Writing a compelling story, whether it’s a novel or a short story, can be hard work.
As an author, I’ve had the pleasure of judging a number of writing competitions, and I have always known by the very first page if a story is going to be good or not.
Because the writer has combined that wonderful mix of intrigue, character, voice and theme right from the onset.
In this article, I will be highlighting the twelve key elements that make a great story, helping you turn your tale into something that will stay in the minds of readers for years to come.
How Can You Write The Best Story Possible?
Sadly, with a world full of books vying for the attention of readers it’s not enough to simply be a good writer. There are many excellent writers out there, yet not all of them find success with their books.
If you want to catch the attention of a literary agent, editor, competition judge, or (and especially) your readers, you need to know how to write a story that will really grab everyone’s attention.
When I first started writing fiction I learned things the hard way. I used to think that writing a good book simply meant having the right story ideas – but it’s a lot more than that. Good writers know that a great book needs to enthral its readers in a way that feels completely incidental, but is actually strategically planned and plotted.
So before you start writing your bestseller, take a look at this checklist of twelve things your story should contain.
1. The Pitch
Personally, I like to start with a great story pitch well before I start plotting my book. If you can sum up your story in just one line, then it will be a lot easier to sell to agents and editors in the future.
Here’s an example.
“When a young man named Pi survives a shipwreck that kills both his parents, he finds himself stranded at sea on a life raft, along with a collection of wild animals… including a vicious tiger.”
Did you recognise my description of The Life of Pi?
In one sentence you are summing up not only what the book is about, but also the reasons why a reader will be compelled to find out what happens next. If you can’t do this with your book, then you will find getting the attention of an agent a lot more difficult.
2. The Hook
A great hook is what makes people keep reading beyond the first line.
Not every story needs to begin with a kick-ass sentence, but you only have one chance to make a good first impression so it helps to pull your readers in by page one.
Once you have your story idea think about how and where you will begin your book. Here’s an interesting example:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The first line of Orwell’s novel, 1984, instantly tells you that it’s set in a world and time we are not familiar with. You’re instantly asking yourself ‘what is that all about’?
3. Strong Voice
Ensuring your novel has a strong voice doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be written in the first person, as this can be achieved in third person too. It simply means that the narrative is so beguiling or striking that the reader instantly understands your main character (or the one whose point of view they are experiencing) and is intrigued to find out more.
Let’s take a look at how Irvine Welsh achieves this in his bestselling book, Trainspotting:
“Ma room is bare and uncarpeted. There’s a mattress in the middle ay the flair with a sleeping–bag oan it, an electric–bar fire, and a black and white telly oan a small wooden chair. Ah’ve goat three brown plastic buckets, half–filled wi a mixture ay disinfectant and water for ma shite, puke and pish. “
Not only does he write in the Scottish dialect, but this first person description of the character’s bedroom tells you all you need to know about him, his life, and the themes of the book.
4. Memorable Characters
Talking of characters, your main character needs to be a hero the reader is rooting for. They may be (should be) flawed, realistic, and hopeful, have a goal, face challenges, and their interaction with every other single character in the novel should be for a reason.
Give them quirks, unique features or personalities, a memorable backstory, and a reason for being who they are and doing what they’re doing.
Don’t be tempted to make your MC perfect. No human is perfect. Make them relatable and make sure they learn something by the end of the book.
5. Insightful Theme
What is the core message of your story? If you don’t know, then there’s a chance it may fall flat.
I’m not saying every book has to be didactic or preachy; this isn’t about teaching people lessons, it’s about that one word that encompasses a story.
For instance, The Life of Pi is about survival. And 1984 is about rebelling against a fascist regime.
When choosing a theme it helps to draw inspiration from our own lives, so write your own story. Not literally, I’m not talking about memoirs. But if you are passionate about something, whether it’s working-class lives or saving the planet, centre your work around that theme. You will write it a lot better than something you have no personal experience of.
Remember you want people talking about your book one day, so it helps to give them a discussion piece.
6. Know Your Genre
This is very important as agents, editors and readers want to know what they are getting.
It’s okay to mix your genres (ie fantasy romance or historical horror) but the more precise you make it the easier it will be to attract readers.
7. Interesting Plot
Well, this one is obvious. You may tick off all the above but if nothing interesting happens in your book then no one is going to enjoy it. The hardest part of the writing process is coming up with an idea that is original yet will also appeal to readers of similar books.
If you’re inspired by other novels in your genre look at how they keep your interest, including the twists and turns the story takes that make it so memorable.
8. Great World Building
World building isn’t reserved solely for the fantasy genre. Whether your book takes place in the future, in the scorching desert, or on Middle Earth, how you describe the backdrop to your story makes a huge difference.
Let’s take Harry Potter, for example. What people love about J K Rowling’s world building is the details – from the decor of Hogwarts, to the description of Ron Weasley’s home, to the Ministry of Magic building. They also love how it’s all interwoven into the real world, including magic happenings in everyday places like King’s Cross station and the centre of London.
It’s that magic that not only captured the imagination of children and adults alike, but also turned it into the biggest book franchise the world has ever seen.
9. Realistic Dialogue
There is nothing worse than reading a great story and then coming across unrealistic dialogue. It’s jarring. How your characters speak has to describe them, their surroundings, the genre you are writing in, and how they’re feeling at that moment.
Ensure that what your characters are saying is:
- Matches their personalities
- Either moves the plot along or gives the reader an insight into that person’s character
10. Good Structure And Pacing
Have you ever read a book and thought it was confusing or boring? That will be because of two things- structure and pacing.
The very least a story needs is a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I like to work to the Save The Cat beats, which means sticking to the usual three act structure but breaking them down into 15 beats. This includes:
- Act 1: Opening Image
- Theme Stated
- Break Into Act 2
- B Story
- Fun and Games
- Bad Guys Close In
- All is Lost
- Dark Night of the Soul
- Break Into Act 3
- Final Image
This may sound prescriptive but it can be applied to everything from Austen to Tolkein, Blyton to Brown. But there are many ways to structure a story, so see what works best for you.
It’s very tempting, as a writer, to info dump everything you want the reader to know right at the beginning of the story. Don’t do that.
Remember, that even if the book is a thriller, no reader wants to be exhausted the whole way through. So… much like running a race… pace yourself.
Build up to the climax, then give your readers a lull, then raise the stakes again, then lead them into a false sense of security. It’s all the ups and downs that make the ride so much more enjoyable.
11. Conflict And Tension
Talking of ups and downs, rising action is key to a great story.
Without conflict and tension, there’s no reason for your readers to keep reading. If a hero goes on an adventure and everything goes swimmingly and they achieve their goal, well… it may be nice for the MC, but it’s very boring to read.
Make sure that you make your main character suffer. Not so much that they totally give up – but nearly. Then, when they get to the end…
12. A Fantastic Ending
… give them a happy ending.
A great ending means that the reader is satisfied, even though it may not be all that happy for your hero. Include an extra twist, maybe a nice surprise, but most of all make sure there’s hope.
Not only must your hero learn their lesson but the reader must come away feeling like the story is complete and they have no further questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Three Things That Make A Good Story?
The three main things that make a good story are the hook, characters, and the voice.
- Hook – start your story in a way that will hook your readers and keep them interested.
- Characters – make sure they are interesting and that (although most probably flawed) your readers will root for them until the end.
- Voice – ensure your style of writing is fresh and matches the genre of the book.
What Are The 4 P’s Of Storytelling?
The four P’s of storytelling are people, place, plot, and purpose.
- People – Who are the characters in your book and why are they there?
- Place – Where is your book set and how can you bring it to life?
- Plot – What happens in your book and why should we care?
- Purpose – What theme or message are you trying to convey? Why did you write this book?
That’s A Wrap
If you reached the end of this article feeling invigorated and eager to write your best book ever, then hurray! Good luck to you.
And if you have run through my checklist and feel a little worried that your current manuscript doesn’t include all of these things, then I have great news for you. The best thing about writing a book is that you can keep editing it until it shines.
So take what you have, go deep with your characters, wider with your story, and really hook your readers from the very beginning.
Have fun making your good story even greater!