Updated: Oct 2, 2022
I’ve read hundreds of websites and more than twenty books meant to help authors write novels. Most of them didn’t help me. Steven King's book, On Writing, is an exception.
The bulk of literature on this topic is wordy and does not provide the life-giving fundamental principles essential for creating immersive fiction.
I have put together a list of ten of the most primal basics necessary to create engaging, believable stories. Print copies of this list and tape them to every vertical surface in your home. Read them every day until you have them memorized.
Or ignore the list and suffer for years until you recreate the same list on your own.
What strikes me about these principles is the first nine are rarely written about.
First: The Story Seed
The story seed is what the entire tale is wrapped around. It can be a single scene, a singular idea, or even one sentence. It’s possible that when Margaret Mitchell wrote, Gone with the Wind, she started with the sentence spoken by Rhett Butler at the end of the novel, “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” and then wrapped a novel around it. (The word “Frankly” was added by the movie version.)
The story seed is the heart of your tale and drives every word of dialogue in the novel. It determines the choice of mood, characters, detail, and plot.
If the story seed is organic and natural, the story can be organic and natural. If the story seed is stilted and arbitrary, so will be your story.
If you want to write a tale about falling stars, your story will be stilted. If you want to write about a falling star that ricocheted back into the oblivion of space because it wasn’t committed to its path, you may have a good story seed.
The story seed comes from deep within you. It’s the first substance that comes out of your mouth after you throw up, or your first thought after your supervisor informs you that she must lay you off.
Without a story seed, your tale wanders aimlessly and so do the minds of your readers.
Don’t start writing a tale until you have its story seed.
Second: Story vs. Plot
Plot is what happens in a tale. Story is why it happens. Story is about what-is-really-going-on. Events aren't story.
Every good tale is two stories. The outer tale is the plot, while the inner tale is the richer, meatier story that contains the tale's heart and humanity. A good example of this is the excellent movie, Frequency (2000).
The story should not be revealed to the reader until late in the novel. Its unveiling is the epiphanal "Oh, now I understand" moment when everything becomes clear to the reader.
Once the story is revealed, the reader is committed to the end of the tale. Revealing the story to the reader is the setting of the final hook, when the reader is under your omnipotent control.
A plot without a story is an empty plate. It is counting from one to a thousand. Such tales are tedious and steal days or weeks from your readers’ lives without offering anything in return.
Which is better: to be a good writer or a good storyteller?
In case you still don’t get it, watch this excellent video I came across.
When does a short story or novel end? It ends when the story is resolved. Happy or sad. Out with a bang, or a slow unwind until the last tick.
It is the story that must resolve by the end of the tale, not the plot. If you don’t know what your tale’s story is, how will you know when it should end? You won’t.
I have had many unpleasant experiences watching movies. I shall highlight three of them here because they all involve plots that lose track of their stories.
When the story is forgotten or discarded, the tale feels empty. Like reading the first thousand digits of the number pi. Without the story, the tale is tasteless.
Three movies that lost their story -- Spoilers!
Split (2016) -- This otherwise exceptional movie fails when we last see Casey being informed by the policewoman that she'll be sent to her Uncle John. The story is about Casey emotionally overcoming the memories of her abusive uncle when she was younger. The movie viewers don't get to see Casey's response to the police officer's news. Did the movie writers not know the central story of the movie, or was it their intent to give the viewers only half a tale?
Flight of the Phoenix (2004) -- The themes and story central to the original version of one of the best movies ever made (Flight of the Phoenix (1965); Jimmy Stewart; Richard Attenborough; Hardy Krüger) are missing from the 2005 remake. The movie's remake was so painful for me to watch I ejected it from my DVD player two-thirds through the movie and returned it to the movie rental store. The movie was not watchable. I believe the filmmakers did not care enough to view the original version before shooting the remake.
Passengers (2016) -- The movie holds to its story until the last scene when the narration (I detest narration in movies) is read by Aurora instead of Jim. The entire movie is about the evolution of Jim during his journey through space. Jim awakens from a deep sleep. It is he who later awakens Aurora. The last scene in the movie changes the tale from Jim's story to Aurora's. But there is a bigger point to be made about Passengers. The movie would have been many times more impactful had the movie's story been Aurora's from the beginning instead of Jim's. She experiences the greater change throughout the movie. Seeing the tale through her eyes and experiencing her life evolve as she overcomes challenges would have felt more powerful to the viewers. Thus, not only did the movie lose its story, but it provided the viewers the wrong character's story.
Third: Wise Counsel from Ray Bradbury
Watch the video entitled, Story of a Writer. The film features how Ray Bradbury came about writing the short story, Dial Double Zero. The film is under 30 minutes. It’s old and black-and-white, but it presents everything I’m telling you now and more. If you’re not mature enough to watch it all the way through, you’re not mature enough to be a writer.
I first saw this film in fifth grade. It had a tremendous impact on me over my lifetime. I’m finding out now after so many years that it had a great impact on other people, too.
Fourth: Real, But Not Too Real
Authors want to write stories that ring true and resonate in mind and heart.
But what is "true"? Real life is boring. Record actual dialogue heard around you. Write it down and read it to yourself. You'll find that it is dull.
In 1969, Columbia Pictures made a sci-fi movie called, Marooned, starring Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman (big names!) about an Apollo mission where three astronauts get stuck in orbit, unable to return to Earth. (Interestingly, the Command Module in this story was named Ironman.) The film enjoys a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Here’s the issue with Marooned: The film is boring. This is because the film is so realistic. Do you want realism? Watch this good movie. But it is only for people mature enough to watch the whole thing.
How is this conflict between real-life dullness and fake excitement resolved? I believe the answer is in the editing. Start with a conversation or a scene that is utterly real. Then cut out half of it.
Delete the “um’s,” the pauses, and the “Well’s.” If one character asks a question, cut out the answer from the other character.
Shorten and distill. Remove what isn't interesting. Look at each sentence of your tale independent of the others. You'll discover that a third of them are uninteresting and don't contribute.
After you edit, you’ll still end up with truth--but with less volume. This gives what remains a bigger punch.
Every time I edit out an entire page worth of words from one of my stories, what remains is better.
How do you know what to cut?
Answer: Whatever doesn’t support the story seed and the story (see previous topics). If you don’t have those two concepts understood in your mind, you won’t know how to edit your tale.
Phonebooth scene from Rosemary's Baby (1968)
I want you to watch this scene. You'll thank me if you do, I promise. There's nothing scary in it.
The scene exemplifies the following points. View the scene before reading these points.
She fumbles with her notebook as she finds the number to dial. No need to rush the scene. There is no exposition about it.
Her voice is shaky, but she never "announces" she is scared. Show, don't tell.
After she says, "I'll kill them before I let them touch you," she moves into the shadow.
Sweat forms on her face while she's on the phone.
She fiddles with the telephone chord.
After she says, "by all the saints," she looks up, as if to Heaven.
Notice the reflections in the glass of bystanders walking by and the sounds of traffic. Wonderful details.
The camera drops a few inches just as a man stands outside the booth with his back to her as if to put Rosemary in a weaker position. It is about the only time in the scene when the camera moves.
The scene is filmed with no cuts. It is one continuous shot.
It is these kinds of details you must give your stories to make them come alive.
Conflict, especially internal conflict, is the driver of every story ever written since the beginning of Humanity. There is no story without conflict.
You can write a riveting tale spanning a thousand years about two rocks next to each other on the ground if that tale has sufficient conflict. Such a story, with virtually no plot, can win you international acclaim if you cause your readers to obsess about those two rocks. The conflict must be organic and genuine. It must come from deep within you.
I have a memory from my childhood of being on a walk when I picked up a rock and threw it some distance away. One of the adults with me pointed to a rock that was next to the one I threw and said, “Those two rocks tried for a thousand years to get together. Now you have separated them. It will take them another thousand years to find each other again.”
There it is. The makings of the next recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature.
You must know that most novels nowadays are driven by contrived and clichéd antagonists. Movies recently have a worse record. Show me a movie where the antagonist is neither a corrupt government (including military or police), a corrupt medical practice, or a corrupt religion. Is there one? Show me.
Please do the world a great favor and pick something else to be your antagonist.
Sixth: You Won’t Get Your Way
Deal with it.
You won’t know ahead of time where your tale will go. If you try to force its path you will ultimately give up because the more your force your plot, the more contrived it will become.
I’m sorry, but your tale’s path is not up to you. It is a humiliating process to be led by people and events who don't exist. However, if you write a story that isn't led in large part by your characters, you won’t end up with a rich, immersive story.
If your characters become uncooperative with you, then you're heading toward something good. Consider it a blessing. This is one reason why having an overly detailed outline is counterproductive. Quit being so controlling.
Seventh: Never Stop Obsessing
Think about each character all day long when you’re not writing. Empathize with each character non-stop. Become your characters. Live their lives in your mind. Daydream about them. Keep paper and pen with you 24/7 to write down notes as they come to you. You will not remember your thoughts if you don’t write them down the moment they come to you.
The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes. -- Agatha Christie
When you write a story, you are creating what has never existed on Earth prior to your putting it on paper. That makes you special. Relish your personal glory. Yet, you are alone in your thoughts because there is no one to whom you can turn. No one in the universe knows more about your tale than you.
Your tale will include perhaps ten percent of what you know about your characters. Such hours of thought are not wasted because if you have a good understanding of your tale's story, you will select the correct ten percent of your characters’ lives to include in the story.
If you want to see an excellent example of author-character-obsession, see the movie The Words (2012).
I go on two-mile walks most nights around my neighborhood. It's on those walks when I get many of my best ideas. I was stuck this year for over a month on how to develop a certain scene in one of my stories. I thought about the scene for weeks without coming up with a satisfactory outcome. Then, one night on a walk it came to me. The experience was so intense, with all its accompanying feelings, images, and details, that when I decided I had it sorted in my head, I looked around and for a few seconds did not know where I was or which direction I was walking.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour Rule in his book Outliers, which states that it takes ten thousand hours of experience in any activity to become an expert in that activity. Based on forty hours per week, that comes to about five years. Based on my own life, and the lives of the people I know, the principle is correct.
Dabbling in writing for only two hours a day stretches the 10,000-hour milestone to over 13 years. But what's wrong with that? Why must we get everything we want right away?
When is the best time to plant a tree? Answer: Twenty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Answer: Today.
I have over forty years of experience playing the trombone. I can tell you there is more than one way to play any series of notes in a musical passage. The same goes for the piano, the guitar, or any other musical instrument. Experience is what promotes us from intellectuals--people who know how to do something, to artists--people who know the best way to do something.
Your job as a writer is not to write sentences, but to write the best sentences one after the other forever. Such a skill requires time to develop. And that is all right.
Ninth: Slow It Down!
I've critiqued many budding authors' novel manuscripts. Most authors write as if several chapters' worth of information must be stuffed into the first two pages, as if to respect the readers' valuable time.
This is due to inexperience. It's like when you're sixteen years old on your first date. You don't know what to say so you say everything. You don't know where to put your hands, and everything you do feels awkward.
This touches on a dominant trait of expert authors: they know what to include, and when. Expert writing is knowing when to provide each detail.
Some of the best material to include in the first few pages of a novel is introspection from main character. Introspection at the start of the story is better than dialogue or action because it helps the reader get to know the character. This is what most readers want. Introspection in the first few pages should help set up and frame your story. It should feel relatable and natural.
But there are two "shall not's":
Introspection shall not feel like narration.
Introspection shall not feel like exposition.
Either would be disastrous for your story.
When you meet someone for the first time, does she immediately launch into what she's been experiencing for the past two years? Probably not. Don't do that to your readers. What would someone who you just met likely say about himself? Perhaps he'd say--or think to himself:
"I woke up today worried about something. Isn't that strange? I don't remember what it was."
"Wow, what a lake. I wish there were more of these."
I know, it's terrible small talk. But notice how both thoughts are in the present. The thoughts contribute to scene, setting, mood, theme, and atmosphere. Your readers mostly likely want to start a story in the present because their real lives are in the present. The jolt into fiction feels more natural.
It's not comfortable to jump into a moving car. Slow down the start of your story.
The ability to know which details to provide in the first few pages comes with experience. In the meantime, keep writing. Just try to slow it way down when it comes to novels.
Great volumes have been written about how to create engaging, rich characters. The best advice I can give on how to create exceptional characters is to make them relatable. You can check your character's relatability by taking your character out of your story and sitting him or her next to you. Meet your new friend. If he or she doesn't grab and keep your attention for hours, then you still have work to do. Read my entry on characterization.
These principles will help you create rich, organic, vivid, tangible, immersive stories. Notice I’ve made no mention of sentence length, grammar, choice of verbs, or any other literary mechanism. That also comes from years of practice.
One more thing. Read all my blog posts under “Writing Tips.” My blog posts under "Life Lessons" will help make you a better person. I don't know if you’re interested in that. But I hope you want to be the best writer who ever lived.