The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Storytelling

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Some stories change us forever. I still remember the great novels of my childhood as though I lived in their world and met their characters in person.

Of course, these books are special because they’re rare. Readers hunt for them. Writers dream of creating them. To craft an unforgettable story, keep these key elements in mind as you revise.

If you love it, you may have to lose it

The writing-advice cliche “kill your darlings” has been passed around for at least 100 years, and for good reason. If you’re madly in love with a sentence or scene, you won’t revise objectively.

Ask yourself if your most precious scene is there because the story needs it or because you adore it. The only way to know for sure is to give it to a critique partner. Even better, a critique group. If more than one person says it’s not working, something needs to change, even if you think it’s brilliant.

Contrast and subtlety are your friend

In writing, as in the visual arts, contrast is key. Too many extremes give your writing the same impact as too few: a flat line. An endless parade of misfortunes, weird situations, or other chance events will wear your readers out.

Likewise, avoid using too many coincidences to advance your plot. Don’t throw everything at your characters at once, and don’t rescue them with unlikely strokes of luck. Keep it believable. Let the reader see your characters struggle and experience the natural consequences of their actions.

Every character must serve the story

Your characters may all feel important and memorable to you, but a huge cast confuses readers. Don’t place a character in your story just because he’s cool or funny. Each character must serve the plot and theme in a unique way. If you have too many characters, ask yourself if some could be consolidated or even cut completely without damaging the story. Even characters whose actions help drive the plot can sometimes be removed, with those actions reassigned to someone else.

If this idea makes you queasy, get a fresh set of eyes on your manuscript. A beta reader will be able to tell you if your story has too many characters.

Characters need backstories off the page

Upon completing any first draft, I set a goal to cut 10 percent in the first round of edits. I may add back to it and finish with something significantly longer, but I usually do several big cuts. As an example, the first draft of my novel Driving Forces clocked in at 50,000 words. The final is around 87,000 words. I hit my 10-percent target on my first pass and cut large pieces (i.e. entire scenes or chapters) totaling 17,500 words throughout the revision process.

Every one of those words contained character backstories and actions that readers will never see. And yet, that writing has value. We get to know our characters by writing them, just like we get to know real-life acquaintances by spending time with them. While not all of that information is necessary on the page, it is necessary for us to know it. This deep knowledge shows through in your final draft and informs the tiny details that make your characters pop.

The ending should be both logical and satisfying

The best endings provide enough closure to usher readers back into the real world, yet leave enough ambiguity for them to imagine the story world continuing on. A well-crafted ending also makes logical sense. It follows what has happened so far and sometimes adds a new dimension to events from earlier in the book.

Each scene and chapter should contribute to the conclusion of your story. An ending that feels unrelated to the rest of the plot begs the question: why bother to read the book?

Your genre may demand a certain type of ending. Romance readers won’t accept a messy breakup at the end of the book, and literary fiction allows for more weirdness and ambiguity than genre fiction.

Bottom line: the wrong ending will leave readers feeling angry and betrayed. Challenging them or making them sad is okay — my least favorite ending is one that I call “too neat” — as long this fits naturally with the story.

Create the illusion of reality

Sometimes I reflect on a bizarre series of events in my life, or on the news, and say, “I could not have made that up if I tried.”

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Your job is not to recreate reality, but to create a story that feels like reality. Your characters and your plot points should feel believable, not contrived or full of unlikely coincidences.

Likewise, reality is boring and full of irrelevant details. You’re writing a story, not a biography. Make sure every scene and character serves your plot. And when you feel like you’ve lost perspective, enlist the help of an objective and honest critique partner.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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