What Makes Great Stories Great
Best selling author James Patterson tells us that the most common mistake writers make is not creating an outline and assures students that making outlines a routine part of the writing process will make for better books. But what exactly goes into an outline?
Outlines, just like stories themselves, can tend to wander all over the place unless you can grasp that there are four things driving a story.
1. Just like a combustion engine works on the idea of a piston going up and down, there needs to be a mechanism in a story which acts to generate forward moving force or momentum. Every story has to have these to be successful: they are based on fiction's eternal question ‘What happens next?’
For a story to be truly successful on every level, each scene or chapter has to have this; each passage has to have this; almost each sentence has to have this.
How do you create it?
Think of a piston: it moves downwards, creating a vacuum which sucks in fuel and air; then it moves upwards, compressing these into a combustible mix which is then ignited, forcing the piston down again. Yes, I know there is more to it on a mechanical level, but the simplicity of the idea is the same in fiction: you create a vacuum, which sucks in attention, then compress that attention until an ignition point is reached. The ignition then creates a further vacuum and so on.
Relate this to a story: Bilbo the Hobbit has an empty home and quiet life which draws in a wizard and twelve dwarves who weave music and tale-telling to the point where Bilbo ‘explodes’ and panics - but he is then drawn to go with them on their quest to recover their treasure from a dragon; Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker is drawn into the vacuum created by the pursuit of the Death Star’s secret plans, a pursuit which results in the ‘spark’ of the loss of his foster parents, prompting him to set off on an adventure; Great Expectations’ Pip has a craving for Estella which draws him into the promise of becoming a gentleman in London, a cycle which explodes into the later events of Dickens’ masterpiece.
These ‘What happens next?’ questions move readers and stories forward. But there are three other mechanisms operating in a successful story too.
2. As the piston drives the story forward, the reader needs to be kept on the road. There needs to be a magnetic attraction which ‘glues’ attention onto what is happening. This isn’t just the question ‘What happens next?’ - there needs to be a powerful ‘What is really going on?’ force running parallel to the forward motion.
What we are seeing unfold in front of us needs to be just the surface of what is happening. Strong influences must be brought to bear to ensure that the readers’ attention doesn’t wander off. Bilbo’s quest needs to be haunted by the mystery firstly of how the dwarves will actually survive each incident they encounter and secondly how they will actually overcome a fire-breathing dragon to get their treasure back; Luke Skywalker’s quest needs to be underpinned by the power of the Force and the wider implications of the events that we see on screen; Pip’s evolution into a gentleman needs to rest upon the great unknown of the identity of his benefactor.
The question ‘What is really going on?’ coupled with the question ‘What will happen next?’ creates a page turner.
But that’s not all. To achieve real greatness a story needs to do two other things.
3. The third question readers need to be asked in a great story is ‘What is right and wrong here?’
Less than halfway through his journey, Bilbo is confronted by the sly creature Gollum, who has made a lifelong habit of choking other creatures unexpectedly from behind - and then eating them. Bilbo, finding himself in possession of Gollum’s magic ring of invisibility which has given him the advantage over others for so long, has the opportunity at one point to simply stab the creature and thus escape from darkness - but Tolkien doesn’t permit such a simplistic choice to easily play out: in fact, Bilbo’s decision to pity Gollum and spare his life is the point upon which the rest of this story and the entire trilogy of The Lord of the Rings rests. We as readers are plunged into the heart of a moral question: what is the right thing to do? This means that we are engaged on another level: we are not merely pushed along by what happens next, nor just stuck to the tale with a mystery or two, we are pulled up short and asked to participate in a moral decision.
Similarly, in the Star Wars series of films, Luke Skywalker is not just a light-sabre-wielding two dimensional figure: he is compelled to face the fact that the villain of the piece, Darth Vader, is his own father. This moral dilemma, first introduced when his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi gently states ‘You must do what you feel is right, of course’ plays out through The Empire Strikes Back when, given no apparent way out of a trap but to take his father’s hand, Luke opts for the impossible but essentially moral choice - to fall into the void away from evil. Then, right until the climax of The Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor is convinced that Skywalker will naturally take the same path as his father before him, Luke, having beaten his father in a duel and suddenly seeing what he had been about to do, makes the final crucial decision: he will not walk that path.
All of these moral choices add depth and meaning to the Star Wars series and set it above its shallow imitators.
In Great Expectations, Pip’s immediate reaction on learning that his benefactor is not whom he believed is revulsion - but he makes a moral decision to support Magwitch anyway, despite horrible cosenquences, and that adds far greater significance to the tale.
But that’s not all either. Though we now have momentum, mystery and morality, there is a fourth mechanism at work in great fiction.
4. James Patterson says to students that they should ‘Write the story, not the sentences’. And this is where the ‘nuclear reactor’ of stories comes into play: what is this story really all about as a whole? What is its essential message or meaning?
It turns out that The Hobbit isn’t really about a bunch of dwarves recovering a treasure - it’s about friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, wisdom and recognising one's place in a wider world. Star Wars isn’t about a Rebel Alliance battling an overpowering evil Empire, it’s to do with spiritual honesty, friendship and sacrifice and standing up for truth in the face of powerful odds; Great Expectations isn’t about an orphan escaping from his working class background and finding love, it’s about the bitterness of life and its coincidences, the peril of succumbing to hatred, and the innocent power of mercy.
Great authors concentrate on their innermost meanings and permit that message to percolate through chapters, scenes and even sentences. That’s what makes them great.
For much more, see my book How Stories Really Work.