Friday, June 29, 2012

A Tip to Make a Good Story Great—by John Yeoman

Thanks to John for guest posting today with some helpful tips for tweaking our stories. I’m hanging out with Teresa today, over at the Journaling Woman’s blog. Hope you’ll pop over to say hi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         A Little Tip That Can Make a Good Story Great

by Dr. John Yeoman @yeomanis

What’s the clue to writing a story or novel that wins a top award or catches an agent’s eye? It can be revealed in a word - structure.

Of course, there’s more to a story than structure. But a story that’s otherwise excellent, but lacks an emphatic form, will fail in the marketplace.

That’s a paradox because events in real life have little structure, other than the forms we impose on them. And for a story to engage the reader it must have some resonance with reality.

Perhaps the reason we crave structure in a story is that we need to feel a story is a metaphor for our own existence. Our lives will contain conflict and untidiness but, to satisfy us, they must present us with some sense of form. To perceive form is to infer meaning and, of course, we all want to feel our lives are meaningful.

No doubt, that’s why story telling is the earliest art form known. Every story was a pattern into which the listener could pour their own lives and find meaning there.

How does this help us as writers?

We want our stories to sound ‘true’ but contain a strong underlying pattern. Yet, paradoxically, that pattern will be false to life.

The simplest way to fake a sense of form, but keep our stories plausible, is to contrive a strong close. It doesn’t matter if the close is, from a rational viewpoint, inconclusive. Many fine ghost stories end upon the haunting question: what really happened? The reader’s imagination can be safely left to ‘close’ the tale. Nothing is settled but nothing more needs to be told. The tale has closure.

One highly effective way to close a story, even when the end must be left equivocal, is the Book Cover strategy.

At the front of the story we place a colorful event, theme or striking phrase. And we repeat that motif at the back. In a long story, we might echo it several times throughout, each time with a different significance. In a short story, the first and last paragraphs alone will suffice.

Here’s an example...

Suppose we open our novel with a man sitting on a beach. He’s tossing pebbles in the sea. His life is bleak. At the close of the novel, the man is sitting on the beach again. Once more he’s tossing pebbles. But this time, he’s happy. His fortunes have recovered. His life is back under control. How do know that? Every stone he throws dances across the waves!

But, he reminds himself with a wan smile, every stone sinks in the end. And there the story ends too.

Now we have closure, cued by the repetition of the emblems - the beach and the pebbles, but the end is equivocal. There’s also opportunity for a sequel if the novel sells well.

We’ve all come across that Book Cover gambit. It’s a cliché. But professional writers use it intuitively because it’s a failsafe way to end a tale. If used subtly, the reader won’t even be aware of its formulaic nature.

Use the Book Cover for yourself. Formula or not, it makes writing the story very simple. We just have to draft the opening and closing paragraphs, link them with some colorful incident or motif, and the job’s done.

All that remains then is to fill in the bits in the middle...

Yeo-HS-RightDr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for the commercial market can be found here.

John has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight works of humour, some of them intended to be humorous.