Everyone loves a good story. We all know one when we read one. But what makes a good story?
Recently a prospective client called me inquiring about my services, and I asked him what his novel was about. Ten minutes into his explanation, I had only a vague idea. Sure, the writer gave me lots of info, mostly about the plot–what happens when, but no insight into who the main character is, what she wants, and why it’s such a struggle for her to achieve it.
A good story makes us care about the protagonist, makes us curious about what’s happening to her, internally as well as externally. A good story makes us want to know what happens next because something is at stake. We get hooked on Downton Abbey because we become invested in the characters’ lives. We care about them, live vicariously through them (at least while we’re watching the episode), and can’t wait to find out what will happen if dear sweet Anna learns her beloved Bates really did kill her rapist, and how Edith will cope if her illegitimate love child is discovered, and what will become of Branson if he gets together with the school teacher. If we didn’t care about these characters, we’d stop watching, and if Downton Abbey were a book, we’d get bored and stop reading.
When we’re involved with a really good story we don’t return our friends’ phone calls or notice the kids’ bickering or hear our husband pestering us about where he put his keys. When we’re reading a good story we’re on an emotional high; it’s as if we’re with our long lost love and everything else disappears. Our attention is fixed on the protagonist and her story, and on the characters who inhabit her life. We don’t want to leave them, and if we are forced to, we rush back to them at the first free moment we get. When the book is finished, when our time with the characters is up, we are left with bittersweet feelings of parting, happy and possibly changed from the experience, but sad that it’s over.
So what makes a story compelling? A good story reveals how and why a character reacts to the sequence of relevant events in her struggle to get (or avoid at all cost) what she wants. It also shows us what she learns about herself in the process and how she is changed as a result. A good story poses a question at the beginning of the novel and answers it at the end, moving the character and story forward to resolution. A good story is a series of causes and effects, actions and reactions, and illuminations.
My guess is that when I asked the writer who called me what his story was about, he hadn’t fully explored his protagonist’s desires and fears, what the character needed to overcome in order to get what she wants. He had not yet developed how the events in his story affect his protagonist—and why.
So in the interest of making your story compelling, here are some questions to explore before you begin to write; or if you’ve finished your first draft, these questions will help you figure out how to make it better.
Who is your protagonist?
Character drives plot. Your protagonist makes the story happen. So we need to know who the story is about. I’m not referring to a description of hair and eye color, weight and height. I’m talking about the emotional makeup of your character. What are her values? What pushes her buttons and why? What motivates her, what drives her to action? John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, “No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others.”*
What does your protagonist want?
A character’s goals set her into action, and if those goals are internal as well as external, so much the better. You have to know what it is your character wants before you make her life so difficult that the duress motivates her into doing something about it. How else will you discover how she copes under pressure? How skillful is she at getting what she wants? What drives her desire? Where does it come from? How did it originate? Is it an overt desire or does she keep it under wraps out of fear, and why? What is keeping her from getting what she wants and why?
What’s at stake?
What is her dilemma? Why does your character want what she wants? Why is she willing to fight for it? What hangs in the balance if she doesn’t get it? What is the crisis she is facing? Why does she have no choice but to act? My teacher, the gifted writer, Les Plesko, always said, “Story is about what your character wants, and what that desire propels her to confront, and what she learns about herself and the world as a result…. You must make sure there is something compelling the main character onward, a conflict, be it external or internal (typically both). There must be something emotional at stake, which manifests in the physical so that we care what happens.”
How will your protagonist get what she wants?
Maybe she wants something so badly she’ll betray her closest friend for it. Or maybe she has to do something she hates to get what she wants. How does she cope with each obstacle she confronts? How far will she go to get what she wants, or what will she do to avoid it? Is she her own worst enemy? Does she sabotage herself every chance she gets? If so why? Author John Gardner says, “Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces, both within and outside, must exert strong pressure against that course of action. Both pressures must come not only from outside the character but also from within him, because otherwise the conflict involves no doubt, no moral choice, and as a result can have no profound meaning. All meaning in the best fiction comes from, as Faulkner said, the heart in conflict with itself. All true suspense is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.”
What must your protagonist overcome?
What’s keeping her from getting what she wants? What’s getting in her way, internally and externally? What is she refusing to face? What’s in her history that she shuns, hates to confront, and will avoid at all costs? What’s she afraid of? What’s her issue? Then you have to ask yourself why.
So remember what Faulkner tells us: “I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself…. most of the writing has got to take place up here before you ever put the pencil to paper.”**
* John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Notes on Craft for Young Writers, originally published by Alfred, A. Knopf, Inc. 1984; Vintage Books Edition, June 1991
** Faulkner’s talk to Graduate Class in American Fiction, 1958; http://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu,
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