Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Strength of a Story

I’ve read poorly written books with fantastic stories and I’ve read beautifully written books with unsatisfying stories. Which one would I recommend to others? The one with the great story. The same thing goes for a movie. The film might have breath-taking imagery, it might have amazing special effects, but if the story is lacking, then I won’t come away feeling satisfied.

Because story is so important, it needs attention. It can start with a single idea, but then we need to build up the inspiration, develop the characters, discover the setting, decide on a pace. We need to ask ourselves, does my story have a punchy beginning? Have I given it a satisfying end?

On top of all that, a story will only stay strong if it doesn’t wander off the track without reason. In other words, no part of the piece should ever exist outside the story. In my latest WIP I wrote an amusing scene. It flowed beautifully, it made me laugh, but it had a fatal flaw. It didn’t add anything to the story. After much angst, I had to let the scene go.

It takes courage and practise to keep a story tight. This doesn’t mean it has to be simple, but it does have to have focus.

How do you develop story? Do you have the beginning and end in your head before you even start? Or is it a slow process involving much gnashing of teeth?


  1. You are so right. I don't want to sit through a visually stunning movie with no plot, so why would I want to read a book that's missing a plot. I'd even argue that the words aren't beautiful if they're not doing to their part to move the story forward.

    It's hard to cut scenes so I feel your pain.

  2. Oh, I absolutely hate scenes which appear in a book without adding a thing to the story.
    This often happens when a self-observed writer thinks he or she should put all the possible details from his or her own life and experience in a book. And it's rarely interesting :)
    I'm currently translating a book about women who ended up in the sultan of Brunei's harem, and the book is full of unnecessary details. Even though we wanna hear about the sultan and her sex adventures there, she keeps describing her New Jersey dysfunctional Jewish family, how she listens to Led Zepelin etc.

  3. I'm struggling with my ending. I don't want a cute wrap-up-- I want it true to the story or it would disappoint not only the reader by myself as well.

  4. Theresa, you made a very good point: the words aren't beautiful unless they serve a greater purpose. Story is everything.

    Dezzy-baby-hun, It's easy to throw in everything and so very difficult to be strong enough to cut those unnecessary scenes. It's why we need critique partners who have that distance from the piece to be able to tell us where the fat needs trimming.

  5. Terri, I find writing endings the hardest -- probably because I know how much they matter. It's the last impression you leave with the reader. Wishing you the best of luck (and skill and perseverance) to get the right ending.

  6. i find it easier to write all the ideas down and edit them out later... but that's proabably why i'm stuck in rewrites and edits... :)

  7. This is such a thoughtful post on staying focused and disciplined with your story! In my current wip I had the beginning, I had the characters I wanted to populate my story, but I had a very vague idea of the plot nor the ending so I just pantsed it! It's only now as I edit that I'm suffering the consequences of these major flaws! It's a steep learning curve for me!

    Take care

  8. Aspiring, yep, I used to do that, but I'm not a fan of massive rewrites so now I pre-outline. Of course, sometimes when I do write it all out the outline no longer works hahahaha.

    Old Kitty, the best thing I ever leaned about writing is the joy of outlining. It's not always 100% successful, but there is less chance of major rewrites. That has to be a good thing ;)

  9. I do a bit of both- I can plot all the way to the end, then after I'm done I have to go back and add some drive and other fun stuff

  10. I've done similar things with scenes that add nothing to the story. It's a shame, since some things were good, but without enriching the story they were useless. A shoddy story can be seen even through great writing.

  11. I do much 'teeth gnashing' when writing. I'm considered a 'panster' when I write. Letting the story unfold while I write is what I've always done, although it tends to lead to more editing in the end, but having tried to plot out a story and all its visual scenes made it dull and predictable for me. Yet, I critique and beta read for writers who plot everything and their MS's are so visually enticing I couldn't imagine creating the worlds they have!

  12. Regarding your first sentence, I've read those too. And I love, love, love, a good story. I don't care if a writer follows the rules, just tell me a good story.

  13. My teeth are safe. LOL

    I write and develop as I go, cutting into a different word document to store important information and ideas. When I have a good idea of the character and their personality, I'll look up that character in 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt and add traits that will be sure to make the character more 3 dimensional.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  14. The piece I'm currently working on began with a single concept and unfolded from there. Since then, my path has changed many times, but I've remained true to the original message I wanted to get across. I agree that the story is the most crucial component to both books and movies. I'm trying to keep my initial focus on the events and characters; the actual writing can be adjusted later.

  15. Ah yes, the story. It's really what I need in any media, be it TV, books, games, art, and sometimes music.
    I haven't read them, but I hear that Twilight was famous for story instead of writing as well.

  16. My nano story had the two main characters and the ending before it had anything else....

    It currently has some pretty terrific bones, it just needs to be fleshed out and toned up. I hope!

    This weekend will be the beginning of the editing process.

    What about books that get tons of hype....and are harder to get into than WalMart the day after Thanksgiving? I've bought a few of those and they're just gathering dust.....

    Great points!!!

  17. Ah, the beauty of an outline. I have the beginning and the ending in my head the whole time. Filling in the tidbits in-between can be a bit challenging at times, and sometimes the ending doesn't necessarily come out exactly as I had envisioned. But then that's why I have an outline in place so I know the direction of my story and I just don't wander all over the place. Otherwise, I'd be writing a lot of those 'going nowhere' scenes! ; )

    ♥ Mary Mary

  18. Ohhh, I hate letting go of beautifully written scenes.

    I do a little of both knowing what I want and gnashing of teeth. Somewhere I hope there is a great story in there. =)

  19. I try to get the begining and end clear in my mind before I start the story. It may change after several rewrites, but the basic idea is in my mind when I start a new book or story.

    Like you, I edited out a scene in my current WIP, because I later realized it did nothing for the story.

  20. I loved this thoughtful post and I admire the way you were able to kill your darlings when it added nothing to the story. I do a bit of plotting, but my stories can develop in all interesting directions and yes, I have to keep an eye on my darlings!

  21. I agree 100%. That's one reason I've started feeling frustrated with some of my favorite authors. It's like they're running out of stories and just fill their word quotas with filler. Grrrr.

  22. I'm learning this lesson at present. I've had to cut out like...5 chapters of 'backstory'! Now I think my beginning is really starting to shape up. Thankfully I'm not nearly as worried about the middle/end.

  23. I agree - I'd rather have a strong story (LoTR - I'm looking at you... hard read sometimes, but fabulous story!) I know I certainly need to tighten my own stories - they tend to lose focus, and perhaps that has to do with the way they start. If you can believe it - many of my stories start with a title. Then comes an idea about that title. Then I write down the first name that comes to mind and it (he/she) becomes my MC. Perhaps not the most focused way to write... but (sort of) works for me.

  24. I can commiserate with cutting lovely scenes. I've tossed entire chapters for the same reason.

    I usually have to know what my purpose is when starting a novel. In other words, I need to know what I'm writing toward. Otherwise, I feel it is an aimless mess.

  25. I actually have the opposite issue. Everything I wrote adds to the story, but draft one was bare bones only.

    Now I have to add in...


  26. I like endings with a bit of suspense, not necessarily open ending, sore of happy but with a bit of : "hm... what if?" :-)

    Very educative post.


  27. I agree. A lot of arists are butchering the narrative angle of their movie/film, in an "aesthetic research". Jean-Luc Godard would be the greatest culprit. Sometimes he's amazing though, but most of the time, it's just a low rumble of intellectual quotations.

    I respect any form of art, but I respect narrative art more than any other form. Narration is used to spread ideas through the masses and to me, that's the magic of fiction.

  28. So true! I have to remind myself to focus through the first draft. Right now I'm revising, and cutting things that don't strengthen the story.

  29. Wow, how brave of you to "kill your darling"!! I have trouble doing that...but if a writer doesn't, the editor or agent will!

    I agree about storyline being the most important--and character, too. An example that comes to mind in movies is Star Wars Episode I in which it had wonderful special effects and scenery, but fell flat on story and character.

  30. These are great tips, thanks for sharing.

  31. Summer, yes, I think it's important to remain flexible because sometimes the story tells us to go in a different direction.

    Jamie, yes and yes!It's sometimes difficult to get rid of those scenes, but it's so important.

    Nathalie, it's always a matter of finding what works for you :)

    Happy Whisk, to me, a good story is the most important part

  32. Nancy, interesting. I'll have to check out that book you mentioned.

    Paul, yes exactly. The actual writing CAN be adjusted, but if we don't have that solid foundation of story first, then no matter how much we edit, we won't get it right.

    Hanny, I hadn't thought of music needing story, but it's true. Story based music is what I respond to the most.

  33. Words Crafter, many of the prize winning books I've found are like the ones you mentioned. They have that literary quality that impresses but lack a pacy story. Best of luck with the start of your editing!

    Mary Mary, That's what I found. My endings are rarely exactly as I had first planned. And an outline definitely helps me to keep focussed too.

    Carolyn, knowing and gnashing...familiar territory ;)

  34. Rachna, chopping scenes is difficult, yet necessary.

    L'Aussie, ah, those poor darlings. We can't let them run rampant ;)

    Clarissa, yes!!! wholeheartedly agree.

    Trisha, congrats for doing the necessary cuts! It will always be hard to cut out that much but the end result is so worth it.

  35. Donea, I like the way you approach your stories. Starting with a title is cool. I'll have to give that a go some time.

    M Pax, knowing the purpose before starting is a great help. An enormous help, actually.

    Misha, If the bones are solid, then it might be easier to do it that way ;)

    Doris, I like those type of endings too.

  36. Ben, love the "low rumble of intellectual quotations". it's so true -- many writers think it should be about the art. Yes, there is a place for that kind of writing, but it's not where I wish to go with my own writing.

    Julie, best of luck with your revisions. It's hard work.

    Carol, hehe so true. The editor/agent will not be so gentle (which is a good thing - but it's better if we do the cutting first). Great example too. So true.

    Toyin, thanks :)

  37. Hey, Lynda! This post holds a lot of truth to it. I think that if it doesn't have to do with the story it has to be let go, even if it was one of your favorites. It's hard, trust me, I know, but it's got to be done.

    As for how I develop a story, I start with a simple idea and when I'm ready to tackle that idea I stare at the blank page and write what the characters are telling me to write. They are the things that move the story along while I just listen and type their parts of the story. It's not quick, but it's not a slow process either. It takes time, but eventually sets its own pace and you get a feel for how the characters faced certain dilemmas. Write what you feel is absolutely necessary first. Then, go over it and edit out the parts that don't really add to the story because you don't want to go off any tangents with the reader.

    Anyway, enough of my side of the writing experience, you go ahead and do what you do best and that is: write on!

  38. I love the first line of your post, it is so true.

    Yes, story supersedes everything, and a good editor would point that out. Our inner editor should be able to do that as well.

    Thanks for this post.

  39. Yep, it is difficult, but it definitely makes me feel less 'weighed down' with extra words I don't need ;)

  40. I always try to keep my end game in mind from the beginning.

  41. Vatche, I do a lot of staring at the blank page ;) But, yes, it is a slow process and one full of discovery.

    Damyanti, my inner edit won't shut up sometimes ;)

    Trisha, good way to put it: 'less weighed down.

    Melissa, I try too, but it doesn't always work out that way ;)


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