When you’re an author, you’re a storyteller. Knowing how to craft a good story is a skill every author needs, whether they’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
Story craft isn’t simply one thing. It’s not even two things. There are many pieces to the story craft puzzle: motivations, characters, connections between people, and the places and events. To craft a good story takes a lot of reforming, rewriting, and reworking. It’s a process of evolution.
The start of a story
A story normally starts with a simple kernel, or a “What if?” My novel Leaning Into the Abyss, for instance, was born from the true story of a groom who passed away at his bachelor party after his friends thought it would be funny to put him in the trunk of a car and drive around. I wondered, “What if your husband died right before your wedding? What would your life look like?” From there, I looked at what might have happened if the husband had lived—and if he hadn’t lived.
Once I have a kernel of an idea, I develop it further, using tools I’ve picked up from other authors, and from having read voraciously. I’ve gained an understanding of how story works and I apply what I know to the writing process.
Pantser or plotter?
I used to be an avid pantser: believing that I just had to wing it and write. And that approach—flying by the seat of my pants—resulted in a drawer full of unfinished novels. So, I switched and adopted the plotting approach. I know consider my plotting as the zero draft, and I find that the plotting is just as creative as the writing process.
Once I have an extensive plot outline, I can jump around and write the scenes wherever I’m feeling more creative. When I edit my first draft, I checks whether I’ve followed the outline, and if not, where I went off on a tangent.
This is where story craft comes in: checking that the story fits into the structure.
Writing tools to craft a good story
There are three main elements to story craft (or tools) that you need to keep in mind: showing versus telling, the five major plot points, and character motivation.
Showing versus telling
As an author, you’ll often hear that you need to show rather than tell. In other words, rather than simply describing and summarizing the story, you’ll use tactics like action, dialogue, interior monologue, body language, characterization, and setting to paint a picture and create tension. When you show, you don’t need to use flowery language: you can keep it simple and straightforward.
However, you don’t need to stop telling completely. In fact, sometimes telling rather than showing makes more sense. For example, if you’re using the first-person perspective, your character is speaking directly to the reader and it will be difficult to show what they’re feeling.
Telling is also faster. To craft a good story sometimes means to get the character from A to B, where A is a significant plot point, and B is a significant plot point, but how the character gets from one to the other simply isn’t. Telling is perfectly legitimate in these (and other) conditions.
The five major plot points
To craft a good story, you need to have five major plot points or elements. These are:
- Exposition: Set the scene and introduce your main characters. You also begin to introduce the main conflict of the story.
- Rising action: This will make up the bulk of the story. It starts with a turning point, about a quarter of the way into the story, where the protagonist sets out on their quest. From here, you build the tension with moments of conflict and by raising questions that you’ll only answer at the end.
- Climax: This is where the tension has reached its peak, where the protagonist has to make that big decision that will determine where the story goes. It’s the moment the reader has been waiting for, and from here they simply have to keep on reading to find out what happens next.
- Falling action: In this part, you start to relax the tension and work towards concluding the story. You start resolving subplots and conflicts.
- Resolution: This point happens around eighty-five to ninety percent into the story. It’s where you answer the big question and tie up the loose ends.
If you’re writing a series, you can use the resolution to introduce a cliffhanger that will have readers going to the next instalment. There should be a story arc for the entire series overall, and a story arc for each book in the series so it can stand alone as well. (For a different way to think about nonfiction narrative structure, check out this popular post.)
When you write your story, you need to look into the motivations and the backstories of your characters to understand why they’re making the choices they’re making. Notice I said you need to understand their motivations—I did not say you need to explain these motivations to the reader. Two very different things. Author K.M. Weiland calls these motivations the character’s wants, needs, and ghosts.
- The wants are what the character thinks they want: basically, the lie they believe in. This is what drives them to set out on their quest. K.M. Weiland uses Luke Skywalker as an example: his want is to learn the ways of the Force and to become a Jedi, like his father.
- The needs are what the character actually needs: the truth. This is the lesson they learn at the end of the story, even if they don’t realize that they are learning that lesson. Luke Skywalker’s truth is that the ways of the Jedi aren’t about being like his father. But they are about giving up the need for glory and control.
- The ghost is the wound that explains the character’s belief in the lie. In Luke Skywalker’s case, it’s how he grew up as an orphan, without the presence of the father he thinks is such a hero.
Analyzing the wants, needs, and ghosts is not just reserved for the protagonist. You can make your story infinitely more interesting if you can explain what motivates your antagonist too. (Imagine how boring Star Wars would have been if we didn’t know anything about Darth Vader’s back story.)
Practice, practice, not perfect
Each of the writing tools above can, should, and often do take up far more space than I’ve given them in this blog post. They take time, persistence, and practice and more practice. Start to sharpen your skills, and you’ll soon find that you do indeed have the capacity to craft a good story.
A final word of advice: make sure getting there is fun. 🙂