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Friday, 28 September 2012

How to Get Your Story Straight

a guest post by Susan J. Letham from Write 101

You were probably just a kid when you learned about getting your story straight. I mean, if you were going to tell a grownup a "story," you had to get it straight or run the risk of tripping yourself on the details. Right?

Well, the same is true in fiction. If you're going to write a story for your readers, it has to be believable, and it has to have a point. That means you need to know a few things about your reasons for writing the story. It also means you need to try and see some things through your future reader's eyes. Doing that will help you think about how logical the story is from a reader's point of view. Knowing your story before you start will also help you predict what your reader will think and feel about the events your story describes.

The easiest way to do all that is to answer the following set of questions before you sit down to write.

Question 1: What drives you to tell your story?

Most of us write because we have to. We burn with desire to tell our stories. We have wisdom to share, cloaked in the language of fiction. We say "See here! This is what life is like. This is how your life can play out if you make this choice or that." What is it that compels you to tell this story? Why now? Why this setting? Why these characters?

Question 2: What is the story really about?

Stories are about themes, topics, and questions. Characters and settings are just the tools you use to help your reader understand the story issues.

Some possibilities are: love, betrayal, trust, disaster, error of judgment, cruelty, misfortune, revolt, loss, rivalry, murder, adultery, (self-) sacrifice, ambition, jealousy, remorse, or mistaken identity.

When you strip away the characters and settings in your story, what is your story about?

Question 3: What is the story question?

What main question you want to answer through your story?

Here are some possibilities:
- How can this happen?
- What can I do to make this happen?
- What events led to this?
- Does love really transcend death?
- Does the good girl always win?

Question 4: What is the message of your story?

Every good story carries a message. The message should be clear to the reader by the end of the story. It should be clear to you, the writer, before you start. Knowing your message will help you keep your story on course.

Here are some possibilities:
- Tragedies happen because people are indifferent.
- Money counts more than wisdom.
- Here is the recipe for success.
- Love goes on forever.
- The good girl can lose but will keep her integrity.

What is the message of your story?

Question 5: What do you want your readers to feel?

When you choose the right characters, your reader will slip inside their skin and feel what the characters feel. The best stories arouse emotions, and emotions are an important aspect of "show don't tell." We humans learn best of all through emotion. You can make your reader happy or sad, but whatever you do, make her feel your story.

- How do you want your (POV character and your) reader to feel at the start of the story?
- How do you want your (POV character and your) reader to feel at the end of the story?
- What other emotions do you want your (POV character and your) reader to have in between the start and the end?
- What events will you use to orchestrate those emotions?

Question 6: What message do you want your reader to share?

Your reader has just finished your story. Her best friend asks her what the story is about and whether she enjoyed it. She asks your reader how it made her feel. What does your reader say? How do you want her to describe your book? What do you need to do to make sure this is the description she gives?

These six questions and your answers are all you need to get your story straight. Follow this format and you'll find it's really easy to stay on track as you write.

Write 101 is a great site for writerly advice, with an entertaining and chatty newsletter every Friday that distracts me from writing while I read it!

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