What makes a compelling story? And how can we turn one small idea into an entire novel?
It’s not only the kids who go back to school in September – if you’re starting to write a novel, we’ve got the perfect advice to help you get started.
On our blog today, we’re joined by Melanie Conklin, writing coach at The Novelry and award-winning author of five middle-grade books for children, to talk us through her novel approach to storytelling and her five top tips for taking your book from idea to storyline:
- Start with a lie
- Put a life on the line
- Pile on the trouble
- Give everyone secrets
- Connect the dots
We love this refreshing and engaging approach to storytelling – who doesn’t love a lie! – and we’re confident that you’ll find some guidance here to shape your storytelling and make it really shine.
How to be a good storyteller
Human beings are addicted to story.
We tell stories to share knowledge and to entertain. We tell stories to make sense of our world. We love stories so much that we tell them to ourselves when we dream at night (credit: Jonathan Gottschall).
It is not only a noble task but a human birthright to tell stories, and I’m honored to be here today to share what I’ve learned about telling very good stories that connect with your readers’ hearts and minds.
My advice is a bit unconventional, as it’s what I have discovered on my own through a lifetime of reading and a decade of novel writing. I hope that what I’m about to share resonates with you and sparks new connections that will take your storytelling to the next level!
1. Start with a lie
Everyone has their own recipe for storytelling, but for me, a story starts with a lie.
This is not a lie your character tells as part of the plot, but a misbelief they hold about themselves.
Plot is, quite simply, what happens over the course of a story. The story, however, is how that plot affects your character and causes them to change. Your character enters the story with one set of beliefs, including a misbelief that poisons their view of the world.
The lie is something false that your character believes to be true. This false belief guides their choices (often bad ones). It shows up very early, ideally in the opening chapter. This belief defines your character. It is their lightning rod. It is the girl who believes she does not count in her family. It is the child who thinks their father disapproves of who they are. It is the teen who believes their absent parent never loved them.
Notice how deeply personal these guiding beliefs are?
That’s because the lie is usually something tied to your character’s sense of self-worth. It takes the journey of your story to unravel it. Each step of the plot pushes against the character’s misbelief.
They cling harder. The plot presses further. The character fights back. They resist change with every fiber of their being, even though change is as unavoidable as the plot events that befall them. The change happens against their will, despite their desire to cling to the past.
This is why the lies are my favorite part. We all believe in lies about ourselves. Our characters are no different. Dig into their background and discover the wound – the moment that set this misbelief in your character’s mind.
We all believe in lies about ourselves. Our characters are no different.
It’s going to be a very specific moment, a moment they DO NOT want to share because their shame, guilt, or pain is so great. It’s the moment their birthday party was forgotten in the face of a family emergency. It’s the moment their mother walked away without looking back.
It’s how they froze. How they failed. Once you know what your character needs to learn, you can choose a plot that forces them to learn it. For master-level craft, create a growth arc for every character in your book.
2. Put a life on the line
Your plot, and the stakes in your plot, need to be appropriate for the change you want to see in your character.
Once your character has experienced your plot, they see the world in a new way. They’ve grown. Without the events of the plot, the character would have no reason to change.
People don’t change spontaneously. Something happens to us, and we react. We make choices, and there are consequences, and we grow, and that cycle continues on and on.
Plot is the circus that comes to town.
It’s the mother’s frightening diagnosis. It’s the house fire, or the shooting, or the fall through an inter-dimensional crack in space and time.
But how do you choose the right plot?
You look at your character arc and pick something that matches the intensity of their growth. If the intensity of the stakes does not match the intensity of your character’s growth, the story will not ring true to readers. Your stakes need to be big enough.
In most cases, this means putting a life on the line, in some form or another. The threat of death can be literal, but it can also be metaphorical. Your character may be facing a social death, the loss of a family, a home, or of their self-worth. Without appropriately high stakes, your character’s actions won’t seem logical.
Make sure your plot fits your character’s growth arc and spurs them to become the person they really want to be. The good books, the great ones, all have this inherent thread running between the external events of the story (the plot) and the character’s internal growth.
There’s a harmony, a frisson that builds from the interplay of character, theme, and action. Make sure you have that connection.
3. Pile on the trouble
Everyone expects a villain in a story. That’s the traditional form of antagonist, but you can achieve a more gripping, page-turning narrative by including not just a villain, but three layers of antagonists.
Man versus man
Man versus man is the typical antagonist we expect. This includes the villain, but also any other characters who oppose your main character. It’s helpful if everyone else is working against your character in some way, even if it’s innocently or without harmful intention. This ratchets up the conflict and tension in your story.
It’s helpful if everyone else is working against your character in some way, even if it’s innocently or without harmful intention.
Man versus nature
People aren’t the only forces working against your character. The setting can also be an antagonist! Man versus nature begs the question of how your location, timeline and era can increase the conflict in your story. Set your story in the place and time that maximizes the challenge your character faces and readers will be rooting for them that much more.
Man versus self
Finally, our characters also have their own demons to battle. This final layer of antagonist is man versus self, wherein our characters’ own personality traits get in their way. This makes your character not only dynamic but authentic to readers.
4. Give everyone secrets
Nothing makes me respect a story more than a good twist.
I deeply admire books that manage to pull one over on me, and I’ve found that the best way to set up these pivotal moments in a story is by giving everyone secrets.
Characters, like us, have things that they are hiding from each other or even from themselves. Giving each character a secret provides them with a hidden motivation that makes logical sense. Their actions align with this secret, so readers get to enjoy the surprise of not only a great plot twist, but in seeing how they were fooled.
Giving each character a secret provides them with a hidden motivation that makes logical sense.
Secrets can give your story a boost at tricky spots where the narrative tends to lag, such as the midpoint or the start of the third act. Set yourself up for success by layering these secrets into the narrative long before they are revealed, and readers will wait eagerly to be fooled again.
5. Connect the dots
Once you have your internal and external story arcs, three layers of antagonists, and secrets scattered throughout, one final element is required to make your story a true page-turner: you need to connect the dots – making your scenes flow one to the next like water coursing downhill, carrying the reader with them.
And you can achieve this by ensuring your scenes are connected by a story spine (credit: playwright Ken Adams).
A story spine begins with, ‘Once upon a time, my character did (what was normal for them). Until one day, when (the inciting moment happens). Because of that, (the next plot point happens). Because of that, (the next plot point happens).’ And so on.
We do not want scenes connected by the words, ‘and then.’ We want a causative connection between each scene, so the reader can get swept up in the momentum of the plot and the confidence of the writer telling the story.
These five elements create an infrastructure for your story on which your individual scenes can be built.
Making sure these key elements are in place prior to drafting saves a tremendous amount of revision time later on, even if you don’t plan every little detail in advance. Just generating this framework while brainstorming allows a more integrated, layered vision from the start.
Once you have these five key elements in place, you have everything you need to create a truly authentic, resonant, and page-turning story!