A good story is basically “Somebody wanted something and they had to overcome an obstacle to get it.”
Without that… no story, really.
(The stories that really make readers do flip flops (in a good way) have surprises. The premise “nothing is as it appears” is an awesome storytelling device, and is the main underpinning of several of my stories. It’s a kick when Critique Partners go “Didn’t see that coming!” Do it when you can.)
So… let us begin at the beginning.
Fred goes to the store.
That’s a story. Simple and effective, but not very interesting. Nobody’s reading that story. Because there’s no obstacle to overcome, and we said in a GOOD story they had to overcome OBSTACLES to get what they wanted. Fred wants something, yes. He has to go to the store to get it, so technically the distance between him and the store is an obstacle but YAWN not a very good one as far as reading goes. Are ya with me?
But if on the way to the store, Fred was attacked by a wolf and got his arm chewed off, now we have something interesting!
A little over the top, yes; but much more interesting than just Fred going to the store.
To increase the TENSION, I could say that Fred is going to store to get some super important medicine to save the life of his dying child. Like, the kid had some kind of allergic reaction and Fred has to get an EpiPen from Walgreens.
Now we are starting to have a story.
So when the wolf attacks Fred, or he gets a flat tire, that creates tension because we’re worried about Fred getting back in time to save his child.
Uh… so what’s tension, exactly?
TENSION is the sense that something is about to happen. The anticipation can be for something good or bad, as long as readers are holding their breath in anticipation. (Janice Hardy, Fiction University http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/07/tension.html ) Tension is any element that evokes emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear and stress on the part of both the reader and the characters in a novel. (Nancy Curteman Global Mysteries https://nancycurteman.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/what-is-tension-in-a-novel/ It’s the threat of the unknown. Anticipation of Christmas morning. All that stuff. Get it?
As a writer, you know what’s going to happen in a scene – remember when I said Stacie wasn’t worried when her friend got hauled away? Because I KNEW Stacie’s friend would be okay. Readers didn’t. Stacie didn’t, but I had her acting like she did. Oops. I missed out on a place for tension (because I was rushing to the next scene that had a LOT of tension). That’s easy to do in a first draft. Paying attention to Critique Partners and doing a second draft will fix that.
This is where it gets gooooood.
We should have a subplot in the Fred story; something about how maybe Fred was supposed to do this earlier and forgot, or behind the scenes somebody is plotting to kill his daughter by getting her peanut butter when she had an allergy. Maybe Fred has made some enemies.
This makes for some interesting second tier characters, ALL of whom should act as though the entire story is about them. Yeah. Think about that. They’ll be interesting then, won’t they? And your story will be better for it.
Okay. So: main plot, sub plot. Or a few sub plots. So far we have a couple of layers; we have some nice paint. Now, think about Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies. The plot? Real live dinosaurs you can go see! Oh, and they get loose and kill everybody!
Subplot(s): Dennis/Newman-from-Seinfeld is gonna steal the dino embryos and help a rival park get… dinosaurs!
Also, Dr Ellie Statler and Dr Alan Grant are thinking about having kids; she wants them, he doesn’t. (“They smell. Some of them smell. Babies smell.”)
John Hammond, the billionaire funding the park, is facing a lawsuit. He needs to open! Soon!
And on and on. But you don’t think about any of that when you hear the words Jurassic Park, do you? You think about that BIG T-REX EATING THE CAR WITH THE KIDS INSIDE.
Because it’s awesome.
To add depth to OUR story, we want to have some relevant subplots. To make the layers interesting and relatable to readers, we want to…
Add some EMOTION.
How does Fred feel about this? How does his daughter feel about it? Depending on POV, maybe it’s Fred’s wife watching the whole thing happen. Or some omniscient eye in the sky.
Let’s say it’s Fred.
So Fred is nervous he thinks in inner monologues – thoughts expressed in italics. How will I get home and save my daughter? The store closes in five minutes and I’m 10 minutes away!
Why is that more interesting?
Glad you asked.
That sort of thing that’s called putting your characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them.
Fred has to go to the store, the first rock is the store is closing, the second rock is his daughter is dying, a third rock could be he gets a flat tire, the fourth rock is a wolf jumps in the car and chews off his arm. There could be others. So now we have emotion and we have some tension – what else do we need?
Maybe we need a setting. You know, the idyllic town of Middletown, USA, which is actually the name of the town near where I grew up. Talk about idyllic. Paint in as much detail as needed – or as little.
The nice quiet suburb in the nice quiet city of Middletown, in the nice quiet Midwestern United States… a horrible tragedy broke out! A mass murderer is trying to kill children by putting peanut butter in all their stuff at school, and while police hunt him down, Fred has to run to the store.
Or maybe that’s a little over the top. But you get the idea.
What other layers need to happen to the story?
Maybe nothing. Maybe several little subplots will rise and fall during the span of the big story.
If we add some dramatic elements of how Fred feels about all this, emotions, the tension goes up and makes it much more dramatic – and that makes it more interesting to read.
FRIDAY: a new flash fiction challenge!
SATURDAY: I don’t know yet. Check back. I might sleep in.
SUNDAY: Write Better Stories, Part Two: 6 Things To Avoid And To Be Sure To Incorporate (If You Can).
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.