My son is a skilled storyteller. He has notebooks and online files bursting with magic and mystery. When he visits, I often sit like a child at his feet and beg him to read his latest chapter. He always indulges me, settling into his deep narrator voice. When he stops, I pry him for sneak peeks at what’s ahead because, like a soap opera, I long for the next part of the adventure.
Action scenes strap readers in for a thrilling ride—or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Every millisecond must be engaging and accurately portray what’s happening. If the action crawls, it loses its impact or, worse, readers’ interest. And if the action hits light speed, readers crave more details, similar to the dissatisfaction of eating a fun-size piece of chocolate instead of a whole candy bar.
Have you ever been writing a scene or chapter and something felt wrong? In the moment, you couldn’t name a specific detail that needed to be added, removed, or changed. That’s because singling out a problem as you’re pouring ideas onto the page is almost impossible. But even after you finished, you were still dissatisfied.
Meaningful stories leave you with memorable solutions to complex issues. A story shouldn’t stand behind a podium and spell out the lessons you’re supposed to learn from it. But it should tackle complicated questions and conclude after the characters have embraced (or, in some cases, rejected) the answers. That’s why resolution, the literary term for a story’s ending, contains the word solution.
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world. But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse. In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax.
“The first draft of a novel is supposed to be terrible.” We’ve all heard that charming advice, and it’s usually true. But why do many first drafts fail? Because writers lose steam halfway through. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve abandoned after hitting a rough patch somewhere between the midpoint and the final act. Only a handful of my novels have ever reached “the end,” and the most structurally sound one came from a short story.
Despite a writer’s best efforts to be original, familiar plot and scene devices often sneak in. But you’re not a bad writer just because your manuscript contains clichés. Writers with less experience or narrower reading lists are more prone to gravitate to common tropes—not because they lack talent, but because the situations, characters, and settings are new to them. If you’re struggling with this issue, don’t be discouraged. Your storytelling senses are not broken.
Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
When faced with an empty page, finding the ideal place to begin your story may seem impossible. The task can become such a burden that you might avoid starting altogether. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron summarizes the problem thus: “What, specifically, will happen to start the chain reaction that will cause everything to happen?” She’s describing what is often known as the hook. Because it’s the very first taste of your story, it can be the most difficult to determine.