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Tips, Inspiration, & Resources

The Seven Elements of a Compelling Story: A Checklist

THE SEVEN ELEMENTS OF A COMPELLING  STORY

 

1. WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT? (a/k/a, THE GOAL)

 

Some examples of goals:

  • Love, appreciation
  • recognition
  • the need to be understood
  • defeat of an enemy
  • basic human survival
  • recovery from trauma
  • closure after tragedy
  • finding a reason to live
  • finding a purpose
  • making peace with the past
  • triumph over adversity of any kind.

 

2. WHAT'S STOPPING HIM/HER FROM GETTING IT? (a/k/a CONFLICT):

  • Conflict takes many forms: Oneself (we are our own worst enemy), other people, situations. 
  • Infuse conflict into every scene.

3. WHY SHOULD YOUR READERS CARE ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER'S STRUGGLE? (a/k/a SYMPATHY)

  • Reveal the truth about your hero, even if he doesn't know it himself.
  • Give your characters layers and dimension—even villains are human beings; even heroes have flaws. 
  • Go easy on the self-pity, even infuse humor if possible. 

4. SHOW, DON'T TELL.

Everyone talks about "show, don't tell," but how do you do that?

  • Write in scene, in the moment, as it happens, instead of summarizing action. 
  • Use sensory description. Do so with economy.
  • Be precise and economical with metaphors, similes, adjectives, and adverbs. 
  • Use oblique dialogue. You want to show, not spoon-feed.
  • Be a keen observer of your story's world, which you reveal through your characters whenever possible.
  • Forget about showing off the cleverness of your writing. Instead, keep the intent of your scene in mind, and the cleverness will emerge organically.

5.  KEEP THEM ON THE EDGE OF THEIR SEATS (a/k/a TENSION):

  • Turn the scene from positive to negative and vice versa. He's closer to his goal—it just slipped away—there it is again—no, it's farther away than ever…
  • Keep the reader guessing and never fully at ease. Don't give away what happens before you need to. End scenes and chapters with a cliffhanger if possible.

6. KEEP THE STORY MOVING (a/k/a PACING):

  • Avoid belaboring, lengthy digressions, throat clearing, and repetition. 
  • Enter scenes already in progress. 
  • Write in scene. Enliven your summaries.
  • Keep the goal of the protagonist in mind—this drives the story.

7.  GIVE THE READER SOMETHING TO TAKE AWAY (a/k/a RESONANCE):

  • By the end, there is some sort of resolution, or a hint of one to come.
  • A metamorphosis of some kind has taken place in your protagonist, or one is on the horizon.
  • There is an underlying message to your story that the reader can ponder.
  • Keep in mind while you're writing: "This is a story about ______." This underlying message/theme will inform everything you write.
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