Readers expect engaging storytelling and may stop turning pages if you don’t give it to them. If you tend to hesitate in the creation of your story, here are some steps to take to make your stories bolder.
Start in the middle of the action.
This technique is so important it even has a Latin name: in medias res. This means starting your story at a particularly exciting moment, and then giving necessary background information in flashbacks or other forms of exposition.
Even if you don’t kick off your novel with a big action scene, draft one soon after you start your project. It will remind you of the level of tension you want. Remember, you can always revise and re-sequence your scenes.
Create crazy problems (and opportunities).
Generally your characters should have a tough time of it. So, ask yourself what can go wrong, from the mundane (flat tires) to the bizarre (turning into a giant cockroach) to the most creative (I’ll leave that up to you). Have fun with the problems you create for your characters. What, given the situation, would interfere most with your character’s current intentions? Perhaps she’s about to officiate at a wedding, but gets an uncontrollable case of the hiccups. Perhaps he’s running a race when he hears gunshots. Brainstorm to come up with several possibilities, then choose those that serve your story best. Warning: don’t give your characters so many trivial problems that you never get to the real action.
Life is great when we get along with people, but this is not true in literature! Your characters should have trouble with each other. Not with everyone, and not all the time, but more than you (I hope) experience in real life.
Conflict occurs when a pair of characters have wants such that cannot both be fulfilled. Your characters can have conflicts with each other, with city hall, with an organization, with another country, or even with their own society. Note that conflict can exist within the self – a person can have conflicting desires, such as wanting to be rich but not wanting to steal. Your characters become complex when they have conflicting desires.
Engage in confrontation.
Perhaps character A is in conflict with character B – but what does this mean for the story? At some point they should confront each other.
Confrontations are often major scenes, climaxes, so you want to make them as gripping as possible. What are the worst things that the characters can say to each other? Where would be the most embarrassing time and place for the confrontation? Should the peccadillos of the high school teacher be discussed in a private office, or should the information come out during a graduation ceremony?
Who comes out stronger during the confrontation? That depends where you are in the story. Perhaps it’s a draw; perhaps one side wins; perhaps one side seems to win but is not as well-positioned as they believe. Perhaps they even resolve their differences! Remember confrontations should provide your story with memorable scenes and fascinating consequences.
Find ways to show the most exciting stuff.
I’m working on the story about Clytemnestra, sister of the more famous Helen of Troy. The novel is in first person, which means Clytemnestra isn’t present at some well-known events – yet skipping those events would cheat the reader! I had to find some way around this. As Clytemnestra was known for her network of spies, I felt she could still talk with authority about events she did not witness personally, such as when Helen leaves Sparta to be with her lover Paris and how the Trojan Horse was built.
Your own approach depends on time, setting and inclination. Eavesdropping is a common trope, from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter. If your story is set in a modern era, you can use bugs and recording devices. Finally, you can incorporate more than one point of view. For example, in Andrew Weir’s The Martian, most of the story is told through the perspective of Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars, but the reaction of those on Earth is too good to leave out of the story.
Know when to show and when to tell.
How to show and how to tell are topics for another article, but the trick is to know when to show and when to tell. Some parts should be summarized and told; some should be skipped over entirely; and some should be shown in lavish detail so that the reader feels every flutter.
Good stuff happens, too.
This article has concentrated on things going badly – after all, fairy tales used to end with the phrase “they lived happily ever after” – implying that happily was not worth story time. However, unremitting badness makes for a depressing reading experience; sometimes your audience, or at least your characters, need a break. Besides, good stuff happening, or at least appearing to happen, can lead to the bad stuff. The day that Mark Watney was chosen for the team to Mars must have been a good day, and without that good day he would never have been stranded on Mars. Exercise extreme creativity in your good scenes as well – what unexpected great event would fulfil the heart’s desire of your protagonist?
Be fearless, be bold, and give your readers an experience that is as thrilling, moving and unforgettable as you can make it.