What Makes A Good Story (Part 2)

The Climax
When I ask students what they think the most important part of a story is, they invariably reply, “The climax!”.  Students often misconstrue what they think to be “most important” with what is “most interesting”.  I would classify the former to be under ‘conflict’ or ‘complication’. If there is no conflict, there is no story. If robbers or criminals were not desperate and in need, there would probably be less crime, and if we did not give in to temptation, there would definitely be lesser problems in this world.

The conflict should get more and more tense or exciting. The tension should reach a high point or “climax” near the end of the story, then ease off. For a climax to be satisfactory, it must grow logically out of the plot. Problems cannot be solved through coincidence or luck. Good climaxes result when the lead character solves the problem himself. He cannot do something that is out of his powers. Again, one should avoid climaxes where when everything seems impossible, the protagonist wakes up from a “dream” or where the character is saved by luck or coincidence; or worse, an Inception-like sequence (a dream-within-a-dream) is played out till the end. I enjoy climaxes that are skillfully crafted out of conflict. For instance, when a drowning man holds on to you, you want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.

It takes Character…
I am reminded of the playwright, William Shakespeare. As the master ‘puppeteer’ he would probably advise… “Before you start writing, know your characters well.”  He probably had all these (flawed) characters in his writing repertoire, waiting to be unleashed as he penned his plot, be it tragedy or comedy. The tyrant, the jealous sibling, the gullible parent, the mischievous clown. All these archetypes and be transposed into our modern story-scape to represent everyday characters we encounter on a daily basis.

Likewise, your main character should be someone readers can feel something in common with, or at least care about. You don’t have to describe a character completely. It is enough to mention one or two traits about how a character looks or moves or speaks. A main character should have at least one flaw or weakness. Perfect characters are not very interesting. They are also harder to feel something in common with or care about. And they do not have anything to learn. In the same way, there should be at least one thing good about a “bad guy.”

Style and Tone

Use language that feels right for your story. As the celebrated author Stephen King would put it, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot.” There is no substitute and no short cuts to become a good writer. Read like a writer. Search within yourself for your own personal voice, rather than emulate the J.K Rowlings and the Roald Dahls of today.

We all have heard about the five senses. Try going beyond them – use body language; it gives texture and depth to your work.

Consider this:

Christina paused and stared at the clock on the wall. She looked at the second hand as it ticked, waiting for Michael to enter the room.

This does not reveal anything about character, her state of mind or how she feels. If Christina feels anxious, use the moment fully:

Christina paused and stared at the clock on the wall. She wished the second hand would fly past as images of Michael entering the room bearing gifts and good tidings flooded her mind. What if he had met with an accident? Or did he forget that this was their special day?

We learn something about what is going on with Christina here, without having to second guess her motivations and intentions.

Wherever possible, use actions and speech to let readers know what is happening. Give speech in direct quotes like, “Come on, hurry, we’re late!” instead of indirect quotes like “He told her to hurry as they were getting late.”  You do not have to write fancy to write well. It almost never hurts to use simple words and simple sentences. That way, your writing is easy to read and understand.

Creative Twist or Unexpected Ending
Being an avid fan of film in general, and of the suspense genre in particular, I enjoy the thrill of the ride, so to speak. I remember the many films by Alfred Hitchcock when I was in film school. He was, and arguably is, the master of pulling the rug from under your feet.

While many students would write about the conventional and common storyline and plot, it takes a bit of skill and thought to craft a surprise. Your teacher may expect you to conclude in a certain way, but by giving your composition an unexpected ending or a creative twist to the conclusion, you may just score more marks. ‘A day at a beach’ could end up with the main character discovering a war relic or some hidden treasure, instead of an incident of drowning, for example.

Finally, check that your work ‘hangs together’ and that the elements of the narrative structure is adhered to and that your grammar is precise and accurate.