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Are You Serving Your Story?
Fiction is an odd combination of skills. The craft of writing is technical, with rules and techniques that can achieve different results, yet the art of storytelling is visceral, relying on creativity and instinct to pluck the best pieces from our imagination.
While the story is often what grabs us first, it can quickly get overshadowed by the technical aspects. Is the opening line hooking? Should this be first or third person? Is there too much backstory? Instead of crafting a story readers can’t put down, we’re counting how many adverbs are in each chapter.
This can lead to technically well-written novels, but not great stories.
Now, I’m not saying ignore the technical side of writing—that’s how you bring a wonderful story to life—but don’t lose sight of the joy and magic you felt when that story idea originally came to you. A story that excites you enough to write it is a story that can excite readers enough to read it.
Here are some things to remember during the drafting process:
Make the characters as real as possible
My high school English teacher said it best: “Stories are just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways.” Characters are why readers love a book and they’re at the heart of every story. No matter how great the plot, a flat, lifeless character fails to make that emotional connection with the reader. Sure, they might think the book itself is cool, but that cool memory fades as soon as a great character in another book comes along and captures their heart.
To serve the story, be true to the characters in it. Let them be the best story people they can be, and don’t shy away from showing both their strengths and their weaknesses. Give them motivations only they could have and let them act in credible and plausible ways. The more real a character is, the more complicated and flawed they are (within reasonable limits, of course), the easier it is for readers to connect and relate to them. Even larger-than-life characters can be grounded in reality.
Dig deep for emotional connections
The more emotion a reader feels, the more likely they are to love the story. Make them laugh, cry, gasp in shock or squeal in glee, and those will be the scenes they’re telling friends about the next day. Emotional connections allow readers to feel like they’re in the story along with the characters. Connections make readers care, and when they care, the plot becomes that much stronger and more meaningful.
Serve the story by looking deeper than the surface plot and find the emotional moments that resonate with readers. It’s not just the stunning plot twist no one saw coming, but the emotional punch that twist causes. Make every tough choice a gut-wrenching experience, tap into the human flaws we all recognize, and show the fears that we struggle with every day. Make the reader feel right along with the characters.
Pick the best parts to dramatize
Elmore Leonard famously said, “don’t write the parts readers skip.” Failing to heed this advice has hurt many a story, and resulted in pages of backstory, heavy description, and tedious exposition. You know which moments are the best parts of your story—they’re the ones you can’t wait to write. If a scene isn’t exciting enough to make you want to write it, that’s a good indication that no one will want to read it.
Serve the story and focus on the scenes that move you. Find what you love most about every scene and use it to draw readers in so they love it, too. Try to craft every scene so it contains something that makes you want to call your best writer friend and tell them all about this great chapter you just wrote.
There’s no rule on when to focus on the story and when to focus on the technical, so follow your instincts here. You might explore the story first and then polish, or get the plot worked out before you develop the deeper aspects of the tale. However it works for you, it’s worth stepping away from the rulebook and focusing on the story you want to tell.
Technical skills are like a painter's brushes—in the hands of an artist, they can create something beautiful.