My high school creative writing teacher had the best definition of story that I’ve ever seen.
A story is interesting people, solving interesting problems, in interesting ways.
The genius is in its simplicity. Interesting is subjective and open to so many different possibilities, which allows for everyone to approach it in their own creative way. But the core idea is solid. People solving problems. At the heart of every story is a problem to be solved.
So how can we improve our storytelling skills? By focusing on the three things that make a story a story.
1. Interesting People
This is all about the characters. Even in formula-heavy action stories, character stands out. Everyone knows James Bond, right? A great story has characters who offer something interesting to readers. (I know, easier said than done) But think about the things you find interesting about other people. Unless the job itself is intriguing, odds are it’s not what they do for a living that captures your attention. It’s something about their personality, their quirks, their way of looking at or doing things that intrigues you. It’s sharing similar interests or beliefs, or maybe even having totally different interests and beliefs. Try studying your own tastes:
- Pick three of your friends. Why do you like them?
- Pick three celebrities. Why do you enjoy watching them?
- Pick three people you dislike. Why don’t you like about them?
- Pick flaws from three people. What ones do you find endearing? Annoying?
2. Interesting Problems
This is all about the premise. While any problem can be made interesting with the right pieces, mundane tasks usually don’t make people flock to see what’s going on. It’s the unusual that grabs us. The different or the unexpected. Think about the problem your protagonist faces in your story.
- Pick three ways this can hurt your protagonist.
- Pick three ways this can benefit them.
- Pick three ways in which readers can relate to this problem.
- Pick three elements that have larger ramifications for your story.
3. Interesting Solutions
This is all about the plot. How you have your protagonist solve her story problem will comprise the scenes of your book. The more creative you are, the more unpredictable the plot, and the more interesting it can be for the reader. But don’t mistake convoluted plots for interesting. A variety of things that can happen makes for unpredictability, not a complex set of tasks that resemble a Rube-Goldberg device. Look at your problem again:
- Pick three ways in which your protagonist can solve this problem.
- Pick three ways in which she can fail.
- Pick three places where she has to make a choice that will send her on one of those above paths.
- Pick three secrets she won’t know about until they happen.
These are certainly the more technical ways of boosting your storytelling, and there are others that can also help. But that’s for another day.