Are you trying to figure out what will make your story pop for your readers? Having trouble figuring out the exact formula to make a good or decent story spectacular to your particular audience? Bram Stoker-nominated author Janice Gable Bashman weighs in with some advice in her article inspired by a New York Times bestselling author. In “Capturing Reader’s Interest: An Interview with J.T. Ellison,” Bashman tells us more about what kind of magic readers are looking for.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this blog are from Janice Gable Bashman’s article as featured in the 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. See reference citation below.)
“A sharp, strong voice, an engaging style, and starting the action and story immediately are what it takes. Kick-start your story, set the tone, and assure your readers that you aren’t going to waste their time making them wonder what this book is going to be about.” As Bashman quotes Ellison in her article. 1
Getting to this point will take more than a few tries, especially if you’re just starting out. But that’s okay, too. Just start by writing out whatever comes to you. Write out a plan first if you can and it works. There isn’t really any right or wrong way to start out; what matters is the end product.
Ellison elaborates in Bashman’s article: “Practice makes perfect, and the best way to practice is by writing short stories. Flash fiction (telling a full story in 1,000 words or less) is a great training tool.” 1
Now, while this is a tried-and-true method for many, understand that all writers are different. For example, when I first started out on my book currently in progress, I literally wrote out one scene (which later became my ending chapter) that came to me, and developed the story around that scene. Granted, that’s a more complicated and time-consuming way to write, but it’s how I write. As a matter of fact, Ellison says starting in the middle of your story is one of the best ways to hook your readers from the beginning. 1
If you’re more productive writing flash fiction or practicing with shorter stories like novellas, go for it. Just remember to have the final result with a beginning, middle, and end that fits together in a way that makes sense and is fun for others to read.
However, if you’re trying to write a story that will be drawn out long enough to last for at least one book, then my advice would be to start with flash fiction (if that works for you) and continue writing longer and longer stories from there. That way, you’re gaining experience in how to write stories of varying lengths.
If you’re just starting your story, keep in mind what would make you want to keep reading after the first paragraph or page if you were the reader. “Clean, straightforward prose, in the style of your genre, is vital,” Ellison shares. “If you’re writing a thriller, you start with a scene that establishes a question. (And at the end of that book, you must answer that question.) In a mystery, what is missing, what are the stakes? If it’s a romance, what’s the conflict? And whatever you do, don’t interrupt the forward progress of the story to tell the reader the backstory. A good storyteller captures the imagination of the reader immediately and uses action and reaction to tell the story as the book progresses.” 1
But what about point of view? How to you want to present your story to your readers?
“POV is tough,” Ellison notes, “every writer is different. If you try a few different styles in [short stories], you’ll find the voice you’re comfortable with for a full-length novel. And once you decide on a point of view, stick to it. Head hopping, switching from first to third, [and] writing in present tense are all minefields for less-experienced writers. I’d suggest writing multiple short stories in every point of view, trying omniscient, close third, first person, and seeing what the story needs and what you’re most comfortable doing. Remember, each story has its own requirements for POV. Something written in first person might not work, but switch it to close third, and voila-magic.” 1
As you’re developing your story, consider the main conflict(s). Who is (or are) the main protagonist(s)? What is he/she/they going through? Why should we care? Go through and answer these questions if you haven’t already, and you’re off to an excellent start.
How do you know when you’re done? “Once you’ve answered the question you established in Chapter 1, the story is finished,” Ellison says. “There is a natural rhythm to a story. Some call it the Hero’s Journey, some break the story into three acts, some follow a ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure, some just know when the story is done. It takes practice. Reading and deconstructing the books you like is a great way to figure out their innate rhythm.” 1
Write first, and leave everything else until after you’ve gotten everything written. Then you can go back through and make sure you’ve found a viable, believable solution to every problem you’ve set out in your story, as well as making sure everything is smooth with your “plants,” spelling, grammar and syntax, and everything falls in place within a reasonable timeframe. Then you’ve written a memorable story. 1
Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
- Bashman, Janice Gable. (Date unknown). In Rachel Randall (Ed.) 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (pp. 36-40). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.