There is an art to great storytelling. The exact same story told in two different ways can feel so different and be either satisfying or unsatisfying. If you’re unsure if your story has what it takes, take a look at the points below and see how you measure up. Getting your story right is not rocket science. Make sure you’ve covering the following items and you’ll be good to go.
Work with pace, or detail, not both
Some books are complete page turners and you can’t put them down. Someone like James Patterson will write a book that uses events to keep you going. You want to read the next chapter, and the next, to find out what happens. Other authors, like Barbara Kingsolver use the detail in the story to draw you in. She generates a world so real and convincing that you keep reading because you care about the characters as if they are old friends.
Trying to use both is tricky. Pace gives a certain sense of urgency to the writing, and detail detracts from that. Detail makes writing come alive with colour and emotion, and pace moves you on too fast to appreciate it.
What kind of writer are you? Do you love building up a picture, bringing the reader to your world, making the reader feel the raw emotion in the story? Or are you more practical, keen on facts, events, and on keeping the reader breathless with what is going to happen next?
Being a great storyteller is as much a reflection of your personality as anything else. Write your stories to reflect that, and you will find readers who adore what you write because they want the same as you.
Don’t overcomplicate things
Stories don’t need to have 37 different characters, multiple locations, time threads and subplots. It’s extremely hard to pull off a novel with a huge selection of characters, and it can be difficult for the reader to follow if not done very carefully.
Think of a simple story, such as the fairy tales we learn as children. These are stories condensed to their essence. There is good, evil, a challenge and an outcome. In its most basic sense, a story is a story because it tells of someone achieving something.
You should be able to sum up your story in a couple of sentences without having to go into more detail. Anything you add as part of the writing process should complement that.
A good story has a satisfying end
Personally I find nothing worse than a lacklustre ending. The end of a story should mark the end of the journey. Leaving things unsaid is just teasing the reader. Don’t leave it to their imagination. If they wanted to imagine they wouldn’t be reading your book. The reader wants you to take their hand and tell them everything they need to know. They will follow you, wide eyed, wherever you choose to lead them, so chose wisely and give them what they want.
An ending doesn’t have to be “happy” to be satisfying. It can be unexpected, sad, philosophical or joyous. What’s important is that it is clearly the end. New beginnings come from endings and even if you’re writing a series, you’ll want to leave all your characters in a defined place ready for next time.
Don’t be afraid to spell out what happens at the end of your novel.
Storytelling is all about The journey
Sometimes it’s a literal journey, often it’s an emotional journey. Usually it’s a bit of both. Your protagonist should not be quite the same person at the end as they were at the beginning. Be absolutely clear on the journey that your character is taking, how they are going to travel, and where they are going to end up. This is something that’s really useful to do outside of the outline to your book. Focusing on that journey means you can always pinpoint where you are on that timeline when you are writing and make sure that events are in sync with the character’s growth.
Remember that you don’t have to start at the beginning. You don’t have to describe every single thing that’s ever happened from the start to the finish. Perhaps your story begins after a trauma, in the middle of a relationship, or before the main event. The important thing is that the story covers the journey that the character takes.
Good storytelling requires conflict
We do not learn or change without some sort of conflict. From big life decisions to people who just rub us up the wrong way, conflict is one of the ways in which we grow. Since good storytelling is about the character’s journey, it will include some form of conflict.
Conflict is a great way to raise emotion in the reader’s mind. The reader should be able to identify with the emotions behind the conflict even if they have never experienced it themselves. Again – don’t be afraid to explain it to them. Make it clear to your reader what is going on. Tell the story, don’t hint at the story.
Don’t make your bad characters all bad
Unless you are writing a James Bond novel, your “bad” characters should be human even if they are completely evil. Everyone, even the most hardened of killers, has some softer emotions – even if they never admit to them or allow them to be a part of their life. Your bad guys will be more real if you stop making them evil all the way through and instead provide a more rounded account of why they are the way they are.
Don’t overdo this – a baddie shouldn’t get too much sympathy else it can be confusing! However, even the big bad wolf was only trying to satisfy his hunger, so remember that everyone has their motives and even if they are not in line with societies expectations it is very rare to find someone who has no emotional empathy whatsoever.
Surprise creates enjoyment
A moment where everyone gasps in the story is a wonderful thing. When something unexpected or unforeseen happens, it creates a sense of excitement and joy in the reader. Crafting surprise in stories is a topic all of it’s own, but good storytelling weaves surprise into the narrative without awkwardness.
Think about how you can develop your story so that at least one or two things are unforeseen. Keeping some details hidden until much later keeps your reader interested and makes your story worth reading.
Surprises don’t have to be twists, or even permanent changes. Putting a character in sudden peril, altering a course of events through fate, or discovering something previously unknown are all ways to keep the reader’s attention and have them wanting more.
Good storytelling is about taking someone with you in your imagination, and the best stories are always the ones that satisfy the reader, so if you keep that in mind when you are writing you won’t go far wrong.
Think about what you enjoy in a book, and endeavour to create an experience for your readers that they will want more of. A great storyteller has many great stories inside, and enjoys creating pleasure for his or her audience. At it’s most basic, a story is entertainment, so make sure that you entertain.
For more depth and discussion of the elements of a story and how you can successfully use them in your writing, read The 24 Laws of Storytelling: A Practical Handbook for Great Storytellers by Jonathan Baldie.
I really love the way he’s used examples from classic stories to illustrate each law. It’s a wonderfully written book and if you can read through the list of laws and feel confident that you’ve done your bit for the majority of them, you’re probably onto something great.
Not only that, but he’s a software engineer and a writer, exactly the same as me, so he defintely gets my vote 😉