After I read those words about what makes a story, I started thinking about all the elements that really do make a story. How do you put words and thoughts together to produce something a reader can’t put down even though the clock says morning will come in a hurry. Is it the plot line? Could it be the story arc? Are the characters holding the reader’s attention—does he or she identify with them? The answer to all these questions is, “Yes, and—“
One of the first Christian writers’ conferences I attended was held at Mount Hermon, California. I could name all the great writers from whom I learned at that conference and later, and there were a lot of them, but I’d probably forget and leave someone out. Let’s just say that I owe any success I’ve enjoyed in my journey along this road to writing to lots of people. But let me focus on one person and one phrase because this helps illustrate the point I’m trying to make.
I asked Jeff Gerke to take a look at my work in progress and give me some suggestions to improve it. We sat down on a sofa in the lounge, and I began to sketch out what I visualized. Jeff listened attentively for a couple of minutes, and then said, “So what?”
I tried harder to explain what the novel was about, and again, Jeff said, “So what?”
This went on for ten or fifteen minutes, with me going into greater detail on the storyline, telling him more and more about all the things that were going to happen, and Jeff responding with those two words that, by now, infuriated me. “So what?”
Then, as though a light bulb had been lit above my head, I got it. What Jeff was saying was the same thing other mentors have said in different words. What was at stake? If the hero or heroine failed at their task, what would happen? And, just as important, would the reader care?
In his excellent book The Writer’s Journey, Vogler says that every good story, from the time of Beowulf onward, includes most of the twelve steps he lists. At the beginning, we see the problem or the prize that stands before the hero (and here I’ll use the masculine form but we’re talking heroine also). They must achieve a goal, overcome a flaw, learn a lesson, do something or there are consequences. In some of our stories, they must succeed or die. In others, they have to navigate stormy waters to achieve true love. But whatever the driving situation of the story, the reader must quickly see the answer to the question Jeff Gerke posed to me: “So what?”
Looking at it another way, the reader fairly quickly must be invested to the point that they are rooting for (or in rare cases, against) the central character. The goal must be one that’s fairly obvious, not only to the hero or heroine but also to the person reading about it. This brings up another characteristic of a great story, one that’s as important as “so what?” A good story must be populated by characters with whom the reader can readily identify.
In my case, romance doesn’t drive my story—suspense or mystery does. In my genre, the protagonist faces “death” in a number of ways—physical, emotional, or professional, to name the most common forms. In one of my books, the physician has allegedly made a mistake in a prescription that may kill a patient and/or cause the doctor’s suspension. In another, the female physician finds that someone wants to do away with her—but she doesn’t know who or why. In a third, the protagonist finds that her fiancé isn’t actually who he seems to be—he’s in the witness protection program, and his true identity can’t be leaked.
The stakes are such that if the hero or heroine doesn’t succeed, they’ll be “dead” in one of the ways I have listed. The problem may be presented fairly quickly, or if we are to follow the outline presented by Vogler, there may be an initial refusal before the protagonist’s hand is forced and the plot moves forward. But whenever and however it’s made clear, the goal must be achieved, or…so what?
Although I’m a confirmed devotee of “writing by the seat of my pants,” I generally start with a one-line hook: something like “A disillusioned sea captain continues his lifelong search for a white whale.” Then I populate the story with the hero and/or heroine as well as other major characters. I pick an inciting incident, craft what Jim Bell calls a “knockout ending,” and decide on a couple of twists along the way to keep the reader interested. These may change, but I can’t start a novel without them. And I’d recommend that—whether plotter or pantser—the individual who wants to write a compelling story do the same.
Sometimes after I’ve written several thousand words, I find that my opening scene or even the initial chapter don’t hold my attention, despite the brilliant prose I’ve written. So I look into the first several scenes or chapters, find one that grabs me, and (with a great deal of anguish) start over in media res. In other words, the best first scene is often the second or third scene, or even the second chapter. What went before can either be inserted as backstory or consigned to the trash bin, thus upholding the oft-repeated advice to “murder your darlings.” To reiterate, write something that will get your reader’s attention, even if it means starting over a couple of times. The end result will be worth it.
So, to review, I believe the keys to a successful story are these:
(1) “So what?” There has to be something at stake so that if the hero or heroine doesn’t succeed, they “die”—physically, emotionally, professionally, or whatever.
(2) Characters with whom the reader can identify, making a journey that counts. We’re told that all protagonists are flawed, and the transition they make as the novel progresses is something that keeps the readers engaged. I’d add that it’s not always the central character that changes the most.
3) The hand of God. I know this is trite, but I believe it is true. There are times when I go back and read one of my earlier novels and think, “I don’t remember writing this—but it’s good.” Then it dawns on me—as Mother Teresa said, I am but a pencil in the hand of a writing God. And that’s an honor I feel fortunate to have. My prayer is that you will have that same honor. Now go write.
But first, tell me this—what do you think makes a story great?
* * *Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical suspense with heart.” His previous novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, the Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year, the Inspirational Readers Choice, and the Selah Award. He is a proud member of the ACFW, the International Thriller Writers, the Christian Authors Network, and the FHL chapter of the RWA. Cardiac Event will be his eleventh published novel.
You can learn more about him at his website, his blog, his Facebook fan page and/or his Twitter page.
Seekerville is giving away a print or ebook copy of Richard's latest release, Medical Judgement to one commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
Someone is after Dr. Sarah Gordon. It’s been tough trying to recover from the traumatic deaths of her husband and infant daughter, but now someone is stalking her and has even set fire to her home. Her late husband’s best friend and a recovering alcoholic detective assigned to the case are both trying to solve the mystery, but both are also vying for her affections. No wonder she continues to live in fear and distrust with her only help coming from unreliable suitors. As the threats on her life continue to escalate, so do the questions: Who is doing this? And why? And how will her faith help her through this time in her life?