The Secret to Crafting a Compelling Story (Without Any Gimmicks)

There is one thing you must know about me: I don't believe in writing gimmicks. This is one of the reasons why I'm building my Pinterest boards so slowly. I want to make sure that the articles I pin have good advice, not just your standard articles about "Six ways to write a villain people love to hate." 

If you search "writing tips" on Pinterest, you will get bucket loads of suggested articles about "How to write the perfect opening line" or "Five ways to create a strong character" or "Six ways to end your novel." I dislike these kinds of articles because writing a good story is not about hitting a certain combination of plot points, character arcs, and strategic conflict. 

In fact, the secret to writing a great story is both more simple and more complex than any of these gimmicks suggest.

The secret to writing great stories

Writing a great story all boils down to one key element: crafting meaning.

When I taught English at the high school level, we called this the "so what." Your reader wants to become an olympic figure skater? So what? Your villain hates cats? So what?

In other words: Why does any of this matter (in your story) and why should your reader care?

Here is an example of what I mean. Say you are writing a story and you've been told (quite accurately) that in order to write a good story, your character needs to want something very badly. So you dutifully assign a desire to your heroine--she wants to make cheese all day long--and proceed with your story. But something doesn't really work. What have you done wrong? She has this burning desire, why is it so hard to make anyone care rather she gets to open her cheese shop? She's desperate for it!

The problem is her desire is not meaningful. The reader doesn't care about details, villains, conflicts, plot points, side characters, or figurative language unless it means something.

And one of the main reasons we love story is because everything means (or should mean) something in a story--everything is there for a purpose. This is what keeps us reading, to find out why the missing hanky is important and if they will ever find it and why it really matters to our hero.

So, back to our cheese-loving heroine: Take a step back and ask why your heroine wants to open a cheese shop. Does she want to escape from her tyrannical husband? Prove to her mother that she isn't a nobody? Find solace from the grief of losing her first love? Once her desire is placed in the context of what it will mean to her, we care a great deal more. 

I've mentioned this before, but I will mention it again because it's one of the best writing hacks I know. If we use the ladder of abstraction when we write, we can start to see why simple things (even something as simple as objects) carry so much weight in a story. To understand the ladder of abstraction picture a ladder with the bottom resting firmly on concrete and the top disappearing in the clouds. The bottom of the ladder represents specific, concrete things while the top is abstract ideas. Take rosary beads for example. At the base of the ladder is the object (rosary beads, or perhaps your grandmother's rosary beads) and at the top you have the abstract idea that this object might represent (faith, devotion, hope, religion, etc...).

So while your story happens in the specifics (Stella wants to open a cheese shop in Austin Texas), what keeps readers reading happens up in the clouds (Stella wants autonomy, freedom, and confidence). While I can't relate to a desperate longing to open a cheese shop, I sure can relate to wanting freedom and confidence.

Here is your takeaway: Always be sure that you tell your story with your feet planted firmly on the ground, in the concrete world of actual events, sights, and sounds, but make sure that the reader spends their time climbing that ladder toward what all these details, events, conflicts, desires, and struggles really mean.

And that, my friend, is the secret to keeping your reader tangled up in the pages of your story long past midnight.

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To help you on your quest to craft a meaningful story, I created a worksheet for you. To download a copy, click here.

The gimmick-free secret to writing great stories