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How To Liven Up Your Story

Fish in the Clouds by JJcanvasCharacter A goes to location B, takes action C, and achieves event D. This sentence might have the minimal elements of a plot but it’s not a story. A story grabs you, pulls you in. A story has ups and downs, a plot that twists and turns, it has surprises and drama, it has action and heart. It’s easy for anyone to come up with a basic outline for a story, a vague summary of events where good triumphs over evil, but when it comes to writing it, to actually telling the story, there’s so much more to it.

It’s not enough to cast your characters and have them make a beeline for whatever quest they’re set on. That kind of straight line plotting leads to bland and generic storylines. Nothing should ever be that simple in a book, at least not if you want to keep people interested. The story should grow organically as you write it, branching out through the world of the novel. The line of your story arc can go off in odd tangents, twisting and warping into brand new shapes, so long as it doesn’t spoil the pacing. The key skill is to try and make every part of the story interesting, to never let a chapter or scene be dismissed as “filler,” you can tell the great writers by the way they make a character going to get coffee something you want to read.

Economy by Marko-DjurdjevicThe easiest way to liven up a story or scene is to add conflict, it can be as simple as having your hero squabble with a stubborn shopkeeper over prices, or as epic as two great armies clashing. A bloody clash will always have an impact, but that stubborn shopkeeper with the quirk about selling his last pair of travelling boots also has the potential to stick with the reader and provide a moment of levity. It doesn’t even have to be an external conflict; it might be within the mind of your characters, in the form of phobias or neuroses. A writer can make even a seemingly pedestrian task into a riveting mini story.

Imagine our hero needs to travel to the next town, his hand freezes as he reaches for the reins of a horse, remembering a time in his childhood where he fell from the saddle, got his foot caught in the stirrup and got dragged across several acres of farmland. He’s afraid it will happen again, sweat beading on his forehead. Let me tell you a secret, it does. But as our hero wrestles with the galloping stallion he manages to overcome childhood fears and pull himself back into the saddle, ready to save the day and with a much more interesting journey for the reader to enjoy. That, or he arrives very bruised and irritable, still good.

lost by ultracoldBut that isn’t the only trial our hero will face, I’m afraid he’s doomed to suffer a series of unfortunate events because that’s what makes a story. If he had an easy ride to the climax of his quest the reader would feel cheated. As the writer, it’s your job to make the poor guy work for it. Throw obstacles in his path at every point, give him lousy weather, bad roads, supply shortages (damn shopkeepers), anything that will slow him down. The introduction of setbacks helps build the narrative, while the way your hero reacts to them develops his character. Again, the stakes can be high or low, it can be a minor hindrance, or something so soul-crushing you wonder how the hero will ever recover.

I recently read a novel where after the characters had been through hell trying to achieve their goal, they return home only to find the place in ruins, their queen kidnapped and everything falling apart on them. Because I had developed a relationship with the characters on their previous mission, with all its setbacks and trying moments, the sudden shock of events made a real impact and I felt for the protagonists.

Watching the characters suffer successive kicks to the teeth can help to create empathy and bond the reader to the character. It’s also a perfect plot device if things seem a bit slow or quiet. A sudden problem can quicken the pace of the story and help move the narrative along. If your characters ever seem complacent, if ever they have time for a mug of ale in a tavern, that’s your cue for something to go horribly, horribly wrong. Sebastien De Castell’s Greatcoats series is a good example of this, just when you think that things can’t get worse, or that it might be turning in favour of good guys, Castell hits you with something else.

Calibration by Wildweasel339The use of subplots is a tried and tested technique across literature. No story is told in a vacuum, sure you characters might have a central quest to focus on, but the rest of the world doesn’t just stop (unless it’s really epic) while they do it. I mentioned the branching narrative earlier, mini stories can spin off as characters move through the world, spawned through interactions with people they meet, new events, even as a result of characters spending time together. Romance is a popular example of a subplot, in many books a reader can tell who the “love interest” will be when they’re a few chapters in.

These subplots can be connected to the greater plot or they can be unrelated. A subplot could be the personal motivations/plans of one of the protagonists, someone who only joined the main quest for the chance to advance their own goals. In a typical fantasy it could be a companion who wanted to save their home village or a loved one, briefly joining and aiding the main hero until their goals are met, though perhaps reappearing later in an hour of need. Or the subplot could be an event occurring in the world that the protagonists get drawn into during their adventures. If a group of heroes have to pass through a town, which is more interesting to read, an uneventful stopover, or a stay in a town pushed to the brink by a plague of mutant rats let loose by a careless dark lord?

Halls of Undermountain by BelibrSubplots help give a story depth and can be used to make your scenes more interesting. They’re perfect for tweaking a “downtime” moment where there is a pause between greater plot events. Something as simple as a rivalry between two of your characters can be used to make a sit down meal exciting to read while the author imparts some necessary plot information. A friendly rivalry at the start could become increasingly bitter as the story progresses, with the occasional scene moving the relationship along. You might choose to think of the various plots in the story with their own progress bar to the side, every opportunity you get to nudge one of the narrative strands along a few percentage points can add drama to a scene and make the story feel more immersive. For maximum impact the writer can work it so all the plot threads come together at the same time to create an epic climax to the story.

It’s important not to get bogged down with too many of these narrative tricks, otherwise your story will balloon into something bloated and sluggish, keep the pacing as tight as possible, remember the idea is to keep the reader interested. And yes there are other methods to liven up the story, I’ve written other articles on aspects of the craft like narrative voice and how it can be used to make a scene interesting, but this piece will hopefully aid you in scripting your novel and writing a thrilling story arc. In today’s world authors have to compete with a lot of other mediums for time, so it’s really important to make every line entertaining, because until they invent books with covers made of super glue, it’s up to you to make sure the reader can’t put it down.

Title image by dangercook.

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3 Comments

  1. Good stuff. I know that my favorite moments in any book tend to be those smaller ones where bits of character are revealed and we get to see how our heroes handle even more mundane situations. Final battles are great but most of my love for a character comes from the little things, like how they deal with a surly shopkeeper trying to rip them off. Give me quick moments of wit and wordplay, let me see how they handle an unexpected bar fight and the reprocussions it has. Give characters a chance to grow and express themselves beyond the major battles and plot points so we really feel like we’re on this journey with them.

  2. Sean says:

    Great article. As a matter of interest what is the name of the book that the main characters return home to find their home burned to ashes? I really like it when authors show that the kingdom/the hero’s home isn’t always save, and abandoning it for a quest can have consequences.

    • Aaron says:

      Fraid I can’t remember the name of the novel otherwise I would have said it in the article (got it from a library rather than buying it). And it wasn’t so much a home as a base of operations, rather than the hero’s kingdom that falls.

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