As a storyteller, it’s important to understand the core elements of what makes a story great. Whether you’re working on a novel, short story, or screenplay, it’s critical to know the ingredients that make up a good story. With the basics in place, you can then decide which ingredients you want to include in your own work, and which ones you’d like to leave out. Here are key components that will help you build a great story.
- 1 Understand the genre’s tropes and expectations
- 2 Create a message
- 3 Compelling characters create a rich emotional world
- 4 Develop a voice for each character
- 5 Add layers to your relationships
- 6 Make your antagonists impactful
- 7 Tension creates conflict
- 8 Frustrate your hero
- 9 Build up to the climax
- 10 End your book with a true resolution
- 11 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Understand the genre’s tropes and expectations
While a strong beginning, middle, and end are always the start of a good story, not every story actually meets all three of these crucial criteria. A fantasy or dystopian story may rely on the first two parts without interest in crafting a satisfying plot twist. But in general, a strong story will incorporate the genre’s tropes and expectations — if done well, they’ll do more than just keep readers happy. Whether your story is a realistic and heartfelt biography or a fantastical epic that defies the rules, you’ll want to choose a genre that fits the story you want to tell.
The world we live in has complicated, unsolvable problems, and fiction writing gives us a chance not just to try and solve them, but to start asking the right questions. These questions may even help you find the right genre to tell your story. With most fiction genres, you’ll have space to work through emotionally engaging but difficult storylines, political and moral dilemmas, and the nature of being questioned. Curiosity and concern are universal parts of the human experience, and fiction is the perfect platform for exploring them.
Create a message
Plot isn’t interesting because it’s unique or because it’s riddled with surprises. It’s interesting when it resonates with deeper themes or points of view. Most stories have a moral or theme, and if you’re not careful, you can end up with a book that reads too much like a well-written character study laced with a string of events that aren’t meaningfully related. Stories need to be more than the sum of their parts. If you look at the top of your story structure you’ll probably see, at a guess, seven to twelve point of view characters. Now look through your favorite example trilogy that we talked about above. Notice how many main characters it takes to tell the story. Practice can give you an instinct for how many main characters you can use to tell the story.
The success of your story will be measured by the degree to which the events of each installment connect to the major themes of the series. And if you plot with the big picture in mind, your minor scenes will work beautifully as part of the whole. Take a critical eye to both your characters and your plot situations, and make sure that every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has the effect of moving your story forward in a meaningful way. And remember, you don’t have to have all the answers to your story written out in full detail ahead of time. This is a process, not a penance. But if you want readers to understand and remember the details and emotions of the sequence, you should try to think things through as fully as you can.
Compelling characters create a rich emotional world
After letting your book rest for a while, read it again, trying to see it through a fresh set of eyes. Before you get caught up in the details of plot and language, begin to notice the other elements of your story. Are your characters compelling? Who are they, and how well-developed are they? Do your characters struggle with the same goals and desires as your readers? Do your characters change, and if so, how, and why? Is there a special relationship — love, friendship, or maybe a rivalry — that stands that is at the center of your story? What do your characters understand at the end of each chapter, and what do they learn at the end of your novel?
An emotional core means your book isn’t just an adventure story filled with action, but a tale of characters with personal struggles who develop and learn over the course of your narrative. Although this is important in any novel, it is absolutely crucial in a fantasy/sci-fi, mystery, or romance novel where pulp is less the goal and emotional engagement and connection are more important to the reader. When first conceptualizing your book, you should think about your characters’ emotional arcs, their narratives. Not only do characters help create meaning for your readers, they also give you an effective way to hook readers into your stories. By incorporating the principle of Hook — Incident — Payoff, used in any story, nonfiction, or novel, you are ensuring that readers keep reading. Hook, Incident, Payoff also help you structure your plot in sentence form. These three elements should be strongly present in your novel, and may also be very useful in criticism or analysis of your work.
Develop a voice for each character
One of the most fundamental elements of storytelling is great character work. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing diary fiction or writing an epic fantasy — if you don’t know your characters, then your reader won’t care about your story either. The difference creators and master narrators in this vein make is that each character has a distinct and identifiable voice. Whether you’re writing fiction, memoirs, or anything in between, each of your characters should have its own voice. If you’re recounting events from your life, then your own voice will be what your reader hears, so understanding your own voice is a universal step. For fictional characters, it’s about finding out what makes them tick. What are they like when they’re angry, sad, happy? What do they say, and how do they say it? A voice for your characters is the most powerful tool you have to make them come alive.
But you don’t have to just write the way they speak, you also get to play with their voices. You can exaggerate their personalities when talking — a thesaurus has thousands of synonyms for practically everything so if you need some alternative ways of saying something, then use them! Your characters have infinite possibilities for developing new and fascinating ways of talking. Your reader should never get bored or write your character off, as they have endless ways of interacting with the novel’s universe.
Add layers to your relationships
Take a look at the most popular books in your genre, and read through reader reviews of them. What kinds of relationships are readers invested in? What makes a relationship between two side characters click on the page? There are up to two dozen relationships in any book at any given time, but the ones that hold the majority of your readers’ attention are the primary ones. For every main romance, we expect there to be an equal and oppositional love triangle, where physical compatibility alone isn’t enough — there are friendships, misunderstandings, intergenerational relationships, parent to child, and levels of authority.
A lot of writers tout the importance of character, but they don’t know the specifics of just what to include. At the superficial level, characters’ backgrounds help make stories relatable, and the height of a character’s arc is what the writer should establish at the halfway point of the story. Personality isn’t enough — there’s also character motivation, which is what leads a character to behave a certain way in a certain situation. This is where it really helps to know how to analyze a story. It’s a great skill to possess because the more accurately you can report on what happened, the more clearly your readers will be able to understand why it’s still happening.
Make your antagonists impactful
All of this may make you wonder why it’s necessary to have a complex story at all — why don’t you just make your conflict person vs. person, and be done with it? Why is knowing about history, culture, and even economics so important in the indie market? The answer is because, in the best stories, a conflict is never just about your protagonist vs. non-protagonist. If you’re thinking about the individual wants and aspirations of all the characters, what you’re really thinking about is a relationship, and relationships — as every great writer knows — are not just about good or evil, but about context. The larger the context you can provide for how the different characters see each other, the greater your chance of balancing conflict and resolution. Ultimately, if you want your readers to love your characters, make sure those characters have rich lives and interesting things to think about. Make them unhappy. Make them make mistakes, and forgive themselves for them too. Make them reactive and empathetic and capable of love. Make them understand and hate other characters and themselves. Show them a world of conflict, and use your drama well.
But even among the best antagonists, there is a key distinction between showing them interacting richly with protagonists, and trading arguments within their own ranks. For this reason, a protagonist’s allies are just as important to the conflict as any antagonists. There’s plenty of power in any story about a lonely but determined individual fighting against a bad situation, but think about their helplessness — which side helped create it and which side can help overcome it? Are there people in your protagonist’s life, or people they knew before and could ask for help? When conflicts are large enough, well-developed characters will find it hard to ignore their friends and family who will advocate for them even when it’s inconvenient. Good writers don’t just understand culture and conflict based on themselves, they understand it from the point of view of others too. So if your plot is more complex than a “two people face off” story, dig into your characters’ rich inner lives and invite their friends and families into the narrative. Then let their deeds reflect not only their own natures, but the nature of the world around them.
Tension creates conflict
One key element of a good story is tension. It’s what keeps your reader turning pages. Unnecessary details mean you’re introducing drag and slack into your narrative. They mean you’re taking things for granted, relying on genre knowledge to fill in the gaps. Remember, rewriting is where you fix what’s broken. So, don’t rest until your novel reaches the level of tension you know it can reach. Cut out any unnecessary details and read your book from your reader’s point of view.
Always look for the natural end of your sentences and paragraphs. Pull your reader forward. End with a hint of something to come or a new idea, and you’re more likely to carry them through another paragraph or even chapter. But if you don’t have to end there — consider leaving the paragraph hanging. This will create tension and make your reader want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Make sure to end your paragraphs on a question or a thought that compels the reader to keep going.
Frustrate your hero
When a reader picks up a book, their first impression is based on the cover. But before they’ve even cracked it open, they’ve fallen in love with the main character — the book’s protagonist. This makes the opening pages of your book even more critical. Keep them as short and sweet — they don’t have to have an elaborate set-up, as long as they’re well-written. Don’t give the unwary reader too much of the book at once, or they might get frustrated and close the book before giving it a fair shot. In other words, frustrate them, but don’t alienate them. And try to have a reason for introducing your hero in the first place. You’ll want to pique their curiosity and whet their appetite to find out more about your book’s protagonist.
Your protagonist will probably be the first major element to be decided by the plotting of your book — the acts and scenes will help develop the character, and also show how they react to their environment and obstacles. And without ambivalence, the character is flat, and even more importantly, boring. If your hero has no self-doubt, or no flaws that hold them back, then they’re not likely to resonate with readers. Your heroine will need obstacles throughout the book, which show that not even they can always get what they want right away without a struggle.
Build up to the climax
Almost every story has a climax. That’s the moment where the hero or heroine faces off against the antagonist and the entire plot is resolved. Most of the time, especially in novels and series, the climax comes at the end. There are, however, some stories in which the climax is much earlier. That’s the second act climax, and it usually comes at the end of the second act. The biggest benefit to having an early climax is the ability to largely move past the climax in the third act. That way, you can focus on wrapping things up, which is a welcome change for most readers, who want your story to have a sense of closure. Use the second act climax to push the plot in a new, unexpected direction. That’s where conflict deals to all of your supporting characters and twists the story into new territory.
A third thing to consider is the final climactic confrontation between characters. There are two schools of thought when it comes to this. The first is the confrontational climax, in which the hero faces off against the villain in one final, epic standoff. The second option is the allusion climax, which depicts the two characters in the same location, but never actually meeting or talking. Consider both options and decide what will work better for your story. The important thing is that you pick one and bring it to a final conclusion for your readers that will leave them satisfied and happy with your work.
End your book with a true resolution
What a satisfying feeling it is when you finish the last page of a book, and see that everything’s wrapped up. The cliffhanger’s been resolved, the false leads have been exposed, and we get to see all of the pieces fall into place. A truly great book will stay with you. One of those key components is an ending that’s truly true.
While some books do pull off the “it was all a dream” ending, or the “it was a video game” ending, very few really have endings that feel true to the story. A major component in many award winning books is having an ending that wraps up all the narrative threads – whether that’s a totally resolved loop, or a sense of fulfillment from repeated usage of an image, theme, or character. The first step may be the most difficult, but it’s also one of the most key parts of a great story — comes the end that feels true to you? When you set out to start your book, decide what kinds of endings you want to write and how-if at all-those endings intend to be resolved from the start.
If you have these, you’re on your way to writing something great. Don’t expect your first book to be a masterpiece — in fact, you might not be working on your first book at all. But regardless, you’ll be on your way to becoming not just a writer, but perhaps a great writer, and that will change the world — not through wide mainstream fame and fortune, but by strengthening and bringing together the exclusive society of other aspiring and talented writers just like you. And that’s really quite something — if you think about it, you are the literary vanguard. Be yourself, and you’ll have written something truly unique and special. Remember that and keep writing. Here’s to your success!
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