Writing a Compelling Story

This is perhaps the hardest part of writing.  We deal mostly with fiction in this video, but if you write nonfiction, your main goal should be to pinpoint a problem and solve it.  The solution to your problem should be achievable by your target audience.  If you can do this, then the people you help will want to tell other people in similar circumstances.  In other words, word of mouth will do its magic.

In fiction, however, the rules different.  The goal of fiction is to entertain.  So below, Janet Syas Nitsick and I share tips on how to write a compelling story.

I’ll sum up our points below for your convenience.  Okay, I added some more ideas as I was listening to the video.  So consider the stuff below a bonus. 😉

An Exercise to Try

Think about your favorite book or movie.  What is it that makes it your favorite?  What emotions does it stir up within you?  Fiction should arouse an emotional response.  Compelling stories arouse a powerful emotional response.

An exercise you might try is to sit down with a notebook and a pen and write out specifically what stirred you most in your favorite scenes?  What was said?  What actions took place?  What emotions did these things make you feel?  What were the characters feeling?  Remember, the setting is just a backdrop.  It can enhance the scene, but the focus is on the characters.  Characters are the ones who experience feelings.

Focus on the Characters (Esp. the Main One)

The setting is neutral.  It can’t feel.  It can only add or detract from the center stage (which are your characters).  I find authors who tap into the emotions of the characters are better able to pull off writing compelling fiction than those who rely too much in the things around the characters.  You use external factors in your characters’ world to enhance their experience.  Those external factors should never take over.  Always keep the characters at the focal point.  Your reader is intimately engaged with the characters.

Consider your Genre

One of the things that can help as you look at writing your own book is what genre you’re writing in.  Readers of your particular genre are looking for a certain emotional experience.  They have an expectation going in when they pick up your book.  Now, the question is, will you deliver on that expectation?  Will you give them what you’re promising them?

If you’re writing a thriller or horror, your reader wants to be on the edge of their seat.  They want to be scared.  Their blood needs to be pumping as they read your book.  Those little creeks in the house need to start making them jittery.  Your fictional story should be impacting them in real life.  They need to be spooked.

A romance reader wants to experience that “falling in love” feeling.  They want that wonderful butterfly in the stomach sensation as they join the character in talking to that one special person who’s bound to be their soul mate for the rest of their life.  That first kiss needs to take their breath away.  When the character learns their love interest loves them, the reader needs to experience the joy of requited love.  It’s an uplifting emotion and leaves the reader feeling warm.  This is the takeaway the reader needs to have to be satisfied with the book, and this is why romances must have a happy ending to be in the romance genre.

Think about the genre you write in.  What are the emotions your readers expect when they pick up your book?  You need to tap into that.

Character Types

What type of characters are you attracted to?  I see a lot of alpha heroes in romances, but as a romance reader, I prefer beta heroes, so I write beta heroes more than any other hero type.  Think about the kind of characters that you naturally lean toward when you write.  I have a friend who loves strong, independent women and men who aren’t threatened by them.  She writes compelling stories, though her characters are a different type than mine are.

There is no one way to write a character.  Let your characters be themselves.  Be true to them.  If something is uncharacteristic for them, don’t have them do it.  Real characters have a way of reaching readers on an emotional level.  Don’t force your characters to follow the script you set out for them.  Let them develop as they want.  If you force the character into a box, it’s going to show.  The reader is going to think your story was forced to go in a certain direction, and they won’t believe the premise of what you set out your character to do.  Allow the characters the freedom to make their own decisions.

Another thing, when I was in high school I was a minor role in a play.  At the time I didn’t understand what the director (aka teacher) meant when she said, “The key to acting is to react.”  As a writer (years later), I get it.  What this means is that characters need to react to the things going on around them.  Something happens, and this makes the characters do, think, or say something in return.  Even if the characters choose to say or do nothing, this is still a reaction.  So when you’re writing in your character’s point of view, remember to react to things happening.  Don’t have the characters impose what they think should happen onto the scene.  (Not sure if that’s clear or not, but it’s the best way I can describe it.)

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What do you think?  Do you have any tips on how to write compelling fiction?

What about your favorite movie/TV show/book?  What emotions does it stir up in you?  Has this impacted your writing in any way?

13 Comments

  1. I think something important you have to do is hook your reader in the very first sentence, if not the first paragraph. Nothing hurts a story like an uninteresting beginning. Even if everything else is super-exciting, if a reader isn’t drawn in with the first few words, they won’t be drawn in by anything else. So put a lot of work into that first paragraph, because otherwise your story will suffer for it.

    1. Excellent point. The opening has so much to do with how well a book is received. If you can’t grab someone at the beginning, it’ll be hard to convince them to keep going. The story I beta read for you had an awesome beginning.

      1. Thanks, I’m glad you like it. Speaking of which, I’ve sent it to two magazines so far. I’m going to try a third that looks like it might go for what I’m writing. Fingers crossed!

        1. Keep me posted on how it goes. I wish you lots of luck with it!

          1. I appreciate it. Thanks Ruth.

  2. Ron Fritsch says:

    Thanks for this post. As a reader, whatever genre I’m reading in, I have to care what happens to the main character(s). Without that sympathy, the story loses interest for me. I’m providing a link to this post on Facebook for the members of the Association of Independent Authors.

    1. Thanks, Ron!

      I completely agree. Caring for the character is a must. If there isn’t that connection with the main character(s), the story is just so-so. It could have a great plot and wonderful dialogue, but in the end, it’s the characters who pull us in.

  3. I totally agree with everything you said. Character driven stories make you really get into them and care what happens.

    1. I’ve read well written books with excellent plots that felt empty because the characters just seemed to be there, going through the motions as if their hearts weren’t in it. Those never truly satisfied. There were two books I read that had extremely endings (something I hate), but the characters were so powerful I loved them anyway. They’ve stuck with me through the years and still evoke emotions in me even as I think of them.

      One of my top favorites by you is Soul of a Vampire because of the struggle the main character faced as he fought the darkness that wanted to take over. I felt like I was right there with him and going through it, too. So you not only brought out a very intriguing premise, but you delivered with the depth of the character. 🙂

      1. Oh, and thankfully, you gave a happy ending!

      2. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I hope you’ll like the sequel. Jude is going to be even darker than Nik was because he’s been without his soul longer.

        1. Oh cool! *rubs hands together in excitement*

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