Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 27 April 2014

ITSS - IT’S THE STORY, STUPID by Gill Stewart

Engrossed in a good story...



In book reviews you read many things – how clever the plot is, how thought-provoking the themes, how beautifully written, inventive, subtle… but do they tell you whether it is a Good Story?  That’s what I want to know, because if it’s not I won’t enjoy it.  As Lizzy Edmondson is reported to have said ‘If they write well but there's no story, I don't want to read it. For profound thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I'll read non-fiction.  [Guardian, 21st April 2014]

I completely agree!  When I read fiction, I want an engrossing story line with engaging characters.  An interesting setting helps, too, but it’s the story and the characters that are essential.

So the next question is, how do we as writers create a) that absorbing story and b) the characters that draw readers in?

For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on how to create a Good Story:
      -          you need a situation which requires difficult decisions to be made
      -          you need characters who don’t always (or even often!) make the right decision
      -          you need emotional impact, something that makes the reader care about your characters (and that is why fully-developed characters are so important)
      -          and, finally, you need conflict, either within one character or (more usually) between characters.  There has to be something at stake for the characters, otherwise there is no ‘story’.  This conflict should be resolved (wholly or partially) by the end of the book.

And for the characters:
      -          as the writer you need to know your characters completely.  This can be done either by thinking them through in your head or (if you’re like me and don’t have an infallible memory) by writing all the details out for yourself: how they look, what they feel and think, what they have experienced in the past, want in the future, etc.  Much of this won’t actually appear in your writing, but it is this background that will give your characters depth
      -          characters should be believable.  I know in real life some people just are too horrible to be true, but in fiction if you write them like that the reader won’t believe in them (this is also true for coincidences – the strangest coincidences happen in real life that are too far-fetched for fiction!)
      -          characters should therefore be complex, with both good and bad aspects.  If you’re writing romance, as I am, the main protagonists MUST be likeable.  They can have irritating aspects to them, but overall they must draw the reader in so that the reader cares.

If it was as easy as just following these few tips we wouldn’t all be battling so hard to achieve the perfect novel.  But I’ll try to bear them in mind as I struggle onward and upward.  And try to remember that, above all, it’s the story that counts.

11 comments:

  1. Lovely post, Gill - and yes, you do make it seem remarkably easy to achieve a good story! I agree characters must be believable and that means even the worst villain must have seem character traits which are not totally bad.

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    1. Thanks Mary. I do wish it was as easy to write a good story as following those few suggestions... But as we know on top of that there is A LOT of hard grind!

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  2. Perfect post, Gill! One of the speakers at the recent SAW conference made this very point – actually, you might find you have a bestseller on your hands if you have great characters and a great story, even if the book is written rather badly. In fact, I can think of quite a few bestsellers that fit this description! I'm with you - story and characters are the most important elements of a good novel – but I do like good writing too! Am I being greedy?

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  3. Sorry I missed the SAW conference, it sounds like there were some good talks. However, like you, although people might say good writing isn't essential for a best seller I do prefer the writing not to be too awful. Mentioning no names, of course!

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  4. I definitely prefer a good story and memorable characters to beautifully crafted writing, Gill! Achieving it is more difficult at times!

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    1. I agree! We can but try. Thanks for popping by.

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  5. I do agree. At the the same time, a good story can be ruined by bad telling.
    Interestingly I've just finished reading a non-fiction book, The Secret Rooms, which is a terrific detective story. But the writer lets it down. I had to get to the end to find out what happened, and all the many twists...but I skipped a lot of the actual writing to find it.
    It wasn't badly written as such, but badly structured.

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  6. Interesting, Jennifer. I feel we now need a blog post on structure - aobut which I don't know nearly enough. Any offers?

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  7. Thankfully it isn't my turn to blog next! But I did think it was interesting - the book began with a mysterious woman dressed as a man breaking into the Duke's rooms - his mistress. And it ends by telling us that no-one will ever know what she was after. Because it appears that the break-in had nothing to do with the fantastic story at the heart of the book! Talk about a let-down!

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  8. Oh yes.....quite agree. I am sure I have glossed over many a writer's peerless prose of pages of wonderful description to get on with the story!

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    1. Yes. I think I've also skipped over an awful lot of pages of less than wonderful prose to get on with the story...

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