Storytelling – A Beginner’s Guide #4: How To Build A Perfect Story

MikeachimStorytelling, The Everyday, Writing6 Comments

Train carriages passing - black and white

Want your story to be a runaway train that nobody can leap off until the end?

Here are 9 story elements that will hook your audience and take them on one hell of a ride.

A Word About “Perfect”

That’s always a stupid word to apply to the creative arts, and equally so here. When I say “perfect” I really mean, “a solid track-record of working effectively on people”. These are rules of writing in the best sense: ones that are meant to be understood, but not always followed. It’s really easy to go out into the world and find popular stories that lack any of these elements – but you can be damn sure their authors knew exactly what they were leaving out and why.


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BEGINNING

Go To Ground

Land them in the moment.

Grab ‘Em Hard

Make them hate you.

Be Inciteful

Break Bad.


Go To Ground

No hindsight, no analysis, just raw experience. Make them feel it. Good stories start in the thick of an experience, rich with sensual detail. If you pull your audience in, they feel like they’re having that experience – and you’ve got them. They can’t stop reading. Take 1984‘s opener: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Think about how much “bright cold” adds, and how sinister it makes “thirteen”. That’s the power of felt writing.

Grab ‘Em Hard

Ever read a story that gripped you from the first line? It probably did it with a moment of profound dramatic tension – or a mystery. It also probably gave you half of an ending, so you were left on the edge of your seat, ravenous for answers. Good fiction immediately give the reader compelling reasons to keep reading. With non-fiction, that starts at the headline – most notoriously the variety made popular by Upworthy. The first line is key. Could you resist a story that starts “it was the day my grandmother exploded“?

Be Inciteful

Where does a story really start? It’s the point where “everything changed forever”. This is called the Inciting Incident, and it isn’t always at the beginning of the story, but that’s where it’s most powerful. Imagine Walter White in his manties in the first few minutes of “Breaking Bad,” lifting a gun at approaching police sirens. That’s one of many moments where Walter White chooses to go Bad. His choices made the whole story happen. Without them? No Heisenberg.


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MIDDLE

Zoom High

Context, context, context.

Surprise!

&£%*$!

Fake An Ending, Snatch It Away

What, you thought this would be easy?


Zoom High

This is where you bring in your background info. If you’ve delivered your beginning effectively, the reader is hooked, so you’re safe to give them digressions and context from an all-knowing viewpoint without risking them tuning out. This is where you start to explain the mysteries posed by your beginning. This is where you start to ‘fess up to the wider picture, and start showing what’s really going on.

Surprise!

Your reader thinks they know what’s coming next. If they think that, they may act on it, and not bother to keep reading. Throw a grenade into their brain. Send your character or your argument in an unexpected (yet retrospectively logical) direction. Pull the rug out from under ’em and laugh as they curse. It’s allowed, because secretly they’re loving it. Be smarter than their best guess.

Fake An Ending, Snatch It Away

However twisty-turny your story may be turning out to be (see previous point), this is a good place to make the reader feel a satisfactory resolution is in sight. If you’re feeling brave and have complete control of your end, pretend the story’s source of tension is resolved . Give the appearance of a satisfactory conclusion – and then collapse it into rubble. It’s not the end. It’s far from the end. (Two words: “Red Wedding.”)


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END

Everything’s At Stake

All or nothing.

Revelation

What does it all mean?

Come Full Circle

Finish as you started.


Everything’s At Stake

You’re on the verge of the pay-off. You’re about to fulfil the promise of your teaser-laden beginning, and all the narrative hooks you’ve carefully sunk into the reader so far. You’ve got them here – but now you want them to really, really care about this ending. The best way to do that? Crank the tension up to 11. Put your character in the direst of dire peril, and make the final hurdle terrifyingly high. Sow doubt into the reader’s mind that this story will end in the way they want it to. Make it all or nothing.

Revelation

Your reader understands your plot or your argument. They have the facts. Now they want to know what it all means. Good stories are a process of extended revelation, but the best is usually saved for the end. That mystery you teased them with in the beginning, the half-answer you gave them? Thunder the rest down onto them so they’re left devastated. If it’s non-fiction, deliver your deepest insights and go beyond reporting to analyze, perhaps in the form of the “moral of the story”. Bring it all together in a way that blows their mind and feels inevitable yet completely unexpected, all at once.

Come Full Circle

However you started, bring that into your finish. Perhaps you return the reader to the same scene, laden with the hindsight of everything since. Perhaps you deliver the pay-off for that opening moment of supreme tension. (You’ve strung it out this long? That’s deliciously evil of you.) Perhaps your ending hints at how everything changes and yet stays the same. Whatever your reasons, your reader will enjoy that sense of closure, of everything fitting together with a satisfying *snick*. Your story will feel whole.


BONUS!

Read up about story shapes and the power of three.


NEXT: #5 – How To Find Your Voice


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 Images: Mike Sowden

  • Good stuff here, Mike! One of my favorite first lines is “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It tells me to strap on for the ride.

  • Wow, nice share, i like the “unexpected yet logical” phenomena, the core of a story is to keep the interest on and on until the end, If any moment your story make them bored, you will gonna lost 50% of your readers. Well, thanks for your vital tips.

  • I’ll remember the name: Mike Achim. Wow! that’s a complete course in writing terrific stories. Thanks. Am downloading this and making it a personal reference.

  • Great advice, Mike! Love all the pop culture references!

  • Comprehensive and extremely useful. I feel another way to telling good stories is by reading and looking for a lot of them too. The more you read, the more you find new stories, it helps you find your own mind and your own voice too, I say with my currently squeaky voice, but this post just cured it a bit!

    Thank you, Mike!

  • Dan the Story Man

    Excellence! I’ve totally bookmarked your whole fucking site.