4 Things I Wish I’d Known About Storytelling

When I first started writing fiction many years ago, I assumed it was all about being a good writer. If you could write well – that is, if you could translate ideas from your head onto the page in an engaging fashion – then I figured you were already most of the way there. It seems obvious in retrospect, but coming back to the craft a second time I’m quickly realising that there’s a little more to it than that. Being a good writer is a pretty fundamental requirement for writing good fiction, no argument there, but it’s only half of the job. You also need to develop an entirely different skill that until now I’ve been neglecting; you need to learn to create good stories.

I recently rediscovered a fantasy novella that I wrote in my teens, and while I don’t think I’ll be rushing it into print just yet it did serve as a good example of how not to approach a story. The writing itself was passable for my age – a little pretentious and over-wrought, but pleasantly not awful. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the story. The plot effectively amounted to the hero and his retinue of one dimensional characters moving arbitrarily from place to place, fighting an escalating series of monsters before finally taking on the big bad boss. It had all the hallmarks of the fantasy novels that I’d been reading at the time: magic artefacts, an epic battle between good and evil, a hand drawn map of the world, the works. However, it turns out that a good story is more than just the sum of its obvious parts. Like a cargo cult trying to summon planes, I’d reproduced the superficial details without understanding how things worked under the surface.

This is a skill that I’m still learning, but the intervening years have at least made me a little bit wiser. This time I feel like I’m going into writing with my eyes open, with enough knowledge to start recognising some of my more obvious mistakes. With that in mind, here are four things that I wish I’d known when I started to write that first book:

1 Create conflict

The bread and butter of a good plot is conflict – let your character want something, and then give them obstacles that they’ll need to overcome before they can get it. It doesn’t matter how cool your setting is, nobody wants to read about life just going along as planned. Whether it comes in the form of a world-threatening catastrophe or the more personal struggle of a character to live up to their own ideals, it’s conflict that keeps your readers engaged and makes them care about the outcome.

I understood the need for obstacles well enough, in fact it seemed like my party could hardly go anywhere without someone or something trying to kill them. I never really thought about what they wanted though, so aside from the immediate physical danger nothing was ever really at stake and none of the challenges that I threw at my heroes actually felt like they mattered.

On top of that, since most of my conflicts were built around short-term physical confrontations they tended to be resolved within a chapter or two, and I was forced to keep inventing new encounters simply to keep the narrative chugging along. As you might expect, that got repetitive fairly quickly.

2 Make your characters people

I’m not saying that your characters have to be human – if you want to write a book about sentient vacuum-cleaners then go right ahead. What I mean here is that in order to write a convincing character, they need to be defined by more than just their role in the story.

In real life, your boss isn’t just ‘the boss’ and neither is your boyfriend just ‘the love interest’. Those might be their roles in your narrative, but they are also people in their own right with goals and personalities that extend outside of that narrative. You don’t need to spend pages outlining every character’s hopes and dreams (in fact I’d strongly advise that you don’t), but if you want those characters to be believable then it’s important to make sure they feel like they have them.

My novella was full of characters who apparently had nothing better to do than follow the hero around and fight bad guys with him. Everyone was either good or evil, and their motivation didn’t really extend any further than that. In most cases, my character development didn’t go any deeper than their race, their title, and the weapon they used. Some of those characters were pretty cool on the surface, but they simply weren’t real enough for my readers to care about them.

3 Only write things that matter

Because of my terrible plotting and total lack of character development, I found that I raced through major events much more quickly than I would have liked. I knew that my story was likely to come out far too short to be a full novel, but there were only so many monsters I could throw at my party before it started to get silly. My solution was to pad the story out with a few reflective scenes, where I could describe a new setting and my characters could recover between bursts of action.

There’s something sensible in that thought process – it can’t all be about fighting, after all – but I was really just tackling the symptoms instead of the problem. Without developed characters, my so-called reflective scenes amounted to little more than dry exposition of the world and the party’s current situation. Without a real sense of overall conflict or clear character goals, there was nothing to drive those scenes forward and give my readers a stake in them. In other words, they were horribly boring.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence should do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action (‘action’ here in the sense of moving the plot forward, rather than necessarily physical action). If you’re padding your novel out with scenes that don’t do either of those things then you’re not really fleshing out your story, you’re just delaying it and most likely encouraging your readers to go and do something else with their time. What’s more, you’re probably just masking a problem that actually lies elsewhere.

4 Look forward, look back

By the time I finished my novella, its scope had changed so many times that the final chapter bore almost no resemblance to the first one. I’d introduced characters, races, and technologies that only appeared for a handful of scenes and bore no relevance to the wider plot. I’d foreshadowed climactic events without knowing what they were going to be, and then delivered an ending that was only loosely related to the one I’d prophesised. Basically, the whole thing was a mess.

The problem, as I see it now, was that I was only ever focused on the scene at hand. I introduced elements to the plot because I thought they were interesting, but I never really had a plan for where I’d take them. Similarly, I never looked back at the chapters that I’d already written and asked myself how well they supported what I was writing now. This lead to a lot of dead ends, also known as ‘massive plot holes’.

There’s a whole discussion around outlining versus discovery writing which I won’t get into here, although my experience is that when you’ve never written long form before and you’re trying to create an epic, plot-driven fantasy novel, making it up as you go along might not be the smartest choice. Whether or not you decide to plan out your major plot points in advance, one way or another you need to ensure your story makes sense and works well as a whole, not just in individual chunks. Don’t get blinkered into focusing only on your current scene – keep looking forward and looking back. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to revisit those earlier scenes (if you’re doing proper editing then this one should be obvious). Even the best laid plans will change over time, so if that foreshadowing in Chapter One no longer makes sense given later events, get yourself back there and write something that does.