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4 Steps to Boosting Your Story's Appeal

Most writers I know write from their imaginations. I mean that they sit down and permit their imaginations to deliver to them a sequence of scenes, images, characters and events which are then written down as a plot. Nothing wrong with that; that’s what we do as writers.

But sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you end up with something that appeals to readers, and sometimes it falls flat somehow.

If you have a piece of work into which you need to breathe new life, and which you need to inject with maximum appeal, I suggest you try the following steps. These are not the only steps you could take, but are offered to assist you in your creation of a piece of fiction which will leap off the page and grab your readers by their throats.

1. Look at your existing work in a new way.

Firstly, if your story is following the classical framework of any kind of story, it probably has some degree of anxiety, tension, conflict or non-survival situation built into it. Usually, this has arisen automatically - i.e., your imagination has presented scenarios to you which contain these things, as a necessary prerequisite to being a ‘story’. This background level of anxiety with its suggestions of emptiness is largely what most stories are left with when they are considered ‘complete’.

See if you can take control of this already existing level of tension by listing out those things in your story which are creating tension: things in the characters, their relationships to each other, the surrounding environment, the threat levels perceived or presented, and so on. Make a simple list - it doesn’t have to be detailed, just make some notes.

2. Boost the list.

Take each list item you’ve come up with and see if you can think of a way of clarifying or magnifying that piece of tension.

As an example, I recall a television series I watched in the 70s called Danger: UXB. The ‘UXB’ stood for ‘Unexploded Bomb’. The series was set in the Second World War and followed the adventures of a squad of Army engineers assigned with bomb defusing during the Blitz. Now, I don’t know about you, but there are a few scenes in fiction, especially in the movies or TV, which are guaranteed to start making my palms sweat and one of them is someone defusing a bomb. Just about every episode featured this, as you might expect: someone bent in extreme concentration down a hole fiddling with delicate machinery which could blow up in their faces at any moment. Screenwriters were obviously challenged to make this scenario new in some way with each episode. The best way that they did this (as far as I can recall) was in one episode when the unexploded bomb in question had lodged itself high in the wall of a building, so that we had a double threat: height plus explosive device. One of the other things which will make my palms sweat for sure is heights - so the writers had accomplished the ‘clarification and magnification’ step above in that particular scenario.

How could you emulate that? Take a particular tense situation in your own work and make it even more tense.

Don’t go too far, or you’ll stray into comedy territory: a bomb defusion expert high up a wall trying to defuse a device but also needing desperately to sneeze takes us into the realms of the comic (comedy drawing for much of its force on exaggeration). But turn up the volume a little wherever you can.

3. Connect the dots.

So perhaps, having done the above, you have three or four scenarios now which have increased tension, suspense and/or anxiety as a result of your modifications.

Now try to connect up those areas of tension.

Perhaps you had a bomb up a wall, and possibly increased it by having it lodged in the wall of a hospital. But elsewhere in the story, you had a lover’s tiff between the bomb defuser and his lady, resulting in her storming out earlier, before the bomb fell. You may have magnified the tiff by introducing a comforting other man, whose interference in the relationship increases the odds of it failing. So now try to connect up these scenarios. Perhaps have the bomb detonate and the comforting man turn out to be the only surgeon who can save the bomb defuser’s life, post-explosion.

Suddenly, you’ve added a whole new layer of emotional drama. Maybe that particular example sounds a little melodramatic, but you get the idea.

Master authors do this all the time, from Darth Vader turning out to be Luke Skywalker’s father, to Pip’s benefactor being revealed as the convict who threatened him in the first chapter in Dickens' Great Expectations. You’ll be able to see for yourself how a work of fiction you have read or seen lately has done this - connected up various strands of tension into a super-strand. You’ll also be able to see that there are many works of fiction which don’t do this and end up, as a result, falling rather flat or seeming a little two-dimensional and insipid.

Run the thing in reverse if you need to see what I mean: let’s pretend that Darth Vader wasn’t Luke’s father, just a standard bad guy working for the Emperor. Result? Story loses depth and interest, even though it might work a little based on action alone. Similarly, in Great Expectations, let’s imagine that Pip’s benefactor turned out to be Miss Havisham as he suspects during the early part of the novel. Result? Less drama, less depth, less emotional impact, no twists, no ‘connected dots’, no chills.

4. Work over your plot.

Now that you have stepped up the tension and made it interconnected, you probably could do with revising your original plot.

Do the earlier steps right and you will have ended up with a much more powerful and appealing story that will draw readers in like iron filings to a magnet. You will also now find it easier to write blurbs and even to design covers, as your story will have clarified itself and intensified overall.

Do these steps now on a short piece you’ve written and see what happens. Let me know the results.

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