Featured image: AI-generated image
Despite prose having been written for thousands of years, writers today still struggle to get ahold of that elusive ‘perfect’ tale. So how exactly can we make a story stand out? How can we make it dazzling?
The captivating power of stories
Think of your favourite book, play, or movie. Now recall, how was the story so unbelievably captivating that it gripped your attention and made you pore over it for hours on end, engrossed, and leaving you in awe by the time you finish?
I am sure that everyone has written a story before, even if it is just for a composition examination. What constitutes a good story, though? What makes your story an engaging experience? After doing some research and reflection, here are some of the things we discovered while dabbling in the art of writing.
What are some of the key mechanisms of a good story? First of all, the movement of its plot must be paced correctly, with enough focus on the necessary details. Its characters have to be dynamic and interesting, yet must also be fully relevant to the plot. Finally, its setting has to nail the exact atmosphere and mood for the rest of the story to take place in.
These are the three main mechanisms which we conclude tie a good story together. Join us as we delve deeper into each one of them to discover how exactly they work together to create an engaging story!
(1) A story’s lifeblood: Plot and Pacing
The plot is arguably the most important aspect of storytelling. It determines the order in which events are presented to the readers and as such plays a big role in making a story more impactful and engaging for them.
For instance, emotional scenes such as Snape’s betrayal and Dumbledore’s passing in Harry Potter would not have worked as well without the intense character development we got within the same volume as we spend a significant portion of the book with the characters. At the same time, the explanation for Snape’s actions is another unexpected yet very satisfying twist that captivates the reader and tempts them into reading further.
This presentation of events is exemplary as it hooks the reader in. Compared to the previous books, the reader spends more time with Dumbledore in Volume 6, The Half-Blood Prince, so his death means much more to the reader. Meanwhile, such shocking events also entice readers to read further to discover why they happened. If all of the characters’ hidden motivations were explained before Snape killed Dumbledore, the books would have been a lot less exciting.
One of the most important aspects of plotting is the pacing of events. The pacing of a story selects which moments to linger on longer and which moments to pass quickly by. This can play a big part in engaging readers, such as building tension or perhaps providing some time for readers to mourn the loss of a fan-favourite. (It is interesting to note that Dumbledore’s fall from the Astronomy Tower when Snape killed him was in slow motion in the movie adaptation.)
However, the plot ties pretty closely with character development and growth too. One of a story’s main driving factors is its characters. Through their lenses, the reader experiences the story, interacts with other characters, and so on. Thus, it is paramount that a story’s characters are interesting, complex, and dynamic, but this subject deserves a whole section of its own.
(2) Perspectives and dimensions: Character Development and Growth
Again, think of your story as a world of possibilities. Then think of your characters as spectacles — your reader see the world through them. This is why your characters need to be complex and dynamic. Let us walk you through what that means.
Simple characters are those who have few character traits, which are very obvious or unchallenging. Here, even if you have a marvellous, thrilling plot, your characters ruin it. The reader cannot experience the story fully, and may be left confused or underwhelmed. Let us visit one of our more familiar (hopefully) books, Things Fall Apart. There, the District Commissioner in Things Fall Apart is a simple character, mainly serving as an obvious antagonist. He is portrayed as oblivious, overly legalistic, and arrogant, with little redeeming qualities. This is why he does not partake in any main plot events.
However, some stories deliberately include simple side characters. This could be good if you want to direct all your attention towards a main storyline and more complex key characters.
Conversely, a complex character is one who has many dimensions, some of which might even be inconsistent at first sight. However, as the story progresses, the reader watches the character as he reveals his more “hidden” qualities, hopefully impacting the story in some tangible way. Going back to the example of Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is simultaneously brave – a man who does not fear injury or death and fights courageously in war – and cowardly, terrified of being shamed or seen as unmasculine, and it is this fear that drives his hypermasculine behaviour.
Now, let us examine static and dynamic characters.
A static character, by definition, is one who does not change across the course of the narrative. A reader may be bored if your main focus is on such characters, as there are little to no changes throughout the story. We sure do have some such examples in Things Fall Apart. In the story, Obierika is a static character, who does not change much across the course of the book. However, it may be strategic to include some static characters, as it could offer contrast to the pace of your story.
Meanwhile, a dynamic character is one who changes internally across the novel, often in response to the events that s/he faces. The main character of a story is most often a dynamic character, as it will be more interesting for the audience and the story will not seem “flat”. In Things Fall Apart, Nwoye is a dynamic character. He is first introduced as a ‘sad-faced youth’ who does not dare to stand up to Okonkwo and tries to emulate his masculine ways, but by the end, grows up to become someone who stands up against his tyrannical father and leaves his tribe for the church.
However, there are some fresh examples that may not feature dynamic characters as their main focus — you can experiment if you would like to!
To summarise, creating a good character is a lot harder than it looks on the surface. A character has to be built with the demands of the plot in mind, yet the plot has to move with its characters in mind. Additionally, we have also taken a closer look at the different roles a character might play within a story. Hopefully, with all this in mind, the characters you create become more memorable and seem more alive!
(3) Sketching a world: Setting and Atmosphere
The last aspect of storytelling we’ll be talking about is setting and atmosphere. While sometimes regarded as less important, without a proper setting for your story, it can often end up feeling surreal or confusing. Especially in longer stories or in worlds with more complex and different mechanisms to our own, worldbuilding is crucial to helping readers make sense of the story.
How exactly does one build a world from scratch, though? Make no mistake, this is no easy task. Many writers spend years creating a world for their story to take place in, before they even start on the plot. This worldbuilding method is known as hard worldbuilding, where the rules of the world are clearly defined and its locations are detailed and realistic.
A great example of this can be found within the famous series, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, where Middle-earth is a world created through hard worldbuilding. It has many territories and regions containing multiple towns and cities, which all come together to build a complex and layered world.
However, sometimes there is no need to create a world that is extremely detailed and realistic. Sometimes, what is needed is to create a particular atmosphere and an impression of the world as a whole. This method of worldbuilding is known as soft worldbuilding.
With soft worldbuilding, imaginary worlds are mysterious and boundless, with possibilities left to the imagination of the reader, and a stronger focus on atmosphere rather than concrete locations. Stories set in soft worlds are typically more focussed on relationships and changing perspectives, rather than on rules.
The Studio Ghibli films in particular showcase exemplary soft worldbuilding, such as in Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky. I personally found the films very expressive and emotional, and these aspects are only amplified by the impressive and skillful worldbuilding. The world is rendered with meticulous detail using a sketch-and-watercolour style that immediately nails its atmosphere.
In conclusion, setting and atmosphere ties very closely with the plot and narrative. It also plays a very important role in leaving the desired impression on a reader, and as such, it is important to take worldbuilding seriously.
If you have read this far, congratulations on making it to the end of the article! Hopefully, you have learnt something new about storytelling. Personally, I cannot wait to try out some of the things I discovered!