Writing: Story Must-Haves

Whether you’re writing fiction, memoir or nonfiction, your piece or book must tell a story. In nonfiction it might be a story about giving readers info or insights. In fiction and memoir, the story must have certain elements to succeed.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three story must-haves:

The Arc

In writing, we call the story’s shape an arc. An idea or a character begins at Point A and leads readers through ups and downs to an end point. In classic story arc, we can label points along the arc as Act I, Act II and Act II.

Other ways of thinking of the arc include identifying the point of Inciting Incident, the Things Get Worse part, the Point of No Hope, the Climax and the Resolution or Denouement. These terms can loosely aid you in organizing your story. First, the set-up, then the build-up and finally, the pay off.

All these labels may appear to separate your story into parts, but if you’ve written an effective arc, readers will not necessarily identify each stop along the way. To readers, the important part of an arc is that it begins in one place and ends in another. In the beginning a character wants something (goal) and in the end, readers learn if the character gains that goal or not.

The Struggle

If readers don’t always notice the story’s arc, they never fail to recognize conflict and tension. Good stories lead readers along the path of rising action via tension and conflict. Why? The struggle to gain something lies at the heart of any good story. In other words, if a goal is not hard-won, it probably isn’t worthy of readers’ attention.

We all love to root for underdogs, and we frequently resent those for whom life comes too easily. Readers are much more likely to identify with a story struggle than to an easy-peasy solution. I’ve written before about a story nonstarter: A boy wanted to play the French horn in the school band. So he did. Something must keep this boy from just picking up the horn and playing it without any pushback.

Tension and conflict don’t have to be overt. In fact, good, authentic emotional conflict is usually more powerful than stuff blowing up. We’re taught to play nice but, in a story, playing nice equals boring. Give your story worthy obstacles that your character must overcome.

Tension and conflict don’t have to be overt.

The Universal

The best stories satisfy because they reach into us and pull out strong and universal needs. We all want to be loved. We need security of a sort and to get it, we often need acceptance or belonging. The pull of these universal human needs draws readers closer into the story, making it ring true in their deepest places.

Other related qualities include the need for food and shelter and health, but the needs most readers identify most are mental and emotional. Acceptance and rejection. Joy and disappointment or despair. Peace or war. Love or loneliness. Belonging or alienation.

Readers suspend their lives inside a story to feel these needs either being met or unmet by the story’s character. Your story’s exploration of these needs in deep and satisfying ways (read: authentic) often determines whether readers devour your story or close the book. Try to state simply which of these universals your character is exploring in a story. Then add in the specific goal and obstacles he/she faces and what he/she will do to overcome them. If you can winnow out these must-haves, your story arc should appear to you in a far more focused way.

Here’s a FREE pdf with more tips on Story Arc!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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