What makes a good story? A story should satisfy readers’ questions about the five w’s – what, where, why, who and when. We’re satisfied when stories entertain, move, and inspire us to wonder. Here are 10 ways to improve your writing and write a better story:
1. Increase the dramatic potential of your story idea
‘Man has bacon and eggs for breakfast’ is not a story idea that is going to have readers clawing for a copy of your book. It also is highly unlikely this would sustain an entire novel.
‘Man has bacon and eggs for breakfast, but the bacon is made from human flesh’ is a story scenario with much more dramatic potential (this could be a scene from one of Thomas Harris’ popular novels about the serial killer Hannibal Lector). Once you’ve found the resulting actions and the eventual outcome that develops out of your primary story scenario, you have a story idea.
Dramatic potential has many sources:
- Extraordinary characters or character behaviour
- Tension and conflict
- Confusion and missing information
If you look at the second story idea, it contains most of these elements. It’s surprising because cannibalism is something taboo that most people find disturbing. The character’s behaviour is extraordinary because cannibalism is not an everyday, common behaviour. The subject matter is controversial. There is implicit tension because of the possibility the character is a murderer, given his actions. There’s missing information – who is this character and why does he engage in this activity?
You don’t have to be gruesome, shocking or controversial in order for your story to have dramatic potential. But brainstorm ways to include some (if not all) of the above in your story idea. It will improve your book if there are unknowns that heighten reader curiosity.
2. Give your prose great rhythm
Writing instructors often advise creative writing classes to write shorter, punchier sentences. Short sentences are great for increasing pace and help to make scenes that have tense subject matter tenser in mood. Yet be wary of monotonous writing. Vary sentence length and tap out the rhythm of your sentences’ syllables every now and then.
Use rhythmic structure from poetry for inspiration. For example, the japanese haiku is a short three-line poem in which the first line has 5 syllables, the second 7 and the third 5 again. Try write a few prose sentences with this syllabic structure, e.g.
‘He waited all day. It was cold and darkening. Would anyone come?’
Exploring the rhythm of your writing consciously will help you to write better sentences. A book contains many sentences, so make yours easier and lovelier to read and you’ll write a better book.
3. Write unforgettable characters
Why do we find some characters memorable?
- Because they have unique voice and expressions
- Because they have striking goals and motivations
- Because they have flaws, strengths and Achilles’ heels
- Because they have distinctive appearances (including body language, gait and mannerisms)
Note that appearance comes last: If you simply describe your characters’ eye colour, your character won’t stand out. Make your story great by creating characters you’d remember if you stood next to them while waiting in line for 15 minutes. Memorable appearances might suit a character’s personality or seem to be at complete odds with it.
Part of a memorable voice is created by your character’s origins. Do they use regional dialects or sayings that mark them as being from a particular place? Are their voices soft or loud, breathy or rich? Read authors such as Charles Dickens, who is famous for creating larger-than-life, memorable characters. According to The Guardian, ‘hearing voices allowed Charles Dickens to create extraordinary fictional worlds’.
Like their voices, characters’ goals and motivations should be wholly their own and should help us understand their behaviour. What does each character in your book (even the secondary, ‘walk on, walk off’ ones) crave? Why do they desire the things they do? Charles Dickens went to work in a blacking factory due to childhood poverty. An experience such as this could be an underlying motivation for a fictional character whose main drive is to accumulate money.
4. Make your story’s middle purposeful
To make your story’s middle more purposeful and relevant to your overarching plot:
- Introduce new characters who help or hinder your primary characters’ goals
- Introduce subplots that supplement your main story arc (more on this in the following section)
- Illuminate why your characters have the goals you establish at the start of your book (the love-craving character had a neglectful childhood, for example)
- Increase narrative tension by increasing the stakes (more must depend on your character meeting her goal)
Chuck Wendig has a great post here on how to fight the mushy middle and make your own story lean and mean throughout. This is Wendig’s advice to step back and outline your book when writing the middle gets tough: ‘Find your next steps. Discover your narrative landmarks. That’ll get you out of the woods and back onto the road.’
5. Deepen your plot with subplots
What is the definition of a subplot?
A subplot is ‘a secondary plot, or a strand of the main plot that runs parallel to it and supports it’. An example of a subplot would be the departure of the character Quoyle’s wife in the early chapters of E. Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News. This becomes part of the subplot of Quoyle grieving for (and looking for substitute) love that dives his attempts to make a life for his daughers and himself in Newfoundland. The subplot sets the tragic tone for the novel and the pathos of it leads the reader to invest emotionally in the protagonist’s outcome.
To deepen your story with subplots:
- Use subplots to make readers care about your characters – this grows reader investment
- Use subplots to reveal aspects of characters’ personalities that complicate their progress towards their goals
- Use subplots to show alternative ways of seeing some of the themes of your novel (for example, a melancholic character’s perspective can be altered by a developing friendship with a more sanguine, upbeat character)
Deepening your plot with subplots will improve your novel because readers will feel more connected to your characters. Connection arises out of understanding and empathy, and these are two things a relevant subplot help you create.
6. Make every line of dialogue meaningful
Make every line of dialogue meaningful. Characters in a good story should both talk like and not talk like everyday people. They should sound like us in these (and other) ways:
- Characters’ dialogue should include interruptions, pauses, breaths and the occasional digression
- Their voices should be clearly distinct from each other. We should know exactly who’s talking from reading/listening
- Their dialogue should contain seeds of conflict and other emotional elements – don’t make every character a ‘yes man’
In a good story, characters do not sound like us in important ways because:
- They don’t tell long stories with no point (unless the telling itself is entertaining or humourous)
- They don’t use filler words such as ‘like’ or ‘um’ excessively (unless this is emphasized for a justifiable reason)
- Characters’ dialogue serves the plot, helping us understand what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Their conversations shouldn’t be as mundane as our own can be. Avoid page-long conversations about what characters will make for for dinner.
See advice for writing better dialogue in our separate post on the subject.
7. Place your story in a fascinating setting
What makes a good story? Unforgettable characters, a taut plot, engaging rising and falling tension, strong dialogue and intriguing settings. A great story has all of the above. How do you write a great setting?
- Make place a character. Don’t just give a house a shape and colour. Give it personality. Is it old and dank, shutting out the light of the world, or is it light, charming and elegant? Besides giving place personality, give it something out of the ordinary to make it truly fascinating. Perhaps the house has a hidden crawl space containing something creepy and the occupants know nothing about it, for example.
- Make place in your story change with the times. The street your characters grow up on should have changed when they return in later life, not only because places do change over time but because change is interesting. Old neighbours may have moved or passed away. New communities, gardens, local intrigues and upsets may have taken root. Show how your setting changes both visually and emotionally. Characters might feel differently about a place with passing years, too.
- Enrich your setting with detail. If you write about a real, historical or contemporary place in particular, know the landmarks. Know the demographics, the underprivileged areas and the rich ones. Know what the place is celebrated or nefarious for. Small details can take a city like any other and make it fascinating, giving it colour and vibrance.
8. Master creating conflict and tension
When we read the word ‘conflict’ we often think immediately of violence – war or physical fights between adversaries. But there are many kinds of conflict you can use to improve the entertainment and emotional value of your story. Characters’ internal conflicts create tension by making readers wonder whether characters will overcome or give in to their baser traits. Characters might also grapple with their environments – oppressive society (such as in The Scarlet Letter) or natural phenomena (the typical disaster story).
To write great conflict that increases tension:
- Create and bring together characters whose personalities are poles apart. The reality TV series Come Dine With Me does this expertly by combining dinner guests who are guaranteed to irritate each other. The bubbly go-getter is paired with the morose man-of-few-words.
- Combine different kinds of story conflicts within a single narrative, so that tension is generated by varied sources
- Watch movies or series that are renowned for their mastery of tense conflict and note down the plot, dialogue or scene setting devices that help scriptwriters achieve their effects.
James Duncan offers some excellent advice on creating conflict and tension. Says Duncan (on using a ‘reverse course’ of action to create tension), ‘Maybe the goal a character wants to accomplish is reached, but it turns out to be nothing the character expected … But the genie is hard to get back in the bottle, isn’t it?’
9. Master beginnings
The beginning of a story is the bait. The beginning is what lures your reader into the story, so make sure you write a winning beginning:
What makes a good story beginning?
A good story beginning:
- Creates questions the reader is determined to have answered (e.g. ‘Who is this mysterious killer who loves Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’?’)
- Hooks readers on your writing style
- Introduces the key conflicts and/or characters of your novel (and what makes them interesting).
- Promises a meaningful reading experience (promises being moved, going on an adventure, being terrified).
For the first element of a good story beginning, you can:
- Describe a character doing something unexpected
- Introduce a perplexing scenario that must be explained (murder is the mainstay of thriller and suspense novels when it comes to creating questions)
- Tease the reader with unknowns (whether these relate to a character, an unfamiliar setting or object)
For the second story beginning element, hooking your reader on your writing:
- Make sure your language is polished
- Cut out extraneous information – it isn’t relevant what your character ate for breakfast, unless this tells us something crucial about your character (see the first example from this post)
- Use original (but clear) language and the occasional fresh metaphor or simile that makes readers fall in love with your writing style
For the third element of a great story beginning:
- Don’t describe your characters in abstract terms: Instead of ‘she had always been a happy child’, show a happy scene from your character’s childhood
- Show your character at a pivotal or emotion-laden story moment – hook the reader right away
- Either hint at a coming conflict (whether between characters or an internal struggle) or launch the reader right into it
For the fourth element:
- Set the core action of the story in motion (For example: your character receives an unmarked letter)
- Promise a meaningful reading experience by giving the reader a taste of the excitement, emotional power or laughs in store
10. Deliver knockout endings
The ending will either entice a reader to seek out other novels you’ve written (and wait patiently for your next) or donate the book they’ve just finished to a thrift shop. Thus it’s crucial that you master the lingering impression:
What makes a good story ending?
A good story ending:
- Resolves the primary conflict of your story (the killer is caught or the adventurer reaches his destination)
- Rises in tension before giving the reader release
- Isn’t so tidy that it’s predictable or a cop-out
- Uses words that convey the sense of an ending
For the first element of good story endings:
- Solve your primary conflict – if your main character is an anti-hero serial killer, make them face the music
- Make the outcome of your primary conflict feel explicable but not predictable. Show the possible outcomes of a conflict (for example, make a killer’s escape or conviction equally possible – keep the reader guessing)
For the second element of writing a great story ending:
- Build tension by adding story complications. (In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must not only destroy the ring but do so with a greatly diminished party as he journeys towards the villain’s heartland)
- As Jessica Page Morrel says here, make sure that the stakes are high and the consequences for failure are dire. This applies whether you’re writing about a hero facing a villain for a final conflict or two characters who are emotionally and psychologically invested in a relationship on the rocks
For the third element:
- Make sure that you keep up dramatic tension until the end – the ending you arrive at shouldn’t feel too easily won
- If applicable, keep readers guessing how things will pan out with a plot twist. If you use a surprise plot twist, remember to keep the surprise believable and avoid being unoriginal (don’t create a villain who says ‘Tom, I am your father’)
- Avoid the deus ex machina, a practically miraculous event that lets you tie things up quickly with little exlanation. Characters developing amnesia as a plot device in soap operas is a classic example. Watch a great parody of this here: https://youtu.be/5qLzF6mZrCw
For the fourth element of a good ending:
- Read the final paragraphs of your favourite novels. What kind of language does the author use? Is it poignant, nostalgic, dramatic or epic in tone?
- Make sure the ending ties back to the preceding story. One way to do this is make the subject and/or structure of your ending echo the opening lines of your novel
Improve your mastery of writing unforgettable characters, gripping tension and more with the help of Now Novel’s online writing community now. And remember to share this post if you found these 10 tips on what makes a good story helpful.