3 Secrets to Great Storytelling
As a novelist and writing instructor, I’ve noticed that three of the most vital aspects of story craft are left out of many writing books and workshops. Even bestselling novelists stumble over them.
But they’re not difficult to grasp. In fact, they’re easy.
And if you master these simple principles for shaping great stories, your writing will be transformed forever. Honest. Here’s how to do it.
CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE KING.
Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it.
Now, this sounds like an almost embarrassingly obvious observation, and when I mention it in my writing seminars I don’t often see people furiously taking notes, muttering, “Man, are you getting this stuff? This is amazing!” But humor me for a few minutes. Because you might be surprised by how more careful attention to causation will improve your writing.
As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that.
When a reader tells you that he couldn’t put a book down, often it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and telegraph your weaknesses as a writer.
Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and the protagonist is at home alone. You might write:
With trembling fingers she locked the door. She knew the killer was on the other side.
But, no. You wouldn’t write it like that.
Because if you did, you would fracture, just for a moment, the reader’s emotional engagement with the story as he wonders, Why did she reach out and lock the door? Then he reads on. Oh, I get it, the killer is on the other side.
If you find that one sentence is serving to explain what happened in the sentence that preceded it, you can usually improve the writing by reversing the order so that you render rather than explain the action.
It’s stronger to write the scene like this:
Cause: The killer is on the other side of the door.
Effect: She locks it.
Think about it this way: If you’ve written a scene in which you could theoretically connect the events with the word “because,” then you can typically improve the scene by structuring it so that you could instead connect the events with the word “so.”
Take the example about the woman being chased by the killer:
If written in this order, the sentence moves from effect to cause. However:
Here, the stimulus leads naturally to her response.
Of course, most of the time we leave out the words because and so, and these are very simplified examples—but you get the idea.
Remember in rendering more complex scenes that realizations and discoveries happen after actions, not before them. Rather than telling us what a character realizes and then telling us why she realizes it—as in, “She finally understood who the killer was when she read the letter”—write it this way: “When she read the letter, she finally understood who the killer was.” Always build on what has been said or done, rather than laying the foundation after the idea is built. Continually move the story forward, rather than forcing yourself to flip backward to give the reason something occurred.
One last example:
This paragraph is a mess. As it stands, at least seven events occur, and none are in their logical order. Here is the order in which they actually happened:
1. Greg sits in the workshop.
2. He realizes he’s heard all this before.
3. Boredom ensues.
4. Doodling ensues.
5. Greg gets called on.
6. Embarrassment ensues.
7. He gulps and stares around the room
Each event causes the one that follows it.
Your writing will be more effective if you show us what’s happening as it happens rather than explain to us what just happened.
With all of that said, there are three exceptions, three times when you can move from effect to cause without shattering the spell of your story.
First, in chapter or section breaks. For example, you might begin a section by writing:
Immediately, the reader will be curious who is screaming, at whom she is screaming, and why. This would make a good hook, so it’s fine (good, even!) to start that way. If this same sentence appeared in the middle of a scene in progress, though, it would be wiser to move from cause to effect:
“How could you do this to me?” she screamed.
And the final exception is when you write a scene in which your character shows his prowess by deducing something the reader hasn’t yet concluded. Think of Sherlock Holmes staring at the back of an envelope, cleaning out the drainpipe and then brushing off a nearby stick of wood and announcing that he’s solved the case. The reader is saying, “Huh? How did he do that?” Our curiosity is sparked, and later when he explains his deductive process, we see that everything followed logically from the preceding events.
IF IT’S NOT BELIEVABLE, IT DOESN’T BELONG.
The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable.
In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story.
The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.
Let’s say you create a world in which gravity doesn’t exist. OK, if you bring the world to life on the page and through your characters, the reader will accept that—but now she’ll want you to be consistent. As soon as someone’s hair doesn’t float above or around her head, or someone is able to drink a cup of coffee without the liquid floating away, the consistency of that world is shattered. The reader will begin to either lose interest and eventually stop reading, or will disengage from the story and begin to look for more inconsistencies—neither of which you want her to do.
All else being equal, as soon as readers stop believing your story, they’ll stop caring about your story. And readers stop believing stories when characters act inexplicably.
When I’m shaping a story, I continually ask myself, “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”
And then I let him do it.
Because the reader, whether he’s conscious of it or not, is asking the same question: “What would this character naturally do?”
As soon as characters act in ways that aren’t believable, either in reference to their characterizations or to the story’s progression, the reader loses faith in the writer’s ability to tell that story.
In a scene in my first novel, The Pawn, my protagonist is interviewing the governor of North Carolina, and the governor is responding oddly. Now, if my hero, who’s supposed to be one of the best investigators in the world, doesn’t notice and respond to the governor’s inexplicable behavior, the reader will be thinking, What’s wrong with this Bowers guy? There’s obviously something strange going on here. Why doesn’t he notice? He’s a moron.
So, I had Bowers think, Something wasn’t clicking. Something wasn’t right.
Then the reader will agree, Ah, good! I thought so. OK, now let’s find out what’s going on here. Rather than drive the reader away from identifying with the protagonist, this was a way of drawing the reader deeper into the story.
So when something that’s unbelievable or odd happens, don’t be afraid to let your character notice and respond: “I never expected her to say that,” “What? That just doesn’t make sense,” or, “Obviously there’s more going on here than I thought when I first found the necklace.”
If a character acts in an unbelievable way, you’ll need to give the reader a reason why—and it’d better be a good one. Remember: Always give the reader what he wants, or something better. If you don’t give the reader what he wants (believability), you must satisfy him with a twist or a moment of story escalation that satisfies him more than he ever expected.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION.
At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation.
As part of the novel-writing intensives that I teach, I review and critique participants’ manuscripts. Often I find that aspiring authors have listened to the advice of so many writing books and included an engaging “hook” at the beginning of their story. This is usually a good idea; however, all too often the writer is then forced to spend the following pages dumping in background to explain the context of the hook.
Not a good idea.
Because you’ve killed escalation.
This is also why dream sequences typically don’t work—the protagonist thinks she’s in a terrible mess, then wakes up and realizes none of it was real.
So, things weren’t really that bad after all.
That’s the opposite of escalation—and the death of the forward movement of the story.
Tension drives a story forward. When tension is resolved, the momentum of the story is lost. I’ve heard writing instructors differentiate between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories, but the truth is that neither character nor plot really drives a story forward—only unmet desire does.
You might include page after page of interesting information about your character, but that won’t move the story along; it’ll cause it to stall out. Until we know what the character wants, we don’t know what the story is about, and we won’t be able to worry or care about whether or not the character’s desires are eventually met.
Somewhat similarly, plot is simply the casually related series of events that the character experiences as he moves through a crisis or calling into a changed or transformed life. So you might include chase scene after chase scene, but eventually the reader couldn’t care less that one car is following another down the street. Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t care. A story isn’t driven forward by events happening, but by tension escalating.
All stories are “tension-driven” stories.
Now, to create depth in your characters, typically you’ll have two struggles that play off each other to deepen the tension of the story. The character’s external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved; her internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered. The interplay of these two struggles is complementary until, at the climax, the resolution of one gives the protagonist the skills, insights or wherewithal to resolve the other.
To some extent the genre in which you write will have expectations and conventions that’ll dictate the precedence of the internal or external struggle in your story. However, readers today are very astute and narratively aware. If you intend to write commercially marketable fiction, you’ll need to include both an internal struggle that helps us empathize with the protagonist, and an external struggle that helps drive the movement of the story toward its exciting climax.
So, as you shape your novel, ask yourself, “How can I make things worse?” Always look for ways to drive the protagonist deeper and deeper into an impossible situation (emotionally, physically or relationally) that you then eventually resolve in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to the reader.
The story needs to progress toward more and more conflict, with more intimate struggles and deeper tension.
The plot must always thicken; it must never thin. Because of that, repetition is the enemy of escalation. Every murder you include decreases the impact that each subsequent murder will have on the reader. Every explosion, prayer, conversion, sex scene means less and less to the reader, simply because repetition, by its very nature, serves to work against that escalation your story so desperately needs.
Strive, instead, to continually make things worse for the protagonist. In doing so, you’ll make them better and better for the reader.
All three of these storytelling secrets are interwoven. When every event is naturally caused by the one that precedes it, the story makes sense. As characters act in ways that are credible and convincing in the quest for their goals, the story remains believable, and the deepening tension and struggles keep the reader caring about what’s happening as well as interested in what’s going to happen next.
By consistently driving your story forward through action that follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages and panting for more of your work.
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