You start reading a new book in the early afternoon. It was a free book, one that you didn’t even know you’d like until you started it. And then two hours later, it’s time for dinner. But you don’t want to stop. You pull yourself away for fifteen minutes—just long enough to cook a microwave dinner and bring it back to the couch so you can eat while you read. The book is just that good; you can’t put it down, and before you know it you’ve read well past bedtime.
Before you know it, you’ve finished the story. All you want is another, and the only question is where to find it. You curse your luck, wish that the novel was part of a series so that you’d have more to dig into.
That’s what a compelling story is. It doesn’t just paint a new world; it draws you in so subtly that you don’t even notice it, until the world becomes seemingly more important than reality. But how does an author create a compelling story? I won’t claim to be an expert, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to share my personal rules for a compelling plot with you.
- The threat of failure must be real and immediate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a story about a ballerina trying to get into dance school or a couple of elves tasked with saving a magical egg; there has to be a credible chance that everything will fall apart.
- There’s never an easy solution. From the moment your story starts to when it ends, no problem should be easily solved. The second a main character randomly gains a useful skill or a god swoops down to save the day, all tension disappears.
- The stakes have to be clear. What do your characters stand to lose if they fail? This doesn’t have to always be world destruction (in fact, most of the time it probably shouldn’t), but readers should be able to answer the question easily.
- The world must seem real (or at least possible). I’m specifically referring to consistency here. If you want to have wizards and trolls running around, more power to you; just make sure that this doesn’t result in a violation of rule #2.
- Repetition must be kept to a minimum. Don’t recycle plotlines within the same story. That’s just lazy writing.
- The characters should all be reasonably intelligent. Have you ever watched a horror movie that was terrible because the characters never did what any rational person would do in their situation? It works in some cases, but for the most part readers don’t like sitting through chapter after chapter of suck when they see a simple solution.
- If there’s a love interest, he/she should further the story instead of being a distraction. I tend to view love as the cherry on top of a good story, and only rarely the purpose of a story in-and-of itself.
- The scale of conflict should increase over time. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a linear progression (ie: the city’s in danger, now the country’s in danger, now the world’s in danger!), but there ought to be some movement. If your ballerina managed to get into dance school, her next hurdle might be figuring out how to become one of the best ballerinas there. Then she might try out for a local ballet, only to fail. Next thing you know, she’s on the verge of becoming a world-class performer, but she breaks her ankle right before the big day. Plot progression goes hand-in-hand with character development, and both are essential aspects of a compelling story.
- Mundane conflicts should be avoided (ie: day-to-day issues). Don’t write about characters deciding what to eat for breakfast (unless something interesting is about to happen to disrupt the activity).
- The reader should be surprised every once in a while. There’s no point in writing a story without surprises. That would be like toast without the crunch: bland white bread, the kind that sticks in your throat and makes it hard to swallow. As I said in my 10 Tips post, throw in something unexpected.
Well, those are my rules for a compelling story. Think I missed something? Please be sure to leave a comment down below. Also, I’m currently offering a free copy of the entire Auburn series to blog visitors; if you don’t see the pop-up, please leave a comment and I’ll tell you how to sign up.