This article identifies the catastrophe that befalls most stories and what to do about it.
Let’s start with the basics: Why are you writing your book?
You have a story to tell and it won’t go away. You have to tell it. Maybe you’re just getting started. Or you’re stuck in the middle somewhere. Maybe it’s your first draft, maybe it’s your tenth.
Whatever you struggle with, whatever you love or hate about writing, your biggest challenge is engaging your reader.
What’s your story about?
When I was a submissions editor for Narrative Magazine, I spent hundreds of hours reading story manuscripts and it usually took less than one minute to decide whether or not to pass it on to my boss. Of all the hundreds I read in 5 years, very few made to my editor’s desk. Why? Most stories lacked an intriguing story idea or premise. (Sometimes also referred to as the story question.)
The importance of the story idea often eludes aspiring authors. Many authors I talk with say they don’t understand what it means. (Actually you do.)
Imagine you’re having a casual conversation with friends about a movie you just saw. “What’s it about?” someone asks.
You say something like: “It's a futuristic film about this gutsy girl who’s an amazing archer. She volunteers to take her sister’s place and fight to the death on a reality TV show that the whole country watches.” (The Hunger Games)
Here are some others.
The story is about a young woman who’s looking for her true parentage in a university town and she encounters some dangerous people who threaten her life (and the life of the whole town).
The story is about a down-and-out rock star who climbs his way back to the top—but on the night of his big opening, he discovers his agent has been murdered.
The story is about a young woman who enters a monastery to find God but finds the love of her life instead and spends the next 15 years in an agonizing struggle between the two. (My novel, Consolations)
What's your story idea?
Can you put it into a couple of succinct sentences? Writers have a hard time doing this because it’s not easy to do. When I’m working with an author to help them establish or refine their story idea, I generally meet two kinds of resistance.
First: “Why is knowing my story idea such a big deal? Can’t I just figure that out once I get my draft done? The story idea is going to evolve anyway as I write.”
Second: “I think my novel has more the one story idea, maybe several.”
Ok, you can go that route, but it will cost you. Why? Because having a clearly developed and single story idea is what engages your reader.
The other advantage to having a strong story idea? It’s a vastly more efficient (and more enjoyable!) way to write your novel. It can save you months and years.