As I skimmed Facebook today I came across a post that piqued my interest, for whatever reason, by a writing friend of mine Drew Chial. <– That’s his Facebook Author page, and you can find him on Twitter or at his blog as well. Number one on his list of New Year’s Resolutions is to Read an Article that consists of more than five hundred words. Though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a challenge, I turned it into one anyway. Any excuse to hear my own voice is sufficient to get me going, really. So here it is, my list, Six Things Every Story Needs.
When I sit down to write a story, I don’t stress too much about the rules of writing. There’s no such thing as a bad story. There are plenty of stories out there that could use another round of editing or revision, but when writing the first draft I tend to focus on six things specifically.
1) Begin with a deep character who’s interacting with a 2) detailed setting. (Who, Where, When) You might like to stare at trees and grass and dirt and mountains and blah, blah, blah for hours on end, but I don’t. As much as I love to read, I’ve got other shit to do. Give me the protagonist interacting with the setting in the very first paragraph and keep that going throughout.
3) Delineate with conflict, internal and/or external. Preferably both. Give me the What and Why right there in the second paragraph. And make it good, because I don’t want to read that Jeff needs to poop, but he’s at a convenience store and has no toilet paper. Actually, I might want to read that. Sounds like it’d be a hoot! I digress. Moving on.
4) Flip the Script with a WTF moment that 5), and this one is important, changes your character significantly. One of the biggest missing factors of stories, that IMO makes a story or breaks it, is character development. Throughout the course of our lifetimes, certain events make a huge impact on us. Ideally, a story will revolve around such an event, or chain of events. And these events are what make us who we are. This is why it’s crucial. I need to believe that this character I’m reading about is, quite possibly, real.
6) The End is also a crucial part of every story. Though this may seem like common sense, it’s the one element I’ve personally struggled with the most. The character’s conflict must come to a resolution, or you must at least indicate that a resolution is inevitable. Cliffhanger’s are all fine and well, but if I have to wait years for the next novel, I’m going to be disappointed. Worse is if you don’t intend to finish at all. Finish the story. Resolve the conflict in a manner consistent with the character’s beliefs. Though the end isn’t always unexpected, I do tend to favor those unforeseeable conclusions. I can’t speak for everyone, though.
As writers, we all strive to find our process as well as our voice. My process is to simply write with these things in mind. I don’t worry about anything else when writing but these six elements. The rest comes into play during editing and then revision.
If you’d like to see how this works out for me, continue reading for a step by step example story (approximately 300 words).
1 & 2) Character interacting with setting. (Who, Where, When)
This massive world, once peaceful, green and blue, now teems with man. They’ve evolved into bipedal creatures that trample our land and poison our water. After thousands of years coexisting with humans, we’re finally able to understand their languages. They have named us orchids.
For untold centuries they hunted other creatures of the world for sustenance. We prefer nutrition provided by the sun and rain. To each his own. Many beasts that have walked this world have eaten lesser creatures. Who are we to judge?
3) Conflict. (What, Why)
Then, a day came when survival was no longer sufficient. They wanted more. They cut down trees to build structures called homes and stores and barns. They built carts with wheels for transportation. They built foundries that cast metals into shapes they used to build ever more structures. They wanted. They learned. They pillaged our forests so they could keep building. Never was it enough.
4) Flip the Script. (Big Event)
Asphalt replaced earth at an alarming rate. Villages, then towns, then cities spread throughout the forests, diminishing the presence of trees. The first of the orchids the humans murdered were what they called epiphytic orchids, those with areal roots who grew on tree trunks. Our family.
We can see the recently fallen oaks from our hilltop meadow. Their branches once reached to the sky, longing for the warmth of the sun, the kiss of rain. For thousands of years they protected smaller life below. Now fallen, twisted grey branches claw the razed earth beneath them, suffocating and starving in their final moments.
5 & 6) Character change and The End.
The humans have evolved, but so have we. We shall remain silent. We need not speak to accomplish our task. It is better that we do not waste time trying to reason with humans. This world would not survive human occupation much longer.
We, too, want. We want our world back. We, too, shall build, reclaiming all that man has taken from us. We, too, have learned. We are grateful that the humans have provided us with knowledge of the word that will help us to bring about their destruction, Plague.