Crafting a story is hard work. Crafting a great story is even harder! But there are many practical ways you can improve your plot, strengthen your characters, and satisfy your readers. Let’s take a look at ten things that can take your story from good to great:
1. Introduce Strong Motivations
What’s behind stories that captivate readers from start to finish? Invariably, the main characters are driven by motivations that are meaningful and relatable in some way. Your audience may not ever experience the life of a millionaire playboy, a florist’s apprentice, or a magically-gifted mechanic, but providing strong motivations for your characters will help your readers care about what happens next.
2. Keep Your Protagonist Moving
While a bit of self-reflection or conversation can be healthy for your characters, your protagonist must be doing things, too. Don’t just write about their inner thoughts or detail their dialogue. Make them go places, meet people, and work towards their goals. They don’t have to succeed, but they must take action.
3. Humanize Your Characters
Your characters’ flaws and foibles are an important aspect of any story. Even the most successful or likable people have secret insecurities, bad habits, and pet peeves. Even the worst of villains are motivated by what seems deeply meaningful to them. Build humanity into your characters by showing how they act and react in the situations and circumstances they encounter.
4. Play on the Reader’s Emotions
Fear, joy, anger, sympathy: these are a few of the core emotions your story could feed. Think about ways to evoke the desired feelings for your reader. Will your protagonist be betrayed? What unexpected event delights or surprises them? Where can you double down on certain imagery to create a sense of anxiety, suspense, or other experiences?
5. Overturn Expectations
While writing within specific genres provides a framework of reader expectations, it doesn’t hurt to shake things up from time to time. Your story can benefit greatly from inverting certain standard plot elements or causing your characters to act in unexpected ways. Without becoming off-putting to your audience, where can you introduce twists or character evolutions that will make your story unique?
6. Force Characters to Cooperate
Some of the most interesting interactions in fiction happen when dissimilar or even antagonistic characters are forced to work towards a common goal. Maybe that’s why many important narratives across history and continents have cooperation as an essential theme. Your characters may have different motivations and different methods, but if you sync their efforts you’ll allow their unique personalities to surface and play off of each other.
7. Choose Clarity Over Creativity
It’s a temptation that most writers know all too well – letting a particular phrase or concept take over simply because you find it interesting or like how it sounds. But there’s a reason why writing is considered a discipline as well as an art. When in doubt, choose clarity over self-indulgent expression. The best writers find a way to balance both.
8. Foreshadow and Reinforce with Repetition
A nervous twitch, a recurring dream, a catch phrase, the repeated intrusion of the same character: using repetition can help signal significance or even foreshadow future plot developments. Readers are psychologically primed to look for themes and common threads in your story. Taking advantage of that fact can help you highlight important concepts or events, while providing a sense of satisfaction to your readers.
9. Eliminate Fluff
The challenge of taking halfway decent writing to the next level is often a matter of eliminating unnecessary phrases, passages, or plot points that don’t serve a purpose (or don’t do so effectively). Any element that doesn’t pull its weight is fair game for elimination. If there’s an unnecessary line or section that you feel too emotionally attached to, cut and paste it into a separate document – you may find it inspirational for later projects.
10. End on a Satisfying Note
No matter how strong your plot and characters are throughout your story, a weak ending is something your readers will not forgive. Make sure you end on a note that allows for some kind of emotional closure. That doesn’t mean you have to create an artificially happy ending, but you should at least consider what reasonable expectations might be for your genre. Look for ways to maximize reader satisfaction without compromising your vision, and remember: this is important even if you are writing a series.
Make Your Story Great, One Step at a Time
Improving the quality of your stories is a lot less daunting with practical tips like these, but it’s up to you to get started. Begin small – go through each element of your story one by one and address any weak areas as you find them. Your story (and your readers) will thank you in the end!