The lovely Liv Rancourt was kind enough to drop by and offer some tips on story construction. Thanks, Liv!
Thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog, Amanda. In reading through some of your more recent book review posts – which are always excellent – I got thinking about the kinds of things you like and don’t like, and from there, I started wondering what goes into a good story.
After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world. (Philip Pullman)
I’m a writer, so it’s my nature to tell stories, right? My day job as a nurse practitioner might not lend itself to storytelling, but recently I had this little “a-ha” moment. At the end of every shift, I have to run through my list of patients with the nurse practitioner who will be relieving me, and I realized delivering that information is a lot more fun if I can turn it into a story. “First this thing happened, then the baby did that, and the parents went like this, and in the end it all worked out okay.” If I frame all the facts in the context of a narrative I can turn a routine, detail-heavy recitation into something fairly entertaining.
No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time. (Lewis Carroll)
While the entertainment factor is key, what else goes into a good story? Fear? Doubt? Passion?
Regardless of whether any of our vibrant undead cousins are involved, there are a few essential elements of good storytelling. In addition to the technical aspects – the beginning, middle and end, the characters, the grammar – there are higher level components.
- Good stories have heart. They touch the reader and bring them in so they’re emotionally involved. To an extent this is a bit of a moving target, because what’s meaningful for one person might not be for another, but stories that draw from universal human experiences will resonate.
- Good stories have stakes. The characters have goals they must reach. Conflict arises naturally from these goals and moves the plot forward, and because the characters have touched the reader on an emotional level, their success or failure matters. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the story, and in the end, the character is different for having lived through the experience.
- Good stories tell the truth. They communicate ideas that are broader and deeper than the words on the page, and make the reader think. A few words, a line, or several paragraphs may create images which echoes reality, twisting it just enough to provoke a response.
The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. (Brandon Sanderson)
These are abstract concepts and not the kind of thing you can spell out in a plot summary. They also offer a kind of litmus test: does this story make me feel? Can I push the stakes higher? Am I squarely in the character’s reality, and am I telling their truth? If the answers to these questions are not satisfactory, then I know I need to keep working on the piece. The process provides the opportunity to dig deep, and I end up learning about myself as I go.
We have to keep the wolf from the door… We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay. (Ken Burns)
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks again, Amanda…
Is there anything I missed? What do you think goes into a good story?
Molly, a forty-something single mom, tangles with the wrong guy and gets a hell of a hickey. That blotch is really a demon’s mark, and she’ll have to face the three things that scare her most to get rid of it. First, Molly loses her job and then she has a near-sex experience with her philandering, not-quite-ex-husband. Worst of all, she has to sit by a hospital bed, wondering if her son is ever going to wake up.
The Powers That Be assign Cass to help her. He’s an angel who’s trying to earn a seat in the celestial choir by helping out a human in need. Vanquishing the demon would be his ticket up, but only if he plays by the rules. He’ll never earn his wings if he loses his heart to the lovely Molly. But she has even bigger things to worry about. She stands to lose her soul.
Molly’s got problems, for sure. Here she gets home from work and walks into the middle of a sibling battle, in the process learning something about her daughter that she’d really rather not know.
As she walked up the cement path to the front door, she could hear them. A few steps closer, and she could tell they were yelling. At each other. Because it was still Monday.
“I saw you, that’s how I know,” Jamie yelled. Molly paused, hoping and dreading that they’d get to what Jamie had seen.
“Spying on me? Fine. Gotta love having a brother I can trust.” Flora’s voice was high and tight.
“You can totally trust me not to let you do something stupid.”
“Mind your own business, asshat.”
Molly reached toward the door, then paused for just a little longer.
“Jesus, do you hear yourself. You’re the one dating a vampire. You do know that, right?”
“So what? He’s cool and he loves me.”
“Loves you? Don’t be an idiot.” Jamie slammed something hard into something solid.
“Idiot yourself. It’s not like I don’t have stuff on you, so shut up.”
“You haven’t got anything on me,” Jamie said, his voice lower and angrier than Molly had ever heard it. She figured that was her cue to break up their little party, because one bombshell a night was all she could take. Before Flora could say what it was she had on Jamie, Molly was through the door and in the living room.
“Hey kids,” she said, looking from one to the other. Flora stood near the big front window, while Jamie blocked the hallway to the rest of the house, arms stretched out so he touched the wall on either side. They both glared at her, then Jamie let go of the wall and turned away.
“Anybody want to tell me what’s going on?” Molly crossed her arms and stood up high on her heels, trying to ignore that it made her feet hurt.
“Nothing.” Jamie walked down the hall towards his bedroom.
“Nothing,” Flora said, her arms crossed in front of her chest. She wore a shabby black lace dress with a rainbow striped silk scarf twisted around her neck. Her black hair was pulled up in a high French twist and she wore her usual excessive amount of black eyeliner.
Molly set her purse down on the buffet but kept her coat buttoned, hoping it made her look more authoritative. “Okay, let’s try this again. What were you and Jamie yelling about?”
“God, Mom.” Flora flounced over to one of the burgundy chairs and dropped into it. As Molly was trying to read her expression, she noticed a faint image in the darkened TV screen behind Flora’s head. It was Cass. He winked at Molly and pointed a finger at Flora. A thin stream of light, like an electric current made visible, shot out of his finger and tagged Flora, making her jump.
“It’s like this. I told Dad I was going over to Sasha’s for a sleepover, but I really went out with Vincent.” Flora’s eye bugged out and she covered her mouth with one hand. It didn’t stop her talking for long. “He’s this guy that I’ve kind of been seeing, but he’s older than me and I’m pretty sure you and Dad won’t like him. He’s, like, a vampire, and so far we’re not sleeping together, but he’s bit me a couple times and I think he really loves me.”
Molly stood there with her jaw hanging open until Flora burst into tears and ran out of the room.
Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website & blog (www.livrancourt.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt).