When it comes to a good story, there are many flavours and types. There isn’t one recipe that you should follow to get story success, so you should put that idea out of your head right now. I’m not here to prescribe things to you, but to make suggestions on how you can improve and grow as a writer. Writers have been breaking boundaries for years and it can work very, very well!
Let’s face it: you want to write a story that’s unique and new. You don’t want to just re-write something that already exists, right? So, you’re naturally going to be looking for ways for your work to break the mould and add something new to the world. Trust me when I say that I get that so much!
However, there are a few things that your story needs to get right if you want it to be any good. Trust me on this one. You can spend all your time focussing on being unique, but if you haven’t got a good foundation to build your unique story on, the chances are that it will fall flat. I’m sure that there are stories out there that don’t use the foundation at all. Are they good, though? Did the writer make them with the reader in mind?
I recently started reading Story by Robert McKee and the words on the very first page of the introduction stood out to me:
“Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”Robert McKee in ‘Story‘
So, let’s master the form together. I’m not going to prescribe anything! Just have a look at these things that all good stories need and see if you can work on them in your own story.
When it comes to a good story, I would argue that getting your characters right is one of the most important things you can do. That’s why I’ve listed it right at the top here!
In most stories, characters drive the plot. It’s as simple as that. If you look at most books, TV shows and films, you’ll find that very few manage to capture the audience’s or reader’s attention without having some great characters to drive the events forward.
Did you notice, though, that I chose to say “good characters”? I didn’t say “character development” or “character growth” and that is for a very good reason.
Not all characters need to learn and grow as a person in your story to be good. Flat arcs can work just as well as positive or negative change arcs. Plus, if you’re writing certain types of stories, you might not need your character to have a whole lot of depth.
Take melodrama, for example. The point of that type of play is that it uses character archetypes. Villain. Damsel in distress. It all works.
So I won’t make any judgements when it comes to how developed your character needs to be. Or, for that matter, how much they need to change over the course of your story. What I will say, though, is that you need to think about whether your character works in your story.
What Every Good Character In a Story Needs
So what does a good character need to do in your story? Well, here is a basic list of things that you need to make sure your character checks off.
A good character needs to:
- Serve a unique purpose.
- Have their own clear and individual personality.
- Add value to the story.
- Suit the story and fit well in the plot.
- Are developed enough for the story you want to tell.
But what the hell do each of those mean? Well, here’s a brief description.
Good Characters Serve a Unique Purpose
It is very common for an amateur writer to make a whole load of characters and throw them into the story for the sake of it. This can happen for a few reasons.
Maybe they love creating characters and they want to show off their characterisation prowess. Or, they have made a school setting and they want to pad out the campus with as many characters as possible to make it feel real.
Either way, though, it can fall flat. Why? Well, you’ve thrown way too many characters at the reader. They can’t process them! So the reader can’t care about or appreciate them. Or worse: the characters will all start to feel the same because they share a purpose in the plot.
So you need to think about why you are focussing on each character at each point in your story. Just like with Chekhov’s Gun, you need to make sure that each character serves a purpose in the story at large if you want to spend some of your time and words on them.
Sure, words are infinite. However, if you want to keep the reader’s attention and trust, you need to try to stop your story from getting unnecessarily convoluted.
The amount of time and number of words that you spend on a character should be directly proportional to how useful they are going to be to the plot. Plus, their role needs to be unique and different from other characters.
So, if a character isn’t that useful at all, or if they serve the same purpose as someone else, why not give the role they have to someone we already know?
Good Characters Have a Unique Personality
Another common rookie mistake is underestimating the importance of giving each character their own, individual personality.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read where all of the characters act the same. Sometimes all the good guys act like the what the author thinks they’re like (in which case, they really need to take my Mary Sue Quiz). Other times, they just feel kinda dead and dry. Like, only the protagonist and love interest, plus maybe a few others, have any sort of personality at all.
This can often be as a result of padding the story with way too many characters to remember. People spend a whole lot more time giving each character a name and a look in their story, so they forget all about making them unique!
Unless you are actually going to comment on how a group of people all act the same (think the Ashleys in RECESS), you should take the time to think about how each character is unique and different.
Writers who don’t take the time to do this either look lazy or just plain old bad. It takes time to get a character right and they will only feel real if you spend time to give them their own individual qualities.
Plus, even if they are all supposed to act the same, you need to ask yourself what point that serves in the story at large.
Good Characters Add Value to the Story
This one is a lot like the whole “unique purpose” thing. It’s all about how useful the characters are in making the story what it is.
What do I mean by that? Well, a good character shapes the story in such a way that it would not be the same without them. It doesn’t matter how small their role is. What matters is that the story is what it is because they’re in it.
Does your character make the story better? If not, then why do they even exist?
And no. I don’t mean that every single character needs to be all sunshines and roses. Of course not! A good villain adds value to a story just as much as a good protagonist does. Some would argue that they add more value!
If you can take a character out of a story completely and it still runs just the way it had before, then maybe you need to stop and have a think. There’s something wrong here. You’re wasting words and time.
Good Characters Fit Well in the Plot
A lot of writers create great characters. Awesome! The problem is that they don’t really fit with the story that the writer is trying to tell. They feel odd or out of place. Their role doesn’t really fit the theme or complicates the plot rather than helping it to go along smoothly.
When this happens, you’ll find that the plot seems to bend and fold to try to force them to stay in it! Usually, it’s because they’re a fan favourite and the writer is too scared to kill them off or stop using them. So, they find ways to make the plot work around them, rather than the other way around.
The power of a good character is that they are useful and they fit the plot well. It sounds kinda ruthless, but a character should disappear from the plot long before they become a burden on it. You don’t have to kill them off, but you have to find a way to say goodbye and let them go when it’s time.
That doesn’t mean that they might never have a use again! It does mean, though, that you don’t let them tag along awkwardly at the expense of the plot at large.
Imagine if Gandalf never had to stay to fight the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings. The plot would have been a lot worse because they’d either sail through the story thanks to his magic, or the book would be riddled with plot holes because he could just fix everything with a wave of his staff!
Get rid of characters when they aren’t useful anymore. Give them a tragic death scene. Make them have to go off to do something else. Just make it work.
Good Characters Are Developed Enough
A lot of amateur writers make the mistake of having a whole load of characters just for the sake of it. They develop these really fun personalities and throw them at the reader one after the other. There are so many that we can’t appreciate the ones that we have, and they end up getting lost in the sea of nonsense.
The problem with that is that there is no point to the character. When there’s no point, then you’re really just wasting words. You’re making the reader read a bunch of pointless nonsense. That’s not going to give the reader a whole lot of confidence in you. It might even make them lose interest.
On the other hand, it may be tempting to read what I just said and decide to develop your characters less in general. This is also a mistake. Have you ever seen a film or read a book where the writer really wants you to care about the death or struggles of a character, but you just can’t bring yourself to give a toss?
Usually, that will happen when a character has a big, important purpose, but we haven’t had the time and development to learn who they are and invest in their story.
So you need to make sure that your characters are developed enough so that they can serve the purpose you need them to serve. However, you also need to make sure that you don’t over-develop characters if they don’t have that big of a role in the plot.
It’s a difficult balance to strike.
Have you ever read a story that just doesn’t really go anywhere? Like, the characters don’t do a whole lot, or they just sit around doing nothing? No one learns anything. There is no conflict. Nothing changes.
The chances are that, if you have somehow come across something like that, the story was never published. Plus, you probably thought to yourself “well, that was time that I can never get back” or “what in the world was the point of that book”.
A good story relies on progression to resonate with its readers. Something needs to happen. We need to see characters learn and grow. Or, we want to feel the conflict and tension build. Maybe someone realises something or comes to an interesting conclusion. Something needs to happen even if nothing much happens at all.
Now, I am not talking about action. A story doesn’t need to have people punching one another or explosions or sword fights to have story progression. It’s just that something needs to be different by the end of the story. It could be the characters or the world or the audience. Something needs to change, though. We need to move on.
Waiting for Godot is a play in which not much happens at all. They literally just sit around talking while they wait for Godot. In the play, the audience is changed as we start to question the events and their speech. While the play is about inaction, the audience is full of active thinkers.
Take some time to make sure that your story is going somewhere. Does it have a point? A Hero’s Journey plot? Do you want to focus on making the reader grow or the characters? Or is it a flat arc where the main character changes the world around them?
At the start of Story, Robert McKee talks about what makes a story good. He spends some time on the difference between cliche and archetype and how a good story makes the reader invest in an unfamiliar situation and makes them relate to the characters. McKee argues that stories are all about finding the familiar in the unfamiliar. I have to say that I agree.
As a fantasy writer, this has always been one of the ways in which I make sure that people will care about the plights of my non-human characters. I need to make sure that I can show the reader a new, fantastical world, but also make sure that they can believe it at the same time. They need to relate to what they see, or it will fall flat.
It’s about making sure that your characters are people. That is the thing that will drive the plot, even when you choose to set your story in a world without humans. Even if your protagonist is a big jelly monster with no limbs. They have to feel real.
How do you do this? Well, you relate back to feelings and emotions that we all share. That’s why so many stories spend so much time on love as an idea. Most of us have felt love for a partner, family member or friend. So, when it comes up a story, we can empathise with the character even if they aren’t a whole lot like us.
Sure, you’re going to have characters who don’t act or feel human at all. That’s great! Darth Vader. Sauron. Sherlock Holmes (yes, him too). It’s hard to get them. That’s why they’re either the villains or they are around other people who can help us connect to them and the story.
Consistent Themes and Messages
Whether you like it or not, your story has themes. Yes, that means that some pretentious Eng Lit nut like me will come along and analyse the hell out of it. There’s just no way to escape that.
So, instead of trying to fight it and claim that your story has no themes at all, why not own them? It could help to turn your work from good to great!
When you take control of the themes and message of your story, you have a whole lot more scope to turn it into something to be proud of. Why? Well, it’s all about being aware of that your work is doing.
When you don’t know what you’re doing, you are much more likely to make a mess. Your themes and messages might contradict one another like how time travel in Harry Potter contradicts the message that our choices make us who we are.
Instead, take the time to think about what your story is saying. It will be saying something! Once you have the plot figured out in detail, put your Eng Lit student hat on. If you were a reader in class, what would you say that the writer is trying to do or say with their work? Does the message at the beginning match the middle and end?
If you don’t think about it, the message will still be there. It will just be your unconscious beliefs. Trust me when I say: people’s unconscious beliefs are super messy and confusing!
A Concise Plot
Being concise in your story is much more important than you’d think!
I’ve said a whole lot in this blog post about readers wasting their time on your work. I know that it might sound harsh, but a concise story is much more likely to do well!
Why is that? Well, people don’t like when writers beat around the bush too much. If stories feel like they are full of a whole lot of waffle, readers will feel like screaming “well get to the point”!
This is why it is worth editing your story once you are done writing. Take the time to think to yourself “is this description necessary?” and “what does this scene add to the story”. Think about whether you have used the best ways possible to convey information to your reader and consider if you have been repetitive by accident.
If a scene or line or character isn’t needed for the plot to work well, get rid of it. I know that can be hard, but you need to let go of the things in your story that you love, but which don’t add much value to the work.
It can be hard to make sure that your story is concise without feeling rushed. I get that. But trust me when I say: adding extra waffle doesn’t make a story feel any less rushed. It just makes it feel as though you rushed the important bits to drag out things that don’t matter. Not a good look!
A Clear Structure
Have you ever had someone tell you a great story in a really messy way? Like, they start to tell you and then they jump back to the beginning because they forgot a detail, or they tell you the end way too soon and then jump back to the middle to fill in things that they missed? This is the sign of a bad structure.
Now, when people are talking out loud and telling you all about their day, it might be more acceptable. It might make sense that they say “oh yeah, the woman I was talking about was actually my friend’s aunt” when it hits them that the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if they don’t give you that detail. When you’re writing, though, it’s a whole different story.
You have the time to go back and edit your work. You can clean up those little hiccups and make sure that the structure is sound. If you realise that one scene needs to happen before the other for the story to flow better, you have the chance to change it. That’s one of the main reasons why writers read through their work and then start on a second draft!
And I know that it’s tempting to just write that last word and hit “publish”. I do it way more than I should on this very blog. Do what I say, though, and not what I do. I’m in the middle of tidying up The Queen of Freaks right now for this very reason! I didn’t think enough about the structure before I posted it to the world.
A bad structure can be confusing for the reader. At the end of the day, you know your story. So write with the reader in mind.
If you ask me, this one goes without saying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it doesn’t matter how good your story is. If people can’t understand it or if the grammar takes them out of the experience, you are letting the plot down. The chances are that it won’t do as well as it could if you just tidied up the grammar a little bit.
Still, though. You’d be shocked how many times a writer has asked me to review their story, only for them to get super defensive when I tell them they need to work on their grammar. It’s shocking! You need to get your grammar right.
Have you ever thought about walking down the stairs while doing it? Suddenly, you’re a whole lot more likely to trip, right? Well, imagine that the grammar in your story is like the stairs. If the grammar is bad, the readers are going to be focussed on it instead of the plot. Then, they’ll be much more likely to fall.
I get that everyone makes mistakes, but you need to try to get the worst errors out of the way. Check to make sure that your tenses are all consistent. Don’t use the wrong “your” or the wrong “there’. Put some thought into your grammar.
If you’re really worried about it, why not get Grammarly? It works on Wattpad, Discourse Forums and Microsoft Word!
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