My description of what I did this morning—while it may meet those commonly accepted criteria—contains no crisis, no struggle, no discovery, no transformation in the life of the main character. It’s a report, but it’s not a story.
Over the years as I’ve taught at writing conferences around the world, you should see some of the looks I’ve gotten when I tell people to stop thinking of a story in terms of its structure. And it’s easy to understand why.Spend enough time with writers or English teachers and you’ll hear the dictum that a story is something that has a beginning, middle and end. I know that the people who share this definition mean well, but it’s really not a very helpful one for storytellers. After all, a description of a pickle has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it’s not a story. The sentence, “Preheat the oven to 450 degrees,” has those basic elements, but it’s not a story either.
So then, what is a story?
Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an ending, the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event.
In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.
Of course, stories also need a vulnerable character, a setting that’s integral to the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and reader empathy. But at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.
Simply put, you do not have a story until something goes wrong.
At its heart, a story is about a person dealing with tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. Without forces of antagonism, without setbacks, without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret, then, to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is not to make more and more things happen to a character, and especially not to follow some preordained plot formula or novel-writing template. Instead, the key to writing better stories is to focus on creating more and more tension as your story unfolds.
Understanding the fundamentals at the heart of all good stories will help you tell your own stories better—and sell more of them, too. Imagine you’re baking a cake. You mix together certain ingredients in a specific order and end up with a product that is uniquely different than any individual ingredient. In the process of mixing and then baking the cake, these ingredients are transformed into something delicious.
That’s what you’re trying to do when you bake up a story.
So let’s look at five essential story ingredients, and then review how to mix them together to make your story so good readers will ask for seconds.
Ingredient #1: Orientation
The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient her to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce her to a protagonist she will care about, even worry about, and emotionally invest time and attention into. If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care about your story, either.
So, what’s the best way to introduce this all-important character? In essence, you want to set reader expectations and reveal a portrait of the main character by giving readers a glimpse of her normal life. If your protagonist is a detective, we want to see him at a crime scene. If you’re writing romance, we want to see normal life for the young woman who’s searching for love. Whatever portrait you draw of your character’s life, keep in mind that it will also serve as a promise to your readers of the transformation that this character will undergo as the story progresses.
For example, if you introduce us to your main character, Frank, the happily married man next door, readers instinctively know that Frank’s idyllic life is about to be turned upside down—most likely by the death of either his spouse or his marriage. Something will soon rock the boat and he will be altered forever. Because when we read about harmony at the start of a story, it’s a promise that discord is about to come. Readers expect this.
Please note that normal life doesn’t mean pain-free life. The story might begin while your protagonist is depressed, hopeless, grieving or trapped in a sinking submarine. Such circumstances could be what’s typical for your character at this moment. When that happens, it’s usually another crisis (whether internal or external) that will serve to kick-start the story. Which brings us to the second ingredient.
You can read more here: Writer's Digest
I'm not sure if I shared this second article with you or not...
And I'm not sure I could write 4 novels in six months, but I'd definitely give a good try. Have a read below...
This is the story of how I decided to publish four novels in six months. It begins with a general principle, which is that writing in any form—and certainly storytelling—is a means of communication. I have never subscribed to the belief that writers write solely for themselves.
Even Emily Dickenson, so reclusive that she rarely left her room, sent poems off to be published (although only a dozen or so appeared in print during her lifetime). This proves to me that she must have imagined a reader out there somewhere on the other side of the window for the 1,800 unpublished poems that she also wrote. Shyness couldn’t stop her voice from crying out through the tip of her pen. She wanted to be heard.
It is the same for all who write successfully, I think. (By success, I mean creating what we set out to create, not necessarily raking in the bucks.) We deeply desire to give voice to something within us, and we want someone out there to read our stories. How do we accomplish these twin goals?
As anyone knows who’s attempted to write, while stories still reside solely in our heads, they contain a kind of perfection that we rarely manage to preserve when we attempt to express them in print. And it’s the same with our efforts to bring them out into the light of day. In the perfect world, we can write whatever we want whenever we want to write it, and readers yearn for every word we produce. In the real world, we operate with constraints and may never get discovered.
As a novelist, I think it pays to be aware of the three aspects of the storyteller’s endeavor. First, every story begins with something that interests the author. Second, if storytelling is a form of communication, we must take account of the reader. Finally, an increasingly disrupted marketplace challenges us to find our audience — or, more to the point, to induce them to find us.
Sometimes I feel as if I have a new story idea every day. These stories might float up to me unbidden while I’m driving in the car or dozing off on the couch. But most of the time something instigates them. It could be an item in the news or another work of art or an experience I had. I’ll think, “That would make a great story,” and then I’ll mull over how I might go about telling it.
And then, most of the time, I don’t write that story. I could plead limitations of time — life intervening or some other writing project currently claiming my efforts — but the real reason most of these stories don’t happen is that they’re not ripe. Their day may come, but not yet. Some story ideas marinate this way for years.
Once in a while, however, a story idea comes along that I personally find so compelling I can’t get it out of my head. So it was with my new series, Bomb Squad NYC.
Five years ago, my wife, my daughter and I left the New York area for the Brandywine Valley outside Wilmington, Delaware, not far from Philadelphia. We left, but we didn’t leave with both feet, as we decided to buy a smaller house and throw in for an apartment in Manhattan’s West Village, which we visit with some regularity.ADangerToHimselfAndOthers-3dLeft-Trimmed
We love going to the theater in New York, seeing independent films, window shopping, and the whole foodie scene. Admittedly, we’re pretty spoiled, although the apartment is a petite one-bedroom, and when we’re all in town my daughter sleeps on a pull-out couch.
To the occasional visitor, New York must appear to be an overwhelming agglomeration, but it’s really a collection of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own personality and its quirks. The West Village has become known for its restaurants and access to the Hudson River park, but one of its less remarked-upon features resides in a pair of nondescript garages at the rear of the local police precinct.
When we walked past those closed garage doors we noticed painted shields upon them indicating the headquarters of the NYPD Bomb Squad. One summer evening, as we returned from dinner, we found the doors open wide with a number of cops (all detectives, I’ve since learned) hanging out with a dog in front of the response trucks. We had a nice chat, and they showed us the robots they use. I learned that this wasn’t any old bomb squad, it was the Bomb Squad — the one that strives to keep all of the city safe from explosive devices.
As we walked away from the garage that night, heading for our apartment, it hit me: These guys deserve their own series. Not, I hasten to add, because they’re heroes — although they are. But because, from my perspective as a novelist, their existence carries with it a motherlode of storytelling material that has largely remained untapped.
Lots of bombs go off in thrillers and other novels, of course, but the bomb guys typically get only subplots, if any acknowledgment at all. Few novelists have attempted to crawl inside their heads. I wanted to explore not only what these guys do—which can be highly technical—but how they think, the challenges they face, how they experience life.
For many months I couldn’t get the NYPD Bomb Squad out of my head (news flash: I still can’t!), and the more I thought about it, the more compelling the material looked to me. I decided to pursue the subject with all the vigor I could bring to it.
Read the full article here: Writer's Digest
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