Take your reader for a ride they’ll never forget by learning how to drive your story forward! You might have your characters developed, a setting or a central theme in mind, but without all the proper tools to drive your story, you could hit some potholes. Here’s what to keep in mind as you’re writing to avoid stalling out.
First Up: Conflict!
At the center of every story, there is a problem. If everything in your world is perfect, there’s nothing to solve, and therefore no reason to write about it. Conflict propels a story, causing things to go wrong and forcing characters to act. You’ve probably heard of the different conflict classifications, like Person vs. Self, Society vs. Self, and even Self vs. Self. Use these to help you nail down what your main problem is: are you more interested in external or internal conflict? Do you want to focus more on character relationships or large-scale societal issues? Some of the best stories incorporate multiple types of conflict, both big and small scale, to create a more complex narrative.
Another tip: keep upping the stakes. Say your character is late for their mother’s birthday party. They just got on the highway when—oh no!—there’s a huge accident that’s put traffic at a standstill. Even worse: they really, really have to pee. Create more and more conflict until it’s impossible for your reader to put down your story before they find out how your characters will solve their problems.
As with a perfect world, if you have a perfect character, nothing is ever going to happen to make readers interested in their story. We like watching characters crash and burn to see how they come back from it, rather than seeing them do the exact right thing. Include consequences for their actions. Put them through the ringer, and then put them through it again. Flaws are what make us human, so giving your character their own flaws will make them believable and compelling to your reader. Just because they aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean we won’t sympathize with them—flaws don’t immediately make a character into a villain.
The more flaws a character has, the more conflict there is bound to be! When dealing with multiple characters, it’s good to give each their own unique flaws and characteristics in order to point out their differences. It’s always interesting to see two characters deal with the same situation in radically different ways. Here’s a fun prompt: put your characters in an elevator. Then have the elevator break down. Now write about the chaos that ensues.
Let’s stick with the car metaphor when thinking about driving your story. If conflicts are the bumps and turns in the road, and your characters are the passengers, then tension is the gas pedal, increasing our acceleration through the story. The key to tension is knowing when to withhold and reveal key information that changes the reader’s understanding of the story. A great way to include tension is to use foreshadowing to hint at future events, increasing a reader’s anticipation and creating suspense. Another great way to think about tension is with a “story mountain” structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. Think of your car chugging up a tall mountain, using more and more gas to get to the top—the highest point of tension.
Whether you’re writing a historical romance or a dystopian sci-fi, all stories need to be driven by something. Some techniques lend themselves better to different genres, but using a healthy balance of all of them is a foolproof way to keep your reader strapped in for the ride!
About the Author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, watching Marvel movies, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.