I was once asked by a writing course delegate, how I knew whether I’d done a proper job of writing a story, and were there any specific steps to go through each time.
Well, not every writer follows the same approach to their craft, in the same way that not every builder takes the same steps to complete a project (and we all know how widely that can vary!) But there are some basic rules to follow which allow a certain elasticity in approach, depending on one’s view of being a writer.
The first – and probably the main area – is telling a complete story. You can have the most beautifully worded tale in the world, with elegant narrative, realistic dialogue and mind-blowing descriptions of place, character and setting; but if your tale isn’t rounded and complete, you haven’t accomplished the main part of your job.
As writers, it is easy for us to get caught up in the mechanics of writing – the structure, grammar, punctuation and so forth – and to forget about the main components of a story. These should consist of, for the most part, a beginning, a middle and an end. The balance and importance of each of these may vary according to style, but as long as they are there in some form, the job has been done.
Imagine an ancient travelling minstrel, who sits down in the village square to regale the local peasants with a breath-taking tale of heroism, derring-do and romance. Instead of introducing the audience to his characters and saying how they fit into his tale, he launches straight in at the deep end. While he’s talking, of course, people are looking at each other in puzzlement because he hasn’t prepared the ground in the right way. Basically, he’s dropped his characters into the frame like a bucket of bricks, and left it to the audience to do all the work. Naturally, because they’re busy wondering what he’s talking about, they miss further salient bits of the story. I find this happens occasionally, when I have to keep turning back a few pages of a book to find out what in the name of Moses is going on, and where did such-and-such a character spring from.
The same minstrel may well begin his story in the correct way, with a great opening line, proper introductions and a thrilling background setting. Unfortunately, he goes off the boil by careering straight towards the ending like a runaway hay cart, without any kind of build-up. This leaves the audience feeling short-changed, as if there’s something missing. It’s a bit like going from the starter straight to the pudding – sometimes fun but not always filling.
Our wandering minstrel might, on the other hand, build the tension and excitement, gradually drawing his audience into the story right from the opening, leading them towards what promises to be a gut-busting grand finale. Then, just as the end seems in sight, he promptly hikes up his breeches and walks away without finishing, leaving everyone with their jaws in the fly-catching position.
Cue revolting peasants, wondering what happened to the pay-off. And revolting peasants being what they are, the minstrel’s next public appearance is likely to be centre-stage at the local rotten fruit-throwing gala.
The majority of readers like to finish a story with a feeling that they’ve been taken on a journey; that they’ve been entertained, shown some sights and brought to the end with a sense of satisfaction or conclusion. They may have a few questions, but these are usually along the ‘what if…’ lines, where their own imagination takes them off beyond the parameters set down by the author.
Where we writers might also fall down is in leaving gaps in the narrative, causing confusion by not being clear in what we are saying, or worse, not tying up loose ends. This is where editing is all-important, because we owe it to the reader to make as professional a job as possible of what we’re doing.
It’s a bit like looking at a graph: there will be peaks and troughs, reflecting the highs and lows of a story (activity versus descriptive narrative, for example). But as long as you have plenty of peaks, and they out-number the troughs, you can carry the reader forward into that much-described ‘page-turning’ territory, making them anticipate the next page for the thrills and excitement ahead.
TOP TIPS· Is what you have written clear to the reader? Clarity is fundamental, in detail and plot. Lose clarity and you’ll lose your reader.
· Have you explained who the characters are? It doesn’t have to be a whole page, as long as you let everyone know where they came from and what part they play in your story.
· Have you left out or fudged what happened to character X or Y? If so, you may, like the minstrel, get more than just your five portions of fruit and veg. Readers will fasten onto even minor characters, so you owe it to them to wrap up the detail.
· Have you brought the story to a satisfactory conclusion? You may know what the ending is, but have you made it clear to your readers, or will they be left forever wondering?