How to Write a Good Story--Part II: Know Your Story

[Note: If you are one of those people who refer to themselves as pantsters and just make things up as you go along, I have no help for you. I cannot write a story on a deadline using that technique, so I've abandoned it. Feel free to move on to another site, I'm cool with that.]

Now that we have, more or less, decided that no one really knows the true definition of "good" as in "How to Write a Good Story," let's just discuss some ways to make the storytelling process easier on your audience and you.

I know, I know, there are a ton of authors out there who say: WRITE THE STORY FOR YOURSELF.

My opinion on that philosophy is that if you are merely writing stories for yourself, who the hell cares about grammar and storytelling techniques? Right? Just write the story and enjoy the hell out of yourself, because frankly, that's a lot more fun than dealing with submission guidelines, and marketing, and agents, and editors, oh my.

If you're wasting, er, spending time reading these posts, I assume you have some intention of publishing professionally. If you intend to publish professionally, you might want to keep your audience in the back of your mind. You might want to nudge thoughts about said audience to the midpoint of your mind. Frankly, you'd damn well better know your audience and the expectations for your genre (see Part I of this series).

So. Let's pretend you know your genre and your audience's preferences. How do we get to know the story? Well, I don't know about you, but I think about mine ... a lot.

I think about my characters, their motivations, and what they all hope to accomplish. Here is where I also want to point out that even though they're imaginary, the characters should reflect the diversity of the world you want to represent.

The one character I always focus on is my protagonist. I took a writing class a long time ago, and the best takeaway was in terms of story and plot. I was told to consider the story as my protagonist's emotional journey, and the plot was the road map I used to get him/her there.

That same philosophy can apply to my antagonist, too. Both my protagonist and antagonist are on emotional journeys, which are at odds with one another, and this, in turn, is what often creates the story's conflict.

Magic, and sword fights, and battles are cool, but if my reader isn't emotionally invested in my characters, even the coolest sword fights will fall flat.

The point is: know your characters, and I'm not talking about eye and hair color. Height, weight, and coloration are all in your head, but personalty characteristics are far more important. Not all of the details about your characters will appear in your story, but if the moment ever crops up, you can use a personality trait to say a lot about an individual.

For example:

Miquel never hangs his hat and coat, but is meticulous about his kitchen. He likes to read Gothic novels and what Diago calls, "trashy French romances."

Diago, on the other hand, takes exceptional care of his clothing and personal effects, but isn't bothered when the knives aren't arranged in a particular order. His reading tastes lean toward scientific treatises, especially those relating to psychiatry and psychology. He has made the study of mortals something of a hobby.

These are minor, often inconsequential details, but they can be used to highlight and make both men seem more real to the reader.

Sometimes, characterization traits appear as I'm writing, and that's cool, too. I just remember to make a note of it somewhere so I maintain consistency.

Now that I know my characters, I need to know their story.

You don't have to write a formal synopsis, but I do recommend jotting thoughts down, even if it is in bullet points. I generally write a loose synopsis. It can be a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages. Anything over three pages and I'm rambling without a firm idea of how I want the story to progress. When I write my synopsis, I focus on the protagonist's emotional journey and the key plot points that I intend to use to get him/her there.

The easiest way ... the absolute easiest way ... to get to know your story is to break it into three acts.

ACT I is the set-up, which is where you introduce the protagonist and his/her stakes, or goals.

ACT II is the confrontation, which is where you give the protagonist obstacles and bring them into conflict with the antagonist.

ACT III is the resolution, which is where you have your climax, the big ending, and the denouement.

I construct my synopsis around these three acts. This way, I know the bones of my story before I start fleshing it out with actual prose. This structure is also very easy for any audience to follow.

I know everyone wants to write the GREAT [FILL-IN-THE-BLANK WITH THE COUNTRY OF YOUR ORIGIN] NOVEL. 

However, the GREAT [FILL-IN-THE-BLANK WITH THE COUNTRY OF YOUR ORIGIN] NOVEL doesn't usually sell well unless you are SOMEBODY IMPORTANT. 

So let's pretend you're a nobody like me and move forward on that pretext. Go easy on your audience. They're reading for pleasure. Please them.

Why is a synopsis based on these three acts important?

I can only answer for myself. I tend to think of my chapters as mini-essays and ask myself the following questions each time I begin:

How will this chapter move the story (i.e. my protagonist's emotional journey) forward?

Which plot point (or who) am I trying to introduce to the reader?

Where do I want to end the chapter? (Although this is often in flux. Sometimes I simply finish the chapter and if it feels too long, I create a good breaking point.)

Anytime I get stuck or can't move the story forward, I need to stop and reassess either the synopsis or the characters. This is why these tools are so important. If I know my story, I'm less likely to waste time sliding into a tangent or writing scenes that are superfluous to the story, and this is an invaluable time saver when I'm working on a deadline.

Your mileage will vary, but that's okay, too. Sometimes, I have to feel my way into a scene by writing different variations of the scene. However, if I know my characters and my story, I can easily sense when the scene doesn't feel right.

So.

Know your audience so that you know your characters and story will appeal to a certain group of people.

Make the story, the plot, and the characters easy for your audience to follow.

Know your characters and the kind of story you want to tell before you put down the first word, and you'll write a much tighter story.

Feel free to disagree with any of my points on your own blog.

If anyone is still reading these posts, I'll try and come up with at least one more article, which I will post when the mood strikes me.