Monday, 21 July 2014

Build a Story, but Leave the Door Open



People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to others.

Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don't know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that's what draws our attention.

When writing a story it is just the same, although often it may not feel like it.


When somebody says something like, "You won't believe what happened at work today" you have no idea what they’re going to tell you, but you’ve been primed to expect something out of the ordinary. This is enough to trigger the basic human desire to know things which are new, unexpected or surprising. 

This is what makes it a story and not just a list of information.

The key underlying structure is this: Things don't go as expected.

As long as things don't go to plan, the reader will want to know what the character is going to do about it. This doesn't mean that a guy visiting his wife at Nakatomi Plaza has to discover the building’s been taken over by terrorists (although it is very inconvenient when that happens). The unexpected thing that happens can be big or small depending on the story and the characters. Watching a character deal with a situation they are not prepared for is very engaging.

But the unexpected is merely the invitation, you still have to get the reader through the door.

If Mary has been dumped by her boyfriend who is going away to college, and she's upset about it, and her friends are trying to console her, that is a narrative. Things haven't gone to plan for her, but this is still quite a dull story because apart from having a good cry she isn’t planning to do anything about her predicament.

The fact that the reader can see all parts of the situation, and understand them, means there is no reason to go into it any further. This kind of story will appeal to people who happen to be interested in overly emotional scenarios that produce a physical response in them. Like with porn. The story doesn't need a strong narrative because that's not the purpose of the story.

But if Mary's boyfriend has dumped her and started going out with Mary's recently divorced mother, and Mary is upset by that, then that is a much more interesting story for this reason: Mary will have to do something about it.

He isn’t just disappearing, leaving her with a vacuum within which she has an infinite range of options (including doing nothing), he’s upstairs banging mom.

Things can't remain as they are so the reader knows there's more to come. But they don't know how it'll turn out. They don't even know what they would do in that situation. Even though they completely understand the predicament they don't have a list of possible solutions the way they do with most situations.

For the story to work best not only must things not go as expected, the way they do go has to be unexpected. Because solving a simple problem is easy.

"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."

"I know, I've lost my keys. Have you seen them?"

As you can see the options are fairly simple and well known. If he can't find is keys, he will have to make other arrangements. The reader might not know exactly how the scene will proceed, but they have a pretty good idea of the options available.

"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."

"I know, a monkey just stole my passport. Did you see him?"

Because the reader has no idea what they would do in this situation they will be willing to keep reading. Not that you should introduce a monkey into every story (although it can't hurt).

It is important to remember that the scale of the problem does not necessarily relate to the level of interest of the reader.

Somebody who puts out a massive oil fire because they know what they're doing and things go smoothly, is going to be of very limited interest to people.

Somebody who runs out of milk on a Sunday night when all the local stores are closed and his ex-girlfriend, who thinks he can never get himself together, is coming round, poses a much more engaging problem. Especially as the neighbours won't talk to him since he accidentally killed their cat...

In summary:

1. Establishes the significance of each scene to the story.

2. Make sure things don't go to plan.

3. The unexpected always grabs the attention. But don't overdo the monkeys (unless you really like monkeys).

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
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A longer, more rambling version of this post first appeared in February 2011. Yes, even more rambling than this.

12 comments:

Jay Noel said...

I love monkeys! But not enough to derail my story.

The story can take unexpected turns, as long as it's within the scope of the plot. Unless your story takes place on the Planet of the Apes.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Or you can stick them in a ship with a monkey and shoot them into space. (Works with cartoons...)
As always, it has to force the characters to move forward.
Upstairs banging mom - that gave me a good chuckle!

Catherine Stine said...

Great advice. It should be totally unexpected yet have a sense that--ah!--that was inevitable. Love the monkey pix too!

mooderino said...

@Jay - yes, there's unexpected and then there's whoa, what the hell are you talking about!

@Alex - nothing as boring as a character who's just hanging out.

@Catherine - they take over the planet you know.

Anne Gallagher said...

Love the banging mom... totally unexpected.

Usually I start a fire, or blow something up. That will give me, my characters and my readers something to chew on for a chapter or two. Definitely not boring.

Lady Lilith said...

Making things not go as planned is harder then it looks but it can make a great story.

Chemist Ken said...

Good advice, although now I can't stop thinking about monkeys... in castles... with magic wands. Hmmm......

mooderino said...

@anne - definitely not.

@Lilith - harder but more interesting.

@Ken - who couldn't use a little monkey magic?

LD Masterson said...

Can you have too many monkeys? How about if the boyfriend threw over his girlfriend for a monkey instead of mom?

Never mind...I'm obviously writing this comment too late at night.

mooderino said...

@LD - the age old problem of the other monkey...

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood...

Terrific advice here. Always keep them guessing! Or at least try your damnedest ....

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Keep the reader guessing? I suppose the quickest route to a snooze fest are actions that are extremely predictable.

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