To succeed as a fiction author you need to write stories that work so well that readers enjoy them and recommend them to friends. But what are the components that make a story work? Let’s take a look at six I find particularly important.
1 At least one main character that readers care about
It’s vital that readers care what happens to the main character in your story as that’s what keeps them turning the pages. That doesn’t mean the character has to be perfect. In fact, it’s often better if they’re not, because readers like reluctant heroes and characters with flaws. However, you’ll find it hard to make them care about someone who is totally unlikable.
2 A problem that the main character needs to solve
A character with a problem lies at the core of every good story. It’s important that the problem is one readers can understand and relate to so you need to choose it carefully to suit your target market. For instance, the problem of something being lost is universal but under 5s will relate to a story about a lost toy, romance readers will be interested in lost love and sci-fi fans may prefer the mystery of a lost spacecraft.
3 Plenty of Jeopardy
The more that’s at stake, the more the reader will care about your character’s attempts to solve the problem. So make sure that failure carries high consequences: death, the triumph of evil, unjust imprisonment, loneliness, separation and loss can all work.
4 Rising tension
The tension in a good story rises steadily from beginning to end with a few slight lulls along the way. As a result, a graph of the tension in a good story looks like a series of peaks and troughs with each peak being higher than the one before as they build towards the final climax. Your character’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem can provide some of these ups and downs and so can the arrival of new complications.
One of the surest ways to make sure those peaks keep getting higher is to set a deadline: your couple have to get together before one of them marries the wrong person, the bomb has to be defused before the timer hits zero or the murderer must be caught before he strikes again. The resulting time pressure guarantees that the tension will rise as the deadline comes closer and closer.
5 A black moment when all seems lost
Your readers want your character to succeed, but they don’t want that to happen too easily. Make the most of that time pressure by giving your character one last failed attempt just before the deadline – a failure that makes it look as if all is lost. Now there are no more options left. As the clock ticks on, the bride is walking down the aisle with the wrong man, the bomb has reached the final countdown or the murderer has already captured his next victim. Your reader is on the edge of their seat, holding their breath as they turn the page to find …
6 A climax where the main character solves the problem
After all those failures, the main character finally achieves success against all the odds, preferably in a way that’s not too predictable. To make your climax work to maximum effect, two things are vital:
a) The main character (or characters) must solve the problem themselves. This is not the moment for the cavalry or anyone else to ride to the rescue unless their arrival is a direct result of your main character’s behaviour earlier. So, if the problem is lack of money, it’s better if your character receives some as a reward for bravery rather than by winning the lottery.
b) The climax mustn’t depend on your characters using powers the readers didn’t know they had. If your character’s success depends on being able to fly a plane or use karate effectively, you need to have dropped that information into the story earlier, at least once, even if you choose to do it in a very subtle way. Your aim should be for readers to think “of course”, not “what!” or “that’s not fair”.
It’s easy to think that the last component is the most important of the six – if you get the climax wrong. you’ll leave your readers feeling dissatisfied so they are less likely to recommend your book to their friends. But even a perfect ending is no good if readers give up earlier in the story because they don’t care what happens. To make a story work well, you need to weave all the components together with skill.