4 Ways to Add Value to a Story (with some Dickens as an example)
You can add value to stories in lots of different ways.
Let’s assume you’ve read my book How Stories Really Work - shameless plug - and that you have your characters and plot sorted out so that the basic shape and flavour of the story is there. How else can you improve things?
Conversations between characters can quickly become a writer’s fallback for exposition or plot development. As with most things, there’s a spectrum at work here: you can drop hints into dialogue which help the story to move forward, but otherwise keep things alive and vibrant as though two people were really talking to each other - or you can degenerate into having two characters simply explain the plot in chunks. Try to keep dialogue snappy and full of surprises rather than turning it into boring description or explanation.
Humour is largely based on surprise, so it can form a large part of dialogue if you want characters to appear living and unpredictable. Depending upon the kind of book you’re writing and whether it’s appropriate for the author to assume a humorous tone, making people laugh is an excellent way of encouraging them to feel comfortable and to increase their affinity for you.
3. Sparking Up.
By this, I mean taking a passage of writing from a story and adding life, poetry and energy to it.
You can begin with a paragraph or a scene or a chapter or sometimes even a sentence. Find what is most interesting about that portion and emphasise it, give it prominence; conversely, find the least interesting part and fade it out, don’t dwell on it. Let’s say you have two travellers crossing a desert: unless their journey across the desert and the ordeal of that is a fundamental part of the nature of your story, you don’t have to explain what happened to them every hour of every day. Edit out the dull bits and give the reader the highlights. Be poetic.
It’s amazing what effect just slightly tweaking a vocabulary can have. A sentence like ‘The two travellers crossed the desert’ (to be simplistic for a moment) can come to life by being switched around a little: ‘The desert weighed across the path of the two travellers like a burden.’
4. Be a Reader.
A handy trick or habit to get into is to write as a reader. As you move along through a text, try to keep the reader’s viewpoint in mind at all times and remember that your job is to entertain and enthral them. As soon as you think of something that you think your readers will find funny, discussion worthy, worthwhile, drop it in. Surprise them, make them laugh, shock them, challenge them.
Make the act of reading enjoyable.
As an example of most of the above, take a look at this passage from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, the master of reader entertainment:
Oliver had not been within the walls of the workhouse a quarter of an hour, and had scarcely completed the demolition of a second slice of bread, when Mr. Bumble, who had handed him over to the care of an old woman, returned, and, telling him it was a board night, informed him that the board had said he was to appear before it forthwith.
Not having a very clearly defined notion of what a live board was, Oliver was rather astounded by this intelligence, and was not quite certain whether he ought to laugh or cry. He had no time to think about the matter, however; for Mr. Bumble gave him a tap on the head to wake him up, and another on the back to make him lively, and bidding him follow, conducted him into a large whitewashed room where eight or ten fat gentlemen were sitting round a table, at the top of which, seated in an armchair rather higher than the rest, was a particularly fat gentleman with a very round, red face.
"Bow to the Board," said Bumble. Oliver brushed away two or three tears that were lingering in his eyes, and seeing no board but the table, fortunately bowed to that.
"What's your name, boy?" said the gentleman in the high chair.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at ease.
"Boy," said the gentleman in the high chair, "listen to me. You know you're an orphan, I suppose?"
"What's that, sir?" inquired poor Oliver.
"The boy is a fool, I thought he was," said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, in a very decided tone. If one member of a class be blessed with an intuitive perception of others of the same race, the gentleman in the white waistcoat was unquestionably well qualified to pronounce an opinion on the matter.
"Hush!" said the gentleman who had spoken first. "You know you've got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don't you?"
"Yes, sir," replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.
"I hope you say your prayers every night," said another gentleman in a gruff voice, "and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you like a Christian."
"Yes, sir," stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvellously good Christian, too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn't, because nobody had taught him.
"Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.
"So you'll begin to pick oakum tomorrow morning at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat.
For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward, where, on a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a noble illustration of the tender laws of this favoured country! They let the paupers go to sleep!
Dickens here uses dialogue, humour and ‘sparking up’ to make sure that he never loses the reader’s attention or sympathy.
Try doing the above with a section of your own work and note the results.