect with? A quest that keeps you on the edge of your seat? An expert use of syntax and attitude? Yes. All of that.
A great story isn’t just one thing, but all the elements of a story intertwining to create a gripping narrative around an immersive world and fantastic characters. So, let’s break down each of those elements, what makes each one effective, and how to weave them together.
Every story needs characters. Some have only a single character, others a whole host of them. The number of characters is not important, though too many can become overwhelming for both the writer and the reader. The most important thing is that your characters, and especially your Main Character, is relatable. What does that mean? That something about the character - their backstory, personality, or situation - appeals to you on a deep level. This doesn’t mean you have to like the character, or even have had similar experiences. Just that you can understand (meaning, empathize with) them.
As a writer, this means you need to understand the emotions which tug at the heartstrings of a broad audience, and use that to build your character and their goals. Harry Potter appealed to the sympathy of readers who had ever been bullied, dealt with unfriendly relatives, faced a massive life change, or felt out of their depth. However, rather than just wallow in those feelings and feed into the misery, Harry had a goal of rising above those feelings, of achieving success, normalcy, and happiness. Emerging from an unhappy situation to come out better on the other side is a fantasy everyone longs for. In Hunger Games, Katniss appealed to those who have faced the loss of a loved one, a dysfunctional parent, chafed at unfair rules or restrictions, or railed against injustice. They could face all these and prevail through the eyes of Katniss. Your character should similarly appeal to your audience, invite them to travel along as they battle and overcome challenges.
On to the second part. What is the story about? You have a character, sure, but what are they doing? To be a story, your character has to have a goal and a conflict - something they want and something that gets in their way. For Harry, he wanted to live happily with his friends in his new community and Voldemort got in his way. Katniss wanted to win the Games to protect her own life and so her community could have the prize, but her opponents sought the same. The conflict could be external (a villain or tournament) or internal (self-doubt, fear, inexperience). It can be another character or the environment itself. Anything which prevents or hinders your character from achieving their goal (including themselves!) is a conflict.
To figure out what your story is, first decide on the goal. What does your character want? Maybe it’s to cook dinner. But that doesn’t sound very exciting. We need a conflict now, something that will make a task as simple as cooking dinner challenging. Perhaps they have to cook a meal for 50 in a hot air balloon over a volcano with one arm tied behind their back. Now, there’s some tension! Readers will be dying to know how (or even if) your character succeeds! That is an extreme scenario, but the point remains the same.
The conflicts the character has to overcome provide the tension and hook for the story. The challenges should be hard enough to make your character struggle, but not so hard as to suspend disbelief and make the reader give up. The push and pull of the goal-conflict also aids in pacing and builds into character arcs and developments.
And finally, the writing itself. Every author has their own style, their own way of using language to share their vision of the story. Every word should forward the story or serve it in some way - to paint a picture, get across a concept, add another dimension to a character. It should fit the tone and intention of the work. A gothic novel should bring images of darkened moors with every word, a horror preying on deep psychological fears. A thriller without intensity fails to fulfill it’s one task - to thrill.
The writing should also be easy to follow. This doesn’t mean to use “dumbed down”, simplified language. There’s nothing wrong with using so-called “vocabulary words”. But, you should be mindful not to make it so heavy with uncommon words your reader spends more of their time with a dictionary than your novel, nor written in such a specified, artistic way that the reader can’t follow along and gives up in confusion. Understanding how to use language, syntax, and grammar will help you avoid too-clunky sentences or disjointed meandering.
Much of writing changes over time. This change occurs not only as our language evolves, but also as trends shift. During Shakespeare’s time, colorful turns of phrase and poetic cant were common and preferred. Now, a stripped down - just the necessities - approach is often taken to the written word. This greatly changes the way dialogue and description are currently approached in today’s novels.
This does not mean everyone must write in clipped sentences. It is a style choice and while it may currently be preferred by agents - much as bell bottoms and platform shoes were once preferred - it is not the only nor necessarily the “correct” way to write. Style, voice, and genre will all influence the way your characters speak, as well as the amount of description you choose to use.
Historical and medieval fantasy fiction generally are more descriptive and use flowery, more formal dialogue. Their objective is to fully immerse the reader in another time or world, and vividly painting a picture of that place is the best way to do so. Character dialogue also flavors the story, gives it dimension, attitude, a feeling of “other”.
Horror tends to focus more on emotional description than scenery or dialogue. You want your audience to fear, to be excited, to feel like they are the one being stalked. A hyper-focus on the emotional state of the character as well as a foreboding descriptive narrative pulls the reader in.
Contemporary and Romance focus more on dialogue, as those genres primarily revolve around personal relationships. Descriptions are kept to a minimum, dialogue is punchy, functional, and keeps the conversation going. The reader isn’t going for a ride, they’re meeting new people.
Of course, there is nothing to stop an author from penning a contemporary novel full of purple prose, nor a medieval fantasy populated by succinct speakers on a thin background. These can be done, and done well. Genres have “norms"; they do not have rules.
Whatever style you use, I encourage you to use words which serve a purpose in your story, whether to get the point across quickly or to paint a pretty picture. The point is to entertain the reader, to keep them looking for the next word. The last thing you want is to wander away from the plot and lose sight of the story.
Now that you know the most important aspects of a story, how do you actually get a story started? With the idea.
Here are 5 questions to help you brainstorm a story idea:
Where is the character at the start of my story?
What happens to change it?
How does the character try to solve it?
How does it get worse?
How does it get solved?