While the focus here at FtQ is on the first page, my focus as an editor and an author is on the whole thing—the story. One of my favorite “coaches,” Steven James, lays out the 5 essential story ingredients in a Writer’s Digest article, and I encourage you to take a look. Here are the ingredients and a little taste:
At its heart, a story is about a person dealing with tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. Without forces of antagonism, without setbacks, without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret, then, to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is not to make more and more things happen to a character, and especially not to follow some preordained plot formula or novel-writing template. Instead, the key to writing better stories is to focus on creating more and more tension as your story unfolds.
Ingredient #1: Orientation
For example, if you introduce us to your main character, Frank, the happily married man next door, readers instinctively know that Frank’s idyllic life is about to be turned upside down—most likely by the death of either his spouse or his marriage. Something will soon rock the boat and he will be altered forever. Because when we read about harmony at the start of a story, it’s a promise that discord is about to come. Readers expect this.
Typically, your protagonist will have the harmony of both his external world and his internal world upset by the crisis that initiates the story. One of these two imbalances might have happened before the beginning of the story, but usually at least one will occur on the page for your readers to experience with your protagonist, and the interplay of these two dynamics will drive the story forward.
Ingredient #3: Escalation
If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape.
Always in a story, your main character needs to be a putty person.
When you throw him into the crisis of the story, he is forever changed, and he will take whatever steps he can to try and solve his struggle—that is, to get back to his original shape (life before the crisis).
But he will fail.
Ingredient #4: Discovery
In one of the paradoxes of storytelling, the reader wants to predict how the story will end (or how it will get to the end), but he wants to be wrong. So, the resolution of the story will be most satisfying when it ends in a way that is both inevitable and unexpected.
Ingredient #5: Change
Think of a caterpillar entering a cocoon. Once he does so, one of two things will happen: He will either transform into a butterfly, or he will die. But no matter what else happens, he will never climb out of the cocoon as a caterpillar.
So it is with your protagonist.
I have Steven’s craft book, Story Trumps Structure, and think it has valuable insights, especially for “organic” or pantser writers like me. Visit the article and see if you gain any insights.
For what it’s worth.
© 2017 Ray Rhamey
My books. You can read sample chapters and learn more about the books here.
Writing Craft Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling
Fantasy (satire) The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles
Mystery (coming of age) The Summer Boy
Science Fiction Hiding Magic
Science Fiction Gundown Free ebooks.