5 Things You Should Know About How to Tell a Great Story by Kelly McClymer, author of “The Fairy Tale Bride”
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ABOUT KELLY McCLYMER
Kelly McClymer started her writing career in short science fiction, moved to novel length historical romance and then shifted over to fantasy YA. Who knows what she’ll write next.
You can visit Kelly at her website,http://kellymcclymer.com.
5 Things You Should Know About How To Tell a Great Story
As a reader and writer for most of my life, and a writing instructor for over a decade, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great story. There are other writers who have written entire books about the subject, providing lots of discussion about point-of-view, story arcs, writing tightly, morning pages, character archetypes, etc. These are all good guides. But one thing I’ve learned from reading other writers’ works-in-progress is that a great story can break a lot of writing “rules” without losing a reader.
So if you get bogged down in show-vs-tell, or deciding between first person, third person and omniscient point of view? Stop. Focus. Obey these five simple rules, and you’ll be a great storyteller. Disclaimer: Nothing in life is easy, especially not the truly simple stuff. Just like some other elemental rules (please-and-thank-you, the 15 mph school zone speed limit, calories-in-calories-out), consistently following these requires a lot of focus and hard work.
1. Get Your Reader’s Attention.
Seems obvious, right? Then why do so many new writers start off with a lot of uninteresting back story? Because they don’t trust their ability to grab the reader without explaining the journey will be worthwhile before they get started.
Think about it this way: if you meet someone date-worthy and want the person to like you, do you hand out a history of your past relationships? Or do you flirt? Maybe unbutton a top button, let down your hair, or smile a sexy smile? Or, for a different kind of meeting: if you’re the ax murderer in your local Halloween haunted house, do you yawn? Or turn slowly, give an evil grin, and sharpen your axe as people draw near?
2. Make Your Reader Laugh. Or Cry. Or Shiver.
If you’re writing a humorous novel, there should be something to make your reader smile, laugh, or snort soda through his nose on every page (more smiles, fewer laughs, and one or two well planned snorts per chapter). Not your characters, mind you — your readers. If you have a character laugh every time you want your reader to laugh, that’s like canned laughter on a sitcom. Same with a poignant novel, or a horror novel — it is so much worse for the reader to scream at the clueless character not to open the door/enter the haunted house/rub the ancient lamp. That’s why there are so many clueless characters in horror novels.
3. Tell the Truth, However It Needs to Be Told.
Readers have an instinct for when the author intrudes and uses the characters like puppets to do things the characters, as written, would not. Yes, your always perfectly proper character could appear disheveled in the midst of a formal party — but there will be consequences (personal ones like embarrassment, and public ones like losing the respect of someone important). When real people take action, they have a reason for it that seems valid (to them, at the time). Fictional characters, even minor ones, need the same motivation.
4. Keep Your Reader Guessing.
You’ll find this in the writing books under Pacing. Mystery and thriller writers keep readers guessing by planting red herrings and taking characters (and readers) up blind alleys. It is hard work to plant a red herring and making sure the red isn’t exposed until later in the novel (usually in a way that surprises the reader). Blind alleys offer a nice surprise for a reader — as long as it seems like an alley that goes somewhere important when you introduce it.
The opposite of guessing is knowing for sure. If a reader knows what is going to happen next every time she turns the page, why keep reading? So, let readers (and characters) be sure of what’s going to happen, and then…surprise them.
5. Leave Your Reader Satisfied.
When I was in high school, we had to read “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton. If you’ve never read it, you can find it here http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LadyTige.shtml. It is singularly the most satisfyingly unsatisfying ending in the world — the surprise is that you will be left guessing…forever. The story ending works because the question at the heart of the story is one can never know the human heart until it is utterly revealed by irreversible action. We must decide to trust, and leave our fate — and life — vulnerable to that absolute trust. Readers (including my high school classmates) don’t like this ending, even when it is fitting. Most stories begin with the promise of an answer at the end. Maybe not a happy answer (as long as it rings true), but an answer nonetheless. Think of it as a door that is opened at the beginning of the story and closed at the end. If you don’t close the door properly, you will get questions.
That’s it. Five simple rules that will guarantee you a great book. The bad news: How you accomplish this feat will be by creating a path only you can forge. The good news: You’ll know when you get there — your readers will tell you, not with words, but with an avid need to turn every page until the final, satisyfing, page.
Oh. And fair warning: the path you forge may be different for every story you tell (has been for me).
ABOUT THE FAIRY TALE BRIDE
Miranda Fenster gave up on a happily-ever-after following a disastrous London season, but she is determined to help her brother regain his star-crossed love by convincing the impeccably proper Duke of Kerstone he was wrong to thwart their love match. Instead, she finds herself compromised, married, and with a second chance for a fairy tale ending — if only she can show the duke fairy tales do come true.