A book is more than breath-taking writing, page-turning plots, drama, mystery, or whatever a reader/writer prefers to devour. The most essential part of a book, and what grabs the reader and traps them, is the story itself.
Readers want stories. They want to experience the life of someone else. They want to understand, feel, connect with, experience someone else’s story. This is the story that keeps them interested, entranced. If they’re caught up in the story, they’re not going to stop reading. They’ll keep turning the pages.
But story isn’t what you see right on the page. It isn’t one character doing something and then another character reacting. It isn’t just conflict and then a character trying to do something about it.
Story encompasses backstory, it creates who the character is and what they want and why they want it. It’s part of the misbelief or misunderstandings of human nature that turn into conflict. It’s people who want different things pushing themselves to attain what they think will bring balance to their lives, even when it contradicts another character’s goal. Story is their goals, their desires, their actions, and how they muddle through life and its frustrating conflicts.
Story is the evolution of a person(s) and how it happens.
If story isn’t present in your writing, then it won’t captivate readers. Without story, you simply have strings of events that don’t progress anywhere, even if the writing is pretty and flawless.
When story is all that’s going for the writing
How often have you read hilarious/sad/upsetting/etc. stories posted from Reddit or other online sites where the grammar and spelling are atrocious, but you keep going because you want to know how it ends?
Clickbait thrives by that same idea. They post just enough story to make you want to click their link, scroll through piles of ads and poorly written articles just to see how the story ends. Sometimes people even post the rest of the story in the comments just so you don’t have to scroll and search for it yourself. Sites like Rate My Job post short stories like these all the time on social media, hoping you’ll click on them.
This also happens with pictures of stories from Reddit or Twitter or other online communities, shared online. You keep clicking to see the next picture to what happens. The following image gallery is an example of this type of story.
These stories aren’t typical short stories found in literary journals or collections. However, the story is still captivating and people still enjoy reading them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be shared so often.
Because the story is captivating, we’re often willing to look past unconventional formats or poor grammar and spelling. We’re simply enjoying the story.
How to improve story in your own fiction
Improving story in your work boils down to two exercises: understanding your characters and practicing.
Understanding your characters
Random events happening to people does not make story. Story comes from who a person is, what they want, how they achieve their desires, why they want something, and how they react to things. This requires backstory, knowing motives, understanding personality, delving into flaws and strengths. As you understand your character, you’ll be able to reflect that understanding in how you write them. They’ll be able to take a more active role in your writing and their story will be more apparent.
If you’ve already written your book, pick a scene and analyze it. Is the character simply there or are they making their own decisions? Look at the next scene they’re in. Are they simply there again or are they there because of a decision they made in their previous scene?
Another way you can understand your character is to know how they react to conflict. Do they strive to overcome it? Do they give up and try to avoid it? Look at the scene you’re analyzing again and analyze the conflict. Does the character want something (even if it’s minor) and is there conflict to that desire? Are they doing something about it (whether it’s overcoming or avoiding or drowning in it)? Is who they are based on their past actions and backstory affecting how they make decisions? All of these things contribute to the character’s story and help readers recognize the story.
As you understand your character(s) better, you’ll be able to better weave their story into their actions and interactions with others. As you do so, readers will relate and root for the character(s) more.
You can’t get better at story without practicing writing it. There’s a few things you can do to help develop your ability to write intriguing and page-turning story.
Microfiction is a great way to practice writing strong story. Because you can’t write many words, each word matters and you have to get across the story so people can relate and enjoy what’s happening in just a few words.
Limit yourself to just a few characters and go from there. There’s many writing prompts available, and several social media writing communities often have prompts available. Twitter is popular for this because of the existing character limits (see #microfiction and #vss365).
Writing microfiction helps you see the bare bones of story, and it can be a fun exercise as a break from always writing longer pieces.
Work your way up
Start with writing a scene as microfiction. Keep it as short as possible. Six words to 50 words. Once the piece is as short as possible without losing the emotions evoked from the story, write it again but longer. Up to 300 words. Keep the story apparent, but add more details and emotions and whatever you like. Rewrite as needed to ensure the story is still clear and moving.
Working your way up gets the scene/story to the bare bones. You can see what’s the most important and the most compelling for the reader. Keep that element but give it more life. And keep going, a little longer each time. 300 words to 600. 600 to 1,000. 1,000 to 5,000. Go longer than you even planned the scene to be. Can you keep the story visible and easily accessed by the reader? Or does it fade away in the extra details and planned plot?
Writing the same scene in different lengths helps you understand the most important elements of the scene and story. Start small, rewrite bigger, and keep rewriting until you get each scene at each targeted word count right. Keep in mind the character(s) and their story and play with it. You’ll understand their story as you experiment and write.
Rewrite with a different character viewpoint
Story will change depending on which character viewpoint you follow. People see, think, and understand events differently. Writing the scene by a different viewpoint will give you the opportunity to explore how each character’s story affects POV and what the reader feels.
For example, Character A and Character B burn down their childhood home. When written in Character A’s POV, the reader sees the agony of a teenager who feels there’s no other way so he tosses in a torch. He hopes one day his younger brother will grow into understanding and reaches for his brother’s small hand. He misses their dead parents and is nervous about breaking the news to his brother.
In Character B’s POV, you see the younger brother who is watching from the sidelines, angry at his brother and too young to understand. He doesn’t know where Mom and Dad are, and he’s sad to watch the house burn with all his favorite toys inside. He balls his hand into a fist and smacks his brother’s before running away from the house.
With the two different characters, you have different reasons for why they feel as they do, different reactions to situations, and they make different decisions. POV vastly changes the scene and the portrayed story.
Take a scene with multiple characters and rewrite it for each character’s POV. What changes? What did you find to be more important in the scene? Rewrite in the original viewpoint; their story should be more recognizable and interesting as you focus on how their story affects the scene.
As you practice focusing on story in your writing and flesh out your characters, the story will connect with readers better and you’ll create a more captivating tale. And that story is what will keep your readers invested.