Behind the Writings 6/9
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
All you need to focus on is to get your story told the way you would want it to be told to you.
There is much debate about the number of elements that make up a story. A quick search online will give you between four and twelve. For the sake of a digestible structure – and this is not a storytelling course either – I will limit myself to three story elements: plot, setting and character(s), with plot being the most important.
What makes a good story is a logical plot, mostly evolving around a main "problem" and a main character to solve it. No pain, no gain, the character(s) in search of the solution encounter(s) numerous obstacles along the way. He/she wins some and loses some. In the end a resolution is reached, and the character(s) live happily ever after, … or not.
What makes good stories compelling are the concepts of “conflict” and “change”.
This is true for almost every myth, legend, fairy tale, song, play, … throughout cultures and history worldwide. The main character(s) go(es) through different stages of change by facing the obstacles they encounter on the way to the resolution. Do the test. Think about your favourite book, movie, short story, TV series, and compare the main character(s) philosophy at the end of the story with his/her attitude at the beginning. Most of the time there is a change for the better.
Characters are subject to the plot. This doesn't mean that a writer by definition plots the story before creating the characters. There is no written rule here. A story might originate from one or a few characters. The same is true for settings. When you're inspired by nature or a beautiful architectural construction, for instance, it might trigger an idea or a mental image that feels as if it might contain a story. I have experience with all three tactics, it's part of that fickle Muse I mentioned in a previous post.
Characters inhabit time and space, called the setting. Settings are very much determined by the genre. Generally, there is one primary genre that incorporates others. When genres are mixed, the setting becomes mixed. It isn’t new to see cowboys running around with a spaceship above their heads. It’s rare though.
The tricky thing about a setting is that a writer can lose him/herself in the description of it. When are you describing too much and when is a story at risk of not being understood because it has become too obvious to the writer to explain. Taking the time and pages to describe a unique setting as part of an unfolding imaginary world is a necessity to some extent. Readers need to get acquainted with the universe, no matter how normal or odd. It needs to feel believable.
This is done somewhere at the beginning of a story, because a setting implies specific rules. If your character(s) can time travel, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to the reader. They should have felt it coming intuitively. If it is a huge surprise readers might become suspicious, because it would feel like an anomaly, especially when it's introduced abruptly without any relation to previous story events.
The opposite is also true: without a good understanding of the setting's main rules and regulations - through plain description or discovered through the actions of the characters - readers will get frustrated by the absence of information.
What to tell/show or omit about your setting and characters is a difficult balance to strike.
Subject to the setting are the characters. They most often become the settings’ plaything, forced to be creative into finding a way out. Because audiences love to relate to the characters, thoroughly designed characters matter.
A carefully weighed dosage of emotions makes it possible to believe the unbelievable. Characters need to have just enough for an audience to connect with. Give your characters too many facets and the audience loses its interest, the same happens when they are flat. There are no one-dimensional people, there is no reason for characters to be that way either.
Analysis of ancient prose, legends, myths from all over the world has enabled researchers to categorise the "archetypes" depicted in those stories. And they are numerous. The most famous are the Jungian archetypes. A cast of twelve distinct types with the potential to create enough conflict and obstacles throughout a plot, to keep the story going and hopefully, retain the audience's attention.
When it comes to character design, there is this one enormous trap many writers walk into with their eyes wide open: they let their character become the archetype. It’s an easy way to create a character, it’s also the straightest path towards a stereotype.
A writer must be able to relate to his/her characters. Readers intuitively feel when they lack depth. Clichés or too many of the same characteristics in different characters will make your reader put your story aside. And just like us humans, fictional characters are flawed. Make them too perfect and readers will start looking the other way. It's a question of balance, like good cooking.
I can relate to the difficulties of finding the right balance. Sometimes it just doesn't work out. If that’s the case, let it go and start over.
Practice makes progress, more practice makes perfect. Perfect meaning: "good enough to launch your work into the world and into people’s minds." You can keep polishing, but at a certain point it's time to let the professionals step into the game. They uplift your work and know the parameters that will increase your chances of selling it, if that's your ambition. They're a writer's best consultant.
author: Grietje Y. M. François
editor: Christopher Dunkley
There are nine episodes in the "Behind the Writing" series, the last one will be published on Thursday the 27th of August. The content of these posts is about my personal experiences as a writer, writing my first young adult novel "Naar de haaien." (Dutch).