The Keys to Writing a Good Story, Book or Novel

 

Keys to writing a good story, book or novel

 

1)      Premise

 

The premise is basically what the story is all about. Though there are many different definitions as to precisely what a premise is, it can be widely thought of to be the overarching theme of the story.

 

The premise of The Lord of the Rings, for instance, could be stated as “Frodo, a short and physically weak Hobbit, journeys through Middle Earth, fighting against the evil forces of Sauron to bring peace to the world.”

 

The premise of A Christmas Carol, “A miserly old man discovers the importance of love and kindness, coming to find his true value in the world.”

 

Some theorists believe that a premise should focus on the changes that the action of the novel creates. For instance, the premise of Lord of the Rings could be said to be, “The bravery and determination of one man (or Hobbit) leads to the freedom of all.” Or, for Stephen King’s IT, “Friendship conquers fear.”

 

The premise is one of the keys to writing a good story, book or novel. A good premise should be believable, exciting, original, and should spark the imagination. “Money leads to evil,” for instance, might be believable, but it is not original nor exciting, nor does it spark the imagination. However, reworking this premise may create a more desirable formula, perhaps, for instance. One of the best ways to create a good premise is to flip an old and clichéd premise on its head. “Money leads to innocence and good doing.” Now this is more interesting. Immediately the reader thinks, “What? Come again?” They are intrigued to read the book to discover just how money leads to innocence and good doing.

 

So, the first key to writing a good story, novel or book is to have a strong premise, an original, exciting, imaginative and believable theme that will serve as the foundation on which the rest is written.

 

Having got the premise in place, we can now move onto the other keys to writing a good story, novel or book, which we will look at on the next page.

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Keys to writing a good story, book or novel

 

2) Conflict

People love conflict. That’s just a fact of life. To prove this fact, try telling someone that two people had a pleasant discussion. They’re reaction will usually be “So what?” Then tell them that two other people had a terrible accident. Watch their ears prick and their eyes open wide.

People love conflict. Conflict is the second of our keys to writing a good story, novel or book.

But it must be good conflict.

Hercules was attacked by a little old lady. That’s not good conflict. But why? The reason is that the sides are uneven. A little old lady isn’t going to offer much opposition to Hercules.

Let’s try again,

Hercules was attacked by a little old lady, who happened to be a black witch.

Better. The little old black witch now has power, perhaps enough to challenge Hercules. This could create an interesting story. But it’s still not perfect. A perfect conflict should have reason.

Hercules was attacked by a little old lady who happened to be a black witch, because he had previously killed the witches’ sister.

Okay. Better again. The witch now has a reason for the attack and we are intrigued to discover more about the story. It’s also got family loyalty and revenge, which ups the ante.

But we know we’re going to ultimately side with Hercules because he’s the good guy. The ultimate conflict in a story should make it so that the reader could sympathise with either side. Making one character clearly evil tells us who we want to side with and also who is likely to win. Let’s be honest, we know Hercules is going to beat the black witch.

Well then, how about Hercules was attacked by a little old white witch, because he had accidentally caused the death of the witch’s sister.

This is now decent. There is good conflict, each side as powerful as the other. There is reason for the reader to support both sides—Hercules killed the sister, but in accident, so surely does not deserve to die, but the white witch lost a family member, and surely deserves some sort of justice.

A good conflict should have equally powerful sides, both of whom act with justified reasons, both of whom the reader could support; and it isn’t clear which side is going to win, or what the outcome of the conflict will be.

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Keys to writing a good story, book or novel

3) The Crucible

 

The crucible is the thing that locks the two opposing forces together. For instance, in Star Wars, the crucible is war (actually, there are a couple of crucibles in Star Wars, but let’s focus on the war). The rebels must fight because the Empire will effectively enslave the universe if they are not defeated; and of course, the Empire must fight in order to see their evil plan come to fruition.

One of the best crucibles of recent times is found in The Hunger Games. The entire story takes place in a manmade warzone, a forest that the combatants of The Hunger Games are forced to enter, and cannot leave until all but one of them is dead. The crucible here is the game itself: the characters cannot leave because of the rules of the game.

In Frankenstein, the crucible is the monster itself. The monster has feelings and needs, it wants to have companionship, but its hideous form prevents it from having that companionship, effectively because all other characters are terrified of the monster. The crucible is the actual monster itself. It cannot free itself from its own nature. It is forced into combat, essentially against its own nature, and cannot be freed till death.

But why is a crucible so important? Why is it one of our keys to writing a good story, book or novel? Effectively it is to keep the characters locked down, to prevent them from escaping. It would be hard to set a novel in hell, for instance, if hell had an emergency exit: all the characters would simply leave.

There are a great many kinds of crucibles; some obvious, others less so. A war is an obvious crucible, as is any direct conflict between good and evil, as is marriage, as is illness; these are obvious things that cannot easily be escaped. Less obvious, however, are crucibles such as: relationships (for instance, in a conflict between two brothers, the characters are locked in the crucible by way of their relationship); morality (many people find themselves locked in conflict because of their beliefs); addictions (a person will put themselves from hell if they are addicted to a substance).

The crucible is in many ways the easiest element of a story to get right. Essentially, it is the room in which the opposing forces are locked.

Keys to writing a good story, book or novel 

4: Character

 

In many ways, a good piece of fiction equals a good character. Without characters to care about, readers will simply not care about the story. If there is any one key to writing a good story, it is character. Character is the most important of all our keys to writing a good story, book or novel.  But character is far from an easy thing to get right.

What is a good character? That is at once the easiest and yet the hardest question to answer. In a nutshell, a good character is one we care about. Full stop. It is a character we love. If we do not love the character, we will not love the book.

But what makes a character lovable? This is a much harder question to answer. We all have our own subjective viewpoints of what a lovable person, and thereby a lovable character, is. Yet there are some fundamentals that are universal.

First of all, a good character must have a purpose. There must be something they wish to achieve and some reason why they wish to achieve it. A man wanting to be a professional footballer is not lovable. Why do we care? We don’t. A man wanting to be a professional footballer because he feels the needs to emulate his father, who was a star and respected the world over: that’s a character we can care for. We know what it’s like to have expectations on us, to walk in someone else’s shadow; we can understand that, we can sympathise with it.

Sympathy is immensely important. We must be able to sympathise with the character, to know what they’re going through, to understand why it matters. Take Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Now there’s a character we can sympathise with. Sure, not many of us have ever murdered anyone, but we know what it is to feel guilt, to feel fear, to be at war with our own minds. Raskalnikov reflects the sense of guilt we have all felt at sometime.

There are, of course, some cheap and easy ways to make people like a character. Obviously sex sells and people are often drawn to attractive characters; but such cheap stunts, as creating unrealistically attractive characters, are really just gimmicks. They will not unlock the heartstrings of your readers half as quickly nor half as deeply as a genuine sense of empathy and sympathy.

 

Perhaps this is why we are often drawn to a character’s weaknesses more than their strengths. At the end of the day, we sympathise with Lyra from His Dark Materials not because she has such power, but because, at the end of the day, she’s just a regular little girl fighting against the world.

So far we’ve covered four keys to writing a good story, book or novel; there are just a few left.

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Writing a good story, book or novel

5: Cause and Effect

 

Perhaps the number one difference between an amateur writer and a bestselling novelist is that in the amateur’s story things simply happen, whereas in the bestselling author’s work there is a thread, a string of cause and effects, every little action in the novel causing another action and so on, such that the entire plot becomes a series of stepping stones.

The reason why cause and effect is so vital is essentially that the reader wants to feel a part of the action. If, for instance, a lion called Simba happens to go off to an elephant graveyard despite being told not to, we want to know why he did it—because an evil uncle called Scar tempted him. And we want to know the effect of that action—that it sets up the conflict between Mufasa and the hyenas. We want a cycle of actions and reactions, cause and effect, such that going to the elephant graveyard leads to conflict with the hyenas, leading to Mufasa’s death and the coronation of Scar, leading to Simba running away… ultimately leading to Simba’s return and his ascension up Pride Rock to become The Lion King.

The cause and effect should be locked into the premise. The premise of The Lion King could be stated as, “Adventure leads to self discovery leads to self realisation.” Simba’s sense of adventure (going to the elephant graveyard) leads to Mufasa’s death, which launched Simba into his journey of self discovery out in the wilderness, leading ultimately to his self realisation as king. The premise is proven and achieved though the cycle of cause and effect, action and reaction.

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Keys to writing a good story, book or novel

6: Stakes

 

In any story, there must be something to be won and something to be lost. Many first time novelist often focus only on the first half: on winning. They have a notion of writing a character who, let’s say, fights evil and wins, freeing the universe from tyranny. The winning element is obvious: the universe is freed. The losing element is often hidden.

What are the stakes and what would happen if they were not achieved? This should be known at all times during the writing (the only exception being in some cases of unconscious writing, where the writer is intentionally working directly from their subconscious, not certain of the overall plot of the story).

The reader must be told what will happen if the hero fails. What if Luke Skywalker doesn’t defeat the emperor? What if Frodo doesn’t destroy the ring? What if Scrooge doesn’t buy that Turkey and help Tiny Tim? What if, what if, what if? The reader must know precisely what is at stake, precisely what the protagonist is hoping to achieve, precisely what will happen if they fail. Only then will there be enough on the line for the action of the novel to carry weight, to truly sink into the reader’s mind, gripping them from one page to the next.

These are the fundamentals keys to writing a good story, book or novel . Secondary to these keys are aspects such as dialogue, setting and viewpoint. It is with these secondary aspects that we craft the story, that we successfully transfer what we have in mind (the writer’s understanding of the story) to the page. But these elements are only worth considering once the essential story itself is in place.

By perfecting the premise, the conflict, the crucible, the characters, the rhythm of cause and effect, and the stakes, the writer can perfect their understanding of their own story. It is with these keys to writing a good story, book or novel that the classics, from Lord Of The Rings to Crime And Punishment, were made so masterful, and it is these same keys that will from the foundations of the future classics, those books sitting right now in the minds or their authors, waiting to be read.