What Makes a Compelling Story

(Part Two: History & Geography || Part Three: Culture & Economy || Part Four: Tension)

Story DNA

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while – the DNA of a good tale.

I’ve just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind, and oh. Ooooh. It did everything a good story is supposed to do. It excited me. Angered me. Saddened me. Made me laugh. Several times, I yelled at the page.

There are two key things here that matter most of all:

1. I couldn’t put it down.

2. When I finished it, it wouldn’t leave my head.

A good story sticks with you. A good story becomes PART of you, making you think, making you give a damn about the world, the characters, everything involved. And, most importantly, a good story makes you forget the technique used to make it.

The problem is, as a writer, I need to know that technique. Winging it only gets you so far – and that distance does not include “repeat performance.”

The quality of my writing will not be a fluke. Therefore, I must study.

Was it Good For You?

What happens when you read a good story? What makes a good character? A good world? I’ve compiled this list as a guide. It’s by no means exhaustive. Think of it as an outline, and if you’re able to fill in the blanks, then you’re on your way to building an excellent story. ¬†Without further ado:


a. Clarity.

If your reader can’t tell what this person is like, then there’s nothing for them to like. So often, we focus on things that don’t matter – hair color, external surroundings – and neglect the essential definition of this person’s character. Someone who’s REALLY good at clear characters from moment one is Sarah Rees Brennan. Her book, Demon’s Lexicon, establishes this beautifully.

b. Consistency.

“Out of character” is a dreaded phrase, but it’s easy to slip into. One of the biggest failures is the deus-ex-idiota. The original phrase, deus-ex-machina, meant “god in the machine,” and referenced the point in a play when the writers couldn’t figure out how to fix things, so they just sent a god in to do it. By magic.

We authors do this, too, only we do it by making our characters stupid.

If your reader can’t tell what this person is like, then there’s nothing for them to like.

Some plot point we wanted to happen. Some person who was really the bad guy, or really in love with the protagonist, or really something-or-other that we don’t want our protag to know. And suddenly our beloved character, who’s been witty, clever, creative up to this point, becomes an utter moron and doesn’t see (or worse yet, sees it and rejects it, e.g. “oh, that can’t be true”) the issue that every single reader can see.

Literary agents have a phrase for this. It’s called, “too stupid to live.”

I’m not kidding. I read their blogs and twitter streams. If it doesn’t drive you crazy too, then – no offense meant – you need to read more. A lot more.

Too stupid to live is not an endearing trait.

Too stupid to live is not an endearing trait.

What does this have to do with consistency? Easy: if you want your character to miss those obvious things, then they have to miss them throughout the book. If it’s a character trait, it won’t be a problem. If it just appears (as if by magic) in that moment you need a plot point to go forward, then don’t do it. Just don’t. Your readers will thank you.

c. Communication.

I almost called this one communion, because that carries hints of the power of the word: unless your world has a grand population of one, your character will HAVE to communicate at some point. Make it count.

I’m not saying you can’t have characters that do things solo. Lots of books do that, and they’re great. But the people around your character are just as important as your protagonist because they lend themselves to the believability of your world.

Readers can tell if they aren’t developed. Readers can tell if those throw-away characters are there simply to move the plot along. In order to have real chemistry between characters, those characters each have to be real. They each have to WANT something, even if it’s just a glass of water (thank you,¬†Kurt Vonnegut). If they all want something – even if they never say it – it comes through. Makes the dialogue more real.

Oh, my.

This post is longer than I expected. Tell you what: it’s going in parts.

Stay tuned for the next one.

(headache photo found here.)

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