Build a Story, but Leave the Door Open
People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to others.
Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don’t know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that’s what draws our attention.
When writing a story it is just the same, although often it may not feel like it.
Your Book In One Sentence
I’m taking a break for the summer, but in the meantime I’ll be reposting some of my old articles you might have missed. Here’s one from last April.
When someone asks you what your book is about, it can be a very difficult thing to sum up in a line or two.
Even after you’ve finished it, capturing the essence in a way that does it justice can be more frustrating than writing it in the first place. I usually end up rambling like I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Not only would it be very handy in social situations, but also professionally. A clear concise way to tell people about the book in a way that lets them know what it’s about, but also hooks their interest in some way.
So how do you do that?
Making Characters Face Their Demons
In real life people have many different problems to deal with. In fiction, characters tend to have the one problem. They struggle to deal with it but it’s always there, affecting them and the story you’ve put them in.
This is necessary for fiction, otherwise things would be too vague and woolly. We need the cop to be an alcoholic, the kid to be scared of going to school, the woman to be obsessed with getting married, and so on. It doesn’t really matter if their issue is one we’ve seen before (like the ones I’ve just mentioned), because it isn’t the actual problem that people are interested in, it’s how it’s dealt with.
Which means you have to show it being dealt with.
Life, Plot, Story
A story is more than stuff that happens to a person. And yet, if a friend were to tell you something that happened to them at work or at school or wherever, you wouldn’t be uninterested.
In fact, if it was something amusing or surprising or touching in some way, it might even be quite compelling. This incident might involve coincidence, luck, randomness and have no real conclusion, but that won’t necessarily stop you hanging on every word.
However, put that same story down in print, and it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Now it’s contrived and pointless and banal.
Why? What makes fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel—different from real life? And how can we use this difference to help create more engaging and entertaining stories?
Tricking The Reader By Choice
No story is full of high drama all the time. Sometimes you’re setting things up or dealing with the aftermath of some event, and the characters are on their own or in a non-volatile situation.
Introducing a problem or a struggle at this point, even a small one, often helps to keep the narrative interesting, but there are times when you don’t want your character to be fighting battles or solving puzzles.
So how do you turn a mundane moment into something more gripping without resorting to enemies to battle or mountains to climb?
The Power of Story Compels You
A story with high stakes and deadly dangers can still bore you to tears. Equally, a character folding laundry while contemplating life’s absurdities can be deeply moving and affecting.
While there’s probably more to work with if your story is about an exploding volcano than creased shirts and an ironing board, the fact that neither subject-matter guarantees how the story will be received demonstrates that whatever it is that draws readers into a tale, it isn’t just a matter of sticking a character in a perilous situation and seeing how they cope.
So what is it that grabs a reader and keeps them engaged through many hundreds of pages?
The Emotion of Changing Your Mind
Throughout a story there will be moments where the central character will do things that are interesting, exciting, scary or whatever. These kinds of scenes where key events occur are what you build towards, and their aftermath will provide the momentum/motivation to keep the reader turning pages to get to the next one, and the one after that.
But even though the chase, the rescue, the attack on the enemy base, will be an entertaining set-piece, there is another, equally important, part of this moment: the decision to do it.
Every big scene will be preceded by the character having to choose to engage with whatever scenario they’re faced with. This choice is incredibly important, both to the character and to the reader.
The Escalation of Complications
The worst thing a story can be is boring. A dull tale, whatever the genre, whatever the length, will be a hard sell no matter how well written.
The most common advice for making a story more interesting is to increase the conflict.
More problems, sharper tension, higher stakes. The harder you make life for you main character, the greater the interest in how they’re going to reach their goal.
This isn’t particularly revolutionary information. Both as readers and as people we know that the most interesting stories are the ones where people face the greatest adversities, so it stands to reason that the tougher you make things the better.
However, while it’s pretty clear more conflict is a good idea, it isn’t always obvious how you go about this. If you just throw everything you can think of at the protagonist it can feel unrealistic and melodramatic. Random events overwhelming a character can also overwhelm the story and shift the tone in a direction you might not have intended. So how do you make life worse for your protagonist in an organic manner?
What Motivates The Bad Guy?
Some characters are just born bad. Serial killers, werewolves, bankers—evil is in their blood and they are driven by a compulsion to do terrible things.
But not all antagonists are out and out villains. Just because your mother stops you doing anything fun, interferes in everything you do and guilt trips you into giving up your exciting plans to go curtain shopping with her, does that mean she’s a psycho who can’t be stopped? Hmm, okay, bad example.
My point is while there are some types of characters whose motivations don’t need to be explained because they are basically insane and can’t help themselves, most of the time the person acting against your hero needs their own reasons for pursuing their goal in such determined fashion.
In writing a story you want to limit the number of characters you use. Instead of your main character having one friend to commiserate with over a drink and another friend drive him to the airport, they might as well be the same person.
Sometimes it can be obvious which jobs should go to which characters, but other times it can take a while to realise you can meld two into one. As well as making things more manageable, there are a number of useful consequences of doing this.
Fewer characters are easier to remember and makes the story easier to follow. Giving a character more than one thing to do gives them depth and complexity and generally makes them more interesting. And having familiar characters turn up in different parts of a story is something readers like.
However, simply conflating a bunch of characters into one person can come across as contrived.