Welcome to the first installment of Sparkler School, our series of in-depth guidelines for developing your own fiction! We’ll have rotating authors with different areas of expertise, and each article will be accompanied by a thread in the Private Forums (members only) for hands-on Q&A with our staff editors. Have fun!
When you’re telling a story in any format, there are a few key fundamentals to keep in mind.
Your story should always strive to be:
I know those first two points aren’t sexy, but honestly, I think that’s why clarity and cohesion issues make up 75% of the problem areas I come across when reviewing works–even professional ones. Some people think these basics are less important than being creative, stylish, and exciting. But without fundamentals, you’ll knock the floor out from under the best story in the world. No one can appreciate your creativity if they don’t know what’s going on (clarity) or why (cohesion).
“Engaging” is a somewhat nebulous term, which is exactly why I’m using it. You want your reader to be interested enough to turn pages. Writing an exciting plot works, but so is writing a character or a setting that’s just too darn interesting to abandon. There’s no single right way to do this, but in general I would recommend that you sprinkle your story with surprises. While you’re progressing your story and characters, keep your readers guessing a little. Is a character more than what she seems, in a non-clichéd way? Are your leads connected in some way that they can’t figure out? Or stick to the more obvious stuff–there’s a mystery brewing and you’re slowly revealing the answer piece by piece. Just make sure you’re dosing out your pay-offs in a satisfying way, because revealing too much at once is bad, and revealing nothing until the end is usually bad, too. But I’ll go into the nitty-gritty of suspense at the end of this article.
If you’re reviewing your own work and trying to make it as good as it can be, keep asking yourself: Is this clear, cohesive, and engaging? If one or more of those is lacking, it’s time to go back and revise.
You probably know the concept of a “hook” to open your story–some way to grab your reader from the very beginning. Although this is incredibly helpful in establishing an audience, I also think conventional wisdom is a little limiting here.
If you CAN have a great opening page–and even better, a great opening line or panel as well–then fantastic! Do it! But that’s not what’s going to make or break your story, because just hooking someone isn’t enough; you need them to stay. And I’ve seen people try so desperately to have a great opening that they make a lot of key mistakes:
Your opening can’t be so explosive that it’s confusing. Don’t open on a convoluted action scene, an introduction to 10,000 cast members, or some super dire moment with no basic clarifying context. These can actively repel readers who don’t understand what’s going on.
Your opening still has to comfortably lead into whatever happens next. If this is clearly your “OMG catch attention moment,” and the next scene is backtracking to several weeks earlier so you can actually tell your story, and the two scenes don’t really connect? Your reader might feel like she wandered into a different book, and be disoriented enough to leave. Don’t confuse your readers. I’m going to repeat this a lot. Be clear and cohesive.
Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason why you should open on something mundane. Think of the anime cliché where some kid is waking up late for school–do you know why anime does that? To show a snippet of this kid’s life on a normal day, because right at the moment of the first commercial break, some monster is going to appear and this kid will unlock her latent powers to fight it. The show is going to be an adventure series, duh, and you need to start mundane to show the contrast in the kid’s life, to better explain her later struggles with identity and stuff. That’s not to say you need to make this mundane scene boring, but don’t assume that you have to open with something breathless if it’s not right for your overall story and/or character arc. If this series is going to be an action extravaganza, it might be nice to start a little slow so you can build up to the action. Building up your audience’s reactions at the same pace you build up your main character’s reactions–so the audience is basically freaking out at the same rate she is–is great for immersion.
Although the concept of hooking your audience is genuinely important, think critically about how you can do that in a way that feels right for your particular story. If you start off with something interesting, even if it’s not mind-boggling, that’s fine. If you start mundane but ramp up pretty quickly, so your hook is maybe 5 or 10 pages in (right around the time of the first commercial break), that works, too. Gauntlet is a great example: the first page is Clio trying to flag a taxi and letting someone else take it. This is a subtle but important way to show the reader what kind of person she is (and you’ll learn more about that in later chapters :P), and a way to establish her current life in the City. Within about 5 pages, things start to get uncomfortable, and within 10-15 pages, she’s legitimately on the run from psychos in the dark and we’re in full-on thriller mode. That opening chapter is fantastic–one of our best in this magazine–and it just started with Clio trying to flag a damn taxi.
There’s no perfect formula for the right number of characters in a story. Although I generally advise new writers to keep their casts small–so they’re not scrambling to develop and differentiate a huge cast, which is really challenging–there’s nothing quite as awesome as a huge ensemble cast. In either case, you need to be careful about how you introduce your characters to the reader, since it’s easy to overwhelm a reader with too much to remember at once. This a very, very common problem I run into with new writers.
Compare this to how you meet people in real life: you can shake the hands of 20 people in a circle one night at a cocktail party, but then not remember any of their names later. But if you take time to wander that party, and corner one or two people at a time to talk to only them before moving on to anyone else…that’s how you’ll actually remember that many new faces and names.
Don’t introduce every character at once. Be it the first page or a random place later in your story, don’t overwhelm your reader with a lot of new people at the same time. In my opinion, the magic number is two: you can have two new people in a scene. Any more than that and your reader may forget your characters’ names, mix your characters up later, or just get confused/overwhelmed and stop reading. Your reader can’t follow a scene if they don’t know who these people are!
What if the scene demands that you introduce five characters at once, like your lead steps into a magic school and this is her homeroom? First of all, try to scrap that scene and write another one–maybe two or three of the characters meet in another scene, and then, once the reader is comfortable with those people, they walk to class and meet the last two or three kids. Or, if you really can’t do that, and you need a giant introduction of a bunch of people all at once, then focus on two characters (give them all the real screen time and dialogue), and just mention the rest as backdrop. Don’t worry–you can (and should) develop those kids in the background. But later, when you have time to focus on them. Now they’re just the heavy kid who smiles and waves, the smart kid who got 100% on the test despite sleeping through all his classes, the kid with a Mohawk who’s carving his name into his desk. You can get a lot across with a simple observation through the eyes of your lead, so use that to your advantage.
Be careful with your names. This may sound dumb, but try to pick names that your reader will like and remember. Start their names with a variety of letters (don’t make half of your characters’ names start with “J,” for example). I love names with a unique flair to them, but don’t make them 18 letters long. If you’re using names that are traditional to a culture your character doesn’t belong to, there should be a reason she has that name. Was she born in that country? Is this a world where all cultures are mixed, so all names are used equally by everyone? Don’t just give your modern, white, American girl the name Sakura unless there’s a reason for it, because you’re dancing close to appropriation. Plus, it’s just confusing, if you then introduce a Japanese immigrant named Wendy? Try to give your names some kind of context.
And avoid giving a character multiple names. A nickname–especially a logical one–is fine, but don’t give your character one name, a completely unrelated nickname, and then switch randomly between the two in the first scene she’s introduced. Does this person go by a first name with some people, but a last name with other people? Use one of the two consistently, and then carefully introduce the other name in a way the readers will see clearly: “Did Doctor Williams come by here?” “Oh, you mean Sara?”
Use titles when you can/when appropriate. A lot of characters are at least partially defined by their job or position in society, and this can be an easy way to distinguish your characters right out of the gate. If all the characters call this one lady “Dr. Williams,” your reader will more easily associate that character with what sort of person she is, rather than placing the burden on your reader to remember that Sara is a doctor. If you have a bunch of minor characters who move the plot forward but don’t have important characterizations–for example, the Police Chief character in a buddy cop story–maybe you can avoid using their names at all, which gives even less for your reader to remember! (Which is generally a good thing.) Just call that guy “Chief.” Using a title instead of a name tells your reader that this person’s role, rather than his life, is what’s actually relevant to your story. (This may sound cruel, but it can be very important if you have 10+ characters in your story and they’re not all important. You don’t want to make your reader constantly flip backwards in your book to remember who these people are.)
Make your characters distinctive from the get-go (if you can), but remain realistic. Let’s say you have two new characters in a scene: one who’s the class clown, and one who’s the class brain. Your main character meets both of them at the same time.
- Don’t have the clown and the brain act exactly the same way–they probably wouldn’t in real life, and more importantly, your reader will have trouble distinguishing them from each other and remembering them later. Put some characterization in the first time they’re introduced, to tell the reader a little bit about what these characters are like.
- On the flip side, DO NOT have the clown crack jokes for every line, or have the brain speak in hyper formal sentences while pushing her glasses up her nose. You don’t need to reduce your characters to tropes or clichés just so the reader will remember what “types” they are. Your clown can crack a joke or two and just smile a lot, maybe clap your main character on the back. The brain can drift out of the conversation to scribble on her homework, mumbling that she can’t leave a problem half-finished once she’s started it. You can get across the kind of person this character is without resorting to anything over the top.
Introducing your world
World-building itself is probably best left to another article, but I’ve seen a lot of creators with very, very cool worlds who struggle to properly explain that world within a story. I’d even call it THE most common problem with sci-fi/fantasy writers. Introducing and explaining your world properly is just as important as building it in the first place.
DO NOT front-load Chapter 1 with 10,000 details about your world. A brand-new reader doesn’t want to crack open a fantasy novel and immediately be lectured on all these details like there’s a quiz coming up. Your story will most likely open with a main character living in this world–her actions and observations should teach your reader about this world, not the narrative going off on tangents about the school/society/spaceship.
That said, you ARE going to have to introduce a lot of your setting in the beginning of your story, so I suggest the following:
Break up the elements of your world, and determine what needs to be introduced and when. Anything you can push off until later, do so! Especially if some of these elements would be better introduced in their own scene (for example: people can breathe underwater, and next chapter your character can drop something in the ocean and just dive in after it).
Once you know the details of what must be introduced in the very beginning, think of a comfortable way to reveal these in the context of your story and characters. A very common trope is having your main character be a newbie in her setting, so everything has to be explained to her (think Harry Potter). In a police or military setting, a debriefing session can work well. Awake does a little combination of the two, where Hina Hwan wakes up on a spaceship, is asked to repeat her conditions for transport during a mental test, and then is shown the ship and the crew for the first time.
Try to avoid having narrative over-explain anything. I’m going to repeat what I said above: you should be introducing your setting through your characters’ actions and observations. Have her interact with her world. For example: your main character glances up on her way to the coffee shop and notices the Pterodactyls are out early today! Then she buys her coffee, takes a sip, and winces. She glances down at her robotic arm; she knows caffeine causes slight spasms in the delicate machinery between her muscles and the prosthetic, but she can’t help it–coffee is too delicious to her still-human mouth. (NOTE: Even if you have an elaborate backstory for that arm, save it. You can reveal it later.)
Character and story arcs
In the best stories, story and character development are intertwined. Your plot should have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Your character arc(s) should also have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. But don’t forget to connect them!
People are necessarily shaped by their experiences, so if your characters go through something intense, especially in the current plot of the story, it should change them in some way. Did she miss an opportunity to be a hero? Maybe she feels guilty now and overcompensates in doing other good deeds. Did someone betray her? Maybe she’ll be slower to trust again.
Still, don’t dump your entire characterization on one experience, like “my life is seeking revenge for my dead sister”–that’s lazy and unrealistic. That can be a deciding moment of characterization, and maybe a trigger for bigger things, but she’s more than just a revenge machine. Maybe she likes skeeball and knitting. Maybe she’s afraid her thirst for blood has made her push away her friends and family in an attempt to separate them from her violent tendencies. But there should be more to her than her sadness/anger from one event in her life.
I know I’ve said this before, but in your story, things should be happening constantly. Drama, reveals, action, sobbing. This is a way to keep your book engaging.
But don’t forget that you can’t just have a bunch of random stuff happening, either–it has to connect in some way to draw your whole plot forward. Obvious diversions are…risky. If you insist on having a hot springs episode, at least put some character development in there. Do your characters kiss for the first time in this sexually charged atmosphere, and it forces them to re-evaluate their relationship? Does someone reveal her robotic arm for the first time?
There’s a fine line to walk here: things have to be constantly happening, but you have to build to a greater plot and its conclusion. If you find yourself with too many ideas–and this can be diversion plots (like side quests), minor characters who serve no purpose, or even random jokes or moments in a bigger scene–you have to be willing to cut them. Make your hot springs episode a short story, so it doesn’t gum up the forward progression of your novel. Is that character fun but not really necessary? Get rid of her (or combine her with another side character into a richer composite character). Have a great joke, line, or musing paragraph that feels incongruous? Cut it. All of that stuff is prime material for shorts, mini comics, sketches with commentary that you post on Tumblr, a joke on Twitter…it can be part of your overall universe and/or transparent creative process! But get it out of your novel if it’s gumming up the works. (Remember, be cohesive!) And don’t forget–something you have to cut now can possibly be inputted into a later chapter. If a great moment or joke is character-based, it may comfortably fit into some of that character’s later scenes.
Even if your story isn’t specifically a thriller or mystery, you should have suspense built in. That’s one of the most reliable ways to keep your readers engaged and turning pages. Sometimes a story is so funny or the world and characters are so interesting that a reader loves every word, but only the most skilled writers can pull that off. For the rest of us, there’s the easy trick of making readers think, “Crap, I need to find out what happens at the end or it’s gonna bother me.”
Plan twists. I’ve never been a fan of the “one big twist” idea, because that puts a lot of pressure on one major plot point that a.) your readers may be able to guess, b.) some other writer might have done before in a better way, or c.) may hurt your overall cohesion if it doesn’t connect well to the rest of your book (for example: this really nice character was actually EVIL ALL ALONG even though it completely contradicts everything she did before!). My suggestion: make a bunch of smaller twists, preferably connected to each other. Like the domino effect of reveals. Character A secretly knew she was Character B’s sister, but didn’t tell Character B; Character B was secretly in love with Character A; when Character C figures out the sibling connection, she tells Character A but not Character B, which triggers Character A to do something else…etc. As I mentioned earlier, it’s good to sprinkle your book with a lot of little surprises. Besides–some of your readers will probably guess some of your twists, which is really satisfying for a reader, but there’s very little chance she’ll guess everything. This means she’ll get satisfaction and surprises from your story at the same time. But your twists shouldn’t come out of nowhere, which brings me to my next point:
Plant seeds. Most twists and reveals should have some kind of build-up. Drop at least one hint or reference into the story earlier–like someone on a phone call in another room talking about something with a keyword, or a stranger in a cafe who stares a little too long at your main character. “Planting seeds” is actually a good technique for any complicated story; like I said earlier, having characters in the background of a scene is a good way to drop a hint that this person will be important later. This will give your readers a bit of help in figuring out the mystery (again, this is very satisfying for a reader), but will also give your story re-read value. Once your reader knows the answer to the mystery, she’ll want to go back and read your book from the beginning to catch all the hints and warning signs.
Space out your reveals. Suspense with no pay-off is incredibly frustrating. And don’t flip the light switch on all your secrets at the very end, because then your end is going to be bulky as all hell. Spread out the answers to your mysteries. If you have a lot of little secrets and a lot of little twists, you should be able to reveal at least a few things earlier in the story to help keep things satisfying.
I think the average fan knows what makes a satisfying ending: the resolution of most (if not all) of the plot threads, a closed character arc, a clear point to the story overall. (Was this a cautionary tale? A story about revolution? A story about sacrifice?) If you can add a little squee, like a good kiss or some epilogue where everyone who was miserable learns how to be happy again…as long as you’re not too corny about it, that can be great.
Some stories should be open-ended and ask a hard question of its audience, though. Don’t knock those. And not every plot thread needs to be tied up. Most of them should be, but if you leave a few undone, especially if it’s a realistic place to do so (never truly knowing the motivations of someone who died, for example), then that can be very powerful. Sometimes an open plot thread is more powerful than a closed one, because your reader’s (or character’s!) imagination creates a better ending than the story could have.
If you need some inspiration…this may sound like a no-brainer, but look up critics’ top picks in media in every format. The classics–film, prose, comics, or whatever–usually have spectacular endings in a wide variety of flavors. Citizen Kane, Anna Karenina, Watchmen. Granted, those are all pretty depressing endings, so let’s try something with a more shoujo bent, and (overall) more uplifting: Basara. Fushigi Yuugi. Sailor Moon. (All fantastic endings.) Mockingjay has a pretty powerful, realistic ending, for you Hunger Games fans.
Whatever you do, don’t rush your ending. It can end abruptly, if that’s the sort of tone you’re going for, but that should be a conscious choice. In all the ways that you have to work really hard to make a good opening, you should be spending at least that much time on your ending as well. Leave your readers satisfied so they’ll come back for whatever you do next. :)
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A thread was also opened in the Private Forums (Sparkler Members only) for this installment of Sparkler School back in March 2014; the Sparkler editors were available for questions and advice, which is now closed but can be read by members here. But for this repost, feel free to leave a comment below!