1) It’s about the characters.
The story goes that someone broke all the possible plots down into 36 different situations, and I’ve heard 7 as well, and 3 (man vs. man, man vs. himself,and man vs. nature). The truth is, it doesn’t matter how original your plot is- it’s been done before, and it will be done again, probably better than you’re capable of doing it by sheer odds.
So what’s a writer to do?
The answer is focus on characters. It’s the characters and their interactions that will make most stories unique, not their ideas or incredible plots. Characters are the one advantage every writer has over the competition because nobody out there has exactly your life experiences, and it’s those experiences you will use to draw upon when making your characters. Even if your plucky heroine is a typical plucky heroine she will still have some of you in her, and if you let that uniqueness flower it will help to make her different and special from the other plucky heroines out there.
2) Cause and effect- Putting a Gun to the Story’s Head
Chekhov’s Gun is the key to all structured writing.
Good writing is all about setup and payoff. If a character gets hungry then he makes food. If he’s tired, he sleeps. These are boring things, but the cause and effect is still there, and that’s what writing is all about- cause and effect.
Character A is in love with Character B, so Character A chases Character B.
Character C is in love with Character B, so Character C chases Character B.
Character A and C are both in love with Character B, so they hate each other.
Ta-dah! We have a story!
One event causes another, which causes another, which causes another.
Of course, the reverse is also true! If you set events into motion in the story, you have to be ready to deal with those events otherwise the story will fall flat. To use the above example- If you introduce the love triangle of A+B+C but then spend the whole story talking about B’s love for her cat then why did you introduce the love triangle in the first place?
Don’t introduce story elements you don’t plan to use, if they’re not relevant to the story why are they there?
3) Challenge- It does a story good.
An interesting story comes from watching characters overcome obstacles through their own skills and abilities. Nothing is more boring than watching characters have everything handed to them by the writer, and Deus ex Machina must be used sparingly.
A character going to market to buy a loaf of bread is boring. A character getting a ride to the store from a friend to buy bread is boring. A character having to figure out how to overcome the transit strike that’s shut the city down to get across town to buy a loaf of bread is interesting! (Or at least more interesting than just walking to the corner store.)
Challenge your characters. Say “no” to them, make them work to earn their victory. It makes the victory that much sweeter, and the audience will love you for it.
Trouble on the Horizon
My general formula for writing adventure stories is this- pile as many problems as you can on a character and then have them do clever (or occasionally brave) things to do to get out of it. That’s it, it’s really that simple. It comes down to the Challenge part I just talked about- they have to be troubles that aren’t easy to overcome, and need to be solved using the character’s own resources. The more you make your audience go “how is she going to get out of this?” the better! That means they’re active and interested, which is how you want them to be!
4) Right Person at the Right Time
I once had an argument with a friend about Star Trek:Voyager where he argued that the show was boring. His thesis was simple: everyone on that show is equally well adjusted emotionally, can do everything equally well (except the Captain, but that’s another topic), and seems equally competent all around in almost every area. Therefore, why did we need all of these people? Why did we need more than one of these people in a given story?
A good character is defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can do. It’s watching the character that sucks at fixing cars try to fix a car that’s potentially entertaining, not watching the ace whiz through the process. This goes back to my last point about challenging your characters. It doesn’t mean that you need to always stick the worst person in the worst situation, but you should try to have characters face situations where they need to overcome their weaknesses whenever possible.
Stories are fiction, they’re not reality. It’s all about sticking the right characters in the right situations to get the mix you’re going for. No different than in putting in the right ingredients to bake a cake, or using the right colours when painting a scene. Everything that happens, everything that people say, every aspect of the story is a controlled structured element, and the more control you have over them the more control you have over how your audience will react to them.
5) Trim the Fat
To continue the metaphor from the last point, if you put too many ingredients into your cake then your cake will taste horrible. Things that taste good like salt and sugar need to be used in the right balance, not too much, not too little. This applies to story elements too- more is not necessarily better, and in fact may often be worse.
When writing try to be as concise as possible. Your job is not to pad the story out (unless you’re getting paid by the word), it’s to tell the story in the minimum amount of space it takes to tell that story.
Someone once said a good story is done when nothing else can be taken away, which I most heartily agree with. If you have a solid story, your job will be trying to keep it from ballooning out, not trying to make it larger. Editing will help a lot in this area, and this is why it’s good to have someone else edit your work, or at least set your work aside for a long period of time and then go back and edit it to get it down.
6) Just DO it
Heinlein’s Rules still hold. The best thing you can do as a writer is write, and finish what you write. Even if you screw up you can go back and edit it, but the key point is that you finish and produce a work of fiction that however good or bad is yours. Editing and re-writing is much easier than doing it the first time, so don’t let yourself get caught up with details while writing it- just try to get it written as good as you can and as fast as you can. That’s the whole idea behind Nanowrimo, to get people to just spill their guts on the page so that they can later go back and sort them out.
When writing I often fondly remember a military phrase I picked up a while back that stuck with me- “FIDO”, which is pronounced like a dog’s name and is an acronym for “F*ck It, Drive On!”. It means when something gets in your way you deal with it as best you can and you keep moving. Drive around the metaphorical tree across the road and then get back on track ASAP. If you spend all your time trying to deal with every little thing, you’ll get nothing done. The wonder of word-processors is that until it hits print, everything is changeable!