How to make a story compelling

Conflict, Tug-of-war, Arguing.

The need to tell stories is as old as civilization. Where there are people, there are stories. We enjoy several good ones every day. They might be as simple as the hummingbird that buzz-bombed your head while you watered your roses, or as complex as a seven-novel series about a school for wizards.

Stories hold us in suspense. The best ones make us laugh or cry, or think about the difficult matters of life. When it comes to stories, we have high expectations. We want a situation that catches our interest and keeps us involved until the last page. The ending needs to feel both hard-earned and inevitable. That’s a lot to accomplish and it can be overwhelming when you find yourself in the middle of writing a story, especially one as long as a novel or memoir.

Here are a few tips to help you make the story you are writing more compelling:

  • Have your main character undergo a significant change. This is the hook. It’s the reason we love stories. Rocky went from an unknown boxer to a champion. We all like to hope that real change is possible and we love seeing it happen.
  • Let that change be the result of choices the character made. If the conflict is resolved by a random event that the main character has no control over, your story will lose its tension. What is worse, your readers will feel that they have been cheated out of a satisfying ending.
  • Don’t be afraid to make the choices difficult. The higher stakes, the more compelling the story. Jane Eyre must leave Rochester because of his horrifying secret or stay with him for love. Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption must break the law to free himself or continue serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit.
  • Let the character try more than once. Often, giving the character three attempts to face the challenge heightens the tension.
  • Make the antagonist complex too. It’s easy to think of the bad guy as pure evil, but giving the antagonist at least one strong redeeming characteristic adds depth to the story and makes it more compelling. Hector Hannibal has exquisite taste in classical music and is an astute judge of character.
  • Throw us into the middle of the action. Don’t give us the preliminaries, such as people saying hello. Skip forward to the real action or the difficult conversation. This technique is used often by screenwriters, but it serves other storytellers equally well. Take a look at all of the scenes in your book and ask yourself if they could start later.

These a just a few ideas to get you started. If you’d like to learn more, check out “Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them” by Ronald B. Tobias. Happy writing.

Drawing readers into your character’s emotions

Man with cardboard box on his head and terrified look skethed. terrified; frozen; scared man.

The simplest way of conveying an emotion is to label it. For example, you could write that a character is devastated, elated or mortified. You could say the character looked wistfully or spoke angrily. While these labels may be accurate, they are unlikely to engage your readers. Rather than encouraging readers to experience the emotion for themselves, these labels tell readers how to feel. As we will explore in this blog, there are more effective ways of drawing readers into your story and the emotions of your characters.

Vivid writing is concrete and it evokes the senses. Readers experience a good story in the same way they experience the rest of their lives—through their bodies. The experience may begin in their heads, but it translates into something more. If you describe the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensations experienced by your characters as specifically as possible, your story will be more believable. This is particularly important when it comes to conveying emotions.

There are several ways you can draw readers into the emotions experienced by your characters. Start by looking for actions and dialogue that show the emotion. If your character is angry, she might slap down her coat or kick dust. The way we speak and what we say also reveals how we feel. It might help to describe the bodily sensations of the emotion, such as trembling fingers and a racing heart. You could also describe facial expressions. Even description of the setting can be used to evoke feelings.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to gradually guide your reader through an experience of the emotion. Consider the following excerpt from “A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle. In this scene young Henry discovers his brother underneath the tarpaulin where they had been sleeping. They are homeless boys living in Dublin. Take note of the concrete and specific sensory details that make the heavy emotion underscoring this scene unforgettable. Notice also how the short fragmented sentences convey a sense of rising panic.

“I tried to wake him, to get him sitting. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get a proper grip. I found his cheeks and rubbed them. All I wanted was to hear another cough. I still couldn’t see him. I searched for the edge of the covering, to give him air. To see him. I rolled along the low tarpaulin and kept rolling until I was out from under it. I stood up and lifted it and peered back in.

I could see him now. I let morning light in by lifting the tarpaulin roof with my back. I knew he was dead, even as I rushed back in. His mouth was open, and his eyes, staring into the darkness. There was a mark, where a line of watery blood had run from his mouth past his ear. I rubbed it away with my sleeve. There was nothing in his eyes now, just what I thought was the memory of his last agony and terror—the last cough and the utter darkness on top of him. He was white and glazed. His mouth was stretched, the cracked, bursting lips were losing colour as I looked. …”

Dialogue tags

Happy couple talking and laughing on date. Smiling girl and guy having conversation. Amusing man making woman laugh. Good relationship.

After a few lines of dialogue, it can be tempting to vary the standard “he said” and “she said” with more colourful alternatives. But if the dialogue tag is too colourful, it can weaken what might otherwise be strong writing. Having your characters “quip”, “retort”, “spit”, and “roar” is distracting. There are scenes in which a more exotic dialogue tag might be effective, but it’s risky. Here’s why. When readers come across a flamboyant dialogue tag, they are likely to miss what the character said and think instead about the word choice made by the author.

Besides being distracting, overly colourful dialogue tags can feel pushy. Readers dislike being pushed. They prefer instead to be entranced. Colourful dialogue tags tend to be melodramatic, which is why they seem pushy. Instead of leading the reader to discover how the character feels and empathize, these dialogue tags scream the message. A gentler approach is almost always more effective.

Readers want us to fill their imagination with images, actions and spoken words that are so vivid they forget for a while that what they’re reading isn’t real. Afterwards, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll tell their friends they couldn’t put our book down.

As writers, we want to give our readers just enough information to set their imagination to work and we want to do that in a way that does not feel forced. Using “said” does that. Readers are accustomed to the humble word and they pass over it quickly. This gives more focus to the dialogue and that’s exactly where we want the focus to be.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, realistic dialogue is one of the best ways to convey character. How people speak and what they say reveals so much. If you want to convey emotion, there are more effective ways than using a dialogue tag. Watch for my next blog on the different ways of capturing emotions.

Whose life story is it?

Happy moments

There are many ways to gather family stories. For example, you could ask each branch of the family tree to provide stories about themselves. You could also ask children for stories about their parents, working your way through each generation.

But perhaps the most common approach is to focus all of the stories on the oldest surviving individual or couple. There are clear advantages to this approach. After all, eldest members have the most stories. Also, because their stories span multiple generations, they provide special wisdom.

Another advantage to focusing the stories on one or two people is that the book can become a once-in-a-lifetime gift that family members create in order to honor someone they love. Last year my mother turned 80. We wanted to do something special, so we created a book. I asked family members for stories, even managed to gather a few from Mom without her figuring out what I was doing.

Gathering stories from an extended family takes effort and persistence. We’re a relatively small family, but the book included contributions from 25 people and sometimes the stories took a little digging. Yet the reward was beyond measure. Mom can now see in print how much she means to us. Plus, we all learned something about each other and about ourselves.

An earlier blog that I wrote highlights how teens benefit from knowing their family stories. Well, I think those benefits apply not just to teens. We all feel stronger and happier when we know where we come from.

How to gather your family stories

Grandfather and grandson playing chessMy favourite uncle broke into opera singing at random moments. No, he wasn’t an opera singer. He was an electrician, but I hold him vividly in my mind by thinking about his exuberant singing. I will tell my grandchildren about his singing. When I do, they too will feel like they know him even though he passed away a few years ago.

You may be tracing your family tree. Many people enjoy genealogy and identifying their ancestors. Where people were born, what they did for a living, and other biographical facts are interesting. But to capture personality, you need stories.

Each family has its own way of deciding which stories are important. Some like to remember how they came to Canada with nothing and built a new life. Others find value in remembering moments when they nearly lost everything. Your family might celebrate the ridiculous. They might enjoy listing the silly things they have done. Lots of us do because it’s fun to laugh. Your family might be drawn to romantic moments, acts of heroism, surprising situations, and all of the above.

The task is not easy. If you’ve decided to gather the stories of your family, where should you begin? You can’t record it all. If you wrote down everything, the details would fill libraries. Here are a few suggestions on how you might begin:

  • Look for the moments that reveal personality most vividly.
  • Encourage input from everyone in the family.
  • Interview elder members of the family to gather stories about ancestors.
  • Look for humorous moments as well as heroic.
  • Choose a deadline for completing the project, such as a family reunion or milestone birthday. (Otherwise, the project may never be completed.)
  • Set a maximum length for each story; 500 words is likely enough.
  • Enjoy the treasure hunt. You’ll be delighted by what you find.

Story Preserve offers a range of professional services to help families save their stories and photos in a book. Send an email to dbateman@clearchoicewriting.com if you’d like to know more.