Are You Serving Your Story?

Fiction is an odd combination of skills. The craft of writing is technical, with rules and techniques that can achieve different results, yet the art of storytelling is visceral, relying on creativity and instinct to pluck the best pieces from our imagination.

While the story is often what grabs us first, it can quickly get overshadowed by the technical aspects. Is the opening line hooking? Should this be first or third person? Is there too much backstory? Instead of crafting a story readers can’t put down, we’re counting how many adverbs are in each chapter.

This can lead to technically well-written novels, but not great stories.

Now, I’m not saying ignore the technical side of writing—that’s how you bring a wonderful story to life—but don’t lose sight of the joy and magic you felt when that story idea originally came to you. A story that excites you enough to write it is a story that can excite readers enough to read it.

Here are some things to remember during the drafting process:

Make the characters as real as possible

My high school English teacher said it best: “Stories are just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways.” Characters are why readers love a book and they’re at the heart of every story. No matter how great the plot, a flat, lifeless character fails to make that emotional connection with the reader. Sure, they might think the book itself is cool, but that cool memory fades as soon as a great character in another book comes along and captures their heart.

To serve the story, be true to the characters in it. Let them be the best story people they can be, and don’t shy away from showing both their strengths and their weaknesses. Give them motivations only they could have and let them act in credible and plausible ways. The more real a character is, the more complicated and flawed they are (within reasonable limits, of course), the easier it is for readers to connect and relate to them. Even larger-than-life characters can be grounded in reality.

Dig deep for emotional connections

The more emotion a reader feels, the more likely they are to love the story. Make them laugh, cry, gasp in shock or squeal in glee, and those will be the scenes they’re telling friends about the next day. Emotional connections allow readers to feel like they’re in the story along with the characters. Connections make readers care, and when they care, the plot becomes that much stronger and more meaningful.

Serve the story by looking deeper than the surface plot and find the emotional moments that resonate with readers. It’s not just the stunning plot twist no one saw coming, but the emotional punch that twist causes. Make every tough choice a gut-wrenching experience, tap into the human flaws we all recognize, and show the fears that we struggle with every day. Make the reader feel right along with the characters.

Pick the best parts to dramatize

Elmore Leonard famously said, “don’t write the parts readers skip.” Failing to heed this advice has hurt many a story, and resulted in pages of backstory, heavy description, and tedious exposition. You know which moments are the best parts of your story—they’re the ones you can’t wait to write. If a scene isn’t exciting enough to make you want to write it, that’s a good indication that no one will want to read it.

Serve the story and focus on the scenes that move you. Find what you love most about every scene and use it to draw readers in so they love it, too. Try to craft every scene so it contains something that makes you want to call your best writer friend and tell them all about this great chapter you just wrote.

There’s no rule on when to focus on the story and when to focus on the technical, so follow your instincts here. You might explore the story first and then polish, or get the plot worked out before you develop the deeper aspects of the tale. However it works for you, it’s worth stepping away from the rulebook and focusing on the story you want to tell.

Technical skills are like a painter’s brushes—in the hands of an artist, they can create something beautiful.

22 Responses to Are You Serving Your Story?

  1. Marc Vun Kannon May 28 2014 at 8:12 am #

    All excellent suggestions. My own techniques to achieve them are as follows.
    1) I do as much description as possible from the perspective of the character who has the focus. This means using the words he knows, the way he would use them. Notice the things he cares about, which is not probably everything in the scene. I make description dependent on perception. I tend to skip descriptive prose when it’s done from the author’s perspective, so I didn’t want to write it.
    2) Use examples from your own life and experience. There are all sorts of things that happen in the course of your life that can not only enhance the story but their presence will make the character seem more real. I have a scene in one of my books where a woman needs to think about her son, so I used examples from my own son’s life, but also from some other people that I know, where appropriate.
    3) The most important for me is to follow the character’s logic, which is not something I can easily describe. A character is a story, and a story has a logic, not necessarily a path to a predefined end. I write by following the logic of the character, given the circumstances they’re, to determine how they’ll act or react. It often trns out, as the various logics of the various characters intersect, that the story will go off in a direction very different from the goal I had in mind, if I had one. The trick is to not be afraid to follow them if they decide to go somewhere else. Trying to force your ending on their story will feel exactly that, forced.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy May 28 2014 at 2:34 pm #

      Great tips! Sounds like it could be summed up in “a tight POV,” which I love myself. The character will lead you where they want to go if you’re willing to listen. Good stuff.

      • Marc Vun Kannon May 28 2014 at 2:53 pm #

        Thank you. It’s tight to the point of head-hopping. I would change the style of the description from one paragraph to the next, depending on who was talking. It’s also a very hard way to write, as the plot and setting become secondary, and would often change from one page to the next if the characters didn’t want to go that way.

        • Janice Hardy
          Janice Hardy May 28 2014 at 3:06 pm #

          Ah, so it’s more of a tight omni? That would be tough to write.

          • Marc Vun Kannon May 28 2014 at 3:39 pm #

            No, I as the author strive to be invisible. Very little if anything comes from my perspective. It’s a very tight third, but since the description depends on who’s seeing it, the same scene will be described differently from one paragraph to another, much like head-hopping, even though it’s really me describing the same scene as viewed by different people.

          • Janice Hardy
            Janice Hardy May 28 2014 at 3:51 pm #

            Ah okay. “Head hoping” usually refers to either POV shifts or omni POV where you’re in everyone’s head. If you’re in more than one head in a scene, it’s omni, even if it’s an invisible narrator. You can have a tight POV and still be omni.

  2. Jaaron May 28 2014 at 9:37 am #

    What an awesome article! I’m working on a novel right now and this post really reminded me how essential it is to focus on creating those real characters who can reach out and connect with the readers. I’ll be keeping this post handy when I go back and edit!

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy May 28 2014 at 2:36 pm #

      Oh good, glad it came at the right time for you. It seems like such a silly thing, but it’s so easy to get caught up in the how and forget why we write in the first place. We can all use reminder from time to time 🙂

  3. Julie
    Julie May 28 2014 at 10:40 am #

    Janice – GREAT post! Funny you would write on this topic today – I was just talking about how structure can distract me from my story! Perhaps the universe is telling me something… Thanks for these fantastic suggestions. <3

  4. Janice Hardy
    Janice Hardy May 28 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    LOL Kismet! I’m such a structure fan I actually schedule a revision pass to focus on the story. I have way too much fun with plots and whatnot, especially in the planning stage. I have to step back and make sure the plot serves the story and I’m not just having a grand old time running around 🙂

  5. Patrick Stahl May 28 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    I try to stay away from using the word “real” in reference to characters. Take Winston Smith from 1984 for instance. He’s a very real characters, but he’s by no means an engaging or interesting character. He’s not sympathetic, proactive, or (very) competent. A character needs to be more than just relatable to be a good character.

    I like to really focus on emotions in my fiction, to the extent that if I make someone feel something I’m okay if the only thing they take from the story is that emotion. I rarely have underlying theme to my stories, at least not overtly.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Jun 3 2014 at 2:20 pm #

      Good point. I figured creating interesting characters kind of went without saying (grin). Real, three-dimensional, fully fleshed out is what I was talking about.

      Focusing on emotion is a great plan. Make a reader feel and they tend to remember you and the book.

  6. Friv 1 May 29 2014 at 3:53 am #

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  7. Hamed May 30 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    I wish I had such a tasteful teacher. He has said it all.
    Though I know there should be a right combination of Technicality and Creativity in the story, I think they are kind of merged into each other. I was reading Raymond Carver’s short story “careful” (for hundredth times) just before I read this article and now that I’m re-re-reading it I’m amazed how he could use so many technicalities to improve his theme on human connection. I think using the right technic in the right time will make a well-written story into a masterpiece.
    Thank you for the article. I’m gonna write this down in my journal. First page.
    “Stories are just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways.”

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Jun 3 2014 at 2:22 pm #

      Good tools in the hand of a skilled craftsman generate solid results. I think that applies to all art forms. That bit of advice has always been one of my favorites.

  8. Alexa S. Jun 8 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    I absolutely love your tips, Janice! You pretty much nailed two of the things I love best about my favorite books with your first two tips, and the third is also something I like to think about. Thanks for the awesome post!

  9. happy wheels Sep 3 2015 at 11:19 am #

    Thank you for your advices 🙂 I’m not a writer but I often imagine many many stories from when I was a teenagers. Day by day, thinking about it make me want to write them out. But I don’t have any skills, don’t know how to write. Thanks for your advices, I think I should write them for myself, and who know, someday, when these stories is completed, I can show it for someone 🙂

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