I recently read an article in Writer’s Digest by Steven James and was immediately drawn in by his view on how to tell a story. It changed the way I thought about storytelling forever. Welcome Steven!
They are transformative affairs.
This became clear to me one night when I was reading a bedtime story to my five-year-old daughter. In the story, five sisters had a picnic, then played dress-up, then ran around outside, then danced, then sang. Finally, my daughter sighed and told me she was bored.
“You don’t like the story?” I said.
“‘Course not!” she exclaimed. “Nothing’s going wrong!”
Even at five years old, my daughter understood that a story is not a list of events; it is the account of a character facing a struggle.
At its essence your story isn’t about what your protagonist does, but rather what she is trying to achieve, overcome, or accomplish. Tension, not action, propels a story forward. So, one of the first keys to building engaging stories is to stop asking what should happen and start looking for ways to make things go wrong.
Key #1 – Create Reader Empathy & Concern
Readers will not care about your story until they care about what happens to your protagonist. And they will not care what happens to your protagonist until they have both empathy for that character and concern about her.
It has to be both.
Your protagonist might be sarcastic, but she must not be smarmy. She might be unhappy, but she cannot be whiny. She might do undesirable things, but she cannot be unlikable. Only when the reader has both empathy and concern for your protagonist will he or she connect on an emotional level with your story.
To engage readers in this way, you’ll need your main character to desire something your reader desires, but not (at least at first) be able to get it. For example, your protagonist might want to love or be loved, to find freedom, to pursue her dreams, to overcome the wounds of the past, to learn to forgive, or any number of things. But only when readers emotionally identify with that central unmet desire of your protagonist will they be drawn into the story.
Key #2 – Add Multi-layered Struggles
In the world of marketable fiction today your protagonist will need both an external struggle and an internal struggle. So, give her both a problem to solve (avoid foreclosure, slay the dragon, escape from prison) and a desire to fulfill (any of the things I listed in Key #1). These two intertwined struggles drive the plot and the character development forward.
And remember, the initiation of at least one of these struggles must happen on the pages of your story.
Depending on the logic of the story you’re telling, one of the two struggles might have occurred before the first chapter. For example, in my book The Pawn, you first meet my protagonist, FBI special agent Patrick Bowers, on a helicopter flight to a crime scene in the mountains. You soon find out that he’s still emotionally devastated from the death of his wife eight months earlier. So, the introduction of the external crisis occurs in the first chapter, but the introduction of the internal crisis happened eight months earlier.
You might explain one of these struggles, but you must render the other one.
Key #3 – Escalate the Tension
If the tension of the story doesn’t build as the story progresses the reader will lose interest.
Generally, the worse things get for your protagonist as she tries to resolve her struggles the more the readers will be drawn into the story. We want to see the main character get into an impossible situation, and then find a way out that is both unexpected and inevitable.
So instead of constructing a story around a theme (such as forgiveness or freedom, or whatever) build your story around a moral dilemma: What’s more important: truth or justice? What makes us different from those who do the unthinkable? At what point does intimacy require dishonesty?
It’s all about unmet desire.
Think about this: in a romance story as soon as the romance begins, the central internal struggle of the two main characters is answered, their desire is fulfilled, and the story is over.
So in a very real way, romance stories are not about romance; they are about romantic tension. To deepen this tension, introduce more cultural or societal pressure to keep the couple apart, add misunderstanding between the lovers, create meaningful deadlines, or make one of them choose between saving the life of the other, or sacrificing him (or her) self.
Key #4 – Reveal the Transformation
When I was a sophomore in high school my English teacher told us that a story is something with “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” To this day I remember sitting in class thinking, So what? Everything does! A description of a chair has a beginning, middle, and end. But that’s not a story.
Over the years I’ve heard other teachers give this definition of a story, and, quite honestly, it’s not a very helpful one for people who are serious about improving their storytelling.
At its heart, a story is about a vulnerable character who faces a struggle and makes a discovery that changes his life. I like to tell people that a story is “transformation unveiled.”
So if your character is the same (emotionally, physically, relationally, spiritually, or psychologically) at the end of the story as she was at the beginning of the story, you don’t yet have a story; you simply have a list of events.
If your protagonist isn’t altered, your story isn’t finished.
In summary, create reader empathy and concern, develop meaningful struggles for the protagonist to overcome, continually tighten the tension, climactically resolve the conflict, and then show how the protagonist’s life is altered, and you’ll snag readers’ attention early and keep them engaged until the very last page.
RU Readers – how do you find ways for more things to go wrong for your characters?
Join us tomorrow to read an excerpt from Ann Charles’ Nearly Departed in Deadwood, followed at 8pm CST with a live chat!
Bio: Steven James has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling. He has written five critically acclaimed psychological suspense novels and taught writing and creative communication on three continents. Publishers Weekly calls him “[A] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”
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