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What Makes a Compelling Story? The Secret Sauce Revealed

Posted in conflict in fiction, Creative Writing, creativity, Fiction, finishing your novel, genre fiction, how to complete a novel, Independent Publishing, Learning to Write, literary devices, Literature, motivation for writers, novels, self publishing, Storytelling, Writing a novel, writing and creativity, writing life, writing mistakes, and Writing Tips

What makes a compelling story?

Bad Writing Sells

With my market research hat on, I was trawling through book samples, reading the first chapter or two of top-selling, self-published, genre fiction on sale at the major online retailers. I wanted to discover what these books have in common that makes them sell. I wanted to discover what makes a compelling story.

One thing struck me.

It struck me like a hard object propelled with great force. And it hurt.

It was the realization that often good writing doesn’t sell, whereas lazy, ungrammatical, clichéd prose fills the bindings of many million-dollar bestsellers. While on this occasion I was only examining self-published works, I know from my reading it’s true of traditionally published books, too.

As a word-lover, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. I take time and care crafting each phrase and sentence in my fiction. The results may not make that care clear to every reader, but I try. It matters. So it’s painful to see dreadful wordsmithery outselling mine by orders of magnitude.

Story Is More Important Than Prose

But as a storyteller, I understand how these slipshod writers get away with it. Because you don’t need a strong voice, well-crafted prose, a gift for the apposite metaphor or an education in the Classics to tell a story which listeners or readers will follow to the end.

Bad writing can tell a good story, just as a terrible tale may hide beneath a mask of beautiful words.

And readers of genre fiction care much more about story than they do about prose. Their priorities are right. If we must choose between them, story matters more. Although I remain a staunch advocate of both: a compelling story told in well-crafted prose is what I strive to achieve.

We all know what makes bad writing. But what makes a compelling story? What makes a story so compelling that readers will read it and recommend it even if it’s badly written? This is the question I hope to answer here.

It may be easier to write beautiful prose than to tell a compelling story.

Burn Your Plot Outlines

If you’ve read as many “how to write” books as I have, you’re already familiar with the idea that conflict is the driving force of story. The same message flashes again and again from workshop beacons, a light to guide you through the fog of fiction writing.

The message is this:

  1. Create a flawed (therefore sympathetic) protagonist who desires something
  2. Frustrate her attempts to get her desire (call this conflict)
  3. Allow her to win or lose

But my contention is that this is bad advice. This does not make a story. You can follow this formula any way you wish; from “The Hero’s Journey” to Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” or Michael Hague’s “Six Stage Plot Structure” or any of the zillion other story templates you prefer, and you will not get a story out of it.

Why?

Because all that these systems do (and the best of them do it very well) is teach you how to make a plot.

And a plot isn’t the same as a story.

Losing the Plot and Finding the Story

A plot alone, however well-devised, will always be a dead, inanimate thing: it will be a Golem without the Tetragrammaton inserted into its mouth; a man of clay without the breath of life. Story is that which transforms the heavy clay of plot into living, breathing flesh. It’s the creative energy which drives the plot and connects it to the reader’s heart.

So what’s the difference between story and plot? And what makes a compelling story that the plot can’t offer? In another post (you can read it here) I explained why conflict alone isn’t enough to drive a plot. There has to be transformation. The conflict has to lead to change, and the protagonist herself must do the changing.

This is still true.

But now I realize there’s more to transformation than that. Simple change in the protagonist – cowardly to brave, nervous to confident, ragged servant to sparkling princess – is not enough to make a compelling story. Such transformations are superficial, teach us little, and don’t engage a reader at a deep level. They don’t fascinate, or cause the heart to beat faster, or linger in the soul.

The Transformation That Makes a Story Compelling

It’s a deep transformation of the protagonist’s core beliefs, her worldview, everything she has thought to be true and has guided her thoughts and actions since as long ago as she can remember.

Okay, I know that needs unpacking. So let’s unpack it.

From birth or near after, we begin to build a library of experiences and the consequences of our actions in response to those experiences. We learn at the intersection between our desires and our limitations; between survival and threat. We soon learn to ask questions: if I want this and do that, will I get it? If this threatens me and I respond like that, will I survive? As we build up a body of evidence about how the world works and responds to us, we impute agency into the world; we create imaginative constructs to explain the hidden motivations of others, and to predict future outcomes of current events.

We tell stories.

Most of our thoughts and decision-making processes happen unconsciously. If we know of them, that awareness arises afterward, albeit a tiny fraction of a second after, as an observation. We have a lot less free will and agency than we like to believe.

Algorithms of the Soul

By inventing imagined action/outcome scenarios and testing them against actual action/outcome events, our brains build a series of “if this, then that” algorithms which work unconsciously, informing our decisions and guiding our actions.

algorithm
ˈalɡərɪð(ə)m/
noun

These algorithms shape what we believe about the world, how it works and responds. Likewise, they inform how we act on the world.

A crucial point to take in here is that these algorithms build in response to specific, real-world events in our lives. Our present beliefs and traits arise out of how we have interacted with the world in the past.

The longer we hold a belief, meaning the longer a specific algorithm works for us in fulfilling our desires and avoiding suffering, the more ingrained it becomes. Over time, it becomes a fixed, habitual pattern.

A pattern it would take a crisis to change.

Algorithms, Habits and Learning

In the early stages of learning, our responses are more flexible. “This worked, keep it for now. This didn’t work, reject it for now.” But once specific algorithms become established habits, our brains are reluctant to change them. “This didn’t work, but before it always worked; try it again.” That feedback loop will play many, many times before the brain has enough counter-data to trip the switch. “This no longer works, we need a new algorithm.”

And here’s the key to unlocking what story means. This is the answer to the question we started with, “What makes a compelling story?”

We read stories to test hypothetical algorithms.

As readers, we identify with the protagonist if she responds to obstacles on the basis of logical beliefs proven by past events. We become fascinated and anxious when those algorithms no longer work and the actions she persists in taking reduce her chances of success and put her at greater risk. Watching her beliefs unravel as they lead her into danger – with all the psychological, emotional, and practical consequences – is what makes a compelling story.

And it’s the inner life of the protagonist – her world view, her beliefs, her decision-making algorithms – which drive her actions and so give the plot its purpose and meaning.

Deeper Than Cause-And-Effect

You can sum a plot up as a series of cause-and-effect events leading from A to B.

This is well-known.

But few teach new writers what drives the causal event or why its effects matter. The protagonist’s inner algorithm (based on experience) must drive events by the decisions she makes and the actions she takes.

Note well, nothing about this process is passive.

When we join her, at the beginning of the story, her algorithm has already become obsolete, and she needs to change. But it’s an old algorithm which has served her well for many years and will persist even in the face of failure. This is the hero’s essential tragedy. She’s heroic because she’s flawed. Her fatal flaw is an out-of-date algorithm.

Each action she takes, because it’s driven by a falsehood in which she believes (and she has proved it’s true because in the past it always worked) makes her situation progressively worse until she’s forced to succumb to self-destruction or change her algorithm.

What Makes a Compelling Story?

And that is the transformation which makes a story compelling.

It’s this inner story which generates the conflict, sets the cause-and-effect chain in motion and sustains it, and leads to the ultimate change which brings the plot to its logical but surprising conclusion.

All those story templates from world-famous screenwriters, all the $90 “masterclasses” and downloadable plot outlines, which continue to proliferate through the internet like viruses – often promoted by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about – will not help you write a compelling story. They will only help you build an inanimate plot-structure which, alone, has no meaning at all.

If you’re an avid reader and a skilled natural storyteller, you may imbue that plot with a real, living story as you write. But you’ll find, however meticulous your outline, it will keep falling apart until you’ve reworked it so that the story – the necessity of your protagonist’s inner change – is at its heart and pumping the blood through its veins.

The miraculous effect of this realization from the writer’s viewpoint is that if you start with the story and keep it at the heart of every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter you write; then the plot, the cause-and-effect chain, the meaningful obstacles, the transformation, and the conclusion will take care of themselves. And you’ll have a protagonist who is active, central, and drives everything forward.

When you reach “The End” you’ll have a powerful, compelling story.

You are now a storyteller.

You could go to market with that. As we noted at the outset, many do. But you could also take the time and trouble to hone your craft, to write and rewrite the story to the best of your ability before you present it to the public. Then you will also be a writer.

If you learn to create a compelling story and write well, it can only be a matter of time before your literary dreams come true.

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