A writer is basically a storyteller, said Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
On my bookshelves, I have many books of advice that focus on formulaic elements of fiction – plot, conflict, character development, and such. But story is much harder to pin down. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
As an editor and indie-press publisher, I encounter many submissions that have decent plots, likable characters, required conflict, and all that. But the manuscripts have a fatal problem: The storytelling is poor. These works are headed for the rejection bin.
Beginning writers often believe that the plot is the clever thing that a writer does, and so they craft intricate plots – plots that do not pay off until late in the story, if at all. The truth is that plot is like a skeleton; it’s good to have but has little intrinsic appeal. Story is a stronger attention-getting device.
Recently, scientists have studied the power of story to attract our attention, trigger empathy for characters, and shape values. It might best to say that story is essential and elemental, while plot is constructed and can be somewhat artificial. Both are good and enjoyable when done well. But story is closer to the heart – closer to why we value stories and storytellers.
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As Ray Bradbury said, plot is nothing but footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to somewhere else important to them.
So what makes a good story? A good story delivers three key elements:
- Something curiously odd at the start.
- Selective and delightful details to draw out the tale through the middle.
- An ending that makes it clear why this story was worth telling.
Let’s look at a few techniques for each part.
Odd or quirky, it turns out, is naturally interesting. We are intrigued by something peculiar. We want to know more about it.
A story is by definition eccentric; it is about something different from the norm. If you want to get published, something odd should appear in the first pages of a manuscript to catch the attention of an agent or editor. It could be an odd image, a peculiar voice, a curious incident. Remember, there is an immense stack of fairly equivalent works available to any editor. Unless your story offers a quirky hook, it will quickly be tossed aside.
If you are going to be eccentric, why wait to reveal it? A fisherman doesn’t save his bait ‘til he sees a fish. He baits the hook before he drops a line in the water.
Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds he is a giant insect in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What could be odder? It loads the story onto a catapult and hits the launch button on page one.
Dorothy from Kansas is spinning aloft in her house and on her way to Oz by page three.
In the first line of Charlotte’s Web, Pa walks past the window carrying an ax, on his way to the hoghouse to kill a runty piglet.
Some beginning writers think it best to create a slowly developing sense of what their story is about, hoping that this will intrigue the reader. However, this often fails because the reader is just mystified…and not engaged enough to read on.
The trick is to avoid the predictable incident, the easy plot point, the comfortable character. To develop quirky ideas, there are many techniques for brainstorming, journaling, collecting odd scraps of conversations, always pushing harder to ask “What if…?” again and again.
Quirks, of course, are just the beginning. Once you have the reader interested, it’s up to you to embellish and develop the story.
Why do people read fiction? In many ways, readers want to experience in a story what they experience in eating delicious food. Joy in eating comes from a craving not for nutrition but for delightful tastes. Eating is not about the outline of a recipe; it’s about the pleasure of tasting what appears on the plate.
The same is true of literary creativity. The details you put on each page of your manuscript are the spices that make the words tingle on the tongue of the mind. The good story is full of distinctive, flavorful details.
The problem is that beginning authors often overlook the need to create delightfully rich, savory details in favor of addressing the needs of the plot. In other words, they organize the menu and serve the food but forget to spice it properly.
One good way to develop details is to use more senses. In the first Narnia book, C.S. Lewis describes the youngest child, Lucy, entering that magical land through a wooden wardrobe. The several paragraphs are full of sensory imagery:
Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them…It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps – always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her finger. But she could not feel it.
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching underneath her feet. “I wonder is that more moth-balls?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold…
And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her…. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
Another way to develop rich details is to build a strong sense of place. Too many beginning writers set their story in a place that can only be called generic, with few concrete details, and those provided tend to be stereotypical.
Consider David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars, which takes place on San Piedro Island in Puget Sound in the 1950s, involving the mysterious death of an island fisherman and the trial of a Japanese-American man for the crime. The story’s plot revolves around characters and their actions. But significantly, it happens in a place that sets the stage, confines the people, and shapes their interaction.
Here’s how Guterson introduces us to San Piedro:
San Piedro was an island of five thousand damp souls…Amity Harbor, the island’s only town, provided deep moorage for a fleet of purse seiners and one-man gill-netting boats. It was an eccentric, rainy, wind-beaten sea village, downtrodded and mildewed, the boards of its buildings bleached and weathered, their drainpipes rusted a dull orange…Rain, the spirit of the place, patiently beat down everything man-made. On winter evenings it roared in sheets against the pavements and made Amity Harbor invisible.
Writing rich in specificity is a major element that literary agents or acquisitions editors look for. If I were an editor at a publishing house reading a passage like that first glimpse by Guterson of the island of San Piedro, would I want to read more? Yes – and I’d be eager to get a chance to publish it.
The satisfying surprise at the end
Does your ending satisfy the reader with surprises? As writer Carol Bly noted: “An essential difference between experienced and beginning writers is the amount of surprise they give us.”
If you want to achieve both satisfaction and surprise at the end, a good place to start is to identify the main characters’ desires. In Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia, young Jess begins the novel wanting to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. “He had to be the fastest … the very best.”
But soon he is thwarted, beaten in a foot race – by a girl who becomes his friend. As the story moves forward, we learn more about what Jess cares most about. His true desire is to have a close friend, to be liked and understood. We share in his desires and challenges, as the story builds to its surprising emotional conclusion.
A good story will reveal something about important human needs: love, understanding, friendship, following a path of rightness in the world.
Do you know what the core theme of your story is? This is a logical source for the surprise at the end. The theme of Bridge to Terabithia is friendship, and what can be lost and what endures. The surprise at the end speaks to that theme.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “[Stories are a] series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.”
That “something else,” said Lewis, is the “real theme.” Plot’s purpose, he suggested, is to catch the theme, like a bird in the net, if only for a few moments in the story. “The bird has escaped us. But at least it was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage.”
Beginning writers may feel embarrassed to have the theme too visible, even briefly. You may be afraid that someone will accuse you of being too moralistic. But the whole purpose of novel writing, to some extent, is to look at something important. Pull the theme forward, especially as you shape your ending.
Of course, theme is not a fortune cookie or an Aesop’s Fable moral. We need to be artful. We need to create complex characters and develop interesting challenges for them. But in the end, your story should speak to something important to you, your characters, and your readers.
The heart of the story
The three aspects of story I’ve discussed here are not the only ones needed for good fiction. A story needs other things too, including a functional plot. But in my experience, a story will sink or swim based on the appeal of these three elements: intriguing eccentricity to draw us in, delightful details to make us enjoy the middle course of the story, and a satisfying conclusion to wrap it up well.
Consider Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not the plot, it’s his storytelling skill that has made these works so beloved over the ages. He is master of the play of words, the frolic of fancy, the comic interludes, and many other techniques that beguile the heavy gait of plot. As poet Howard Nemerov noted, the clever bard “tells the same stories over and over in so many guises that it takes a long time before you notice.”
If you do it correctly, you will attract, delight, and amaze your readers. A good story will shed new light on the human condition. As John Steinbeck, another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote:
We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – “Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.” You’re not as alone as you thought.
So I recommend that you focus your novel-writing process on story, not on plot. If you do it well, story will be always at the core of your strongest writing.
Or, as I’ve said elsewhere: story rules, plot drools.
—Philip Martin is director of Great Lakes Literary and runs an indie publishing house, Crickhollow Books. He is a past acquisitions editor for The Writer Books, when he worked with many prominent authors, agents, and editors. His most recent book of literary advice is an expanded edition of How To Write Your Best Story; this article is drawn from it. He is also the author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.