What makes a story tick? What gives a tale that spark of life that sets it apart? What connects a reader to a story? What drives a story to a conclusion?
The answers are: Theme. Setting. Character. Plot.
In essence, a writer toils over words, sentence structure, and descriptions to discover the HEART OF THE STORY.
We can find definitions for those four concepts. Grab your Webster or click over to dictionary dot com. But knowing what they are and enriching them within a story are completely different and will not enrich your story. Today is Valentine’s Day, when heart décor runs amuck, when flowers are gifted to loved ones, when red and pink and white abound, we writers turn to what we love most: the written word.
Just like a heart with four chambers, a story has four chambers. Amy Deardon, author of The Story Template, calls these four chambers ‘pillars’. To high school writing teachers they are the four basic elements. No matter how you look at it – chambers or pillars or elements- a heart doesn’t work without all four chambers pumping perfectly.
A tent requires four pillars or the strength of the structure is weak. The four elements? Well, if you’ve read my novel,Gateways, you know how much I love the natural elements :)
And so it is with stories.
Think of the stories – either stories you read or movies you watched – that stick with you past “THE END”, past the rolling credits. What did you carry away from that story? That is the heart, the still beating entity that becomes a piece of us. Yeah, that sounds a little Frankenstein…sorry, but that was a great book!
The hidden (or not so hidden) message of the story. The lesson. The moral. The purpose the author has in writing. The essence of understanding behind the tale. How do you strengthen the theme of your story? First, you should identify it.
What is the backbone of your story? Or, continuing with the heart analogy, what is the blood, that source of life? Identify the theme your story will share. For example, in Frankenstein, the theme is creation, the act of creating outside the divine. It’s recycling to the extreme. But don’t stop with just one theme! Frankenstein is deliciously rich in themes (some of which are stretched pretty far by grad students) such as: revenge, desire, love, faith, truth, fear, loss, family, justice, nature vs. nurture, solitude, sympathy… the list goes on. Goggle “Themes of Frankenstein” and you’ll see what I mean.
Then, what is the opposing force to that theme? If the character is seeking revenge, what might make that revenge impossible? If truth needs to be told, what circumstances would keep the lie alive? If the character wants justice, how might that never be possible? Think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The four siblings are sent to the country to avoid the dangers of war, but end up smack dab in the middle of a war in a magical land. Let’s look again at Frankenstein. He wants to create a life, but the responsibility to care for it and it’s monstrous fate are too much. The creator abandons his creation and refuses to create for it something that would appease it – a mate.
Examples of novels with a strong Theme: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.
I don’t know about you, but the term ‘setting’ in relation to writing brings back nightmares of high school writing classes. Time and Place. Referring back to Deardon’s book, The Story Template, she uses a beautiful term: Story World. That has a lovely fantasy feel to it – the genre I first loved. What is the story world of your novel? Write down everything you can about where and when your novel takes place. Include notes about the weather, the culture of the people, the clothing, lifestyles, common complaints of people in this story world. Does your story take place in a real place at a real time in history? If so, gather as many photographs and paintings as you can and decorate the walls of your writing space. Is there a type of music that would fit in that place and time? Make yourself a playlist and play that while you write.
Examples of novels with a strong Setting: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende, The Secret of Nimh by Robert O’Brien.
Who is your story about? Take the time to do some extensive writing about this person – either fictional or a historical figure – you must know him intimately (you know what I mean!) before you can tell his story. It really doesn’t matter if she’s tall and slender and has long auburn hair. If the reader doesn’t know a little about her, they won’t care what happens to her in the story. The physical characteristics help create an image in the reader’s mind, but the personality, the choices a character makes drive the story.
Write the backstory. Create a tale from the character’s childhood. What were his parents like? Did she attend a boarding school? What was your characters worst nightmare? Was she raised in a faith-filled family? What happened during his first week of his first job? Many writers hesitate to spend this much time writing something that won’t show up in the novel, but just like dating before you marry, you must know his story to make sure that your future together won’t be hindered by his history. And backstory is just that – the story in the background. If you feel compelled to use some of it in the novel, that’s great. But only use 10% of the backstory.
Examples of novels with a strong Character: Diary of Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding and Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
Oh, plot. How I love to write thee…and how I hate it when it becomes too real. A fellow writer was recently lamenting her list of troubles, but I saw only conflicts that had ‘best-seller’ written all over them. That’s the advantage of a third-person point of view :) Plot, by definition, is a series of connected events (think cause and effect) that take the main character from the old-self to the new-self. The conflicts the character must overcome are closely related to the theme, affected by the setting, and determined by the personality of the character.
And that is the clincher – all four chambers must beat together in order to bring life to the story.
How do you ensure a well-functioning heart of a story? Think Cardiac Rehab.
This next exercise is the therapy to keep the Heart of your Story strong. After you make notes on all four chambers, draw connections between them. How does the location of the story bring conflict to the plot which the character must overcome? How does the character’s driving need in the story bring conflict to the plot and touch off the fuse to revealing the theme? (Coming soon – a graphic organizer for the visual learner/writer.)
If this is intriguing and if you need more speicifics on these four elements, I highly recommend the following books:
The Story Template Amy Deardon
Story Engineering Larry Brooks
Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook Donald Maass
These are three of my favorites. I’m not receiving any benefits by suggesting them to you – just being a good neighbor and sharing what has been helpful to me :) If you have other recommendations, please leave it in the comment section. For, as much as I have written, I’m hope to always be a student to the skill.