The best novels seem effortless – the reader is immediately drawn into the story and engages with the characters. Easy to achieve, right? Wrong. While almost everyone can put words on paper (or on an electronic screen), storytelling is a craft that must be developed.
The purpose of fiction is to create an emotional experience for the reader. “Safe” and “happy” are fine for real life but readers want to feel anxious when they’re immersed in your book, uncertain what will happen next. For this, you need to build in strong tension and conflict, with characters who struggle to get what they want.
These tips will help you create a more compelling story:
- Give Your Protagonist an Immediate Challenge (initial incident)
Put your main character in a situation that forces her to make a choice and/or take action. This challenge paves the way for the bigger problem about to emerge. In one of my edited books, the novella Not by Design, Felicity is faced with a marriage proposal. The ring, like the man, is not a good fit and she is unable to give an answer. This sets the tone for the rest of the story, as she and Marco grow farther apart.
- Story problem
This must be large enough to carry the story – make it high stakes, critical to your main character. (Giving a deadline for resolution adds urgency.) Often the protagonist must confront her greatest fear in order to overcome the problem. In Not by Design, Felicity learns she has an incurable disease. She loses her fiancé, then must give up her career as a fashion designer. By facing these challenges, she forges another path for her life.
- Use Goal, Motivation and Conflict
What does your character want (and want badly)? Why? And what stops her from getting it? The conflict should be both internal (what she believes/feels) and external (physical obstacles). For the external conflict, put her in a difficult situation. Ask yourself – how can I make this worse? Then do it. ALL your main characters need inner and outer conflict. If possible, give them opposing goals.
- Strong Characterization
To create reader sympathy, give your protagonist a flaw or vulnerability. Does her fierce independence cover a fear of abandonment?
Physical flaws are important too. Don’t make her perfect. The shapely mermaid in my novel, SeaStruck, possesses rather large feet when she’s on land and can’t find a comfortable pair of shoes.
At the same time, your character needs admirable qualities. Maybe she’s courageous and takes risks or a stubborn streak keeps her from giving up. Or she’s super intuitive and can always tell when someone’s lying. Show us what’s admirable about her.
Good stories are also about character change. How do your protagonist’s decisions and actions change her in a fundamental way?
These are other threads of the story that usually take place with secondary characters. The best subplots cannot be separated from the main plot without impairing it. Most novels have at least two or three subplots to add complexity.
- Dialogue helps to characterize the people in your story. To maintain tension, have your characters disagree most of the time.
- Climax or Black Moment
This is when all seems lost, and the protagonist lets go of the behavior or thinking that brought her to this point. She is now able to embrace change and move in a positive direction.
For story integrity, your main plot and subplots should relate to the same theme. Many authors don’t recognize their theme until they have completed a draft of their novel or novella. During the revision process, you can use your theme to determine which parts of the story to keep and expand and which parts to delete.
Getting to Mr. Right, a novel which I edited, focuses on the myth of an ideal romantic partner (Prince Charming). In one subplot, the protagonist is upset because her son is in love with an older woman. In another subplot, a character struggles with her attraction to younger men. The common theme successfully links different parts of the story together.
Determine your overall theme (what issues have you explored? what is the message of your story?) How is your theme reflected in the main storyline and secondary plotlines?
Powerful stories usually require a great deal of thought and development. There is nothing more satisfying than a book that has all the right elements, in the right balance. In my opinion, it is well worth the effort.