Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Elements of Compelling Stories

A long time ago when I first started writing, I started with the kernel of an idea and began writing from chapter one to the end. Since my goal was purely to create a story for one particular reader, I wasn’t worried about following any rules, or impressing anyone beyond the ten-year-old who would eventually read it. Flash forward six years when I decided to polish the manuscript off for entry in a contest.  Suddenly I wanted not only to know what was wrong with my story, but how to fix it! I continue to troll the internet for online writing tips and have invested in a few books, most recently Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Any book on fiction writing is going to have plenty of tips for the novice, but since I am in the middle of Swain’s book, I am going to touch on his 5 key story elements (pp. 131-135).

·         Character: someone (MC) the reader identifies with

·         Situation: the circumstance or problem the MC faces

·         Objective: what the MC wants

·         Opponent: who or what stands in the way

·         Disaster: some dreadful predicament toward the end

Swain then uses these elements to ensure you have a story going before you begin the work of writing by creating what we would call a two sentence elevator pitch based on these elements. This distillation of your story in a concise format forms a basic framework to build on while ensuring you have a conflict that will maintain reader’s interest.

Prior to reading Swain’s book, I had formed vague plot ideas containing most of these elements before writing my novels, and then written elevator pitches when the drafts were complete. Now I can see how turning that process around will help sharpen my plots before I write a single scene. (Duh!) Starting from this point can also help develop an outline of your plot from the early stages. I have grown to appreciate the advantages of being a plotter rather than a pantser. More work up front means less work in the end!
By no means do I consider myself past the novice stage of writing, so I am always interested to hear what sources or tips have helped other writers hone their craft. What books or websites have provided you with the most helpful writing advice?


  1. James Scott Bell has a plethora of wonderful writing books. He also recently wrote a blogpost I found extremely useful, about the Magical Midpoint Moment: http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-magical-midpoint-moment.html

    If you're writing fairytale fantasy, do you also read Anne Elizabeth Stengl's blog? http://anneelisabethstengl.blogspot.com/
    She offers all kinds of writing tips, as well as contests and other fun stuff. And her books are lovely. :-)

    Another excellent resource for structure, I found completely by accident: jimbutcher.livejournal.com. He has a series of informal articles detailing characters, plot, scenes/sequels, and that elevator pitch line. He provides lots of templates and examples from his books, too. I learned just as much from his articles as I have from various writing books!

    1. I almost mentioned James Scott Bell and the Magical Midpoint so I'm glad you brought it up. He is on my list of works to check out next, but reading short tips on his blog is helpful in the meantime.

      I had never heard of Anne Elizabeth Stengl so I will be looking to read her books and blog. Very interesting that she is published by Bethany House.

      Thanks, Kessie, for the links-just exactly what I was hoping for, sharing links for more tips! And BTW, I looked at your blog, http://netraptor.org/blog/, and I really think you have some excellent posts.