Hey there, friends!
It’s me- your favorite sponge.
I am, first and foremost, a story sponge. We all know this. Stories are the deepest part of me, and I wouldn’t be here without them.
So. Let’s talk about stories.
The point of this post is in here somewhere…
If there is one thing I have noticed about stories over the years, it is that sometimes I love them, and sometimes I…don’t. For some reason, instead of just getting over that fact and moving on with my life, I often find myself wondering about it.
I realize of course that there are all sorts of factors involved in whether or not one likes any given story, such as personal preference of style, personal connection with themes, and personal feelings about burritos (I’m sure that last one is very important), but those aren’t the things I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about, is the pieces you have to put together to create any kind of story in the first place.
Actually not any kind of story. A book kind of story. I want to talk about books.
What I want to know, really, is what makes a good book a good book.
There are books all over the place, covering shelves and floors and garages and that space underneath your refrigerator- and most of them won’t effect your life at all because you won’t read them, and even the ones you do read have a chance of not mattering at all. When it comes to books, only a few will really matter in the end.
Just wait one more moment, I might finally be getting to the point.
The way I see it, stories inside books are comprised of Four Basic Ingredients (like the Four Basic Food Groups- except that I know what the story ingredients are and I don’t actually know the Four Basic Food Groups off the top of my head). These Four Basic Ingredients are like pillars that hold the story up. If one of the pillars is weak, the entire story suffers.
So, what are these Four Basic Ingredients/Pillars of a book? I will tell you.
1) Concept/Themes (the idea)
Well, would you look at that, I just cheated and put two in one. Oh well.
I put these together because both are overarching and conceptual, really. The concept and themes for the story are important because without them, what is the point?
This is the “what if?” scenario. The concept doesn’t have to be some super unique/fancy idea that no one has ever thought of before, like self-aware doughnuts or a post-apocalyptic world where humans have started spontaneously turning into penguins. The concept can be as simple as a family dealing with the death of a loved one, or a child opening up a lemonade stand in their front yard. But there has to be some concept, some idea.
And when I say “themes” I don’t mean “and the moral of the story is.” I just mean themes like death, for example. Or lemonade. Lemonade can totally be a theme.
Basically, themes and concepts are an idea, or group of ideas, that you want the characters to have to wrestle with.
This ingredient is important because it’s encompasses the purpose behind the story’s existence. If you don’t have a reason for writing the story, the reader can tell.
Writing Tip: When you are writing a story, figure out what concepts and themes are at its heart, and let them be a springboard into what you write.
2) Characters (the humanity)
Characters are what drive the story forward. They are the piece of humanity that you attach yourself to and with which you go on a harrowing quest or a hilarious romp or an emotional journey. Without them, you have nothing to grab onto to ground you in the story. A story without characters is like a fish bowl without any fish in it.
The concepts and themes are navigated by the characters. The concepts inform the characters and the characters inform the concepts. You have to be able to get inside the characters heads and understand their responses to things. The concept is the backdrop, and the characters create the action in the play.
If you have a dazzling concept but cardboard cut out characters, guess how awesome your story is going to be? Not very awesome.
Writing Tip: Take time to develop your characters until you know how they would react in any given situation. Don’t use them as a pawn to get the story from point to point. Let their character arcs inform the plot.
And speaking of plot…
3) Plot (the journey)
As I said, it is important for characters to inform the plot- but the plot stands as a key element on its own.
Even if you have produced the best character EVER, the story can get boring if nothing happens to them. They won’t get the opportunity to confront problems and change in the process. Often the creation of certain events and circumstances can help you shape your characters. Putting them through a little plot can help them grow and take them to places they never thought they would go.
So, in a way, plot informs character as well as character informing plot. Nifty, eh?
The plot is either an equal running partner with the characters, or an underscore to them, but either way it’s imperative to a story.
And yes, a plot can be as simple as two people sitting on a porch talking. The shape their conversation takes could be all the plot you need.
Writing Tip: Whatever your plot is, no matter how complicated or basic it is, make sure it challenges your characters. Make it something they have to overcome.
4) Writing (the vehicle)
Yes. The words. On the page. MATTER. SO. MUCH. Don’t waste them.
Newsflash, the words you use to tell the story aren’t simply a means to an end. They’re not irrelevant. I have read so many books that wanted to be movies- the words were used like they were disposable, just a way to let you know what was going on- and it saddened me awfully. (Not that movies don’t require good writing too, of course. But there’s a certain emphasis on writing style in books that isn’t there in movies, because we see more words than just dialogue.)
The writing style shouldn’t be thrown away. It informs everything else about the story, and everything else about the story informs the writing style. Am I speaking gibberish yet?
If the writing style is boring, dry, just something to slog through so I can find out what’s going to happen, I will hardly ever enjoy the story.
Writing Tip (in metaphor form): Instead of thinking of the writing itself as a generic subway train, taking you from one stop to another in a streamlined fashion, think of it as a living, breathing, creature (like your own personal dragon or unicorn or giant salamander) with its own unique gait, its own rhythm- a creature that can take you anywhere, and show you perspectives on things you never noticed before.
I boiled stories down to these four ingredients, but that isn’t to say there aren’t many more. Stories are made up of countless elements, and they are all interwoven. Doing a poor job on any one piece can cause the entire story to crumble. We should strive to craft stories with intention in every area of storytelling. It’s not easy (in fact it’s monstrously difficult, good grief), but it’s something to think about.
What do you think of my Four Basic Ingredients/Pillars that hold up a story? Is there another element that you think is more important than one of the things I listed, or one you’d like to add? Do you think that any one ingredient is the most important or do you think they all have equal importance? When you are writing/reading stories, do you think about these elements at all? I would love to hear all your opinions on stories and writing in the comments!