Whether I’m editing a client’s manuscript, studying one of my favorite books or movies, or editing my own work-in-progress, the main thing I want to know is – does this story work? And for those of you that are starting new stories or editing your own drafts, I’m sure you’re wondering the same thing too.
In today’s post, I’m going to show you how I look at the big picture of a story to determine what’s working, what’s not working, and why.
But first, let’s talk about what it means to write a story that works.
A story works when readers find it satisfying and think it was worth investing their time and money into reading it. They’ll likely recommend the book to their friends and may even write a good review on Amazon or Goodreads.
A story doesn’t work when readers find it unsatisfying and feel like they’ve wasted their time and money by reading it. They won’t recommend the book to their friends, and if they bother to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, it probably won’t be a very good one.
First, you need to look at the big picture of your story to make sure all the required elements are there. To do this, I use a set of questions that Shawn Coyne calls “An Editor’s Six Core Questions” to help me determine what’s working, what’s not working, and why. Oftentimes, a draft doesn’t work because one of these six questions is not answered, or is answered in a way that’s not going to meet reader’s expectations.
Shawn developed this six-question analysis while he was working as an acquiring editor at the major publishing houses. He needed a way to quickly evaluate the manuscripts that came across his desk to determine whether or not the story was worth acquiring. These six questions allowed Shawn to put the core elements of each manuscript on one page so that he could get a big picture view of the story. He calls this one-page document the Foolscap, and you can read more about it here.
1. What’s the genre?
2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre?
3. What’s the point of view?
4. What are the objects of desire?
5. What’s the controlling idea or theme?
6. What’s the beginning, the middle, and the end?
Now, let’s take a look at each question individually, and talk about why each question is important, and how it can help you write or edit your novel.
The very first question you need to answer is, “What is my story’s global genre?” You need to answer this question first because you can only answer the other five questions once you’ve identified your story’s genre.
According to Shawn Coyne, there are five things readers expect to know before they’ll consider investing their time and money into your book. These five things are:
In order to write a story that works, and to be able to deliver on what readers expect from your story’s genre, you must be able to answer each one of these five questions and most importantly, narrow down the one main genre your story will inhabit.
If you’re looking for an in-depth article on genre, check out this article – Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories
With planning your story and your writing schedule. For example, let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. You’ve done your research, so you know that the average murder mystery novel is between 80,000 to 90,000 words. You know that you tend to overwrite your scenes, so you decide to plan for the lower end of the word count range at 80,000 words. And since you’re an over-writer, you plan for smallish scenes around 1,500 words. Now, you can determine roughly how many scenes your novel will need (80,000 words divided by 1,500-word scenes = about 53 scenes), and if you know how many scenes your novel needs, you can plan your writing schedule around that number. Then, if you need to cut scenes, you’ll know roughly how many based on how many words or scenes you’ve gone over your planned number. You can start cutting the scenes that don’t support the global genre, or if there are elements in those scenes you like, you can find a way to add them into another scene.
If you’re looking for the average word count of your genre, check out this article – Novel Length: Why is Word Count Important?
Deliver on your reader’s expectations. Readers gravitate to particular genres because they want to experience a certain kind of story and feel a certain kind of way while reading it. In order to give them the kind of story they’re expecting, you’ll need to deliver certain story elements (characters, places, events, etc.) that are typical of the genre you’re writing in. For example, if you’re writing a murder mystery, your readers will expect to read about a murder and to follow along with the detective as he or she uncovers clues and solves the case. Over the course of the story, they’ll expect to feel mystery and intrigue. If you don’t deliver this, your reader will be disappointed. (More on this later)
So, we know that your book’s genre makes certain promises to the reader, right? Well, one of those promises is that your story will contain certain elements (characters, places, events, etc.).
For example, say you’re writing a romance, but there’s no “lovers meet” scene. The “lovers meet” scene is a must have scene for the love story. If you don’t have that scene, your romance novel won’t work. Or, maybe you’re writing a performance story, and you haven’t shown your protagonist going through any training. Training is a convention of the performance genre. Without it, your performance story won’t work.
For example, if your book is a murder mystery, the reader will expect to feel intrigued as they work to solve the puzzle right alongside the sleuth or cop. In an action story, the reader will expect to feel the excitement as they experience the protagonist taking risks that they themselves would never attempt in real life. In a love story, the reader will expect to feel a sense of connection and romance as if they were falling in love right alongside the protagonist.
So, how do you learn what the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of your genre are?
Find best-sellers, or your favorite books in your genre and study them. Write down what they have in common and how they’re different. The commonalities will be your conventions. Study each scene and take note of the ones that feel the most impactful, or the ones in which the core value shifts the most drastically. Are those types of scenes present in all the stories you’ve studied? If so, those are your obligatory scenes.
By studying stories in your genre, you’ll be able to see how other writers handled the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, as well as what tropes have been done to death. Once you’ve done this for multiple stories, you’ll have an invaluable reference kit for your future work and a much better understanding of how to craft your own stories.
Without the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, you will not only write a story that doesn’t work, but you will also fail to evoke the Core Emotion in your reader and leave them feeling disappointed.
To learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, check out this article – What are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Give you a framework within which you can create stories that are uniquely you. You can take what you need from the traditional “rules” of your genre and innovate them by adding your own experiences, preferences, worldview, etc. If you can figure out how to present these Obligatory Scenes and Conventions in a new and exciting way, you’ll not only meet your reader’s expectations, but you’ll delight and surprise them as well.
Help you determine what to add, keep, or delete while editing and revising. Have you included all the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of your global genre? Do you have a secondary genre? Not all the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of the secondary genre have to happen on the page, but they do have to happen and be somehow mentioned or alluded to in your narrative. If you have included all the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of your genre, have you managed to innovate them in a new and exciting way? If you’ve missed any of them, make yourself a note and plan to add them into your next draft.
Point of view (or POV) is the “lens” through which your story is told. It determines whose eyes the reader will experience the story through, and how much information the reader will have access to throughout the story.
If you want to learn more about the different POV options, check out this article – Everything You Need to Know About Point of View (+ How to Choose the Best POV for Your Novel)
For example, if mysteries and revelations are crucial to your story, the closeness of first person will allow the reader to discover information as the character discovers it. Because the reader knows only what the character knows, it’s easy to spring surprises on them. The suspense and tension that comes from the character trying to piece things together becomes an experience the reader can share with the character.
Sometimes the genre you’re writing in, or the age group you’re writing for, will guide you in your POV choice. Other times, the POV a writer chooses depends on their personal preferences. When in doubt regarding which POV to use, look to other books in your genre and see what POV the authors chose to write in, and see if you can determine the reason for their choice.
Allow you to control the effect your story has on the reader. In a sense, POV controls the flow of information and determines what you can and can’t show the reader. Because of that, your choice directly impacts how the reader will feel when they read your story. For example, First Person POV or Third Person Limited POV allows for feelings of mystery and suspense while Third Person Omniscient POV lends itself to feelings of dramatic irony. You want to evoke these kinds of feelings in your reader because that’s what keeps readers turning page after page.
Make editing (slightly) easier. While editing, most people recommend checking for consistency in POV and tense. And yes, of course you should do this, but, let’s take it a step further. While editing, ask yourself – Does my POV choice allow the reader to feel the way I want them to feel? If not, am I giving away too much information? Or holding too much back? What can I do to amplify the feeling of mystery, suspense, or irony that I set out to evoke in my reader?
Readers will only continue reading a story if they feel connected to the main character.
One of the ways to accomplish this is to give the reader a main character they can root for as that character pursues their objects of desire.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the character has to be likable. Sometimes readers will root an unlikeable character because they can relate to the feeling of chasing something you want.
Either way, in all great stories the protagonist pursues something they want and/or need.
For example, in an action story, the protagonist wants to stop the villain and save the victim’s life – even if that means sacrificing herself. Her conscious object of desire is to stop the villain.
For example, in a worldview maturation (coming-of-age) story, the protagonist generally needs to change their black-and-white thinking and accept that the world, and people, are made up of many shades of grey. His subconscious need is to develop a more nuanced view of the world.
For example, in a thriller, the protagonist’s external object of desire (his want) is to save a victim. If this story had an internal redemption plot, we’d eventually come to learn why it was so important for him to save the victim beyond “just doing his job,” We’d come to understand that his subconscious object of desire (his need) is to overcome a moral failing in his past.
Sometimes the protagonist will only get what they want after they get what they need. So, in the thriller example above, maybe the protagonist can only save the victim once he overcomes the moral failing from his past. Other times, the protagonist must give up what they want in order to get what they need. Or, they don’t accept what they need and end up losing what they want (or they get what they want and find it unsatisfying).
Aid you in plotting and writing your story. If you don’t know what your protagonist wants or needs, you won’t know how they’ll react to the events of the story. For example, in a murder mystery, the detective wants to catch the murderer and solve the case. That’s her goal, and in every scene, she’ll be working toward achieving that goal. She’ll take action with the intention of getting closer to solving the case.
Help you decide what to edit out, and which scenes to cut. When editing, each scene should contain an Inciting Incident that gives rise to the character’s scene goal. That scene goal should be something that’s intended to get the character closer to achieving their story goal (although it doesn’t always play out that way for the character). Do each of your scenes support the character in the pursuit of their story goal? If not, cut the scene, or revise it so that it moves the story forward.
For a lot of writers, the reason they write is because they have something to say about life. We tell stories that are not only capable of entertaining our readers but hopefully will inspire them too.
Ideally, it’s something you can express in a one-sentence statement that describes the change that takes place over the course of your story, and specifically how and why things have changed.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the Controlling Idea is – “Love triumphs when the lovers dismiss their judgmental attitudes and embrace the vibrant mix of people within all social classes.”
The generic version of this would be “Love triumphs when the lovers overcome moral failings or sacrifice their needs for the other.” Or, if the love story had a negative ending, “Love fails when the lovers don’t evolve beyond their desires.”
If you know your global genre before you start writing, it can be helpful to have this one-sentence statement somewhere that you can always see it so that you’re always reminded of the point you’re trying to make (you can use the generic version of the Controlling Idea for your genre as a placeholder and refine it later).
Help you stay on track and not get confused while writing your story. Since the Controlling Idea is the main point of your story, it provides you with a filter for making decisions about your story. Not sure how your character would act in a certain scenario? Refer to your Controlling Idea for inspiration. Lacking ideas for new scenes? Brainstorm different interactions or events that can act as proof or validation of the point you’re trying to make with your theme.
Give you specific “to do’s” when it comes to editing. Though your protagonist will be the clearest expression of your story’s theme, the other characters will often express different variations of it. While editing, look at your secondary characters to see if there’s an opportunity for one (or more) of them to help make your overall message more clear. On the other hand, if you need to trim your word count, look for scenes or chapters that don’t serve as Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, and that don’t enhance your story’s theme. If you’re using a generic or cliché Controlling Idea while writing, you can refine it as you go through the editing and re-writing process.
Stories are all about change. In the beginning, things are one way, and at the end, things are different. So, how do you create a framework for your story that enables you to show this change? And satisfy readers while doing it? You use story structure.
Regardless of which structure you prefer, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, that’s how we’ll be referring to the sections of story in this post. Let’s review the purpose of each section:
Within each of these sections you need to have five key scenes. These five key scenes are a representation of what Shawn Coyne calls the “Five Commandments of Storytelling.” Their purpose is to facilitate change and move the story forward.
Planning out your story. If you know that each section needs to contain five key scenes, you’ve already got a framework to plan your story around. That’s 15 scenes of your novel already figured out. And, since stories are all about change, and change takes place over a journey from point A to point B, all you need to do after figuring out your 15 key scenes is figure out how to connect them to each other. In other words, these key scenes are what you write to, and write away from. Also, if we use the 80,000-word mystery novel example from the beginning of this article, we can calculate roughly how long each section of your story should be. For example, the beginning of an 80,000-word novel would be around 20,000 words (80,000 / 25% = 20,000). And if you write scenes around 2,000 words, that would mean you could plan for about ten scenes in the beginning of your story.
Editing your work. When you’re editing, you can use the 15 key scenes as a checklist. Does each section of your story contain the five key scenes? If so, these are your most important scenes, so what can be done to make them stronger? If not, you now know what you need to add in your next draft. Does each section accomplish its purpose? If not, how can you revise your story so that it does? Does each section include a change from start to finish? If not, how can you fix that?
Of course, not every story will follow story structure to the tee, but if do you choose to forgo traditional story structure, you should to have a compelling reason for doing so. And, you should understand what you’re giving up by not following traditional story form.
Okay, now it’s your turn – I’d love to hear from you!
Has this helped you look at your story in a different way? Were you able to answer all six questions for your own manuscript? Is there any particular question that’s challenging to answer? Will you use these six questions to deconstruct your favorite stories? Let me know in the comments below!
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