Think about a story you have read. The story had a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It probably had characters and a setting. It most definitely had to have a plot for it to be a story in the first place. There was a build to the climax, the climax itself, and a resolution to whatever problem or foe the characters faced. These aspects are part of what make up a story.
While every story should have these elements, a good story must go further in order to leave an impact on the reader. Keep in mind those stories that left an impact on you. They do not have to be limited to just novels; think of compelling films or comic book plots. Even story-driven video games can have a plot that stays with you well after you put the controller down for the last time.
What was it about each of those stories that kept your mind going back to them? What made you wish you could relive it again for the first time? These are the stories that really resonate with you — ones that live in your head for the rest of your life. Ask yourself now — what was it about them that really caught your interest?
A well-written story should captivate the reader. It should have a strong cast of characters and a memorable plot. The ending should be so powerful and fulfilling that it leaves the reader wanting more.
What Is a Story?
A story, whether true or fictional, is the telling of an event. It is the transfer of information, either to enlighten or entertain (Travis, 2011). No matter what the genre of the story is, no matter if it really happened or it was completely imagined, a story’s number one purpose is just that–to either teach or to otherwise engage the reader as entertainment. A good story can do both.
Furthermore, a story — whether it be in the form of a short story, a novel, a memoir, a movie, or something else — is the telling of a journey (Travis, 2011). Through the telling of this journey, you, as the writer, are able to convey what you want to inform the reader of. Again, this can be for the purpose of solely entertaining your reader, or it can be to convey a deeper meaning.
“We tell stories every day – mostly to ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to make a point, to imagine a possible future, to remind ourselves, to reprimand ourselves, to comfort ourselves. Inside each and every one of us is a complex system of storytelling that is active, rich in content, and, I believe, very necessary to the health and well-being of each of us” (Travis, 2011). You can tell a story without writing down a word. You could simply be verbally telling a friend about how you lost a twenty dollar bill down a sewage drain. It is still a story — maybe not an amazing one, or an overly compelling one — but it is still a story.
The Four Kinds of Narrative Stories
A narrative can be thought of as a thread tying the rest of the story together in some kind of logical order. This is usually achieved with defined beginnings, middles, and ends (MasterClass staff, “4 Types of Narrative Writing”).
There are different kinds of narratives within stories. The four most common types of narratives are linear narrative, non-linear narrative, quest narrative, and viewpoint narrative (MasterClass staff, “4 Types of Narrative Writing”).
A linear narrative is a narrative that is laid out in the order in which events happen. This means that the story follows a straight, chronological order when it comes to how it is told. It follows an A, then B, then C kind of structure, where each letter is an event that has happened or is happening to the characters.
For example, the structure of a linear narrative in a simple story might be something like, “Bob woke up early in the morning. He decided it was a beautiful day, so he put on his running shoes. He went for a jog in the forest by his house. While jogging, he noticed something on the side of the path. It was a gold ring, only about as round as his pinky finger, probably lost by someone else who had gone jogging on the path. Bob decided to pocket the ring. He would try to find the owner later.”
In this example, we can see that the progression of the story is straightforward. In a way, there are certain beats to the story in a way — Bob does A. Bob does B., etc.
On the other hand, a nonlinear narrative is a plot that follows a different progression of events, jumping back and forth between the past, future, and present. While this is not the most popular type of narrative in novels and short stories. It has been harnessed to create popular books.
For example, Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is told in a nonlinear progression. It is told from the point of view of multiple characters using third-person storytelling, with each of the segments of the story taking place at different times.
The quest narrative is used to show how a character or characters have one specific goal in mind. The story centers around how those characters achieve that goal, no matter what they might face along the way. This is generally used in fantasy stories, with the goal usually being something tangible, or the goal being to destroy something. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy focuses on Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the ring of power.
A viewpoint narrative is specifically used to explore the inner thoughts, emotions, and ideas of a character or group of characters. While this is generally done using a first-person perspective, it can also be implemented using multiple characters and a third-person perspective. An example of a viewpoint narrative would be something like, “I lost my most precious ring in the woods yesterday. Without it, I feel empty and alone; I am unable to think or eat at all. My grandmother’s ring — the one she gave me before she died. The one she wore when she married my grandfather. I hate myself for losing it!” Note the use of thoughts and emotions in the example. Though nothing is spoken out loud, we can understand the character’s turmoil in losing her favorite ring.
It is important to note that, because a viewpoint narrative is told via the character or characters’ thoughts and emotions, this viewpoint can often be used to implement an unreliable narrator — a narrator that is either withholding information from the reader through misunderstanding or deviousness on their part. An example of this would be the 2010 film Black Swan, in which a ballet dancer pushed to the edge of her limits slowly descends into a mental breakdown and possibly, her own death. This story is told through grotesque and often haunting imagery, all while the viewer is shown the lead character’s innermost thoughts and fears.
When planning out your story, deciding on a narrative is important. Do you want something linear and straight-forward? Or would you rather use something a bit more experimental and challenging for the reader? Whatever you use, deciding on a narrative type is one of the key factors in writing your story.
What Does a Story Need?
Think about your favorite story from when you were a child. It could be from a film, a television show, a comic book, or a novel. Think about what defined those stories to you; was there a specific character that you related to? Maybe there was a princely character who you wanted to sweep you off your feet, or perhaps there was a warrior you wanted to ride into battle beside. Was the plot engaging, keeping you on your toes and up at night, reading under the covers of your bed, flashlight clutched in your hand? Were the author’s words so clear and concise that you felt like you were there, in the story, right alongside the characters?
Every story, whether it be a bedtime story or a lengthy film series, has a few key things in common. Characters, plot, and the narrative — these are three important ingredients to any story. While we have already discussed narrative, in the sections below, we will explore what makes a good character and how to fully develop a plot that your readers will fawn over.
A plot can be defined as “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work),” (Merriam-Webster, “Definition of PLOT”). Put simply, the plot of a story is what happens within that story; it is the story itself. Without a plot, there is no story. There is nothing to tie your characters together. There is no beginning, no middle, no end. There is simply an idea, if even that, without the plot. As such, planning out the plot is perhaps one of the most important aspects of creating your story. With that being said, it can also be one of the most daunting. A lot of would-be authors end up not writing simply because they get stuck on the plot. Creating a plotline is one of the hardest things about writing a story — but it is also one of the most important aspects of being a writer. The very first thing you will want to do when you sit down to write out a plot is to make a list of ideas. Some of these ideas will make it into your finished manuscript; some will not. What is important is to not think about the end result at the moment. This step is simply to generate thoughts and ideas that could make it into the plot over all. It is a good idea to freewrite during this process. Look up some writing prompts on the internet to get yourself going, or choose one from the small list below. Write in sprints, and do not think too hard about connecting everything at this moment. Right now, let the writing flow like the ink from your pen. Simply write in the moment!
Below are some writing prompts you might use in order to start collecting ideas for your story:
1. Your character has found an old photo of them as children, but they do not recognize anyone else in the picture.
2. Someone walks by your character and accidentally spills coffee all over their laptop.
3. The queen of a fantasy kingdom has requested that your character gather a rare flower found at the edge of a haunted forest.
4. An elephant is on your character’s lawn.
5. Your character owns a cat. One day, that cat comes home, followed by another cat that looks exactly like it.
These are just a few writing prompts that might work for you. Others can be found online with a simple search. Writing with friends or in a group setting is a great way to get the writing juices flowing. It is beneficial to find a writing group, either online or in person, that you can bounce ideas off of. Some of these groups offer small editing services as well. Once you have an idea for your plot, or multiple ideas you would like to start with, you will want to whittle them down into one, simple premise. Think of your main idea as the center of a wheel, with other ideas, or spokes, emanating from it. Your premise is what holds the entire “wheel” together, but the other parts of it are just as important to the overall makeup of your story. At this point, you are going to want to consider the characters and their roles in your story. These characters and their individual or overlapping plotlines can be thought of as other spokes on your wheel. You will want to start to develop your main character or characters, any secondary characters that are important to the story, and an antagonist or antagonists. We will cover character creation and development later in this chapter. Next, you need to plan out the main conflict for your story. Often, in the fantasy, science fiction, thriller, and horror genres, the main conflict is a battle of good versus evil — or the main character versus a big, bad antagonist. For example, most childhood stories center around a ‘good’ character and some sort of ‘evil’ character — Snow White versus her evil stepmother, for example. Other simple examples include Peter Pan versus Captain Hook, or Jonathan Harker versus Dracula. Other types of conflict might be internal, as in the main character versus inner doubt, or external, such as the main character versus a snowstorm. Internal conflict can be seen as man versus self, or internal dilemma, and is often used in psychological horror and thriller stories. External conflict, or man versus nature, can be seen in any survival story, or in stories in which the main character manages to survive a disaster.
The next thing you will want to do is to plan out the structure of your story. Most stories use a three-act structure, or the beginning, the middle, and the end. This is the most simplistic of structures, but it is used so often because it is tried and true. Continuing onward, you will need to figure out story arcs. An arc simply means an act, or a part of your story that has an overarching dilemma or idea. Arcs are often seen in comic books, with the arc itself making up the smaller stories within the overall story of Superman or Spider-Man. When figuring out the arcs within your story, it is okay to add some later, or to remove ones that don’t end up working within the confines of your story. Paired with plot arcs, you will also want to plan out subplots. A subplot is a miniature plot within the major plot that helps to give the reader information or lead the story to a specified climax. It is important to note that all subplots should be tied up by the end of your story, unless you are planning on writing a sequel. Unfinished subplots can be tied up later in sequels. While you are coming up with arcs, plots, and subplots, don’t forget about cause and effect! Everything in your story should have a purpose. A character picking up a ring in the first act of the book should have some kind of payoff by the end. Maybe that character found the ring, and a few months later (within the span of your book’s timeline), he finds the owner. Maybe that will lead to a friendship, and later, a marriage.
Characters are, simply put, the players within your story. These are the sentient beings that make up the cast, though some might argue that some inanimate objects and the setting are just as important as characters as living beings are. We will discuss that more, in length, later in this text.
For now, we are going to focus on the three main types of characters. That includes the protagonist, the antagonist, and the supporting characters. While there are other types of characters that can be used as plot devices, these three categories are the main focus in general stories.
What is a protagonist? The protagonist is, simply put, the main character of your story. While it is possible to have multiple protagonists, most stories have only one. This main character is the character that the readers will identify most with, and usually, this character acts as a type of narrator that the rest of the story centers around.
To build a protagonist, you should come up with their characteristics. Is he a strong, sauve young man? Perhaps they are smart older women. Or are they a child, new to the world and ready to go on their first adventure?
The kind of main character you come up with will be dependent on what kind of story you are writing. If you are writing a horror story, perhaps the protagonist is a young adult who is running from a terrifying serial killer. Or maybe they are an older man who can see the ghosts of those who died in his family-run hotel. Either way, the character has to fit within the confines of the story — and likewise, the story has to center around that character.
Creating any character can be difficult. The best thing to keep in mind is that each character is an entire person. A well-written character is rounded out, fleshed out, and not one note. What this means is that your characters should have thoughts of their own, along with things like hobbies, friends, fears, aspirations, and internal conflicts. Steer clear of writing a ‘perfect’ character — all good protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters have some kind of flaw or flaws that make them more human.
Keeping that in mind, the goal of your story should be something that is obtainable for the protagonist. Maybe your character is a young man who takes care of his elderly grandmother, and he has to make ends meet for the two of them. His goal could be to land that well-paying job that would set him and his grandmother up for an easier way of life. Or maybe your protagonist is a female warrior who must travel across the kingdom to find her son, who was kidnapped by bandits. Both characters, although vastly different, have specific goals that can be explored within your story.
During the achievement of this goal, the protagonist must go through some kind of growth. The young man, for example, might learn something about himself while trying out for his job. He finds that, while preparing for the position, his grandmother is the most important person to him because she always believes in him — even when he doesn’t believe in himself. Or, going the other way, maybe the warrior realizes that she has not been a good mother to her son. She reflects on how she has treated her child in the past. Because she was so hard on him, because she really wanted what she thought was best for him, she overlooked what he wanted most out of life.
This growth will help to round out your characters. It allows them to be human and to be relatable. You want to make sure that your readers can latch on to your protagonist. If they do not root for them, if your readers find your characters flat, then your story, overall, will fail.
While you might think that an antagonist would be completely different from the protagonist of your story, you would be wrong. The antagonist must be just as believable and understandable as the main character. The ‘bad guy’ doesn’t have to be likable; they
could be a horrible person, but they have to be just as believable as any other character in your story.
The most important thing to keep in mind while writing your antagonist is that they, too, should be human. Though they might have strange or twisted reasons for doing what they are doing, they must have that reason. A well-written villain has a moral code, or a purpose, that they believe in over everything else. This is what drives them to do what they are doing.
For example, let’s say that your villain is an old witch. She has cursed an entire city. Ask yourself why. Why would she spend so much time and effort cursing that city? Maybe she lived there herself when she was young. Maybe something horrible happened to her there that made her loath all of that city, something that made her feel like it was tainted and wrong. Maybe she wants to get some kind of revenge on the people that live there, or that she sees them as beneath her, in need of eradication.
No matter what you end up with, the actions of the antagonist must make sense to the villain’s character. Do not have the antagonist simply show up and do something bad simply for the sake of furthering the plot. Explore why that character has acted in that manner.
Moving forward, secondary characters will help to flesh out your world. Secondary characters could be aligned with the protagonist, or they could be friends or minions of the antagonist. They could even exist beyond that binary as neutral entities.
Secondary characters should have a reason for existing in your story. Maybe they are the sidekicks of your protagonist. Maybe they are the villain’s evil henchmen. Both types of characters are good to use to further the story, to further the humanity of both the protagonist and the antagonist. They could also be used as love interests or as characters that have to be saved.
Remember, all of your characters should be believable. Even if they are simply used as comic relief, they should still have their own goals, fears, and thoughts. Do not use a character simply to further the plot; rather, explore that character and ask yourself why they are furthering the plot.
If the character serves no purpose within the greater scheme of your story, cut them out. They are fillers and are not needed.
Now that you have the basics of your characters, let’s explore how to further flesh them out. A good way to explore your characters is to have them physically interact with the world you have placed them in. Be aware of what kind of space they take up. Is your character so tall that he has to hunch over when entering or exiting a room? Is your character so thin that your clothing hangs off of you loosely? Perhaps your character is
always eating when they are in the scene, so you write them with food in hand all of the time. Do they have blonde hair, or brown? Are they some kind of fantasy creature that is not well equipped for snowy landscapes? These are all things to consider when creating your characters.
Having a clear idea of what your character looks like and how they interact with the world around them will help flesh them out. Readers will better understand and identify with your characters if they can imagine the type of space they take up within your world.
One way to make your characters interesting is to make them different from what the reader might expect. What if you had a character that was very short but was a star basketball player? Subvert expectations — but still make your character believable. This basketball player uses her small stature to her advantage by being able to weave around her much taller adversaries. Because she is shorter, she is able to see the world from a different perspective and maybe she can see openings that her taller teammates can’t.
Keeping your characters believable and fresh will lead to better reader interaction and, in turn, to an overall better story.
We have discussed the different kinds of narratives prior to this text. At this point in your writing, you should have a good grasp of what kind of narrative you would like to use. This is a good time to make sure that it meshes well with your overall plot and your characters.
It is alright to go back and rework parts of your story at this point. Remember that nothing is set in stone — you are still free to explore different writing styles, different narratives, and different kinds of characters.