Story Foundations

Just over a year ago I graduated from university as a mature student. I’d tried higher education when I was fresh from college, but it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t ready for it at the time, and if I’m honest I wasn’t committed enough. But that worked out for the best because it gave me the opportunity to try again some seven years later.

I studied Creative Writing for the obvious reason – I wanted to become a better writer – but also because I was being selfish. I wanted three years out of the “real” world to write and see what would happen. The surprise for me was that I took to higher education like an addict; I found myself working harder than I’d ever expected, and the university became my home away from home. And even better, I was improving.

But one of my biggest obstacles was answering the simplest of questions: what makes a good story? It’s something we all discussed, the old debate of Character vs. Plot quickly creeping up.

I know what I came to university thinking. A good story was one in which amazing things happened. Bilbo’s adventure to the Lonely Mountain; the Pevensie children’s trip through a wardrobe into Narnia; Ged’s journey across Earthsea to right the great wrong of his youth. I was talking about plot… but my lecturer argued that stories – the best stories – are built on character.

I nodded along of course, thinking well yes that’s true. Sort of. Stories need characters, no arguments there, but stories where nothing happens are boring. I went to university writing plot-driven fiction, and my favourite stories were the ones with magical, action-heavy plots. That’s what makes a good story, I thought. That’s what I want to write.

Looking back, I was half right. So much of my writing back then was so concerned with plot that I’d finish, read it back, and be disappointed by how “light” it felt. It was missing that emotional weight, that elbows-out quality that so many of my favourite stories had, making them capable of shoving their way deep into my heart and mind to take root.

I still write stories where stuff happens, but I understand now that what matters just as much is who those things happen to. I can love a plot-driven story, be thrilled by it and stay up late into the night reading it, but if the characters are just empty vehicles for the reader then I’ve realised that the story soon fades. I forget about it.

What makes a story memorable is caring about the characters involved, having that emotional response to them and feeling something, positive or negative, toward them as the plot of the story rushes on. That’s why characters are the foundation upon which stories are built – but what makes a truly good story for me is having a layered, textured world to explore through the eyes of those characters I care about, and a thrilling plot that gives me paper cuts when I can’t turn the pages fast enough because I’m emotionally invested in what’s happening and who it’s happening to.

And a character that you as a writer care about makes for easier storytelling; you simply heap on liberal doses of conflict and choice and the story pretty much writes itself. It helps disguise the plot as something organic when the momentum of a story stems from the believable choices your characters make. And a lot of the fun for me comes from setting the stage, establishing the stakes (and raising them at every turn as the characters become more embroiled in the plot and consequences of their actions), and of course exercising my author’s right to enforce Murphy’s Law at every turn.

Put simply, characters are the foundation of good stories. Create them; get to know them; learn to love them. Then put them through a meat grinder. That’s how I write a good story.

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