A story is not just “a story”. It has structure, a certain way to move from A to B, a certain timing in the reveal of elements and is always written for a certain type of audience (as not everyone has the same taste or preferences).
I will try and summarize the most important parts in this post, taking complete freedom of choice and not (“in writing you should: bla bla”) dogma as starting point. This is currently (September, October, November 2013) a work in progress due to the countless aspects that make a story. So things will be added and modified in time (where I assumed things from memory and mixed things up).
A dogma is an idea or principle with a very limited and fixed set of beliefs. In short: a certain thing has to be (done) in a certain way, otherwise it is not real / true / appropriate / correct. Reality usually agrees only very partially with the “truths” in a dogma.
Freedom of choice
In freedom of choice any opinion (including yours and including the ones presented as “truth” or “the truth”) is just that: an opinion. You take, use and ignore those opinions of others in any way that pleases you and you can do whatever you want to do with that.
As any choice can lead to damage, no change or better results, it is up to you to find out what the best options are. Usually by consulting several other sources and doing (at least some basic) research.
The ‘truth’ for writing
Writing and publishing are so-called “soft sciences” with an incredible broad range of “truths”. In short: what is amazingly successful for Person X of audience A in setting/culture/subculture B will totally not work for Person Y of audience C in setting/culture/subculture D and the other way around. None of these people and/or groups are “right” or “wrong”, but simply have different reference fields, preferences, backgrounds and/or belief systems.
So take into note that when you read posts like this one, and / or other sources, the information presented is always from a very specific point of view within a very specific field. Mine is Science Fiction and intro/outrospective stories, coming from a European culture, with an additional love and respect for pulp and action-adventure stories.
This post presents you my personal view and opinion on writing in a very compressed and summarized form. It might be helpful for you. It is also possible you have other sources that do their job better than I do here.
How to approach this
What you have here is a almost shapeless blob of information. A basket full of categorized parts you can assemble in many ways and many forms. If your question is: “can I do A with B1, B4 and B6 shaping it like X1 but also alternating to Y2 and Z8 and using a three-act structure” the answer is: “yes”. If your question is: “can I do it differently and use a structure without any clearly defined set of acts?”, the answer is “yes” as well. There is no fixed form. There is no fixed type of narrative.
Most writers, I think, start from an idea and the feeling they get with that idea. From that comes the question: “How can I shape this story as best as I can?”
I think most writers drive on instinct. They know most of the theory either subconciously or conciously and just move with their best feeling.
You can also deliberately pick combinations (which might be challenging for you, for instance) and shape and write your story from there.
The way I do it, usually
I simply start writing once the story is clear. I let the characters speak for themselves. I usually choose beforehand what type of chronology (linear, scattered, reversed), what type of line I follow (linear, non-linear, open/closed ending, closed loop, looping), past/present tense and from what perspective (first, second, third, first-plural). I also decide the type of story (experimental/excercise, for a specific audience). The perspective can change when the story asks for a more distant (third person) or more close (first person or subjective third) approach. During the writing-process it becomes clear what shape it takes. From there I can decide which direction I want to take it further.
Editing and revising the story is the place where I start becoming more technical.
Some starting points
- Well written / well crafted work is not necessarily successful
- Badly/poorly written work can become bestsellers (10 000, 100 000 buyers and more)
- Poorly written work will not automatically become a bestseller
- Most bestsellers hook into some field of human interest that is triggered and/or not satisfied enough by already existing work: “the gap” or “the craving”. This “gap” or “craving” can be or become an entire genre on its own.
- Not everyone aims to be a bestseller-writer.
- Most writers hope to become successful.
- The specific definition and the specific levels of success are very personal matters. (Reality has proven that yours is probably not mine.)
The importance of language
Language has several aspects. I name five:
- Structure — How sentences are built. How ideas are expressed in the order and choice of words and sentences.
- Meaning — Words have associated meaning. Some words have several associated meanings, depending on the context. Some words express a certain nuance on a certain associated meaning.
- Correct way of writing — Words are written in specific ways. “Woords” is a wring way. “Words” is the proper way.
- Past, present, future tense — To name three: defining in what context the elements of a story or thesis is placed. Did it happen already? Is it happening now? Will it (probably / mayby / hopefully) happen in the future?
- Rhythm and tension — Words have rhythm. Sentences have rhythm. Paragraphs have rhythm. Certain words and groups of words create tension, in the shape of curiosity / projection (Why this specific word? What is going to happen next?). This can be upbeat tension (something exiting!) and downbeat tension (something tragic / sad / horrible…) or neutral tension (nothing will happen for a while).
Each of these five aspects are part of your building blocks. They help you construct your story, make it exciting or boring, gripping or repulsive. The better your understanding and mastery is of each, the richer you will be able to present your story.
Playing with language
By understanding language and playing with language you can build:
- Atmosphere — What can we expect? What feeling do we get as we progress reading? Look at the way horror-stories do this in different ways from love stories and how writers use atmosphere to build towards specific key-scenes. The build-up towards one where the main characters will end up making love is another from where one will abandon the other (for example)
- Pace and tempo — How slow/fast is your story progressing? How easy can your sentences be read and digested?
- High pace / high tempo — Parts where you almost tear through the pages, reading as fast as you can, absorbing the words and sentences like you are a car driving full speed.
- Low pace / slow tempo — Parts where the story slows down, becomes slow, takes some effort to read. Where you stop from time to time, taste each sentence (or have to force yourself to read and even re-read each single word).
- Breakpoints — These are parts where the writing literally stops you. Where you are forced to stop and step back and get back in again. When the writer knows what he or she is doing, these breakpoints help you to shift in a different mode: giving the next part of writing more impact. When you haven o clue what you are doing, breakpoints are the points where your reader simply switches off and stops reading your story.
What comes into play in each of these four elements (and there are more, but those are out of scope of this blog post) is your mastery of language: words, word-choice, rhythm, meaning / nuance, tension, structure and tense all play a role in this and the better you master these basic building blocs of the language you write in, the more effective you will be able to convey your story.
- Lyrical / flowery — Think of long sentences with a lot of adverbs and adjective. A building is not just a building. It has at least two or three extra defining aspects like “majestic” “colorful” and so on. Lyrical stories sing and praise the beauty and ugliness of what is described.
- Angry / aggressive / abrasive — Angry / aggressive / abrasive stories all have a certain vibe in common. The world is not OK. The people in that story-world are not OK. And this lack of OK-ness is not acceptable (at all). The words and sentences and events reflect this resistance against the ugliness / abuse / whatever that is addressed in the story.
- Happy / uplifting / humorous — Happy / uplifting / humorous stories are written in such way that they can give you release and a feeling of joy. Once done reading, you might find yourself smiling.
- Cynical / sarcastic — Cynical / sarcastic stories usually take “truisms” and strive to destroy them. Whatever you thought was / is, is questioned and approached with a negative. While the beat can be anything from uplifting to aggressive, the underlying current is that of destruction of “what is true”
- Depressing / sad / down-pouring — Depressing / sad / down-pouring stories are kind of like the stories where the cynical / sarcastic writer lost his/her anger and/or wit. Almost everything is a lie but there is nothing to counter and uplift the depressive or sad remainders of that finding.
- Hyper — The hyper story ruthlessly moves at 200 kilometer per hour. There is no time to breath. Events follow each other with machine-gun speed.
- Slow / meandering — The slow / meandering story takes its time to unfold. Where hyper is like a bullet train, she slow / meandering story is like a walk in the countryside. While being looked upon now as “too slow” it has qualities (revealing more about the surroundings, taking time for detail) more hyper stories do not.
- Neutral — These stories do not take an emotional stand. It is up to the reader to define and decide whether the emotion to the story and words is sadness, joy, anger and/or whatever.
- Contemplative — Contemplative stories focus on the idea and ideas of characters and behind the events in that story. They take time to question: why? how? when? what for?
- Subdued — Here the voice of the writer is so soft that you can hardly hear it. While the events unfold clearly, you have no idea where the writer stands until (for instance) a key moment happens and all that has been building up before suddenly hits you.
Naturally you can combine elements. A story can be contemplative, hyper, aggressive / abrasive, lyrical and neutral from time to time.
Type of story
What type and style of story will you be writing?
- Comedy — Is your story going to be funny? Why? How? In what way? Will you use (funny) situations? Smart (funny) conversations? Is the comedy of the happy type? Of the bitter type? Physical comedy? Auditory comedy? Verbal comedy?
- Tragedy — Is the centerpoint of your story human suffering? Loss? Certain aspects of loss? And in what is that suffering reflected? Actions? Deeds? Words? Emotions? How? Anger? Sadness? Grief? Mourning? Denial? How explicit or implicit?
- Improvisation / experimental — Do you know where the story will go to? How it will end the monent you start? If not: you are improvising. As a style, improvisation / experimental stories can lead to new and interesting forms of storytelling. Like with any style, you can really fuck op big time as well.
- Monologue and dialog — In monologues and dialogues, your main character(s) are not moving or hardly moving at all. The drama — if it is there at all — is revealed through their speech and/or storytelling by your character.
- Drama — Drama is based on the Greek word of “action” and is basically any story in which your characters move around and are forced to make decisions to stay out of (more) trouble or reach their goal. In drama the motivation for characters to act can be both internal and external.
- Melodrama — Melodrama is a specific form of drama in which the characters are explicitly put into danger (or a difficult situation) that forces them to act. The motivation for characters in melodrama is explicitly external (a danger, a situation the characters wants or needs to get out of)
Who do you write for? Who is your audience?
- The no time / impatient / overloaded reader — The impatient / overloaded reader wants you — the writer — to get to the point as soon as possible. There are many other things asking for his/her attention. If, after two pages, it still is unclear what the story is about, the impatient / overloaded reader will simply discard your story and do something else that seems more interesting or rewarding.
- The patient reader — This reader has time and will read you work. He or she will forgive your errors and read until the end. Don’t count on this reader to be your majority audience.
- The impulse-craving reader — This reader wants impulses. He/she wants to be stimulated and to be stimulated over and over during your story. The moment you start to slow down and stop creating new impulses, you lose this reader.
- The depth-craving reader — For this reader, constant impulse is not enough. Stories need to have something more, something to think about. Something disruptive, maybe even.
- The outsider — This reader is an outsider within current or past social groups. He or she craves stories in which his/her live and opinions are reflected, acknowledged (in the most perfect case) and respected.
- The single-minded reader — This reader has a very specific preference for a very specific topic or theme. If you are able to hit that topic or theme and write well enough about it, he or she will make the effort to read it. If your story does not hit the topic or theme, that reader will discard your story. Note that this “single topic / theme” can be a genre or a specific objects. Science Fiction is such a topic/theme. Horses another. Murder mysteries another.
- The omnivorous reader — This reader reads anything and everything available. There is no hard filter. One reason can be that the omnivorous reader has a broad interest, wants to know as many points of view on a subject as possible or simply likes to read anything available.
- Joe / Jane Average — Joe and Jane Average represent roughly 80% of the human population. Joe / Jane like things they already know and already like. More of the same is very much OK, as long as it feels “fresh enough”. New things are not easily embraced and take effort they will only take when pushed by others. They do not demand high quality or authors to take risks, as long as the work is enjoyable. They are kind of boring. And kind of stable in their wishes. Writing for Jane / Joe can lead to producing bestsellers if you can appeal to their taste and if you can create something that is readable, exciting/engaging and “new” while still being safe, not too complex and not too challenging for the personal beliefs Joe and Jane hold. Writers who appeal to Joe/Jane are writers like Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling (with Harry Potter).
Jane/Joe average can be a patient, single minded reader with an occasional preference for outsider-stories. A single-minded reader can be omnivorous when it concerns a certain subject of interest. And so on.
Determining the requirements related to reading behavior
One single reader can have different behaviors and expectations when using different types of media.
- Online versus offline — Reading online is usually done with a different mindset than reading offline. Offline allows an stimulates more patience with a story. Stories can develop over a bigger word-count and can be longer in lenght. Online stories compete with all kinds of other media only one tab away. Also the mindset of the user while behind a screen is different and probably less dedicated to invest.
- Slush piles and contests — Readers of slush piles and (story) contests have to wade through roughly 90% of very poorly written work. Their mind is like that of an online reader: scanning and skimming your work to see if it is worth the investment of reading. To get through it definitively helps when your work is gripping and focused.
- Books and e-readers — Books and e-readers invite readers to focus on one single thing: the story. The reading behavior is more deliberate and more patient/forgiving. Reading happens in a deliberately chosen moment dedicated to reading. You can build stories for this medium that take more time to develop and have a lower impulse rate and are less written to please the impatient reader.
- Magazines / e-magazines — Magazines are somewhere in between. You are part of several other forms of content. The reader is not dedicating him/herself to reading stories alone. Your story, therefore, is competing with other content of other types. You need to be gripping and giving enough impulses to keep the reader. Readers of magazines will probably be a bit more patient than readers online.
- Action — in this type of stories, the focus lies on action. Introspection is used to serve action. Descriptions of people and events are used to motivate the character, form the decisions that lead to new action and support the action. Mostly: pulp-fiction, action movies, adventure books.
- Introspection — In this type of stories, also labelled as ‘psychological’ stories, introspection and what comes out of that (possibly through actions, responses and events) is the main driving element. Mostly: works of literature and ‘literary fiction’.
- Outrospection / observation — In these type of stories, the main element is the observation of certain events or objects. Characters and actions are there to serve and perform that observation and used to convey and reflect certain ideas and reach certain conclusions. Mostly: works of literature and ‘literary fiction’.
- Investigation / truth-finding — In investigatory stories, observaton has a specific goal and purpose: to find the answer, the truth, the real nature of things that have happened. Think of detectives and thrillers.
- Theme / subject centered — In these kind of stories, all revolves around the investigation of a certain theme or subject. Actions, opinions and events all serve a deeper reveal and investigation of that theme or subject. Mostly: literary works and ‘literary fiction’.
- (Wish) fulfillment — In these stories, some sort of wish-fulfillment is done. Characters, scenes and expressions all serve the fulfillment (or not) of a specific wish. Porn is one specific example of this kind of stories.
- Experimental / exercise — In these stories, you focus on breaking some of the molds you have been using until then. Always writing in past-tense third person linear? Time to try something future-tense, first person plural, non-linear looping. These stories might be fit for some audiences, but also might require more work than usual to make them good enough / acceptable for that audience.
- Broken promise — In stories where you make a promise (“we go to the museum”) and do not deliver (“we went to the park”), we have a story with a broken promise and a potential disappointing/frustrating ending for the reader. The broken promise itself is a completely legit instrument and quite common, as long as you offer something that is large enough to compensate for the broken promise. The earlier you introduce the replacement-element and the better that replacement is, the bigger the chance your story will succeed in pleasing your reader.
Naturally combinations are possible and usually made. One can write an intro- and outrospective wish-fulfilling action novel centered around a theme and several sub-themes instead of characters or action. (Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci code”)
Choosing perspective / point of view
- First person — Or “I”. First person allows you to get “inside” the character. All thoughts, all motivations can be revealed to the reader if you like. Disadvantage fo the first person is that he/she/it only knows what he/she/it observes / learns / experiences
- Second person — Or “you”. Second person perspective can be used to either indicate the reader, as if the writer is directly speaking to you and about you, or a second person the main character is focused on.
- Third person — Or “he/she”. Third person perspective allows the writer to take a step back and offer a wider perspective on events that from “close up” as is the case with first and second person.
- Third person objective — This view is also called “camera perspective” and only describes what factually happens and factually is spoken. No speculations are made about thoughts or things happening offstage and out of view.
- Third person omniscient — Or “god perspective”. This perspective is written rom the point of view of the all-knowing observer. He or she (the observer) knows all that is going on in the story world, including things happening ofstage and in all the minds of all the people in the story world.
- Third person subjective — This perspective is like a camera riding on the shoulder of your characters. You can hear their thoughts (if described), see what they see, but everything offstage is hidden for this camera.
- First person plural — Or “we”. In this perspective the “I” is part of a greater collective.
You can mix this in any form possible, including shifting perspective from and into each of the four and each of the sub types mentioned above.
Motivation or: what drives your story and your characters?
- Internal motivation — There is something in your character that drives him or her to action. this can be anything related to anything: including an external motivation. Without any internal motivation, or with a weak internal motivation your character becomes an Alice in Wonderland-type of character: being pushed around by the writer and the story and without any real character or real personality.
- External motivation — This is any factor from outside that forces your character to move and act. Both drama and melodrama contain several elements that act as an external motivation (setting your character and your story in motion). The magnitude/urgency of that motivation (your mother/child/dog is kidnapped! It is a matter of life or death detemined by your actions!) which defines whether your story becomes melodrama or not.
- Personality / character — The personality and the character of your character defines the specific internal motivation of a character and the specific way your characters will respond to an external motivation: What type of person is he/she/it? How would he/she/it normally respond on this kind of situations? Is he/she/it used to this kind of situations or not? Is he/she/it resourceful, rigid, optimistic, pessimistic, cynical? All these elements define how stage and setting will result in specific actions performed by your characters.
Cliche and archetype
- Archetypes — Archetypes are like the “grand version” of a specific type of character that anyone can relate to. “The warrior” is one. “The lover” another. “The thief” yet another. Each of these archetypes has a specific set of defining and dominant characteristics but can be filled in with any other traits as well. You can have a “Lover / warrior” or “Warrior / lover” or “Lover / asshole / caretaker / coward / warrior” as well, where the dominance of the traits are in order of appearance of the archetypical qualities and some traits will only emerge when the trigger is strong enough.
- Cliche — The cliche (in characters) is the type of “archetype” that is very one-sided. “All warriors are like THIS”. “Lovers always behave so and so”. The countless variations in what your specific use and depiction of an archetype could be is limited to one specific set of traits that is already been used and repeated by countless writers and story-tellers before you.
- The dogmatic cliche that is confused as an archetype — The dogmatic cliche is where the cliche of an archetype has become a fake archetype on its own. “A warrior never cries over sad things” can be such a dogmatic cliche. Why not? Why can your warrior not be the most sensitive person on earth? Because: “such a warrior does not exist”?
Building the story / structure, part 1
Building the structure of a story has several aspects. I will give you the main ones which recur almost in every aspect
- Timing / order — When will you reveal what? How long do we have to wait for you to spill the beans? Will we find your central element in the beginning, the middle or the end of the story? And why? For instance: some stories start with the reveal of the main element, then build from that. Others build up to the reveal and only give it in the very last chapter.
- Pace and tempo — How slow/fast is your story progressing? How easy can your sentences be read and digested? Do you use a lot of long sentences and difficult words?
- Timing of partial reveals — How much time will there between partial revealings? Every 300 words? Every 700 woords? Every 1200 words? the longer the time/wordage between, the slower your story becomes. (See rhythm before)
- Promise and delivery — The “promise” in this case is “what the story is about and what it will bring you”. A horror-story ahs another type of promise (it will be scary) than a biography (i.e. it will reveal things you did not know about this person).
- Timing of promise and delivery — Where and when will you make your promise and delivery? What will that be? How big? How clearly? Are you explicit in your promise to what and what kind of story your reader will read? Is that promise hidden?
- Number of acts — “Youth, professional life and old age of John Smith” can be the three acts your story. An act (usually) is a rounded part around a certain theme, starting somewhere, ending somewhere and opening the road to the next act (for instance) with a new or more concrete problem posed during several scenes in that act. Most commonly promoted and used:
- Three acts — with (for instance) the central themes: 1) conflict, 2) complication / obstacle, 3) resolution / conclusion.
- Five acts — Centering around five parts with (usually) these themes: 1) exposition, 2) rising action, 3) climax, 4) falling action, and 5) dénouement.
- Magnitude — The magnitude is the “size” of your reveal. How big is it? What will be the impact? Who will be affected? What volume will you play this? How much or little bombast will you use to get there? Some stories will work perfectly well with almost under-cooled elements. Others work due to their gutsy use of bombast: using a lot of exposure and explosions and things falling apart in whatever form possible.
- Scope — How narrow or wide is the scope of your story? Is it world-spanning, universe-spanning or does it play in one single room? What is the scope of your themes? Are they small themes? Huge and sweeping themes? Universal themes?
- Way of exposure — How do you expose your elements? Do you show them “on screen”, for instance by putting people in certain situations? Or do you show them “off screen” and do you expose them, for instance, by people talking about it or by people responding to the consequences of the actions related to those elements / themes / topics?
- Number of characters and point of views — How many characters will fulfill a role? And what kind of role? Will the offer a point of view? In what way? How will that help show certain / different aspects of your story?
- Audience — If you had full control over all things, who would then read your story? What is their average reading-pile? What is their field of reference? What is their profile? What is their set of expectations towards your story? How does this reflect towards all the elements mentioned above? Towards the story you will build and the structure you will use?
- Risk and ‘fan-fiction’ — How much risk are you willing to take in your work? Are you willing to risk having no readers at all by expressing your very own voice? Or do you rather follow the safe path by following the structures already put into place by your favorite author? (Successively creating “fan fiction” that reflects all elements of your literary heroes.)
Acts are a useful way to break your story into meaningful parts that have a clear and closed structure. They also invite for very formulatic / templated writing. While most stories will follow a specific buildup, that buildup is usually a bit more organic using long and short arcs instead of acts. Each arc is a specific theme / event to happen. Each arc can be easily weaved into the story in any way possible, leaving the somewhat rigid concept of “acts”.
Building the story, part 2
- Chronology — In what order will you place the events that happened in linear time? There are several options
- Linear forward — The story unfolds as history unfolds
- Linear forward with flash forwards/flash backwards — Here the main story is still linear but we have either/or flash-forwards and flash backwards to grab back to things happened and foreshadow things to come
- Backward — Less common. The story starts with the ending and goes back in time to go to the source of the event (for instance)
- Scattered / non-linear — The story has a scattered / non-linear time line. Not due to flash-back, but due to the fact that chapter 2 actually jumps back or forward in time as the “now” in which the story plays. The narrative in such stories is (for instance) determined by something that binds those moments and in which not the events but the binding element defines the order in which the events of the story are placed.
- Type of story line — The story-line is not the same as chronology. It describes the chain of events that form the story itself. This chain can be non-linear in time but linear and even circular in the unfolding of the events of the narrative.
- Open ended — The open ended story line suggests the story is not ended at all. Cliff-hangers are open-ended story lines. Open ended story linestrigger one specific part of the brain that wants and even NEEDS to resolve a problem, find an answer.
- Closed — The closed story line answers the question(s) raised during the unfolding of your story. At the end, all mysteries are resolved (except maybe one…)
- Closed looped / circular — Closed looped or circular narrative hooks back into the beginning. The end — in some ways — is also the beginning. Maybe not all questions are answered or seem to be answered, but when you go back to the beginning of the story and start reading again, (for instance) new information is revealed to you that you overlooked before, making it a different story.
- Linear — Linear story lines follow the chain of events as they happen. See also “chronology”. There is one difference with a chronological line: the linear story line does not necessarily follow a linear chronology. A linear story-line can follow a non-linear time line, for instance: jumping through time to reveal the linear chain of events that happened leading to a certain outcome.
- Looping — The story has several “loops” where it “loops back” on itself and takes a certain moment or scene to reveal other aspects of that moment or scene. Stories with multiple points of view, each telling their own version of a specific moment is one example of that.
- Scattered / non-linear — Scattered / non-linear story lines follow a different type of approach based on (for instance) more thematic reveal. We deliberately create a mess of events that is only bound / brought together towards the end or in a major or minor event. The story itself is a puzzle. It requires the attention of the reader to find and recognize the clues. Stories with two or more points of view can be scattered. Epic fantasy usually follows a scattered / non-linear narrative. The scattering can be mild, medium or extreme.
In general, a linear story (or story with clear linear aspects) is easier to read and digest for the audience. Things follow each other in a logical order and due to that the story is not very demanding.
Non-linear and looping stories are less common and usually require a lot more planning and effort to make them work for the reader. Also: these kind of stories require a lot more investment from the reader as you force him/her to not just consume but also actively create the parts you are not explicitly showing. As a writer you need to assure you do not lose your reader in all the scattering and looping. Your biggest enemies are: boring or unrealistic subject/narrative/characters, irrelevant reveals (for the reader) and messy/unclear/unfocused execution.
The plot is a summary of all main events and characters in your story and how these are related to each other. It describes the start and ending and tells how themes and other elements are worked into the story and where they will emerge.
- Beginning, middle, end — The most classic form of story-structure. The beginning sets the stage. Where are we? Who are the key players? What are the key story-elements? Where will we go to? Why? It is the part wher you plan your trip. The middle is everything that happens from that point on: once we set all the basics for our travel. It is the part where you leave the house and start the travel. In this “middle” anything can happen. Including the trip not taking place at all. What counts is HOW these events affect your characters. The end is where you wrap things up. Where you look back at the beginning and (kind of) summarize (but then in proper story form and without being a bore) what did and did not come true of the trip.
- The type of journey — What type of journey will the story be? What will be most important? The trip itself? The goal that has been set? Is there a goal at all? Why go on a journey at all?
- The type of story — What type of story are you crafting? Drama? Melodrama? Dialog / monologue? Linear? Non-linear? Circular? Looping back on itself?
- The scope — Does it have an apic setting? A limited setting (all in one place or even one single room)? Something in between? How many voices will we read? One? Two? Ten? How many chapters? How many words?
- The characters — What type of characters will you use? What is their personality? What drives them?
- Long story arcs — How many long arcs will you have? Where do they start? What shape do they have? How many bends and twists are there in each arc? Where do they cross and intersect? Where do they end? Which one is your primary arc? Which are secondary and tertiary?
- Short story arcs / timing — How do you plan your short story arcs? (Usually these arcs are within a scene or between two scenes). What should they present? How? Why? How fast? With what frequency?
- Relevance — How relevant are these elements in your arcs for your story? How relevant for the reader? Why? How can you make sure that this story-relevance is clear within your story world? What tools can you use to convey this relevance in effective manners to your reader?
Whether you stat with a plot or simply let the story happen, the elements above will emerge from your story.
I personally hardly write my plots. I usually write down the main elements and events I want to work out in my stories and let the story fold and unfold itself around it. The idea is that real life works the same way. You can make any plan, but life itself is something that happens with or without a plan. When revising I kind of re-construct the elements that make the story into a coherent and strong whole.
When writing I take into account that all things and developments need to be consistent and that things and developments have their own stubborn logic that define whether I can let something happen in this or in that way, or not at all. A person who is sad one moment can’t be completely happy one moment later, unless I can find a very good and plausible reason (like drugs or some kind of mental weirdness) that is consistent with the character’s background and the world and setting of the story.
A “good” story: the matter of craft and quality
What makes a story a “good” story? The opinions on this are very subjective and differ per genre and subgenre and more precisely: per reader. the very same story can be considered: “complete and boring crap” by one reader and “totally awesome mindblowing work” by another. Where that work can be either the biggest collection of cliche ever put together, or the most literary deep work ever produced in history.
Let’s distill the main elements
- Gripping — Does your story grip your specific type of reader? When the reader reads a random sentence in your work, whether it is the first or wherever, does this sentence grab the reader, move him or her immediately to the next?
- Depth of exposure — Are you digging deep enough in yourself, showing enough for that “ideal” reader to start reading and keep reading? And keep in mind that “reader A” is not “reader B” Are you living that story yourself? Can you smell the asphalt, the flowers and the dirt? Can you feel the breeze on your skin as you write about it? Can you hear the voices as your characters speak?
- Engaging / moving — Does your story engage the reader? Do the characters and the elements come to live? Move the reader forward? Do your elements move your reader. When sad, happy, funny or angry things happen, is that also experienced as such by the reader?
- Structure and timing — Do you pay attention to your structure and your timing? Did you think about several options to reveal certain things on different places? Did you think about the most effective way and place to reveal your main elements to grab your reader, to keep your specific type of reader going?
- Words and sentences — How careful are you in the words you use? How many errors and mistakes do you make? How well do you master the words and the language in which you write?
On timing, relevance and precision
In times where books and short stories were scarce, anything went. as a writer you could get away with long sentences, mediocre writing, boring essays within your story, taking a slow start and only picking up the pace 60 pages later.
Right now, your story competes with thousands of other stories from thousands of other writers. This means that you need to be sharp and precise. When I pick up your story, I need to know as soon as possible what I can expect from you.
- Taking time — It is OK to take time in revealing your main elements. As long as you give me something to be entertained. Also important is that your buildup is clear and relevant. Don’t bore me with stuff you will never get back to.
- Being relevant — Each scene you write needs to serve the story and the themes you write about in some sense. If you can’t defend a scene’s relevance in the grander scheme of your themes and story-development, it is probably just you riding your pony.
- The relativity of relevance — While one reader will not give a shit about certain pieces you describe and write about, another will hate you when you leave it out, as the crux of the story for him or her is exactly that part.
- Starting with the conclusion / revelation — In some stories, you’ll find the conclusion in the last chapter. “The brother did it”. The story itself moves towards that reveal, moving us left and right and using that reveal as the bait / carrot on the stick. But what if the end / the core idea of your story is actually the beginning of your story? One thing it does is throwing your reader immediately and deeply into your writing.
- Being clear and precise — To be clear and precise means first of all that you know what you want to write and for what specific reader before you start. Who is your specific reader? What does he or she expect? The second part is to cut all fluff. To cut vague sentences, pointless rambling about irrelevant side-elements. The third part is to use as little words and sentences as possible to reach your goal at that point in your story. In short: focus on what is relevant, use as little amount of words as possible to land your point as effectively as possible.
Repetition is essential for one part of your story and killing for other parts as you will lose your reader.
- Define what is relevant — What is relevant in your story? What needs to be repeated? What not? Why? Why not?
- The law of three — The law of three is this: when a certain element is relevant / essential in your story, mention it three times. There are two parts to this “law”: 1) foreshadowing the event and 2) making sure your reader starts understanding (by repetition) that this specific element (a gun, a specific trait, a specific event) is relevant. If you do not foreshadow a certain reveal, it will feel like you made it up there and then. It will feel like it popped out of nowhere. By making it seem relevant, the moment you reveal why, will feel like a confirmation to the reader: “I KNEW this was relevant!”.
- The power and pitfall of foreshadowing — A foreshadow is a hint of what can be expected later. Foreshadows are repeating elements pointing towards a certain reveal. For instance: “the house creaked. The hallway was dark and gloomy. John felt eery.” is such foreshadow. We are given a hint something might be happening. If there is no follow-up, we will discard it. However: “When Mary entered the house, the light in the hallway stuttered and then went out and something went down with a loud bang.” repeats something is going on with or in the hallway, raising the relevance of the hallway itself.
- Overdoing it — Repeat your foreshadows too much without getting to the point and that very element will become ridiculous. While you think it is important for the story and because you do not want the reader to miss the point once you reveal it, you might want to repeat that element more than three times. The risk is that you give the reader the idea that you think he/she is an idiot.
- Repeating irrelevant things — Repetition creates expectation. If you repeat irrelevant elements and you continue to do that, you are creating false expectations. This can be deliberate, to derail the mind of the reader and to hide certain things in plain sight, but it can also be just bad writing. You being unfocused. You riding your pony. If the elements you repeat are not relevant for your story but they are relevant for you as a writer, limit yourself to only 2 moments and spread those moments through your story.