I’ve had many false starts on my writing journey – stories that started strong and got lost in the middle, stories that fell flat and forgettable at the end, stories that had a debilitatingly weak character arc. I found ways to address all those problems, but in the process still wasted a lot of time. Since my theme for 2015 is “Be More Productive!” I’m aiming to avoid these false starts and less-than-stellar stories. So I took a good hard look at what makes a story worthy of being written and decided it comes down to these three things…
1. The Hook
Why would anyone read this? No, seriously, think about it. The notion that just because a writer is compelled to write something means a reader will be compelled to read it is, frankly, flawed. Humans can and do mistake self-interest for a good story. Ever hear someone pitch their unremarkable life like it’ll be the next bestseller? Yeah, that. It’s easy to spot when you’re the audience, but harder when you’re the writer. After all, this novel is your baby! But do your best to get out of your own head and image you’re a stranger browsing books. Would you select your book out of the hundreds on the shelf or thousands in Amazon’s catalogue? Why?
That “why” is the hook, and it comes down to a question. Every genre has its own base question to answer:
|Coming-of-age||Will the protagonist grow up and overcome their flaws?|
|Romance||Will the hero find love?|
|Mystery||Who committed the crime?|
|Horror||Who will survive and how will they beat the monster?|
|Crime||Will the hero defeat the bad guys and bring them to justice?|
Now the trick is to put an original spin on the base question. But note that the question must be there first. If you’re not sure why someone would read your book, ask what the reader would want to find out from the story. That’s the hook. People are drawn to stories that have a compelling question to answer.
2. The Theme
Otherwise known as, “What the #%*$ is the point of this story?!” Notice I did not ask, “What is this story about?” I asked, “What is the point?” Basically, if you don’t have a point to make, why are you telling this story? It can be as universal as, “Love flourishes when you let go of insecurity.” Or as tragic as, “Crime pays when cops are corrupt.”
Having a point to prove doesn’t mean being preachy, it just means you the writer have something insightful to share about human nature. This is the heart of every good story and is often called “The Theme.”
For more on theme, check out these posts on finding your theme and using theme (aka the controlling idea) to strengthen your story.
3. The End
I’ve waxed poetic about endings before, but Act III truly makes or breaks a story. I’ve blogged about how to make endings right and how to make them unforgettable, but when it comes down to it, the most important thing an ending does is answer the hook question and prove the point of the theme. Bam! It’s a beautiful thing! But if you don’t have that ending, well, you might spend months or years writing and trying to find it and never quite succeeding. And that is a horrible thing!
HOOK + THEME + END
What do these three things look like when you put them together? To break it down, let’s examine the elements of The Hunger Games:
- HOOK: Will Katniss win the deadly Hunger Games?
- THEME: Freedom from the Capitol is attainable when someone stands up to them.
- END: Katniss not only wins the Hunger Games, she shows everyone in Panem that it’s possible to beat the Capitol when she outsmarts them into letting both her and Peeta win The Games, which gives the whole country the confidence to stand up to their dictator and start a revolution!
Now that is a story worth writing!
When I look back at my failed writing projects, they were all missing one or more of these elements. I won’t make that mistake again. So from this moment on, I vow to have The Hook, The Theme and The End in place before I even start outlining. Onward and upwards in 2015!