I’ve previously talked about the elements a story needs to have. I could say a lot about this – in fact I do a three-hour lecture on it at City Uni, where I teach in London. It’s the first lecture the students have, and I think this is good, because when most people start writing, they have some of the elements a book needs- characters they love, nice writing (because most people writing novels seem to come to it from a love of the words rather than story), an important setting or theme they want to talk about – but fewer have an amazing story.
How do you get this?
You need a person – a dynamic character we can root for. How to create this is a whole topic in itself, but I would say that you may as well give the character as many internal conflicts as possible to start with, especially if you’re writing a series. Don’t limit your story possibilities. And make sure they take action rather than be passively engulfed by the story. They should make the story, really.
You need a goal or problem – they want something. They’re threatened with something. They must act in some way to achieve or escape this thing. I think that last point is really important so let me repeat: they must act. Low stakes, or the ‘so what’ factor, are a major weakness of most debut novels.
You need ongoing conflict and obstacles – otherwise your problem is solved in chapter three and you’ve got a very short book on your hands. Keep raising the stakes. The key is that characters must react to the plot and make choices as events occur. They must drive it rather than be swept along. I’ve highlighted those, as again passive characters can be a major issue for debuts (and not just debuts!)
Then you need a resolution – in other words, things must be different at the end of the story than they are at the start. Otherwise, arguably, there is no story. I’m not talking about having to wrap up all the loose ends – that’s a separate issue and is very tied in with genre – I’m just saying something must have changed. That’s another key question you should be able to answer about your novel. What will have changed by the end? Change be internal or external or both, but it must be there.
There’s some great information on this system in this post which I urge you to read. It’s possible to have an amazing instinct for story and not be so hot on prose, and it’s possible to write lovely prose in which nothing much happens. I think marry them up and you’ve got a winner. I also think we all have an instinctive understanding of how stories work, because, as Ursula Le Guin said, ‘The story is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.’ Sometimes you just need to tap into this, and forget everything you learned in school about writing clear, logical, dull prose.
I’m off to Edinburgh today but will be back soon to talk more about creating stories, and the difference between story and plot. I’ll be there to scoop up inspiration from the Fringe (and steal some jokes to put in my new rom com). If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to answer on this blog, just let me know here or on Twitter.