Under Siege #11: How to Find a Great Story

Finding a story is not hard.  There are thousands upon thousands of them.  In fact, I have far more stories that I want to write than I have time to write them.  I found most of these stories without looking.  I’m an historian, so when I read about an historical event or person that might furnish the story for a good novel, I sit down and write up an outline.  That’s how I found the story for Siege.  Long ago, during my university days, I took a class in which I had to write a narrative history of the fall of Constantinople.  My professor liked my paper, but said that I had introduced to many elements of fiction, such as assumptions about the sun glinting off cannons (I had no way of knowing if it was sunny during the siege).  Very well, I thought.  If the problem is too much fiction, then I’ll turn it into a novel.  Problem solved.

I have stumbled across other plotlines while reading the paper or during conversations.  Some stories seem to come to me completely out of the blue—often during long walks.  I always carry a small journal with me so I can write these ideas down as they come.  More than once, a story has come to me in the form of a dream, and I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to write it down.

The hard part is not coming up with a story.  There are plenty out there.  The hard part is knowing if the story you have is worth writing.  Several of those plots that I dreamt up at night turned out to be decidedly uninspiring when I took another look at them in the light of day.  They lacked that key component, the one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that.”  But what is it that makes some stories more appealing than others?  What makes a story great?

To be perfectly honest, this is not a question that I had ever really considered before.  I knew greatness when I saw it.  Harry Potter: great idea.  Simon Scarrow’s Roman legions in Britain: brilliant.  As for my work, I simply picked stories that I loved and hoped that others would love them, too.  And that is important.  The number one requirement of a great story is that the writer think it is great.  You need to be excited to tell your story.  You’d better be, since you’ll be spending at least a year with it.  But there is more to finding a great story than just loving what you’re writing.  So, after much thought, I present my Six Ingredients for a Great Story:

1)      Find a great title.
This may sound trivial, but a great title can be the difference between people wanting to read your book and passing it over for something else.  The Devil Wears Prada is a great example.  That is a bestselling title.  And sometimes picking a title can help you to decide whether or not you should write the story in the first place.  Which of these books would you pick up first: Defender of Rome or Defender of Athens (or any other city not named Rome)?  Most people would go for the first title, because ancient Rome sells.  So does Britain, and to a lesser extent Egypt.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write a book set in medieval Russia or Mongolia, but you should be aware that it will be a harder sell.

2)      Find an interesting setting.
The setting can be the difference between a decent story and a story that people cannot wait to read.  There are countless murder mysteries and love stories, but a mystery set in ancient Rome or a love story set at a school for wizards instantly becomes much more appealing.  In some cases, setting makes the book.  The Harry Potter series is all about setting.  The plots are pretty typical for the fantasy genre, but Hogwarts is absolutely brilliant.  The same could be said for the smash hit Avatar: a movie with a simple plot but an incredibly creative setting.  The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is a collection of more or less typical mysteries, made much more interesting because they are set in Botswana.  So give some serious thought to the setting of your novel.  Instead of placing your police thriller on the streets of New York, why not set it in Spain during the Inquisition, or on an intergalactic spaceship?

3)      Make the stakes high.
The higher the stakes, the easier it will be to engage your readers.  A coming of age story is not intrinsically interesting, but the coming of age of Caesar or Genghis Khan is a different matter.  Their lives mattered on a huge scale, and so there are high stakes in even the trivial moments of their childhood.  Similarly, a detective story will usually be better if the detective’s life is a risk.  A love story will be easier to sell if more than just a relationship is at stake.  Or, if you are writing a military epic, then make the battles count.  The siege of Vienna in 1529 might be a fascinating military conflict, but what makes it interesting is that if Vienna fell, then western Europe would have been overrun by the Turks.  Drive up the stakes, and you’ll engage your readers.

4)      Know your genre.
There are certain expectations attached to stories in genres like science-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or mysteries.  Playing against those expectations can be effective, but don’t overdo it.  People like having their expectations fulfilled.  That’s why they buy genre fiction.  If you are writing an historical epic and have set two characters up as mortal enemies, then while it may be surprising for readers if the characters do not fight at the end, it might also be highly disappointing.  Know your genre and use its conventions wisely.

5)      Have at least one strong character.
Your story will only be as good as your protagonist.  Make sure you have at least one character who is likeable, interesting, and who has an arc.  They need to start in one place—psychologically, socially, romantically or otherwise—and end in another.  If your lead character never changes, then that is a sign of trouble.

6)      Know the beginning and the end.
Nothing is more important than knowing the endpoints of your story before you start writing.  You can blow almost everything else, but if you have a solid beginning and a powerful ending, then you’ll be alright.  This is especially true for endings.  How many movies have you seen that start great, then blow the ending (Eastern Promises being the ultimate example)?  How many books have you read that drift aimlessly in the middle, not sure where they are headed.  These are unforgiveable mistakes.  All great stories must have great endings.

There are three classic ways to satisfactorily end your story:

-          Emotional resolution – The romantic couple at the heart of the story get together, or are separated forever.  One character sacrifices his life for another.  The man driven by revenge finally triumphs over his arch enemy.  There are a hundred ways to do this, but the constant is that the emotional tension that has run throughout the book is resolved.

-          A twist / big reveal – New plot details come to light that alter the way the reader understands the preceding events, or that allow the reader to finally understand the plot in full.  Every mystery must have a big reveal.  Every story benefits from one.

-          Catharsis – A final conflict in which the book’s major conflict—whether within the protagonist, between two characters, or between two armies—is finally resolved.

The best endings will combine a bit of all three.  Regardless of which type of ending you choose (or even if you use one that I neglected to mention), make sure that you know where the story is going when you start writing.  It will save you time, prevent your plot from dithering, and improve your story.

Once you know your genre and have a solid title, an interesting setting, high stakes, good characters, and a brilliant ending, then start writing.  You’ve got a great story on your hands!  Even if you can check off only four of the six ingredients for a great story, then you’re probably ready to get going.  All you have to do now is tell the story.

Next week: Let’s get digital (on whether or not writers need a website)



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