Posted On April 13, 2011 by Print This Post

The Essence of Story by Steven James

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!

Steven James at Romance University
Stories are not lists of things that happen.

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!”

Aha. Yes.

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?

The Essence of Story by Steven JamesTension is built by raising the stakes, deepening the danger, and shortening the time available to complete the task at hand.

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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36 Responses to “The Essence of Story by Steven James”

  1. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for joining us at RU! Great post. Like Carrie, you’ve given me a different viewpoint of storytelling. I realized that I am focusing more on creating a list of events, especially in the discovery draft. I just want to get the core story down so I can go back and fix it.

    For me, coming up with the “What happens next?” is the most difficult part. I have difficulty seeing into the story’s future, which makes writing a synopsis a bit torturous.

    I’m printing out your post now to remind me what true storytelling is all about.


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | April 13, 2011, 4:31 am
  2. Hi Steven. Thank you for being with us today. I love the idea of building a story around a moral dilemma. I’ve been struggling with the external conflict for my next book and, after reading your post, I think I’m concentrating too much on what happens next vs. how it effects the characters.

    Now I need to see if I can use your tips to get out of the corner I wrote myself into yesterday!

    Great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 13, 2011, 6:28 am
    • I write myself into corners all the time. Not to discourage you, but with my newest book “The Queen” I had a scene that took me six months to figure out. In the end it was worth it. Trust the story. Keep asking the right questions. Continually re-evaluate the context and the answers will come.

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 7:52 am
  3. Thanks for this really great post Steven! I LOVE “transformation unveiled”. I’m putting that on a sticky note right now.

    I’ve always struggled with how to “make things worse” for my characters. The advice I’ve heard is to figure out the one thing that person would never do and force them into a situation where they have to do it. Usually my brain goes -“Oh, they’d never kill anyone,” or something equally dark. And I write romance novels. I have a hard time figuring out how to apply this to the romantic tension without delving into the moral questions you mention. Because that’s where I tend to go…Hey, maybe I’m just writing the wrong thing. 🙂

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 13, 2011, 7:10 am
    • Rather than ask what the person would never do, ask what the character loves the most; this will tell you what she fears the most. For example, if she loves freedom, then she will fear enslavement. If she loves security she will fear being thrown out alone into the world. Make her face her greatest fear. If she loves her child, take him away from her–he is kidnapped, he gets cancer, he rejects her love. Love is one of the keys to great conflict because it reveals the character’s greatest fear. This will help you craft sharper stories no matter what genre you write.

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 8:02 am
  4. Morning Steven!

    Excellent article! I’m another of those that will be printing it out to read over and over. =)

    Regarding character empathy – my books (romance) (and books might be too strong of a word at this point) usually start off with the alpha male. He’s bold, blustery, overwhelming. And it generally takes awhile before you see him start to change. I generally try to give him a little quirk so the reader can identify that maybe he’s not a totally perfect man (can’t program his blackberry, has a doofus dog, etc) but many times a reader will say oh! he’s totally unlikeable! Should I take that as a compliment at this point knowing his transformation hasn’t been unveiled? Or does an internal conflict, such as losing a wife eight months earlier help to make an alpha male seem more empathetic?

    I struggle with that one….

    Thanks so much for being here – I just loooooooove your view on story telling!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 13, 2011, 7:52 am
    • Character complexity is brought out by showing the different ways that character responds to different people. So, if he is an alpha male to everyone, he will be unlikable or one-dimensional. The protagonist in my novels, Patrick Bowers, always has the highest status at crime scenes and when he’s facing the bad guy. He will never give up or back down. However, he struggles with what to say to his love interest and how to manage his witty yet surly teen daughter. This brings out the dimensionality in his character.

      Keep the quirks in your alpha male but give him an emotional wound from the past or make him depressed, addicted to prescription drugs, anxious in crowds, etc… I think that will help.

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 8:09 am
  5. Hi Steven,

    Wonderful advice. I like the names of your books. One of my heroines is an avid chess player. She’s engaged to be married until he commits the mortal sin: he cheats and takes her Queen. Her family and friends don’t see why it matters. Even her coworkers think she’s being a sore loser. The definitions of honesty and fairness blur around her. Which causes a lot of problems for her.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 13, 2011, 8:19 am
    • Nice.

      But I should probably mention that my books “The Pawn,” “The Rook,” “The Knight,” and “The Bishop” aren’t about chess, even though each book does have a tangental connection to its title. The names help me frame the series and help readers look forward to the next one. They can guess that I won’t be done until the chess board is complete…

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 8:49 am
  6. Hi Steven – Thank you so much for this fabulous blog! I agree, the beginning-middle-end thing is done to death, and what does it even mean? In romance, the happy ending is in many ways the beginning of another unwritten story, so it doesn’t really “end” at all. I MUCH prefer your description of what constitutes a story. I should tattoo it on my hand so I don’t forget it while I’m writing!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | April 13, 2011, 8:30 am
  7. Thanks. I’m glad it was helpful. If you do get it tattooed on your send me an email of that. I’ll post it on my facebook fan page. 🙂

    Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 8:51 am
  8. Hi, Steven –

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me as I’m slogging into the middle of my current book and have been asking myself, what next?

    In response to Tracey’s question, you mentioned asking “What would the character naturally do here?” So do you allow the character to take that action, then the action creates the “get worse” scenario?

    What process–if any–do you use for coming up with your “make it worse” scenarios?

    Thanks so much for being at RU today,

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | April 13, 2011, 9:33 am
    • A character always has to act in a believable way. If she doesn’t it will cause the reader to ask “why doesn’t she just?” or “why would she do that?” As soon as that happens the reader is no longer emotionally present in the story.

      Of course there are some exceptions to this–namely when you are writing about a Master Detective. If your character does something unexpected, point that out to the reader: “I had no idea why she stomped out of the room, but I could tell something big was up,” “All right that was unexpected. Why would she say that anyway?” Something like that. Then the reader thinks, “Oh yes! I thought something was wrong, let’s find out what it was.” And she keeps reading.

      As far as “getting worse,” the whole story needs to keep moving in that direction, with the pace of that movement determined by the (1) importance of the scene, (2) the pace of the story at that point, (3) the placement of the scene in the overall sweep of the story.

      My process: As I mentioned in an earlier response, I ask what the character loves, but for my suspense novels I just ask myself the question: “What is the worst thing i can imagine happening to me?” For “The Bishop” I thought being buried alive would be the worse thing possible, but then I thought something even worse would be getting buried alive while strapped to a dead body (remember, I write thrillers!). Frankly, this question could be an entire blog by itself.

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 9:44 am
  9. Hi Steven. Excellent advice! I’m bookmarking this article for future reference. I always tell myself when writing “if the character didn’t change they didn’t learn anything. Do it again.” lol Best wishes!

    Posted by Sandi Sookoo | April 13, 2011, 9:43 am
  10. Hi Steven,
    In my current MS, I’ve been struggling with my main character’s internal conflict, not quite sure if I have it right yet or not. But when you asked what does the character LOVE the most, not what he FEARS the most, it helped me realize that I am on the right track. He loves XXX and I discovered I’ve been dancing around taking it away from him. I just need to flesh it out a bit more in the scenes I’ve already written.

    Thank you!

    Posted by Laurie London | April 13, 2011, 10:00 am
  11. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for a great post. So many things you said resonated with me. I struggle particularly with character change and have to beware of a spike at/near the end – I don’t have the arc under control. Yet.

    My first forays into the craft of writing came from websites, and one of the things I did was set up charts with key parameters to establish as part of the plotting/character development process. I’m happy to report I saw several of these in your post, and will be adding a few things from it to my chart.

    Can you talk a bit about managing the character arc?


    Posted by Cia | April 13, 2011, 10:21 am
    • I want to take my characters to the brink, really press them until they seem to be in an impossible situation. For me, the change in the character does not really happen slowly, but rather dramatically in the climax as they reach a moment of understanding or revelation. Up until then, I’m trying to drive them deeper and deeper into the struggle. Often, as they resolve the external struggle (which usually happens first) it gives them the impetus, understanding or resolve to tackle the internal one. (This all depends on the story, of course.)

      Posted by Steven James | April 13, 2011, 10:45 am
  12. Let me begin by saying that Steven James has mastered this method of storytelling. Read just one of his books, and you’ll see what I mean. Thanks for sharing with us, Steven.

    I like the idea of asking what the character fears the most. I’m working on understanding my heroine now and I feel as though she might get boring. I don’t want to throw things at her though, just to make her interesting. So thinking about her fears takes me in a different direction.

    Posted by PatriciaW | April 13, 2011, 11:49 am
  13. Your advice makes so much sense. I am not going to tattoo anything – instead I will write it on a post it note and attach it to the screen of my computer to keep on the right course. I learn so much each time I hear or read your advice.
    Thank you –

    Posted by Raquel M Martinez | April 13, 2011, 12:30 pm
  14. Gotta say. This is an amazing conversation happening here! It’s interesting to read what other writers are struggling with and know that I’ve experienced (or am currently experiencing!) the same thing.

    When is Steven coming back? 🙂

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 13, 2011, 12:53 pm
  15. lol…Steven – that’s two requests for you to come back soon and at least two of us getting tattooed….hopefully you’ll be able to squeeze us in your busy schedule again sometime soon! =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 13, 2011, 1:30 pm
  16. I’m late. Sorry. But didn’t want to head off without commenting on how much I enjoyed this post. Very helpful!
    Thank you!

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | April 14, 2011, 6:48 am
  17. Wow, day late or not, what great help… thanks Steven, and no, I’m not the tattoo type, but I am thinking about big block letters on the wall… THANK YOU!

    Posted by kc stone | April 14, 2011, 5:43 pm
  18. Just buy his book. It’s all in there and tons more good advice.

    I’ve read it twice. I’m getting ready to go back for another read.

    Posted by Brian Sommers | October 1, 2015, 8:58 am

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