Monday, 23 January 2017

Writing for Beginners (24)

What Makes a Story?

There are various elements which go towards making a story, such as a strong descriptive narrative, interesting characters, an unusual setting – even a brooding atmosphere. But by themselves, they won’t necessarily drag the reader beyond the first few words or the opening lines. To do this with any degree of success, and to make sure the reader doesn’t lose the will to live and use your story to line the budgie’s cage, you need to Make Something Happen.

As an example, I’ll paraphrase a certain well-known poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans:

The boy stood on the deck.

(Yes, I know – there's a key word missing… but stick with me). As it stands, this is merely a scene – and not a very helpful one. The deck could be on a boat or one of those hardwood patio structures; it doesn’t tell you about anything else. So what? Well, if we apply the full text of Mrs Hemans’ first line, we get a totally different picture:

The boy stood on the burning deck.

Now you have a story – or, at least the beginnings of one. (Especially when the next line tells you that everyone else had bunked off – and not to the pub). The sentence describes the same person and place… but by the addition of a vital word, you have something to sink your teeth into. The word ‘burning’ spells conflict, danger and the inevitable questions which come rushing at us when the words are used in conjunction. This is what leads us to read on, rather than ignoring it. Questions such as Why?…Who?… and What happens next?

Another example:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember.   

Very nice. Scenic, even. A scene of reliability and permanence. But not riveting. However, if you add something else to the mix:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember. Only today was different: today it carried Betty Mortensen's body in its cold embrace.

Another example might be to take a seemingly innocuous sentence also describing a person and place:

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river.

Very nice. But other than allowing the imagination to conjure up a pretty picture of a person looking at a river, there’s not much here to draw the reader in. What we need is something to kick the sentence into a whole new dimension.

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river, and wondered how cold it would be down on the bottom.

That pretty much takes the ‘nice’ out of the scene, and should lead even the most incurious of minds to ask why J – whoever she is – should be entertaining such melancholy thoughts. Is she suicidal? Vengeful? Disturbed? Going scuba-diving? Or has she been given a grant by DEFRA to study riverbed temperatures and conditions?

Another sentence, this time describing a common enough street scene, does little to make anyone wonder about whether they should carry on reading.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street.

One might wonder who Mac is and why he’s sitting there, but not much more than that. Maybe he’s a car stereo nut, or loves the smell of his leather seats and brand-new carpets. By itself, this bland statement won’t really tell us. It needs something else.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of No 24.

Better - but still not enough. He could be a car nut with a door-knocker fetish.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of no 24. His mouth was bone dry, his knuckles white on the wheel ...

Now we’re getting somewhere. At the very least, Mac might be about to go and make an offer on a house he can’t afford. At worst, he’s in need of some anger-management classes. Either way, we’re led to imagine all manner of scenarios here ranging from family conflict to a crime or thriller setting.

For a story to begin to work, we need to add in that special element which plucks at the reader’s subconscious, be it a word or a supplementary sentence, hinting at something worth delving into but without giving away the whole beeswax.  And that element usually involves excitement, danger, threat - or something scratching at our innate curiosity. Almost akin to stepping into the unknown.

In short, we want to know more. And the only way to find out is to continue reading.

But here you have to be careful; part of what makes a story work is not revealing too early what is happening or what is about to happen. Tell everything right at the start, and there’s precious little point reading further. No surprise equals no tension.

This drip-feed flow of information, whether in a thriller, romance or any other genre of writing, allows snippets of information to fall onto the page, gradually building a picture for the reader to share. Too much too soon, and there’s the danger they might see the ending and give up.

Most stories also need people to make them work. A tree on a hill is merely a tree. Add a person – preferably two – and you have the makings of joy, conflict, a burgeoning relationship or a journey – all the things which make a good read.

·       Something must happen - or have happened - to make it worthwhile reading on.
·       A setting without people is just scenery. It can only last so long before it loses the reader’s attention.
·       A hint of what lies ahead is enticement enough to draw the reader on.
·       Don’t reveal too much too soon. The reader has to uncover things for themselves.
 Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - Accent Press - available in p/b and ebook

Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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