An experienced commissioning editor told me recently that one of two main reasons she rejected manuscripts was “no story”. The other was “overwritten” – I’ll write about that another day.
How can you make sure your fiction has a strong story, that people will want to read?
To put it another way, how can you make sure your fiction has bite?
‘How the hell do I apply these techniques to my writing?’
Swain said that to have a cracking good story you should start with a scene in which someone is trying to achieve a goal. The sub-elements are:
(i) goal: the character is trying to achieve something;
(ii) conflict: something prevents the character achieving that goal;
(iii) disaster: the quest to achieve the goal ends in catastrophe.
To illustrate this: in the first chapter of my Berlin thriller Blood Summit, brilliant, troubled diplomat Helen Gale starts with a goal of briefing the British Ambassador on the upcoming Children’s Summit in Berlin. She runs into conflict: someone starts throwing rocks at the embassy, and her maddening boss, Jason Short, comes in and tries to show her up. Finally, disaster strikes: a bomb goes off outside, and the Ambassador falls bleeding to the floor.
The chapter ends at this point, with the splendid bonus of a cliff-hanger.
The scene should be followed by a sequel, again with three parts:
(i) reaction: the character takes stock of what has happened;
(ii) dilemma: the character faces the challenge of deciding what to do – none of the options should be easy;
(iii) decision: he or she decides what to do next – setting up the goal for the next scene.
For example, in chapter three of Blood Summit, Helen reacts to the bomb with puzzlement. This helps to establish her character as a brilliant analyst. She faces a dilemma: how should she respond? – not helped by Jason Short sticking his oar in. She then decides to go out, setting up her next goal – to try and help the wounded outside the embassy (and underlining that she is a sympathetic, caring character).
The reader wants to know – how will her efforts fare? I can tell you: she is going to go through hell.
At this point, many creative types will be throwing up their hands and saying ‘this is formulaic! What about our creativity? I don’t want to be constrained this way!’
You may also be thinking: ‘How the hell to I apply this to my writing?’
People: I feel your pain.
To the point about creativity vs formula, I can only say: try it. If you are writing fiction, whether romance, historical drama, science fiction, murder mystery or thriller, using scenes and sequels can both strengthen your story, making your writing stronger and more compelling, and – equally important – help you to write faster and more efficiently. You may, like me, use the technique but not all the time. Or you may be a great writer without using this technique – that, obviously, is wonderful too.
Here is how I use it.
When I am writing, I plan my fiction several scenes and sequels at a time. Never more than a few chapters ahead, because I’m never quite sure how the story may develop. Thus:
(i) I have my POV (point of view) character in a certain situation, whether at the beginning of the story, half-way through, or wherever. To plot a scene, I think: “what is she trying to achieve? What obstacles and conflict could she face, ideally driven by her character and by other characters in the story? What disaster could ensue?” To plot a sequel, I then have her mull over that disaster: face choices; and make a decision. The unit of writing over which this happens could be a page, several pages, or a chapter.
(ii) I then – still in my planning phase – envisage a couple more such sets of scenes and scenarios involving the same character. I can use these after the previous units, or separated out with one or more chapters with someone else’s POV. Other POV characters will have their own goals, conflicts and disasters, too, followed by their own reactions, dilemmas and decisions.
(iii) once I have roughed out a plan – maybe for a couple of chapters ahead – I start writing those scenes. I find that having clear plan, based around the scene and scenario structure, helps my writing flow. I am of course flexible: if my character decides to do something I hadn’t expected, or an unexpected obstacle arises as I am writing, I can build that in. But I will still want to ensure that the character faces a disaster at the end of the scene, and comes up with a decision at the end of the sequel.
To see the technique of scenes and sequels used consistently, creating a series of cliffhangers, have a look at my novel Blood Summit. Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, said ‘I devoured it… utterly gripping’. See why here:
I’d love to hear from you about whether you found this advice helpful.
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