I am in the middle of writing a new book, as well as reshaping this blog site to a good standard like the one I had before, hence I’m updating some of my previously published blogs. Today’s post is to remind me and fellow writers what makes a story engaging. For me, the key elements of good story-telling include: unforgettable characters, conflicts between them (good vs bad, but not necessarily exclusively so, as often good people fight each other too!), and gripping plot lines.
Building Characters – Strong and Unique Protagonist/Antagonist
A great book usually introduce the main character(s) early on, and they will form the artery of the book. Good characters have believable motives, actions and relationships, and whatever they do or say should be credible. Well-rounded characters are more likely to engage readers, hooking them to what is happening in the book, absorbing their attention from beginning to the end.
Great characters live on, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Tess from Thomas Hardy, Anna Karenina of Tolstoy and Salander by Stieg Larsson. There are many examples of memorable characters – I believe that is one of the reasons why these books are widely read and become literary classics.
Allow me a moment of self praise and boasting ;-). I think the protagonist of my trilogy “Journey to the West”, Pearl Zhang, is a great character. Some of my readers agree. Donna Carrick, a Canadian writer, reviewed my debut The Same Moon: “I found this to be a wonderfully-rendered character study. I gave this book 5 stars for honesty, the development of a compelling character, the depth of cultural understanding the author brings to bear and the compassion and generosity evident in each step of Pearl’s long journey toward self-actualisation.”
How do we create and build characters that are strong and unique? In every day life, we meet people of different kinds, some come and go, without leaving a dent in our memory, while others make an imprint, forever remembered. What are the characteristics that make them unforgettable? The way they look, walk, talk, or act? Something about them, perhaps their persona, their personality, or a simple gesture? It could be something in their past, or an endearing/disgusting habit of sorts, the kind of impressions that either attract or repel us.
Another element of building characters are through the relationships. Strong emotions like love, or hatred, must be clearly demonstrated in a book. It is often through the interactions between characters that make them come alive through the pages.
Plot & Conflicts
Apart from building characters, writers need to have a credible plot, or several plot lines. Decisions have to be made as to what is important in the story and why.
When I began my first book The Same Moon, I did not intentionally “construct” a plot – I have had the idea of re-telling the story of a woman’s life, her journey from a country in the East to a country in the West. In a sense, it was an easy plot for me. All I needed to do was to decide which parts of her life were significant to be included, and which parts were best left out. Numerous decisions had to be made, from conception to conclusion. For instance, where do I begin? which are the highlights? what kind of conflicts between the characters need to be told, or better still shown?
Writers are faced with questions all the time. We ask ourselves: are our characters believable? Are their actions credible? Do I care about them? Will my readers care about them?
Books do not need too large a number of characters, and in fact, too many characters will distract from the theme and interrupt the flow of the story. So a good start of plotting is to condense the actions of minor players whenever possible. Again, focus on creating strong, unique main characters and focus on their actions and situations involving them.
Be it a film, or a book of fiction, it is essential to have conflict or conflicts. All successful films have a ‘crisis of confidence’ somewhere in the story, even a cosy romantic story. Conflicts should be introduced at a proper time and move the story along. Without conflicts, stories will be bland at best, and most likely unworthy of being told.
Great writers create tension and maintain it throughout the book. Tensions/conflicts built in the plot are what engage readers and make the story-telling compelling.
Writing, not unlike a human body which has different blood lines for us to function, consists of a number of themes, the main plot plus various side plots. A story can have several themes or story lines running side by side, but it is important to have a vital artery running through it all. Too many extraneous incidents can weaken a reader’s interest in the main story.
I included several story lines in Land of Hope. A reviewer from GoodReads commented: “The characters are well drawn with good dynamics between the main characters. The story is tightly plotted and keeps your attention throughout. Every piece of the story is there for a reason.”
What is your view on an engaging story?