by Gina Burgess
I thought every author knew the crucial elements of a story until I read a book the other day that read like the author was writing by plucking words from the clouds. (Uh uh! I’m not telling who it was that wrote it – and it wasn’t any of my clients, either). The story had no flow and read like a litany of strung together facts without any rhyme or reason. There was no character development, no turning point, and the climax to the “story”, which si supposed to be surprising and exciting (or at the very least much anticipated) was only implied not shown. Talk about flat. F-L-A-T.
Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or a joke, all stories must have a character that you care about (or at least can identify with), a turning point, and a climax. If you don’t have all three of these things then the story falls flat. It doesn’t work, and the reader won’t come back for any more drivel, which is what has been produced.
When an author creates a character that you really care about, you will invest in the story. There are many ways to make readers care about your characters especially when the reader identifies with something the character is struggling with that makes him or her vulnerable, crazy, funny, or in danger. But you have to create that bridge that will open the reader’s mind to caring about the character. You have to develop the character’s humanity so it’s possible to care about him. Dialogue is an integral part of that. But we’re going to discuss other aspects of story and character development.
Now a character doesn’t have to be human for readers to care about her or him. And when I say caring about—it doesn’t necessarily mean having the warm fuzzies about him. You can create a character so detestable that your reader will keep reading just to see that character gets his just desserts! Please, don’t side-step that event or your reader will feel cheated.
The story develops from the decisions and actions of the main character. This happens regardless of story structure because you can have an environment, an event, or an idea, but without a character you’ve got a story dam not story flow.
Let’s talk a minute about the structure of a story.
The structure of story includes environment or setting stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, or Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Innerspace where the setting drives the story. The story begins in Innerspace when Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan are reduced in size to fit in a pill and swallowed by a patient. It ends when the characters come out of the patient. It is an environment driven story. The same with Gulliver’s Travels. The story is about all the strange lands that Gulliver visits and ends when he returns to England. It helps reader enjoyment when you have likable characters facing events/crisis together, but it isn’t crucial.
Structure includes idea stories such as a mystery where the characters seek information and that drives the story. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes stories are great examples. You even try to figure out the mystery by the time Holmes does, usually to no avail. The story is all about discovery.
Then there is the character driven story such as The Count of Monte Cristo and even Twelve Angry Men. Character driven stories are all about the characters’ motives, goals, their decisions, and how the results from their actions/thought processes change them.
The main character’s reactions to situations give great insight to the moral values of the character, therefore the reader can instantly recognize when a character acts/reacts out of character. The excellent author will carefully construct the plot so that characters grow/mature/change (for the better or for worse) all staying in believable realms of the character. He can start out a ruffian rascal and be changed by his desire, motivation, or even an event where he comes face to face with a clear picture of who he is. This is the turning point. But we’ll get to that later.
When Edmond Dantès is wrongfully sent to prison, he’s at first deeply angry at the betrayal. His anger is justified and believable. The reader is angry for him. His quest to learn all the skills his friend Abbé Busoni teaches him is also believable and it moves the reader to cheer for this betrayed young man. When the people who did this to him are drawn into destruction by their own wickedness, the reader cheers. But the Count agonizes over his own apparent acting like God as he rewards the kindness given himself and his father, and strikes the wicked with their own tools of wickedness. In the end, Dantès’ underlying moral fiber is not changed, but the lives of those who knew him before his imprisonment changed drastically according to their moral fiber.
And finally, there’s the event structure where the whole story is encased in an event, much like San Andreas or the reappearance of an adversary as in Lord of the Rings. In every event structured story, the previous tranquility is disrupted and the world descends into chaos, but that isn’t where the story begins. It begins when the character whose decisions/actions are crucial to restoring order is introduced. The reader does not need a prologue or chapter describing why the world fell apart. That can be revealed a little at a time as the main character finds out. It’s called drama, or more simply–anticipation.
In all structures, there can be numerous turning points. The crucial turning point is the one where the main character has to face the things learned, face how those things impact her, and make a decision to deal with the external conflict but only after realizing she has what she needs to overcome that external conflict. That means in character development that she has come face to face with her true self and acknowledges that she’s learned and/or acquired the skills to fight to the end, save the day, and save the world as she knows it.
That fight is the climax (and I’m not talking about fisticuffs, or swordplay, or guns, although those can be included in the climax). It is what the whole story has been building up to, and if you don’t have it, everything the reader has invested goes up in smoke. The author is vilified in reviews, and future books sales go up in smoke.
We all have a sense of justice built in. It’s why you hear, “That’s not fair!” shouted on the playground. We instinctively recognize right from wrong. When the build-up fractures to nothing without a resolution to the conflict, it’s like a yummy-looking, moist and chewy piece of chocolate cake that tastes like cardboard, or a joke without a punchline. Expectation and anticipation are deflated to a used, flat balloon.
How many used, flat balloons do you want to blow up?