The art of the story has been on my mind a lot lately. Part of it is polishing the first fifty pages of The Aeronauts for submissions; part of it is all the amazing talks I heard at Willamette Writer’s Conference 2012 about making storytelling into second nature. How do we weave stories that are compelling? How do we keep readers interested from the first word to the last?
So I decided to write up some of the ways I know to pump up your storytelling, keep readers turning pages, and give your novel that extra bit of kick it needs to get noticed.
1. Uncomfortable is good.
A story isn’t going to go anywhere unless it contains some kind of hanging conflict. A good story is a bit like watching a balanced rock tilting one way, and then the other, knowing all the while that unless something is done it’s going to fall. The tension is monstrous. It propels the story forward.
Naturally we shy away from conflict. It’s part of our programming. We want things to be resolved, for the rock to either stop tipping or to just fall over already. A conversation that ends with everyone agreeing on everything isn’t interesting, and it certainly doesn’t lay the groundwork for future story-fueling tension. Make your characters’ interactions uncomfortable. Let them fight. Let them make subtle digs. Let them disagree.
Uncomfortable is good.
2. Hike up the emotional content.
Writing good character emotion is tricky business. As writers, we have a tendency to distance our readers from our protagonists, which removes the emotional connection.
Pumping up the emotional content does not mean writing more emotional scenes. It doesn’t mean more feelings or more whining. It doesn’t mean more. It means better. Likely you already have written in plenty of emotion, but that emotion is so distant from the reader, so unreal to the reader, that it doesn’t hit home.
Cut out verbs that cause distance. “To feel” is one of the worst offenders; “Maria felt pain” is about as emotionally flat as you can get. Lead with active verbs: e.g., “White-hot pain lanced across her face.” Look for places where your prose is disconnected from what a character is actually feeling.
It comes down to the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me what she’s feeling. If she’s sad, show me that she’s sad. Make me feel it for myself. Is a cold hand squeezing around her heart? Are hot tears burning salty rivers down her cheeks?
3. Emotion leads to conflict, and vice versa.
Why do we fight? Rarely, we fight over things. Usually we are fighting over feelings that surround those things.
In Robopocalypse, two brothers are arguing over the younger one selling a prized family heirloom. The older one isn’t mad about the heirloom itself–he’s mad that his younger brother is so irresponsible he pawned it for petty cash. That he has so little regard for his heritage that he was willing to part with it. It’s an act of disrespected toward a deceased parent, who worked hard to procure the heirloom.
These are the conflicts that hit home. Where emotional tension runs high. And once conflict happens, what is the result? Bruised feelings. Discord.
Remember that sometimes characters obtain resolution from conflict. Sometimes it’s cathartic. Just remember that emotions are the cause and the effect of conflict, and they will hit the reader harder.
4. Let your characters make bad decisions.
Nobody’s perfect, especially not your protagonist–if you want him or her to be interesting, anyway. Catalog those essential flaws. Think about what kinds of terrible, terrible decisions that imperfect protagonist might make.
Now let your character make them, and watch the fireworks.
Always remember that characters don’t make decisions for no reason. There are always triggers, and those triggers are often emotion or character-driven. Is your character prideful? Call him out on a mistake. Is your character reeling from a heartbreak? Let her wake up next to her rebound and find he has a neckbeard.
5. If plot is the car, character is the engine.
Remember that plot is not the driver. Plot is not what moves your story forward–characters do. Stories that rely solely on plot to progress end up like Prometheus, a hodge-podge collection of plot twists and characters that act completely out of character. You know that heroine who always just seems to be dragged along? She is the victim of plot. She makes no decisions, only suffers through every turn of the plot.
Your characters are always thinking, always doing, always feeling, and that is more than enough to propel your story forward. Avoid creating artificial plot devices. Readers can tell. Rely on what you already know about your characters, the conflicts they face, the emotional hurricane that already whirls around them. Let your characters drive the car.