Whether you’re pounding out that first draft, polishing the sixteenth, or trying to harness the power of story to your real life — like, say, spinning a tale about why you were late to work yet again — a few tips about story always come in handy. They’re like a quick jolt of coffee on a slow afternoon. To that end, here are several lists of tips galore. Enjoy!A Reader's Manifesto for Writers: 16 Expectations Every Reader Has» 8 Random Writing Tips» 13 Key Questions To Ask Yourself About Your Story»
- The reader expects that everything in a story is there strictly on a need-to-know basis, even the weather.
- The reader expects to feel something, all the time.
- The reader expects to feel what the protagonist feels.
- The reader expects that the protagonist will want something; and will fear something that keeps her from fulfilling that desire.
- The reader expects that everything that happens will in some way affect the protagonist.
- The reader expects the protagonist to react to everything that happens.
- The reader expects that everything that happens will in some way affect the outcome of the “story question.”
- The reader expects that something will be at stake in every scene.
- The reader expects that as the protagonist tries to solve the story question, he will make things worse.
- The reader expects the protagonist will have to overcome both expected and unexpected hurdles to attain her goal.
- The reader expects those hurdles to be both external events and internal fears.
- The reader expects that every setup will have a payoff, which the story will build toward.
- The reader expects that every subplot and flashback will in some way affect the main storyline.
- The reader expects that the protagonist will be forced to confront things he’s probably spent his entire life avoiding.
- The reader expects the protagonist to struggle to make sense of what’s happening to him.
- The reader expects that the protagonist will emerge changed by his story, and that she, the reader, will emerge changed by it, as well.
- The bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys.
- Avoid exclamation points! Really!! Because they’re distracting!! Almost as much as CAPITALIZING THINGS!!!
- Make sure that each scene gives us new information, rather than rehashing things we already know. Never tell us the same fact twice. Because it’s boring and stops the flow of the story. Never tell us the same fact twice. Because it’s boring and stops the flow of the story.
- If the reader doesn’t know there’s intrigue a foot, there is no intrigue a foot.
- Scenery without subtext is a travelogue.
- Everything must be earned. In story, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – unless, of course, it’s poisoned. Think Snow White. In other words, if it’s free, it’s going to cost you big time. (I refrained from using an exclamation point in that last sentence, I admit, it’s not easy! Oops.)
- There are two basic motivating factors for just about all human action: Fear and Desire. Very often, these two are pitted against each other.
- The most important element of any story is to make the reader want to know what happens next. Period. Everything else is gravy.
1. Do You Know Who Your Protagonist Is?
Sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? But there is more to this question than meets the eye. It’s not just about being able to identify the main character. Think about The Great Gatsby. Is the protagonist Nick the narrator or Gatsby himself? Not sure you can answer this, either for Gatsby or for your own story? See Question #2.
2. Whose Story Is It?
The answer to #2 is also the answer to #1. And what does this mean? It means that everything that happens in the story must directly affect the protagonist in pursuit of his or her goal. Remember, everything in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist – if it doesn’t affect her, even if we’re talking birth, death or winning the lottery, it is completely neutral. And guess what? When you’re reading, nothing bores you more than neutrality.
3. Does Your Protagonist React to Everything that Happens?
Good. Because it is her reaction (both internal and external) that tells us how what’s happening in the story is affecting her. It’s how the reader stays engaged: they watch for the protagonist’s reaction to everything, wonder what she’ll do as a result, and follow to see what consequences will ensue.
4. What Does Your Protagonist Want?
All protagonists want something, even if it’s for things to stay exactly as they are. It may even be that what the protagonist thinks she wants at the outset is not what she actually wants. Or needs. It may be that the story is about how she comes to realize that what she thought would bring her happiness, won’t. Regardless whether or not it’s her ultimate goal, the protagonist must want something when the story begins.
5. Is The Story Question Clear?
The story question boils down to this: will your protagonist achieve his or her goal? This is critical because the story question is the hook that grabs the reader and keeps them turning page after page in search of the answer, even though it’s past midnight, and tomorrow’s a work day.
6. Do We Know What Your Protagonist is Afraid of?
Since the story question is something it’s going to take the length of the story to answer, the protagonist’s quest can’t be easy. In other words, if Dan’s quest is to go into the kitchen, get a nice snack and then take a nap, he’d better have an absolute phobia about setting foot in the kitchen. Because if not, it’s going to take the writer all of about two sentences until it’s “Mission accomplished!”
One way to suss out the protagonist’s fear is to simply ask yourself: Why can’t he “Just do it!”? What stands in his way? What does he have to overcome in order to solve the problem he faces? This is often referred to as the character’s fatal flaw – the internal failing, error or mistaken judgment that keeps him from getting what he’s after.
7. What Created Your Protagonist’s Fear?
Character development is organic — meaning it springs from the character herself, rather than from what the plot needs her to do. Just as in life we never know what we’re capable of until we’re put to the test, so it is with your story’s protagonist. Thus, her character develops in response to what she must do to achieve her goal. In other words, the obstacles you put before her force her to confront fears, solve problems, and draw on strengths she didn’t know she had.
If you have rooted your protagonist’s quest – and her fears – in her backstory, then you will know what she must overcome – both externally and internally — from the get-go. This allows you to seed evidence of both her fear and her untapped courage throughout, so when she needs to draw on one to overcome the other, it will be believable.
8. Is There a Genuine Force of Opposition?
Without it, the protagonist has nothing to play against and so doesn’t get the chance to prove his worth. Many writers love their protagonist so much they can’t bear to put him in genuine peril. Trouble is, without that they can’t truly become a hero!
9. Is Your Villain A Clear and Present Threat?
The villain can’t be a nebulous threat that never really materializes or acts. A villain has to take action, and that action has to mount. Remember, the villain’s job is to put the protagonist to the test, preferably a test that even she doesn’t think she can pass. And don’t forget, sometimes a slightly likeable villain is the most heinous.
10. Does Everything that Happens in Some Way Affect the Story Question?
Everything that happens must bear some weight on the outcome of the story question. This can either manifest directly or indirectly. Directly is pretty clear cut: Tom wants to go to Yale; Tom just failed his senior history class. Thus, we see a direct consequence, since I’m doubting that Yale would consider a student who’d failed history.
Often the affect is indirect, but no less clear. For instance: Tom deserves an A in history, but while he’s at home toiling away on his term paper, his history teacher, a humorless hardliner, decides to fail the entire class because he’s just discovered that an anonymous student posted a video on YouTube photoshopping his face onto Britney Spears’s body, and not even the svelte version, but the pudgy post baby rendition. While we wouldn’t see the affect this has on Tom in that particular scene, since we know what Tom wants – to go to Yale – we would instantly grasp the affect it will have on him.
11. What is the Story’s Theme?
There is a lot of talk about what a theme is, and how it’s evidenced, which can result in impenetrable esoteric discussions capable of parsing out the thematic use of Oleo Margarine as a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. But, basically, when it comes to theme, it boils down to something that is incredibly simple:
- What does the story tell us about human nature?
- What does it say about the human condition?
In other words, theme is reflected in how the characters treat each other. 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. Knowing the theme helps because it gives you a yardstick by which you can measure your characters’ responses to the situations that they find themselves in. They will be kind, gruff or conniving depending on the human universe you have created for them. This, then, affects the story question big time, because the type of resistance the protagonist meets will be governed by it. In a loving universe, she may find that with a little gumption, she will find her true love. In an impersonal universe she will find no one she can really relate to, and in a cruel universe, she’ll end up married to Ted Bundy.
Why? That is the question. Rip through your story with the zeal of a curious three year old, and ask of each and every reaction, desire, fear, turn or description, Why? Why did this happen? Why does this character feel this way? Why did she do that? (Read: What’s her motivation?) Why does the reader need to know this?
And, once you have answered those questions, the next one to ask is: Can the reader actually see enough of the “why?” to understand what is happening? Is it on the page? Is it clear enough that the reader instantly grasps it? This is where writers very often lose their way. Because they already know the “why,” they read it into what is happening, without ever making it clear to the reader.
13. “And So?”
After each fact, passage or scene, ask yourself, “And so?” Meaning, what’s the point? Why do readers need to know this? If there isn’t a point, the scene either needs to go, or be given a reason to be there. It’s important to always keep in mind that simply being well written or interesting in-and-of itself is not a reason to include it. It’s a reason to boot it. The last thing you want to be accused of penning is what’s known in the trade as a beautifully written “So what?”