Have you ever read a book that just fell flat?
The author didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. They created strong characters, killer conflict and a clever plot, beautiful scene descriptions, and so on. But still the book fell short for you, and you just can’t place your finger on what could have made the story more dynamic.
“Eh, it was just a bit formulaic,” you say when a friend asks how you enjoyed your latest read.
Today, I’m here to make the case that disappointing stories aren’t the result of sticking too closely to story structure (or to any other established writing techniques, for that matter), but rather sticking too closely to the basics of those techniques.
Vague statement. I know.
But I’m going to explain everything you need to know about how we, as authors, can move beyond the basics and elevate our stories into a realm of dynamism that will knock our readers’ socks off.
The Mind versus the Muse…
Writing a novel is an art form, true enough. But it’s also a craft, and excelling in any craft involves understanding and learning its core techniques.
In other words, if you want to be a good writer, you can’t lean too heavily on inspiration (ah, that beloved muse!) for success. But neither can you place all of your eggs in technique’s basket.
You need to find a balance between utilizing established storytelling formulas and infusing your stories with your own intrigue and flair. That is how you write incredible stories. But easier said than done, right?
Today, we’re going to skip right over what happens when you lean too heavily on the muse (hint: you’re not too likely to finish a manuscript anytime soon), and dive straight into how surface-level craftsmanship can lead to lackluster stories…and how to fix that!
Let's begin by making sure we all have a solid understanding of storytelling basics...
(Psst! Even if you feel like you know this stuff, make sure to skim this next section because we’re going to build off it when we get into the meat of today’s lesson.)
Examining the Basics of Storytelling
Every good story is built of the back of a solid story structure. And though there are plenty of story structures out there to explore (might I suggest checking out this one or these three?), almost every formula centers on a few basic elements:
1. A Main Character. A good story is led by a main character, through whose actions a theme or moral is explored.
2. A Goal. The main character must want something. Whether they start out with a specific goal or whether they’re drawn unwillingly into events that force a goal upon them, the main character’s goal is what will hook readers into the story.
3. A Motivation. The main character must also have a reason for wanting to achieve their goal. This motivation provides readers with an empathetic connection that keeps them emotionally invested in the story.
4. A Plan. The main character should also have a plan to achieve their goal. These action steps provide the story with much-needed forward momentum.
5. Conflict. Finally, every good plot needs some sort of antagonistic force. Be they a villain, an inner demon, or something else entirely, an antagonistic force creates the conflict needed to maintain readers’ interest and build edge-of-their-seats suspense.
If a writer’s story features these five key elements, they are bound to hook readers in and continue to intrigue them. Add in solid pacing, strong primary and secondary characters, and quality prose, and you’ll end up with a pretty good story.
Good enough to read, and maybe even good enough to publish.
But, while there’s nothing wrong with a good story, wouldn’t you rather write a sensational story? Me, too! That why it’s high time we discussed how to elevate our stories to the next level…
The Psychology Behind a Dynamic Story...
The key to creating a dynamic story lies in adding just the right amount of complexity. How many times do situations in our own lives turn out to be more complex than anticipated? I know I’ve said, “Ugh, it shouldn’t be this hard,” a few hundred times more than necessary.
So what exactly does the right amount of complexity look like? Well, in my opinion, it boils down to one storytelling technique that you may or may not be familiar with: the Lie your character believes.
Allow me to explain.
Your character’s goals and motivations are often more complicated than just “this is what I want and why I want it”. In fact, they should be more complex. Life just isn’t that simple.
As humans, we often want things without knowing why we want them, without understanding the deeper motivations that drive us to take action. Take, for example, the art of shopping...
How many times have you (or has someone you know) gone to your local Target to pick up laundry detergent and a bag of chips only to walk about with three new shirts, a throw rug, some nail polish, and no chips?
You didn’t go into the store for those items, so why did you buy them? It wasn’t because you truly, honestly needed them.
To make a very realistic mountain out of a molehill, you likely bought those extraneous items because there was some part of your life you were unsatisfied with, and the pleasure of purchasing something new served as a temporary salve.
Until you looked at your bank statement, that is.
At the end of the day, most of us–and by extension, most of our characters–are looking for two things: long-lasting satisfaction (be it happiness, retribution, closure, etc.) and purpose.
We oftentimes aren’t willing to get honest with ourselves, to reflect on our true needs, and to take steps to actively better the unsatisfied parts of our lives, especially when they involve other people or our own wrongdoings.
Because life is hard enough without having to make deep, meaningful changes, right?
That’s why so many people look to temporary salves–be it excessive shopping, alcohol, greed, etc–in order to find the satisfaction and purpose that can only be achieved by getting what they really need, not what they want.
And THAT, my friends, is where the Lie your character believes comes into play.
Exploring the Lie Your Character Believes
Let's take a look at The Hunger Games for example. (Mild spoilers ahead!)
After Katniss is drafted into The Hunger Games, she makes it her goal to survive. Her motivation lies in wanting to return home so she can continue caring for her mother and sister. Katniss believes that doing so will bring her long-lasting satisfaction (she survives to live another day) and purpose (she can continue to provide for those she loves).
But Katniss also believes a Lie.
The trauma of Katniss’s life–living in a poor, oppressed society, losing her father to a preventable mining accident, having to provide financially for her younger sister and grieving mother–taught her that her sole purpose in life is to care for those she loves.
That's why she hunts illegally for food, why she sells game on the black market, and why she's so motivated to win the Hunger Games. Because if she doesn’t survive, she believes her family will starve. Physically, yes, but also from the emotional trauma of losing her.
But there is more to Katniss’s life than just survival and the survival of her family. This is what she learns in the arena as she befriends and fails to protect Rue, as she nurses Peeta back to health, and is she is shown mercy by a fellow competitor.
It takes Katniss the full trilogy to finally overcome her LIE and learn what she actually NEEDS in order to find satisfaction and purpose.
But in the first book, Katniss does begin to learn the value of friendships, of letting others care for her on occasion, and of the power and purpose of fighting against oppression. Not just to survive, but to build a life in which she can thrive.
Defining the difference between your character's WANT and your character's NEED–as well as how their NEED will help them overcome the LIE that they believe–will help you create the truly dynamic story your readers are looking for.
Actively working these elements into your story will add to your main character’s internal conflict–the battles they face with their own doubts, flaws, and fears. And internal conflict not only adds intrigue and realism to your story, but it spills into the external actions your character takes as they work to achieve their goal.
And those external actions–many of which will lead your character closer to their goal but farther away from their need–will add more aggravating conflict, more suspenseful action, and more meaningful character development, all leading to a far more satisfying ending for your readers.
So let’s get actionable about this…
Okay, that’s a lot of information I just threw your way. Maybe even an overwhelming amount of information. Which is why we’re going to take these ideas and turn them into actionable steps for creating a more dynamic story.
I’ve got your back, my friend. Let’s begin:
Step #1. Define your plot basics.
You can’t start without the basics. Begin by asking yourself:
• Who is my main character?
• What do they want from life? (i.e. How to do they believe they can achieve long-lasting satisfaction and purpose in their lives?)
• What is their motivation? (i.e. Why do they want to achieve their goal?)
• How do they plan to achieve their goal? (i.e. What steps do they need to take?)
• Who or what is preventing my main character from achieving their goal and how are they/it doing so?
Step #2. Dive deeper.
It’s time to get dynamic by defining a few more elements. Ask yourself:
• What Lie does my character believe?
• What caused my character to begin believing this Lie?
• What does my character actually need to find satisfaction and purpose in life?
• What events might force my character to confront and possibly overcome their Lie?
• How can my character’s Lie play into the Dark Night of the Soul or the climax of my novel? (Check out this article for more info on those key story structure moments.)
• How will my character change after confronting their Lie and gaining their need?
Step #3. Implement these elements into your plot.
Actually taking these items and working them into your story is a bit tricky, especially because every story is different! This is where you will need to revert to your understanding of craft and study up on story structure.
By working with your character’s goal, motivations, lie, and need, you are essentially building a character arc (a storyline based on internal, emotional conflict) that will play along nicely with the plot arc of your story (the series of events featuring external conflict).
Sounds complicated, I know. But the more you get to know story structure, the easier it will be to implement what you’ve learned.
If you’re ready to dive deep into story structure, I recommend starting with this Well-Storied blog series on the 3-Act Story Structure, one of the most popular story structures in literature.
I also offer a guided workbook to help you explore your story, build seamless character and plot arcs, define your settings and themes, and so much more! It’s called The Pre-Write Project, and you can check it out here or by clicking on the image above.
Whew, we covered so much today friends. I know we dived deep into a few abstract concepts, so I hope those action steps helped you apply what we talked about to your stories.
Have any questions? Anything I can clear up? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be sure to help out however I can!