My granddaughter and I were discussing stories the other day. We thought we might write one together.
“But, you know,” I said, trying to reduce the concept of structure to the simplest form possible, “we need something interesting to happen. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end.”
“Oh, yeah, I know all about that,” she told me. Not the first time I’d been outdistanced by a seven-year- old. “You mean like ‘first, next, then and finally. But before that, you need characters, setting, problem and solution. THEN you do first, next, then and finally. That’s how you tell a story.
Yup! Pretty much!
No matter if you are writing a novel, a memoir, a speech, a presentation or a sales pitch—or even selling yourself—the way you assemble and reveal the elements of your story is critical to the effect you want to create, the theme or moral you want to emerge, or the point you want to drive home. We humans are hardwired to learn, understand and communicate best through stories.
My last post, How to Say it Better in 2016–Literally! covered tips for SAYING it Better. Next up? Six questions to ask yourself to ensure you TELL it better:
- Have I started in the right place?
It’s critical to engage your audience by starting with a hook to snag their interest. Your narrative ideally should begin “in medias res”—in the middle of things. There’s your protagonist, wanting, needing or doing something that either causes or reacts to the inciting incident….the occurrence or action that gets the story rolling.
Many storytellers make the mistake of spewing out several pages of background before giving their audience some kernel that helps them empathize or be otherwise fascinated with the protagonist. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, spoiled-for-choice digital world, we don’t have the luxury of our earliest spinners of tales to introduce our protagonists at birth and minutely narrate their journey to adulthood before that inciting incident happens that’s going to launch our story . Get to it! Drop us into the middle of the action and give us relevant background only as it affects the forward momentum of the story! (check out How will you explain it? below)
2.What’s the motivation?
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”– Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” — Ray Bradbury
Characters don’t act in a vacuum. They do things for a reason. (Well, maybe the wrong reason, but still….) Everyone wants something, or desperately needs something, and it’s best if it’s something they don’t yet have. Make sure your reader understands your character’s goal, what is inciting him or her to embark on something risky, to change course, or to get up off their butts and do something foolhardy or dangerous….or completely “out of character.”
3.What’s at stake?
The higher the stakes, the more invested the reader (or listener) becomes in the character’s goal. And if the clock is ticking, so much the better. The stock market doesn’t have to destroy the economy, a bomb doesn’t have to explode, but is a child’s life on the line? Can a convicted criminal clear her name? Can a gentleman reunite with the love of his life before his terminal illness snatches him away? Make us care!
And make sure the stakes are high enough to merit those foolhardy, dangerous or out-of-character actions I mentioned above! My personal pet peeve? Heroines who deliberately but inexplicably put themselves in harm’s way when they could have (a) not walked into a dark alley alone at midnight, (b) said something unnecessarily inflammatory to a weapon-toting terrorist, (c) called for backup instead of confronting twenty angry bikers all by her lonesome.)
4.How will the plot thicken?
As writing instructor Steven James puts it, “At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation. The plot must always thicken; it must never thin… .
If you remember to continually try to make things worse for the protagonist, and avoid that dreaded sagging middle of the story when nothing much is happening, you will make your story that much more engaging. Because we humans tend to think in patterns and process information to arrive at logical conclusions, plot twists are ideal for keeping your listener or reader engaged. Think about deliberately breaking a logical pattern by incorporating a development that is paradoxical or unexpected.
5.How will you explain it?
But hold on there! Just because you’ve created a deliberately shocking turn of events doesn’t mean it will work without a reasonable cause. Your story still needs to be constructed in such a way that each element in it is caused by an action or event that preceded it. Skilled storytellers are adept at layering in foreshadowing so that, though the listener is surprised, they realize in retrospect that the author has been giving them subtle clues to this turn of events all along. In stories that succeed in maintaining your interest page by page and chapter by chapter–or in a speech, minute by minute– discoveries and realizations happen AFTER the actions rather than before them. To continually move the story forward, always try to build on what has already been said and done.
6.Are you sure that scene, that paragraph, that word… is absolutely necessary?
“I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~–Elmore Leonard
“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Both these quotes illustrate the importance of giving yourself the opportunity to take off your writer’s hat and don an analyst’s. Look critically at every line you’ve written and ask yourself if it has a function in your story. Is it advancing the plot? Is it describing a character? Be on the lookout for “information dumps” or long descriptive paragraphs that don’t contribute to revealing new information.
And then, accept that at some point, even if you really want to go over it just one more time, you are going to have to let go of your fledgling and allow your story to fly into the world.
Are you a spinner of tales? What works best to captivate your audience? Which storytellers do you admire most, and why?