Ask anyone who writes fiction how many issues an author needs to think about, how much stuff there is to know and execute, and you may get an answer that amounts to dozens, even hundreds of things.
That’s pretty accurate, actually. Few who have tried it are tempted to over-simplify.
You know my theory, my story development model:
All of those dozens of things, or hundreds of things, can be categorized into six discrete buckets of elements, nuances and requisite functions, each of which is essential to a successful story. I call them the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling, and they really do cover the whole fiction enchilada.
Think of something you need to know, and it’ll fall into one of those six buckets.
That said, each of them is a matter of degree. For each thing within any of the six buckets, you can cover the base, or you can hit it out of the park.
Or six parks, for that matter.
Toward that end, it’s good to inventory your six buckets of storytelling strategy, and all their inherent nuts and bolts of content and technique… if nothing else to make sure you’re not taking anything for granted. You want your story to be the best it can possibly be, and it’s easy to settle in one category while pursuing excellence in another.
What follows is offered as a sort of checklist, organized as a good, better and best description under each of the Six Core Competencies. That’s 18 opportunities to improve your story.
My hope is that you’ll find something you can take to the next level.
Defined: the Big Idea of your story… the basic what if? proposition… the dramatic landscape… the window into plot… the source of conflict… the compelling question… the enticing situation… the promise of the story… the stage upon which character finds something to do.
Good: the reader is inherently drawn to the proposition through an attraction to the answer to the dramatic question posed.
Better: the reader can inherently experience the hero’s journey in pursuit of that answer. They can live the hero’s journey vicariously.
Best: the reader not only experiences the hero’s journey, but empathetically feels what’s at stake. The reader relates to the consequences of the resolution of the story.
Example: The Hunger Games. The concept alone is a home run. Then again, a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom relies more on character than concept (yes, it has one).
Lesson: the deeper you are within a genre — any given genre — the more critical concept becomes. Concept is the stage upon which character is allowed to unfold.
Defined: the protagonist of the story, presented with layers of backstory, inner psychology, outer dimensions and a journey that will allow her or him to become heroic as they evolve as necessary to eventually serve as the primary catalyst of the story’s resolution (which is what heroes do).
Good: a protagonist we can root for.
Better: a protagonist we can relate to.
Best: a protagonist who feels what we feel, fears what we fear and steps into the hero’s role as we would hope we would… in other words, a vicarious juxtaposition between hero and reader on an emotional level.
Example: Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye. He’s us, at our most basic level of humanity.
Defined: the relevance and transparency of the human experience through the dynamics of the story, both in terms of character and conflict.
Good: a story that shows life as it really is. One that allows us to recognize the dynamics of being alive in whatever time the story reveals, while illuminating universal truths in any case.
Better: a story that shows the virtues of heroism as it plays out on a thematically rich and realistic stage.
Best: a story that pushes buttons, doesn’t flinch, one that demands the reader see both sides and all the options that attach to the hero’s choices, and teaches us truth and reality in the process.
Example: John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, which exposes both sides of a polarizing issue on a level that defies politics and religion and doesn’t flinch from consequences on either side.
And of course, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a clinic on theme.
Defined: the expositional unfolding of the story in a sequence that deepens stakes, presents twists while defining the reading experience.
Good: a solid four-part sequential presentation of the story: set-up… response (to the first plot point)… a proactive attack on the problem… resolution.
Better: a sequence that allows the reader to get lost in the story in a vicarious way, which is the deepening of the effectiveness and compelling nature of the four parts that comprise it.
Best: a story that surprises, intrigues, captures, and then rewards the reader on both an emotional and intellectual level.
Example: Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code. Love it or hate it, the story blends all six core competencies in a way that, literally, readers could not put down. All 80 million of them.
Defined: blocks of narrative exposition that move the story forward in an optimal way, with equal attention to characterization and dramatic tension.
Good: scenes that are logical in order, that blend into subsequent scenes.
Better: scenes that play like little one-act dramas, each with a set-up, confrontation and resolution. Scenes that deliver one primary, salient point of plot exposition while contributing to characterization.
Best: scenes that cut quickly to the point of the scene, that resolve a moment while setting up a subsequent deepening of stakes, urgency, options and character arc.
Example: anything by Michael Connelly, Nelson Demille, or Jodi Picoult.
Defined: the flavor of the writing itself (the prose), from the reader’s point of view.
Good: exposition that is clear, direct and uses adjectives and description sparsely yet effectively. Prose that is not conscious of itself for the sole purpose of stylistic effort. Prose that readers don’t really notice as they get lost in the story.
Better: prose that illuminates the sub-text of the moment, and of the characters involved.
Best: prose that goes down easy, with a hint of humor and spice, with nuance and subtletly where required, and the power of a blunt instrument when called for.
Example: John Updike was the modern master of voice. Read Colin Harrison, too, who sets the bar here higher than anyone still breathing.
If you are drafter (pantser), you can discover these opportunities as you go, and revise and optimize as you do future drafts.
If you are planner, you can (and should) think of these at the both macro-story (plot and character exposition) and micro-story (sub-text and scenes), making sure they all seize their inherent potential to enrich your story.
Either way, all of these things will find a way onto the page by the time you’re done. The real question is… will they just show up, or will they be the best they can be?
Go deeper. Harder. Be in command of every moment of your story.
Can you think of other examples of stories that are stellar in any of these core competencies?
If you’d like more on the Six Core Competencies, please consider my book, “Story Engineering.”
See you this weekend at the Rose City Writers (Portland, OR) conference. Me and 200 romance-minded women talking story over four sessions totaling 10 classroom hours… doesn’t get any better than that.
If you’re looking for a workshop presenter for your next writing conference, let’s talk. I describe my workshops as intense, surprising, entertaining and, sometimes, slightly disturbing. Experiences that change your life usually are. References available.