7 Compelling Steps to Good Story-telling
A simple search on Google will give you a glimpse of the many thousands of books and blog posts that there are on writing. And on this blog, in earlier posts, we have dismantled some writing advice and seen what works and what doesn’t. Here are some tips based on experience.
1. Write the first draft of your story in as short a time as possible and without stopping during any single writing session.
This is obviously easier with a short story, or a screenplay - with a longer work, condensing time may be difficult.
How long does it realistically take? Stephen King’s advice for novel writers is to write the first draft in a single season, or three months. A 100,000 word novel makes that just over 1,100 words a day, every day. The average short story is 4,000 words, or about four hours. Screenplays can be written in three days at 30 pages a day. The first draft is buying the groceries; editing and re-writing is the cooking of the meal.
2. Concentrate on the protagonist.
Victor Frankl said, ‘A human being is a deciding being’ and it’s been said that a protagonist must ‘make a decision to get into whatever situation the story is about’ - but it’s actually even simpler than that. The most crucial thing you can do in working on a protagonist is to realise that you are building a construct, not a person.
And your protagonist is a very special construct, with very special features (see How Stories Really Work).
3. Increase tension.
Suspense is all about the question ‘What happens next?’
It’s not just about setting up cliff-hangers though - the reader won’t care about your cliffhanger unless you’ve already done your character work above.
How do you increase suspense or tension? Add things in which block the way or delay the resolution of something. Your protagonist has to defuse a bomb? Have the bomb halfway up a crumbling wall. Your protagonist is missing his sweetheart? Have him lose all means of contact with her.
4. Decide whether to show or tell based on what increases the drama.
Common writing advice tell us that, when something interesting happens in your story that changes things, don’t just tell us about it, show it happening. That’s true, but it doesn’t always apply. Think of Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings; think of Darcy and Elizabeth finally talking of love in Pride and Prejudice. In both cases, these master authors tell us about it rather than showing us.
The question to ask is ‘What increases the drama of your story as a whole?’ In the case of The Lord of the Rings, had we been shown the mythic battle directly, our perceptions of the whole world of Middle-earth would have been affected in serious ways; in the case of Austen’s novel, refusing to allow us direct access to the most intimate moments between her key characters enhances them as characters. Telling rather than showing has its place, in other words.
5. Good dialogue stems from an understanding of character.
Characters are motivated by key things, described in detail in How Stories Really Work. Grasping those things means that dialogue can always flow freely and sound right.
6. Loss, loss, loss.
Good stories involve the maximum amount of loss, which often means quite a bit of death, implied or real. Many will say that is all there is to it, but there are underlying reasons why death is so common in fiction, and there are losses other than death which can have a powerful effect too.
Death is universal, yes; it has power in a story like a nuclear reactor. There are other, lesser power sources which are equally important.
7. Allow for drafts.
Edit the first draft into the second draft where you have made any major structural changes, clarified plot and characters and built the basic machine to attract and grip readers. Your third draft should be when everything starts to gel and you can tweak things and add in strokes of pure genius. Don’t try to perfect everything in the second draft! Give yourself room to breathe.
For more, get How Stories Really Work.