3 Edgy Little Tips to Make Your Story More Compelling

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by Larry Brooks on May 3, 2011

If you’ve studied the Six Core Competencies, you already know they comprise a set of requisite elements and skills that will get your novel into the hunt.  A weakness in any one will seriously compromise your shot at finding a publisher or audience.

But that’s all they are.  Despite being non-negotiable benchmarks.

There is also a set of underlying story “physics” – qualitative essences that define the reading experience — that comprise the stuff of artistic merit, even genius.  Even though Bernoulli’s Principle of fluid/aerodynamics is what allows an airplane to actually fly, it is not the airplane itself, nor its wings or engines.  That part comes from Boeing.

They’re just the requisite physics.  The ones that Mr. Bernoulli defined in 1738, some 165 years before the Wright Brothers applied them to flying machines.

With stories, those equivalent physics include dramatic tension, pacing, reader empathy and intrinsic appeal at a core conceptual level.

An author’s command of both realms of storytelling – the understanding of those literary physics in combination with their implementation through the six core competencies – becomes the difference between a story that really works and one that, despite having all the core competencies competently checked off, disappears in a crowd.

 That, and a little luck combined with a fat promotional budget.

 It’s about the little things. 

Like creating a total package that doesn’t just add up, but actually exceeds the sum of the parts.

It’s also about consistency, balance and choices.

Here are three little ways, from a long list of other little ways, that will help elevate your story to heavenly, Bernoulli-esque heights.  These notions reside on top of the layer cake that comprises the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.

 Think of them as frosting, only with protein and vitamins and a serious propensity for addiction.

1. Give your hero an interesting career.

With the exception of the detective genre, you get to plop your main character into any career you want.  Sometimes that decision is driven by the content and context of your story… pathologist, politician, doctor, cop, etc.

Other times, when the job isn’t central to the story, you still have an opportunity to give them something interesting to do during the day.

The key here is to make what they do interesting.  Something that says volumes about who they are, where they’ve come from, and how it defines their world view and current state of mind. 

This aligns with the vicarious-reading-experience law of literary physics, versus making the hero’s job as mundane and vanilla as the reader’s.

2. Give your hero a distracting personal relationship.

It’s easy to get lost in a one-dimensional landscape of characterization as we thrust our protagonist into the heat of our story.  But real life isn’t like that.  And while it isn’t always the best idea to make your story a mirror of real life, it’s often good to give your hero something else to think about.

Like, a relationship.  A love affair.  A parent thing.  A boss from hell.

The idea here is to make this relationship distracting for the hero.  Something that provides a reason to survive at the same time it may compromise that goal.  Or at least a way to keep one foot in the here-and-now as they go about saving the world.

Welcome to your sub-plot.

Superman had Lois Lane.  Otherwise he’s just another guy who, if we’re honest about it, we can’t really relate to.

3. Give your antagonist a noble goal.

Or at least a goal that began nobly, or if that’s a stretch, try one that springs from a sympathetic need.

One dimensional villains are easy and tempting.  But when you give them something that causes us to wonder what went wrong, they become even more interesting.

In the film, The Island, Michael Bay’s homage to science fiction excess, the bad guy (played perfectly by Sean Bean) wanted at the core of his being to rid the world of childhood disease.  And, it should be added, to get filthy stinking rich in the process, moral compass be damned.

Of course, if your antagonist is a tornado or a flood – a perfectly legit storytelling option, by the way – then never mind.  Haven’t met a sympathetic natural disaster yet… so in that case try to burden your hero with a pesky inner demon that must be conquered before the dike can be built.

The inner demon thing is a good idea for any hero, by the way, and sometimes it can actually be the primary antagonist (think Leaving Las Vegas… addiction is a worthy foe in any story).  When that inner demon has a twist or an edge or a commonality that makes the going tougher for our hero, so much the better.

Thinking about publishing your story on Kindle or iBook?  Finding the process a bit confusing?  Then you need to read and consider this.

{ 6 comments }

Chuck Hustmyre May 3, 2011 at 6:29 am

Three great tips. Keep ‘em coming.

Lee Ann Setzer May 3, 2011 at 9:19 am

Even a natural disaster can have a human elements–think New Orleans levees or Fukushima reactors. Politics, money, the way we’ve always done things here in our culture, and the things we never imagined could possibly happen can all factor in–esp. if given human faces.

Larry May 3, 2011 at 11:17 am

@Lee Ann — a most excellent point you make. Thanks for chipping in. L.

Chris May 4, 2011 at 7:27 am

When all else fails, a writer can always turn to the government as antagonist–one of the best villains of all-time. A bad guy everyone loves to hate. ;-)

Curtis May 4, 2011 at 8:12 am

Thank you for clarifying sub-plot.

I know the stated topic was making a story compelling. But, you, in “show don’t tell mode”, defined sub-plot.

Take a look at #2. Sub-plot can be explained in the abstract all day and usually is. But, you in a few words and by example made it crystal clear. You showed us a concrete example of sub-plot ” then” named it. Way to go!

Maria Holt May 10, 2011 at 5:41 am

I’ve written a fanfiction story and that got me started. I’ve attended workshops and read everything in the bookshop and library about how to write a novel but I’ve been struggling with pacing. Now I read your newest book and VOILA! There is a way to do this! I am so happy. Already it’s helped me see how to pace the thing. The characterization wasn’t a problem, but the WHEN was driving me crazy. I’ve recommended your books and blog to the workshop folks at Fictionista. Aspiring writers should grab your stuff, and fast!

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