Make Sure Your Story Is a Story
The biggest mistake I made with the first draft of my first novel is that my main character Mia was passive. She did nothing – lots of shitty stuff happened to her. The problem is that characters who do nothing make us feel nothing. And if your reader doesn’t care about your character, you um, don’t have a reader because there is no incentive to turn the page.
In a story, something has to happen (sometimes called the inciting event) – there has to be action, usually something pretty horrible, which backs our character into a corner. That’s when they have to become active and do something revealing their complex, flawed personhood so we can watch them make mistakes, try, fail and try again.
When we write memoir, this is particularly challenging. We tend to write about all the things that happened to us without ever engaging ourselves as an active player in the story. When we are the protagonist in our own story, we have to make storytelling decision about where to start the story and how to engage the reader in all the ways that keep readers’ connected. The fact that your father died when you were seven is obviously relevant to your life, but it may or may not be relevant to the story you’re telling. There’s a difference.
Ultimately a story has to move us from point A to point B – and something has to change either in the character or in the reader.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of writing that lacks ‘story.’ The characters are passive or uninteresting and I find myself not caring one way or the other whether they survive or die a horrible death. The story is suspended in a timeless place, unanchored and without context so I don’t know where the story takes place or why. The character doesn’t transform, is exactly the same at the end and so… why did I bother?
A story is not a collection of beautiful descriptions. Or a series of internal ruminations, even if you have 100 000 words. A story is shaped by a series of decisions the author makes around a few key factors.
Generally, every story needs a WHO (character/s), a WHAT (theme), a WHEN (setting in time and space); a WHY (plot) and a HOW (structure that supports the story).
Without this internal invisible architecture holding the narrative up, what you have is some writing, but you do not have a story.