What is the magic ingredient for a good story?
I’ve pondered this question for a while, and I think the best way to answer this question is to ask: “Why are some books almost impossible to put down? Why?”
This includes movies and television series–for example, my favorite television series is The Walking Dead. It’s actually based off of a comic book series by Robert Kirkman. I couldn’t stop watching; it was like I wanted to know and find out more with each episode. I put some thought into it, and I realized why I was hooked.
One of the main characters, Beth, pulled me in instantly. She is shy, young, prone to outbursts, and musical. Physically, I noticed that she looked like Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies (a weird observation, I know). So every time I saw her, I thought of Luna. I even saw some of myself in her. The magic ingredient has to be the characters, then. If your story does not have good characters, your story will go nowhere.
This applies to a book I’m reading right now: Every Day by David Levithan. The plot is interesting, but the events themselves aren’t what keep me reading. The main character’s reactions, emotions, and thoughts are. I’ve noticed that imagery, dialogue, and events simply showcase the character (whether that “good” or “bad” characteristics).
So I did some research. I started with a simple Google search. I clicked on the first page that came up: http://www.aaronshep.com/youngauthor/elements.html (if you would like to take a look at it). Here are the main elements Shepard writes about:
- Theme: Something important a story tries to tell us. Tip: Don’t preach. The readers should get the message without it being said straight-out.
- Plot: Conflict or struggle the characters go through. Tip: The character should not always be rescued, but will learn the theme through struggles.
- Story structure: Includes point of view. Tip: The action should start from the beginning. Decide right away if the point of view will be from third or first person. Try to tell the story from the eyes of a main character. Decide whether to write in past or present tense.
- Characters: Know your characters well before you start writing! Tip: Your main character should have flaws. A “bad guy” should have at least one good trait. This makes the characters human.
- Setting: Make it interesting and familiar (This was a really good point Shepard made!)
- Style and Tone: Shepard simply says that you should use language that “feels right.” Tip: Don’t just describe events. Use action and speech. Show, don’t tell (another good point).
This are basic story elements. Every story has them, and I know this is elementary stuff. I know the terms, but I never thought about how to apply them in my writing. The most important message I got from Shepard’s tips is that a story has to hook readers and has to be relatable. Characters shouldn’t be superhuman. Even a science fiction novel has to have some ordinary characters that readers can identify with. And to demonstrate the events, it’s best to use quotes to center the focus on the characters, not the description.
Next, I researched some popular authors. I’m a teenager, so I’m focusing on young adult novels. I haven’t read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, but the obsession of my classmates over her books makes me wonder what makes it so good. Oh, and let’s not forget Every Day by David Levithan. I found some interviews. These three authors are different in their writing styles, so I believe input from two points of view would help me answer my question.
Veronica Roth on Divergent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDS1k3LYZyo
Question 1: What were your inspirations and influences for the trilogy?
A: Roth says that she was enrolled in a psychology course and was interested in the use of exposure therapy to treat anxiety and phobias. They are exposed to what they are afraid of in a safe environment until the fear dissipates. She used that for the Dauntless faction (who have a key objective to fight cowardice) and pieced together the world from there.
Question 2: How did you choose the character traits for the Dauntlesses? How did you choose the factions?
A: Roth made it personal and chose what she would pick if she was in that world. She also says something really interesting: these virtues let to cultural behaviors: a way of dressing, speaking, etc. So maybe she set up the setting to be like today’s world, but with the flaws showing in a different way. But the traits themselves were at random.
Question 3: How much of the plot was predetermined from the beginning?
A: Roth didn’t really have a plan. She just knew she wanted a scientific answer to what “divergence” was (even though I haven’t read it, this is a key motif in the novels). She had an outline for the second and third books. She planned the building of Tristan’s development as a character.
Question 4: Was the strong female lead deliberate?
A: Yes. Roth didn’t just want heroines, but also women antagonists; it was interesting to her to write that way.
Question 5: Is this trilogy based on modern society (grouping)?
A: She didn’t write it to point the finger at society, but herself. We tend to put people in categories to relate to them.
Question 6: Did you have to do research for the scientific part of Divergent?
A: She researched a lot about genetics and trivial stuff like ziplining and the height of buildings to accurately portray the setting.
Question 7: The trilogy focuses mostly on the USA. What is happening in other countries?
A: Communications are cut off and other nations are dealing with their own crisis internally.
Question 8: Which book was hardest to write?
A: The third book–it was emotional and difficult to write from dual perspectives. There were also huge revelations.
Question 9: Do you have any more plans to write for young adults?
A: Yes. Now that she’s met so many young people she wants to, but isn’t sure what.
David Levithan on Every Day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CtwWJI3WEg
Question 1: Where did you grow up?
A: New Jersey. Many of his books are about moving places, but he lived in the same place.
Question 2: What was your favorite book as a child?
A: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (haha)
Question 3: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A: A fifth grade teacher because he loves that age. His dream job is to be a guitar player and singer in an indie rock band (this guy is awesome).
Question 4: Describe your new book in one sentence.
“It is about what it is like to have a life without connections.”
Question 5: What inspired you to write it?
A: It was in his mind for a couple of years. He asked the questions before he wrote, “Can love conquer this?” As he was writing, it became clear.
Watching those interviews really inspired me, mostly because they didn’t know exactly what they were going to do but they wrote. What stood out to me the most was Roth’s interview. Her idea came from the topic of anxiety, something humans suffer with every day, and made it a world. I think this is imaginative and completely genius. Levithan writes with so much emotion, which is appropriate for the narrator (who falls in love but has lived a life without connections).
I’m working on a novel. My main character, Evelyn, is seemingly emotionless and is neglected by her mother. I’m having trouble moving the plot and making the story come to life. After watching these interviews, I know that I have to reveal flaws in characters. I have to show who they are, not hide it. I’ll save my character and plot plan (which I hope to use to deepen my characters) for another blog post.
In conclusion, a good story needs great characters. A good story is one where the reader follows the main character and identifies with them. Above all, creativity should be embraced because it can lead to a world no one ever thought of (consider the answers Roth and Levithan gave when asked their inspirations).