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.