“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” — Flannery O’connor
Storytellers can change the way people think simply by giving them a glimpse of life through their characters’ eyes. They can transport their audience to places they’ve never been, catapult them into situations they’ve only dreamed of, and reveal subtle universal truths that just might alter their entire perception of reality. A good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life. Literally.
Stories, fiction, and nonfiction, supply us with a mental library of situations we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.
The true definition of a story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result:
As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus, the story is an internal journey, not an external one.
From the first sentence, we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the woods. What we’re hoping for is the sense that something is about to change (and not necessarily for the better).
When you meet someone new, can you know everything there is to know about that person on the first date? Absolutely not. Can you feel like you do? Absolutely.
The three basic things readers relentlessly hunt for as they read that first page:
What the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Otherwise, we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world. So, we need to meet the protagonist as soon as possible. Preferably in the first paragraph.
From the beginning, something must be happening that the protagonist is affected by that gives us a glimpse of the “big picture.” The big picture cues us to the problem the protagonist will spend the story struggling with. The conflict that is specific to the protagonist’s quest is the story’s lifeblood.
A story is real-life with the boring parts left out. Think of the boring parts as anything that doesn’t relate to or affect your protagonist’s quest. Every single thing in a story — including subplots, weather, setting, even tone — must have a clear impact on what the reader is dying to know: Will the protagonist achieve their goal? What will it cost them in the process? How will it change them in the end? What hooks us, and keeps us reading, is the dopamine-fueled desire to know what happens next. Without that, nothing else matters.
Storytelling trumps beautiful writing, every time. Learning to write beautifully is not the same as learning to write a story. And of the two, writing beautifully is secondary. Because if the reader doesn’t want to know what happens next, so what if it’s well written?
Everything in the story needs to be on a need to know basis. A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question. As readers we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer. Everything outside of that is a distraction. A story with no point of reference leaves the reader with no way of determining what information matters.
Here are just a few telltale signs that a story is going off the rails:
Focus is the synthesis of three elements: the protagonist’s issue, the theme, and the plot:
Since the theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the “universal” lies. The “universal” is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all. For instance, “the raw power of true love” is something everyone (okay, almost everyone) can tap into.
The theme often reveals your take on how an element of human nature—loyalty, suspicion, grit, love — defines human behavior. But the real secret to the theme is that it’s not general; that is, the theme wouldn’t be “love” per se — rather, it would be a very specific point you’re making about love. For instance, a love story can be sweet and lyrical, revealing that people are good eggs after all; it can be hard-nosed and edgy, revealing that people are intense and quirky; it can be cynical and manipulative, revealing that people are best avoided, if possible.
The plot is not what the story is about. Instead, a story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. Plot facilitates story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue that keeps them from achieving their goal. The way the world treats them, and how they react, reveals the theme.
Examples of the protagonist’s “fatal flaw”:
The protagonist’s “fatal flaw” is what they’ve been battling throughout and what they must finally overcome to have a clear shot at the last remaining obstacle. Ironically, once they overcome their fatal flaw, they often realize true success is vastly different from what, up to that very second, they thought it was.
“Indeed, feelings don’t just matter — they are what mattering means.” — Daniel Gilbert
All story is emotion based — if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.
Everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If something in a story doesn’t affect them then it’s completely neutral. Neutrality bores the audience.
Your protagonist’s reaction can come across in one of three ways:
Think of first person as the Rashomon effect: if four people witness the same event, you end up with four very different accounts of it — — — each one believable. In first person, nothing is ever neutral, even for a moment. It might help to think of your narrator as a narcissist (but in a good way), because everything in the story relates to them or else why would they be telling us about it?
First-person narrators are often unreliable, and part of the audience’s pleasure is figuring out what’s really true. The only thing a first-person narrator can’t tell us is what someone else is thinking or feeling. So if Tim is talking about his breakup with Deasia, he can’t say, “When I told Deasia I was in love with Lacey, she felt as if she’d been gut-punched.” But what he can say is, “When I told Deasia I was in love with Lacey, the color drained from her face as if she’d been gut-punched.” Honestly, the one thing you don’t want Tim doing is thinking nothing.
Writing in first person:
If you’re writing in third-person objective, you’ll show us the protagonist’s internal reactions through external cues: body language, clothes, where she goes, what she does, who she associates with, and of course, what she says.
Third-person Limited (aka third-person close)
It’s exactly like first-person except you are using “he” or “she” instead of ‘I”.
You receive the power to go into any character’s mind. The trick, of course, is to keep track of all of it. And to stay behind the curtain at all times. Even a fleeting glimpse of the puppet master completely ruins the illusion that there are no strings attached. You have to keep your opinions to yourself. As an omniscient narrator, you’re invisible and just reporting the facts. Your characters, on the other hand, are free to express their opinion.
Just as in life, characters can only assume. And very often that assumption then tells us something about the character.
The most common mistake writers make is using body language to tell us something we already know. If we know Deasia is sad, why would we need a paragraph describing what she looks like when she’s crying?
Make us feel, and believe me, we’ll know who’s right and who’s probably not. Tell us what to feel, on the other hand, and what we’ll feel is bullied. Convey emotion, don’t force it on us. Your job is not to judge your characters, no matter how despicable or wonderful they may be. Your job is to lay out what happens, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, show how it affects the protagonist, and then get the hell out of the way. The irony is, the less you tell us how to feel, the more likely we’ll feel exactly what you want us to.
A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go.
If you don’t provide your protagonist with a driving deep-seated need that they believe their quest will fulfill, the things that happen will feel random; they won’t add up to anything. It’s like watching football with no idea what the rules are, or how points are scored, or even that it’s a game at all.
People assume that everything the storyteller tells them is there on a strictly need-to-know basis.
It’s the job of stories to dig deep and decipher life, not just present it.
“Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.” — Julian Barnes
What needs to be explained is why the protagonist wants what they want, what it means to them, and what getting it will cost them.
Often the protagonist’s external goal changes as the story progresses — in fact, that’s often what the reader is rooting for. By defining your protagonist’s internal and external goals, and then pitting them against each other, you can often ignite the kind of external tension and internal conflict capable of driving an entire narrative. Adding external problems adds drama only if they are something the protagonist must confront to overcome their internal issue.
Storytelling is about change. Things start out one way and end up another. The story itself unfolds in the space between “before” and the “after”.
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” — Michel De Montaigne
You must know when and why your protagonist’s view was knocked out of alignment. Being wrong changes how we see — or don’t see — the world. And we’re wrong a lot. Stories often begin at just that moment, as one of the protagonist’s long-held beliefs is about to be called into question. Sometimes that belief is what stands between them and something they really want. Sometimes it’s what’s keeping them from doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s what they have to confront to get out of a bad situation before it’s too late. But make no mistake, it’s their struggle with this “internal issue” that drives the story forward.
The best place to start working on your story is by pinpointing the moment long before the protagonist even shows up on page one, when they first fell prey to the inner issue that’s been skewing their worldview ever since.
Before you write your story you need to write a protagonist’s bio and short bios for every major character (even though most of what you write won’t even make it to the narrative). Seek out the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, the messy, and the secrets they’d really rather keep to themselves. A character’s bio should concentrate solely on information relevant to your story. When writing your protagonist’s bio, the goal is to pinpoint two things. First, the event in their past that knocked their worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps them from achieving their goal Secondly, the inception of their desire for the goal itself. Sometimes they’re one and the same.
Anything conceptual, abstract or general must be made tangible. As counterintuitive as it may seem, even the most massive, horrendous event, when presented in general, doesn’t have much direct emotional impact. Let’s say I said:
In October 2006, nearly six thousand people worldwide perished in hurricane-induced floods.
Quick, what do you feel after reading that sentence? Now…
Imagine a wall of water coming straight toward a small boy, who clings desperately to his frantic mother. Trying to soothe him, she whispers, “Don’t worry baby, I am here, I won‘t’ let you go.” She feels him relax in the moment of deafening calm just before the water rips him from her arms. The sound of his cry echoed above the destruction. Trees ripped the ground, houses smashed to splinters. His look of utter surprise as he was swept away will haunt her for the rest of her life. I trusted you, it seemed to say, and you let me go.
Now, how do you feel?
Stories take mind-numbing generalities and make them so specific that we can truly experience them. Feel first, think second.
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delay: don’t write about Man, write about a man.” — E. B. White
Stories are about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.
Conflict spawns from the battling forces of “versus”:
Story takes place in the time between “before” and “after” and in the space between the “versus,” as the protagonist maneuvers within two conflicting realities, trying to bring them into alignment (and thus solve the problem).
The reason the various versus are so good at engendering suspense is that pitting two opposing desires, facts, or truths against each other inherently incites ongoing conflict. It gives the reader something to root for, another yardstick by which to measure the protagonist’s progress, and a clear view of where the conflict lies.
Sometimes writers try to withhold information for a big reveal (plot twist), but withholding information very often robs the story of what really hooks readers. A reveal is a fact that, when it finally comes to light, changes (and in so doing, explains) something — often, that something is “everything.”
A major reveal is a surprise near the end that twists the meaning of everything that came before it. But make no mistake, it is only because of the pattern of hints. Otherwise, it’s a convenience, a contrivance, or a coincidence.
If we don’t know there’s intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot. So, there must have been a pattern of specific “hints” or “tells” along the way, alerting us that all was not as it seems, which the new twist now illuminates and explains. Also, these “hints” and “tells” need to stand out (and make sense) in their own right before the reveal.
When done properly, reveals can be extremely effective. You should be careful how you use it though. You should not keep the real reason the characters are doing what they’re doing so secret that we don’t even know there’s a real reason. Also, you shouldn’t let us know there is a secret, but then keep it so vague that we can’t guess what the particulars are. When storytellers make both of these mistakes they are assuming that the audience is already engaged enough to care about what happens to the characters. Ironically, more often than not it’s the very information the writer’s withholding that would make us care.
A story follows a cause and effect trajectory from the start to finish.
“Show, Don’t Tell” is figurative, not literal— don’t tell me Tim is sad, don't show me that he is crying, instead of showing me why he’s sad.
Having cause and effect doesn’t mean it needs to be predictable. There should be a continual wild card regarding what the protagonist will actually do. There should always be an appearance of free will. Just because someone might do something, doesn't mean they will. Just like the rest of us, characters are famous for utterly misreading signs and rushing headlong in the absolute wrong direction. What looks like free will going in turns out to be fate, when looking back.
“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out.” — Mark Twain
It pays to remain hypervigilant because digressions come in all shapes and sizes. They can be misplaced flashbacks, they can be subplots that have nothing to do with the story itself, and they can be tiny actions. A digression is any piece of information that readers don’t need and therefore don’t know what to do with. Everything in a story must be there for a story reason; it must be something that, given the cause-and-effect trajectory, the reader needs to know, at that moment.
“No one would ever have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in the storm.” — Charles Kettering
A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in their wildest dreams, they don’t think they can pass. Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment. Your protagonist truly does have to suffer — otherwise not only will they have nothing to teach us, but we won't have much reason to care about what happens to them, either.
As you love your protagonist, your goal is to craft a plot that forces them to confront head-on just about everything they’ve spent their entire life avoiding. You have to make sure the harder they try, the harder it gets. Their good deeds will rarely go unpunished. Sure, every now and then it’ll seem like everything’s okay, but that’s only because you’re setting them up for an even bigger fall. You’re doing it for their good because you want them to live up to their true potential.
While getting writers to physically harm their protagonist can be difficult, there’s something even harder to get them to do: embarrass their hero. Physical pain is something one can keep to oneself. No one else has to know. But embarrassment, mortification, and shame? That’s public. But it also tends to be the thing that best spurs growth.
To the reader, everything in a story is either a setup, a payoff, or the road in between.
A setup is “something”, a fact, an act, a person, or an event that implies future action. In its most basic form, setup is a piece of information the reader needs well in advance of the payoff so the payoff will be believable. It can be something as simple as letting us know early on that Tim speaks Swahili, so when it turns out the instructions for diverting the meteor before it slams into downtown Atlanta are written in Swahili. That’s a simple example, but often a setup triggers an entire subplot, motive, or new way to interpret what’s happening.
The road between the setup and payoff should follow these three rules:
Memory digs through the information your brain has acquired in the past for anything that might help it solve the problem you’re facing in the present. Memories aren’t just for reminiscing. They never were. Memories are for navigating the now. And not just personal memories. Stories are the brain’s virtual reality, allowing us to benefit from the experience of protagonists.
Stories simulate memories in the form of foreshadowing, flashbacks, and subplots.
The only way to evoke the fullness of reality in a story is by first zeroing in on the heart of the particular story you’re telling and eliminating all the distractions that don’t affect it. Then weave in relevant elements of the past, ongoing complimenting storylines, and hints of the future — whether via a flashback, subplot, or bit of foreshadowing.
A story without subplots tends to be one-dimensional. Subplots give stories depth, meaning, and resonance in myriad ways. It can give the protagonist a glimpse of how a particular course of action they’re considering might play out; it can complicate the main storyline; it can provide the “why” behind the protagonist’s actions; it can also neatly plug up any otherwise gaping plot holes; it can introduce characters who will soon play a pivotal role; it can show us things that are happening concurrently.
Pacing is the length of time between moments of conflict. The more you stick to a constant heart-pounding tempo, the quicker the story gets boring. Each time the conflict peaks, you want to back off a bit to give the reader time to take it in, process it, and speculate on its implications, which is often where subplots come in.
Subplots invite the reader to leave the recent conflict behind for a moment and venture down a side road that, they believe, will lead back to the story in the near future. The reader is willing to take this journey because they trust that when the subplot returns to the main storyline, they’ll have more insight with which to interpret what’s happening. Thus, all subplots must eventually merge into — and affect — the main storyline, either literally or metaphorically, or else the reader is going to be mighty disappointed.
When you integrate a subplot, supply information that affects what’s happening in the main storyline, make the protagonist’s quest that much harder, or tell us something that deepens our understanding of the protagonist.
Flashbacks and backstory are technically the same material, different uses. The backstory is everything that happened before the story began and it is the raw material from which all flashbacks are drawn. So what’s the difference between a flashback and weaving in backstory? It’s simple. A flashback, being an actual scene complete with dialogue and action, stops the main storyline; weaving in a backstory doesn’t. The backstory is, in fact, part of the present.
Neatly woven in, the backstory is a mere snippet, a fragment of memory, or even an attitude born of something that happened in the past and runs through the protagonist’s mind as they experience, and evaluate, what is happening to them in the present. A flashback does the same thing but presses the story’s pause button to do it, demanding the reader’s full and complete attention.
The only reason to go into a flashback is that, without the information it provides, what happens next won’t make sense. This cause needs to be clear, so we know, from the second the flashback begins, why we’re going into it. We must have a pretty good sense of why we need this information now. When the flashback ends, the information it provided must immediately — and necessarily — affect how we see the story from that point on.
When characters are going to do something decidedly out of the ordinary we need to already know that they have the ability to do it because we’ve seen them in action or because the reader has been given enough “tells” along the way that once they do it, it’s not only believable, but also satisfying.
After you have your first draft, you need to go into revision mode. Think about who knows what, when? First, make a timeline chronicling what actually happens in the “real world” during the span of the story. Beneath your overarching timeline, make a corresponding timeline for each major character, charting what they believe is true throughout the story. This will not only reveal exactly where and when characters are at cross purposes but also help you make sure your characters’ reactions are in accordance with what they believe is true in the moment. Finally, there is one more person whose shifting beliefs you want to chart: the reader. Ask yourself, scene by scene: what does the reader believe is happening?
The importance of getting outside feedback — and then actually listening to it — can’t be overstated. Before getting it professional critiques, ask a family or friend to read each scene and jot down their answer each of these questions at the end of each:
Their answers will be extremely helpful in figuring out how much of the story hasn’t quite made it from your head onto the page while revealing plot holes, logic gaps, redundancies, digressions, and long flat stretches.
After your third, sixth, or twentieth draft (depends on your comfortability) it’s time to get another storyteller, writer group, or paid professional to take a look. After that, find a few of your target audience to critique it to see how engaging it actually is. What emerges is your vision, seen through the eyes of your readers, experienced by your readers.
Dwayne’s notes from — Lisa Cron's “Wired for Story”