How to Craft a Compelling Story

This post is my first attempt to capture my thoughts about the essentials of storytelling. The list I’ve created needs refinement. I welcome comments, but please note that, for the sake of clarity, I’m not trying to be comprehensive. For example, I write below that your story should be sequential. Obviously, it’s possible to create a compelling story and use flashbacks.

Essential Steps for Creating a Compelling Story

1. Come up with an idea. The importance of the nature and originality of the idea is debatable. On one hand, it can help you get the book marketed and published. On the other, if you’re creating a character-driven novel, it doesn’t have nearly the importance to the story as the character does.

2. Create a character. Though your story may have multiple people floating through it, one needs to be the protagonist, and that person needs to be both relatable and the primary focus of the story.

3. The core of your idea should be a Significant Situation. Throw your character into that Significant Situation, and you have the beginnings of your story.

4. Break your idea into a series of events. Each event should be presented inside a scene. Note that a discovery writer cannot skip this step. Whereas an outliner will come up with a scene list before writing the first draft, the discovery writer typically writes the first draft and then checks that the scenes properly present the idea.

5. The sequences of scenes should:

• Follow a logical plot structure
• Follow the character from just before introduction of the Significant Situation until just after the conclusion of the Significant Situation
• Be presented in chronological order for the most part

6. Each scene should:

• Build upon the last scene. Think of building a story like presenting a case to a jury. Each scene is a bit of evidence, and you build that evidence up to reach your conclusion. Get rid of any scene that doesn’t advance the plot.
• Be interesting to the reader. Ask yourself the question, “What is the reader getting out of this scene?” Does it have enough tension, emotion, and/or humor?
• Show the event to the reader. If someone tells you about an accident on the freeway, the account isn’t going to stay with you for long or interest you all that much. If you see the accident, you’re going to remember it a whole lot longer, and it’s going to impact you a whole lot more.
• Be filtered through the POV character to give it emotional context. Events have no relevance. They’re not compelling or impactful in a vacuum. If you read a story about a guy dying in an accident, you may think that it’s a sad event, but it’s not going to impact you much. If you hear about the accident from the guy’s wife and she tells you how much his death has affected her, you’ll find the story compelling.
• Develop character. Each action, thought, and spoken word reveals something to the reader about your character. Understand what you’re revealing and let these three methods do their job. Telling the reader that your character is tall is far worse than showing him ducking under a doorway.

7. The conclusion should show a transformation in the character. For the story to be compelling, it needs to be meaningful. The best way to show the impact of the events is to show its effect on the character by showing significant personal change.

3 Ways Writers Rob Tension from Their Scenes

A lot of people see writing as an art, and, to an extent, I agree with them. Figuring out your story, determining the exact right words to use, painting a picture with your description are all creative, artistic endeavors.

There’s another side of writing that is just as important — technique.

If you use a particular technique, you’re going to create a particular result every time. Figuring out which one to use is creative; the actual use is technical. Each technique is a gear, and, when you fit the right gears together in the right order, you create an engine that hums along and draws in the reader.

The fuel most commonly used for that engine is tension. A character wants something, and the writer creating doubt about the character’s ability to achieve that objective creates interest for the reader.

I’ve offer critiques to a lot of writers, and I’ve noticed three ways that they unintentionally rob their stories of that crucial fuel.

One – The characters have a blasé attitude toward the opposition to the goal.

Take this example:

The bullet whizzed past Joe. He yawned and stretched before lazily reaching for his gun.

I started out with a tense situation. A bullet implies that Joe’s life is in danger and gives him an immediate, important goal — to escape with his life. The bullet also implies the presence of opposition to Joe’s goal in the form of the person who fired the bullet.

With two of the primary elements for tension present, I should be well on my way to a fantastic scene. Instead, I rob all my hard work with the second sentence. For tension to exist, the reader must have some doubt that Joe is going to escape with his life. Since the reader is seeing the action through the filter that is Joe, his blasé attitude will infect the reader and pull out all the tension.

So, obviously I’m saying that you can never have a badass character who laughs in the face of danger. No. Do you think I’m an idiot who doesn’t know that “Joe” exists in hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions, of novels? If those authors can make Joe work, so can you. My point is that you have to know that you’ve killed your tension and fix the issue.

Perhaps the scene continues this way:

“I hate you!” Jill yelled.

Joe rose from behind the crate and shot the guy drawing a bead on her. She drew back her arm and readied her throwing knife. Another bullet passed by Joe, this one close enough to rip his leather jacket.

Damn, he thought, I loved that coat.

Before he could adjust his aim to the new threat, the red handle of Jill’s knife appeared sticking for the man’s eye socket.

The laser from a third assailant’s rifle glowed red on Jill’s shirt, and he shot the guy in the center of the forehead. A flash of red passed before Joe’s eyes, and a blade impaled the wall inches from him.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” she yelled.

Now, the action is a comedic backdrop for the tension-filled argument between two lovers.

Another method might be to reveal information to the reader in a previous scene that the POV character doesn’t have. Perhaps Joe is so confident because he’s a superninja who can take out scores of mortal opponents without taking a scratch. Unfortunately for him, his three opponents are all superninjas! That “Oh crap” moment when he realizes it can be a lot of fun.

Bottom line: If you’re going to populate your story with these types of characters, understand the challenge you’re creating for yourself and figure out ways around it.

Two – The author inserts inappropriate description.

The other day, I’m reading a book, and I get to an action scene. Bullets are flying. Giant robotic creatures are terrorizing nineteenth century London in pursuit of, essentially, Frankenstein monsters (Unfortunately, I am not making this up). The time-traveling POV character arrives in the midst of this mayhem, and the author — wait for it — decides to insert long paragraphs describing the city.

Really?

Description is a great tool. When used appropriately to set the scene, to control pacing, etc., it absolutely belongs in your story. In this case, it did nothing other than kill the tension. If the POV character has time to study the city streets, she’s probably not all that concerned about her life. If she’s not concerned, why should the reader be?

If you feel the pacing needs a break, focus on something that increases tension rather than kills it. Taking a paragraph to describe in detail the tip of the sword thrusting at your hero emphasizes that the POV character is focused on the danger, which in turn focuses the reader on the danger.

Three – The author tells instead of shows.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I take a more lenient stance toward telling than some. This attitude doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that showing should be your default technique.

Think of it this way: Your buddy comes up to you and says, “I survived a gunfight yesterday.”

It’s possible that you, as an author, are thinking, “See, that creates immediate tension and interest. It’s just not a usual situation for one of your friends to be involved in a gunfight.”

Granted, unless you are a cop or a soldier (and, even then, I’d guess your actual gun battles are fairly limited) it’s not all that common for your friends to be in gunfights, and, if one of them comes to you with such a story, your ears are going to perk up. There’s a fallacy here, though.

While my in real life buddies don’t routinely get shot at, characters in the books I read or shows I watch do. There’s absolutely nothing inherently exciting to me about one of those characters being in that situation.

Contrast the telling with the author showing the character in a gunfight. This technique allows me to experience the gunfight, and, as long as I feel doubt that I’m going to survive, that introduces tension.

The Principle Behind and the Application of Both RUE and Show, Don’t Tell

As my writing skills evolve, I continually question how I use various techniques. Most of the time, this blog conveys what I’ve learned to you. Today’s post is more about working through a technical issue I’m having than about telling you what you should do (Unless, of course, I end up, through the process of writing the post, resolving my problem. In that case, however, I probably would have went back and edited the preceding sentences, so ignore this parenthetical interruption which I’m leaving in solely on the off chance that someone will find it amusing and now have taken way to far…)

Both Resist the Urge to Explain and Show, Don’t Tell are based on one important and valid underlying principle — no matter how much you trust the source, no amount of telling you (as, ironically, I’m doing with this statement) will make you internalize a truth as much as coming to a conclusion on your own. Both the aforementioned pieces of sage advice instruct you to do the following:

Provide evidence to your reader to let him deduce the truth behind your words.

As I’ve alluded to above, I find this principle pretty darn solid. If you’re a beginning writer, you’d do well to take both “rules” as the gospel truth until such a time as you can discern the inherent problems in taking them too far. I, unfortunately, am past that particular point and need to make a decision on how to proceed.

The question at hand is:

Exactly when are explaining and telling okay?

Some would say, “Never!” In response, I’d bring up scene transitions as an example of a place where telling is perfectly valid. Obviously, there are ways to move from scene to scene without telling, but, in my opinion, it’s misguided at best to eliminate one reasonable method just because it violates a “rule.”

Some considerations:

1. It’s hard to think of a piece of popular genre fiction that does not in some way utilize telling or explaining beyond just scene transitions. While I agree that “Everyone else is doing it, Mom” is not the world’s greatest argument, it’s instructive that other authors have achieved success despite not strictly adhering to the “rules.”
2. Clarity is a huge issue if you don’t tell/explain. No matter how well or how much or how meticulous you are with your presentation of the evidence, someone out there, maybe even twelve someones, aren’t going to believe that OJ is guilty (I realize the fallacy of the analogy; evidence in that trial was not in any way, form, or fashion presented well).
3. I firmly believe that the best way to achieve immersion is to show and not explain. On the other hand, I do not believe that short, isolated bursts of telling or explaining necessarily break immersion. It’s not like a reader is going along with the flow and, suddenly, reads a quick telling sentence that causes him to step out of the book. Rather, the effect is more neutral in that the technique simply doesn’t immerse him more. Granted, the author must be careful here. Too much telling certainly can break immersion by becoming boring, and hammering a point multiple times is a quick way to make the reader put down the book and say, “Enough already; I understood it the first time!”

I’d love some input in the comments section on these thoughts. Thanks!

Tips on Making Your Writing More Active

Passive writing has its uses (I’ll try to get around to a blog post on that subject at some point), but, in general, portraying activity and motion engages the reader better. So, some tips:

1. For the love of all that is considered Good Writing, refrain from sentences like this, “Joe was climbing the mountain.” Translate that as, “Joe existed in a state of climbing the mountain. That’s horrible. Readers want to see Joe climb the mountain, not Joe existing. “Joe climbed the mountain” is more active and uses one less word.
2. Take a portion of your work — be it a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph — and write down just the verbs. If you have a list that mostly conveys activity and motion without a lot of repetition, you’re doing great. If you see a bunch of was, could, had, see, look, and heard, then not so much.
3. If you see that your character started to run or it began raining, consider if you need “start” and “began.” Sometimes those words are, indeed, necessary. In a lot of instances, though, they’re a wasted opportunity. Consider: It started to rain. Would “It rained” convey what you need? Better yet, how about: A raindrop, cold and wet, splattered on Joe’s head. He cursed. The preceding both conveys that it is starting to rain AND, more importantly, adds the filter of emotional context to the event.
4. Inanimate objects can be described actively as well. Tolkien’s trees “marched” down the hillside. Mountains can stretch to the sky. Trees can loom over you. Even having a castle stand, though it doesn’t convey motion, is slightly better than having the castle simply exist (was).

Know When to Show ’em, Know When to Tell ’em…

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday. Apparently, tis the season for me to get knocked on my butt by random bugs.

Let’s take a look at two passages:

A. She was hungry.
B. Her stomach growled as emptiness gnawed at her. She clutched her belly and stared at the bread through the bakery window as if it were her very salvation.

Which is better?

A year ago, determining the answer to that question would have been quite simple to me. I would have said, “(A) is telling. (B) is showing. Showing is better than telling. Thus, (B) is better than (A).”

The more I learn, the more I disagree with my old self. There are so many more considerations, and I grow less sure of my original assertation every day. Let’s look at it more in depth:

Showing > Telling

Is this statement true in all cases? The first example that pops into my mind where it isn’t is a transition between scenes where I want to move forward in time and space but where nothing interesting happens. It seems intuitively obvious that summarizing that transition using telling is far superior to showing uninteresting activities in detail.

Of course, some would say that it’s better to leave out the transition altogether. That argument may, at times, be valid, but it does not speak to the original premise. Saying that C>A does not eliminate the need to prove the B>A.

If Showing isn’t always better than Telling, we need to adopt a more nuanced approach, so let’s look at the all the considerations:

1. Engagement – Item (B) is much more engaging than (A). Showing draws the reader in more than telling.
2. Clarity – Item (A) clearly states what you want the reader to know. I think that most people will get what you’re trying to convey from (B), but, anytime you leave open the opportunity, someone is going to miss it. What you absolutely do not want to do, however, is to use both (A) and (B).
3. Story Space – If a description is not relevant to your story, you should leave it out. If a description is relevant but not important, you should mention it but not dwell on it. If a description is important, you should spend more story space — words — on it. (A) is more concise. If the fact that she’s hungry is relevant but not important, it’s a winner. If the hunger is important, (B) is better.
4. Active – Existing in a state of hunger is not active. Growling and clutching is.
5. Pace – Using three words in a short sentence is fast pacing. Using two sentences for a 29-word description slows pacing.

I still think that showing should be a writer’s default method for conveying stories, but the situation is not as easy as always show, never tell.

When Should You Tell to Convey Emotion?

Today’s topic combines the two hardest questions I’ve encountered as a writer:

  • How do you convey emotion?
  • How much do you Tell vs. Show?

It’s easy to say, “Show, Don’t Tell.”  However, I’m trying to take a more nuanced approach to my study of the craft of writing.  Frankly, I can find a million posts that tell me to Show; it’s much more difficult to find discussion of when Showing may not be your best strategy.

Let’s examine the situation logically.  Telling has two big advantages:

  1. It’s concise.
  2. It’s clear.

It also has major downsides:

  1. It does not engage the reader.
  2. It doesn’t fully convince the reader.

Thus, the obvious conclusions are that the author should use Telling when:

  • The longer story space required to Show an emotion isn’t warranted.
  • Clarity is more important that immersion.
  • The passage isn’t needed to persuade the reader, such as when the author is reinforcing a character trait rather than establishing it.

Let’s examine an example I crafted just for this post:

Kirl hesitated at the door.  He was sad about Zamin’s loss, but what could he do about it?  Whistling, he turned the knob.

Presumably, the reader would know what loss Zamin suffered and be able to draw a conclusion about Kirl from the fact that his friend’s tragedy produced so little reflection.  The passage above efficiently conveys this trait of Kirl’s to the reader by using the telling phrase, “he was sad.”  It wasn’t necessary, in this instance, for the author to get the reader to experience Kirl’s sadness, and thus Telling, in my opinion, worked.

I’d love some further thoughts on this topic from my readers.  Are there other instances where you believe that Telling works to convey emotion?

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing – 3 Techniques Prone to Overuse

No matter how good or effective a writing technique is, it can be overused.  Take Show versus Tell for example.  Showing should be your default method of storytelling, but, if you show too much, you risk bogging the reader down in unnecessary detail.

A writer needs to be particularly careful with any technique used to add emotion or emphasis.  If you stress a sentence in a chapter, it stands out.  If you stress a sentence in every paragraph, not only do those sentences lose impact, but you annoy the reader.

Here are three techniques that are prone to overuse and should be applied sparingly:

  1. The semicolon – If you separate two independent clauses with a semicolon, you’re signaling that these are two sentences are closely related.  Done correctly, this slight emphasis can bring out an important plot point.  Overuse, however, just makes the writer look like an amateur who doesn’t know when emphasis should be added.
  2. Phrases tacked on with a comma – The writer needs to develop a deft hand with phrasing, to understand what each word and punctuation mark means.  Using a comma with a phrase, whether participial or prepositional, can make a statement seem more dramatic, and, used sparingly, can be effective.  Overuse makes the writing seem melodramatic.
  3. Using names inside dialogue – In general, a character referring to another character by name inside dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural.  If the author only uses the technique in times of great anguish, however, it can add just that extra bit of emotion.

Bonus Pet Peeve:

  • Then – The vast, vast majority of the time, “then” is an unnecessary word.  Stories are told sequentially.  Take, “Bob walked down the street.  He turned left.”  The reader understands that Bob turned left after walking down the street.  Writing, “Bob walked down the street.  Then, he turned left” adds nothing.

Are there any techniques that you see overused?