Ever wondered what it is about novels and stories that really grab your attention and force you to read on? What is it about a book that keeps you up at night no matter how tired you might feel? More importantly, how do you design a story that grabs the reader’s attention like your favourite story does?
It comes down to the basics of story design. There are particular aspects of stories that, if developed well, will leave your readers hungering for more. They will of course, differ genre-to-genre and there are exceptions to each stage. So, if you want to do something different that you think will make your book stand out from the crowd, then I say go for it! Never let anything hold you back. However, it’s important to understand the basics of story development before you go breaking away from the norm. It will provide you with the basis of knowledge needed to provide a solid structure, a great hook, continuous reader engagement, an epic climax, and an ending that will leave your reader satisfied and wanting more.
Lets start at the beginning, with a great hook and lots of readers actually buying your book in the first place. After the potential reader has picked your book off the shelf and decided your blurb is good enough to make them open the front page, what is the first thing they do? They read the first page. This is the true test right here. Is your writing and story good enough to hook them in? They’ve been attracted by your front cover and tempted by your blurb, but do they like the story and how you’ve presented it? This is why you see so many people talking about the importance of that first sentence, because it’s the first impression the reader has of your writing, your characters, and your story.
Are you writing an epic fantasy? Then give the reader magic, a dragon, or a non-human creature on the first page! This lets them know exactly what they’re in for. Personally, I love nothing more than seeing a dragon on the first page of a book. It makes me so happy! Are you writing a heartfelt story about a young girl’s journey through a horrible life? Then show us her emotions on the first page. Let us know how she feels and who she is straight from the beginning.
Setting the Scene and Building your Character
So, they’ve read the first page and decided that your book sounds perfect for their next adventure, but what happens next? They’ve bought your book and settled down in the armchair for the evening and continued reading your book. Yes! You’ve made it so far and you’re ready to please your reader with an epic adventure of love, magic, war, personal development, emotional trauma, a journey of self-discovery, or whatever else you may have chosen for your book. You now need to delve into the world of character development and scene building with the right amount of description and active storytelling.
I’m not going to go too much into character development, because there’s going to be an entire blog post on that topic later on in the series, but I do want to stress how important it is to have characters that your readers can relate to. The best characters are the ones that you become emotionally invested in and care about; the ones where you cry for their pain and laugh at their cheesy humour. You probably introduced your character on the first page, but developing their personality over the next few chapters is crucial to story development. Place them in strange scenarios and watch how they work themselves out of them; make them interact with other characters, ones they hate and ones they love; tell the reader about their hobbies, interests, that girl he likes from the swim team, that man that stares at her every morning as she leaves for work. These things may not be important to your plot or your overall story, but they’ll do wonders when it comes to connecting your readers to your characters. As long as the reader is invested in the character, they’ll read whatever story you put in front of them.
But a good set of characters isn’t enough, you need to have a killer plot and a well-paced story. The very first step to producing that is to set the scene. Here are a couple of important questions you should address in the first few chapters. What time period are we reading in? This is sometimes obvious, because your character has a smart phone, or your villain is captain of the jousting team, but sometimes it isn’t that easy. Give away hints to what time period this story is based in. For example, do they live in a cobblestoned village and the neighbours wear corseted dresses with braided hair? Or does your character wear a toga and lead the Roman army’s fourth legion? Where in the world are we? Are we reading from the depths of the African savannah, or are we in Egypt and marrying a pharaoh? Are we on Earth or do we hail from another galaxy altogether? These facts are important, and again, in some instances they’re easy to spot, but other times you have to give big hints and set the scene accordingly. You don’t have to give it away by starting your book like this: “In London, England 1654 …” You could describe the setting, the characters, a major event, or have the character do something time-period related (think chamber pots). Be creative, it’s why you’re a writer!
Goals and Direction
Make sure that your story has a goal and a direction. There’s nothing worse than reading about characters that do nothing but wonder around your created world for the entire book and achieve nothing. Identify the problem at the beginning of the book, for example, a boy whose parents died when he was a baby and he’s stuck with an aunt and uncle who hate him and an ugly scar on his forehead that makes him stand out wherever he goes. That way, when you come to writing the middle of the book, you’ll know what direction you want your characters to take. In this case, watching Harry develop friends, family, and a real home, while learning about his past and developing a future. It’s much more interesting to read about characters that become a hero, fall in love, beat a crippling mental health disorder, or anything really, as long as your story has a goal and/or a direction to go in.
What if I don’t have a goal? Good question! There is usually a goal, even if you don’t know what it is. Try to identify it as soon as you can. What is her reason to fight? Why does he cry? Why doesn’t he belong anywhere? Ask yourself why you created your character and what their purpose is. Now that you’ve identified that, dig deep and expand! You want the action to build overtime and slowly pull the reader further towards the edge of their seat, until bam! You’ve reached the climax of the story.
Building the Action
This is the ascending part of the story. You want to build the tension, the characters, the relationships, move the plot forwards, and reveal more about the secrets of the world and the characters. It’s easier to focus on the goal and direction you created earlier, that way you keep the story on track. This is the section that’s easiest to get lost in and start creating characters that don’t serve a purpose, subplots that hinder the story’s rhythm, scenes that ruin the pace, etc. This section should be all about moving your characters towards their goal and developing them at the same time. Think about Lord of the Rings, the first book focuses on the formation of The Fellowship of the Ring and the overall goal is to destroy the ring and save the world. That is always the main goal of the story, and the author constantly drives towards that. However, along the way, lots of hurdles and obstacles hinder them and the characters deviate and all, eventually, play an important part in saving the world. Their personalities and characters develop overtime as well, which is a lovely thing to read about and keeps the reader invested in the character’s journey.
Pace is really important here, as it should slowly increase as you get further towards the climax. The amount of action and/or emotional scenes should increase and your characters should be tested harder and more frequently.
This is the pivotal moment of your book. The moment when she realises she needs to move on from this toxic relationship; the moment your character puts on their armour and fights for the freedom of the enslaved races. At this point in the story your reader should be on the edge of their seat with anticipation, anxious if she’ll make it out of the relationship okay, or terrified that you might kill off their favourite character in the battle. It should be fast-paced, keep the reader hooked throughout, full of action or other intense scenes, and never deviate from the main goal (stay focused!).
That being said, there are plots that have multiple points of view, which can make staying on track and keeping the pace really hard. Here, it’s important to make sure you treat each point of view as an individual story, so that their pace increases together and leaves the reader wanting more from that character every time you switch to someone else. This will keep the reader interested and should help you keep the pace fast-moving and tension-building.
Here it is! They’ve won the battle, she’s freed herself from his controlling clutches, and now you need to leave the reader satisfied and needing more. This is make or break for most stories. If you don’t leave a good enough hook, the reader won’t bother coming back, but if you don’t leave a good enough ending and resolution to your story, you risk pissing off the reader and making them stay away from your writing forever… I know, it’s intense stuff, but the balance is totally manageable. It will vary story-to-story, but there are some basic facts that should help any book.
Every story must solve the initial problem, that is absolutely vital. It doesn’t matter that your book will have a sequel or many sequels, you need to end your book with the initial problem solved. Of course you can create subplots and leave some things unanswered, or maybe your ending created another problem that you’ll solve later. That’s fine, but the problem that you identified earlier must be solved. For example, maybe that toxic relationship is over and she’s safe for now, but she still has many other battles to fight. Maybe she wants to patch things up with her sister and you can leave the story with her nervously returning home. Maybe the battle was won, but your character has realised that someone else was pulling the strings and those enslaved races are far from permanently free. You could leave the story with the character heading west towards the freelands, hoping for information on this greater evil.
EDIT: So, I’ve been reading through some of my articles lately, and I wanted to add a little something to this one about resolutions. If you are creating a serialised story, where you tell one story over seven novellas, for example, you can get away with not solving the initial issue so long as you leave readers satisfied. That being said, do not make the reader wait for more than a month or two before releasing the next instalment, otherwise they’ll likely lose interest. But, for most novels and stories, a solid resolution is needed.
That’s it! That’s the basics of story development. If you’ve done all those things then you’re on the right track to creating an amazing and engaging story. I stuck with the same two examples throughout this blog to try and demonstrate the variety within story development, but it can be much wider than I presented here. If you’re uncertain about any of this within your story, then try hiring a development editor! The next in the series will be Character Development 101! So stay tuned for that.