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The Key to Successful Storytelling

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

My youngest daughter's favorite book lately is Brave Irene by William Steig. It's a children's picture book about a young girl named Irene who must deliver a dress to the duchess for her dressmaker mother who's fallen ill.

I had to analyze the book (as I invariably do with just about every book I read!). And although the book isn't perfect, it embodies the KEY to successful storytelling, which I think is one of the reasons my daughter loves the book.

When Irene starts out to deliver the dress, the odds are already stacked against her. The box containing the dress is huge, the palace is far away, and it's starting to snow.

But Irene leaves anyway. As she walks along everything continues to get worse. With each page, Steig adds another obstacle: an uphill path, the snow falling harder and getting into her boots, the wind making the walking almost impossible, and finally the wind tearing her box out of her hands and blowing away the beautiful dress.

Of course brave Irene plods onward, steps in a hole, twists her ankle, becomes lost, and must grope about in the darkness. Just when she thinks she might be there, the worst thing happens—she falls off a cliff and is buried in the snow so that only her hat and hands stick out. She's stuck with no one to help her.

There's a writing lesson packed in those few pages—the key to successful storytelling: Story-tellers must gradually heap more and more problems on the characters until they're buried under the weight of them.

HEAP on the problems, because without problems, there's often very little left to hold the reader's interest.

1. Always be thinking how to make things worse for the character. 

In the book I just finished writing, my hero ends up being accused of attempted murder. First he's thrown into the dungeon. But as he was sitting in the dank, foul-smelling pit, I decided I wasn't being hard enough on the guy.

So I challenged myself to find ways to make things even worse for him. I gave him a ticking clock deadline to rescue his true love, no way out of the dungeon, and an impending death sentence. And to push him over the brink, I decided he needed to receive false news about his true love which would make him lose the will to go on.

We need to figuratively push our characters down the hill until they reach rock bottom and make our readers believe there's very little hope of them getting up again.

2. Have one problem lead logically to the next. 

In all of the problem-heaping, we can't just have random bad things happen to our characters (like having a bad hair day, getting hit by a car, and then choking on a chicken bone at dinner).

Rather the problems should all tie together in some way (as they do in Brave Irene). In fact, the more intertwined everything is to the plot and character arcs, the more believable the problems become. Otherwise readers might begin to roll their eyes.

In real life, we usually don't have numerous problems escalating within such a short span. But in fiction, we pile on more than any one human could possibly endure. Yet, through all the layering of the problems involving external, internal, and relational conflicts, we have to weave them together in such a way so that the plot is still believable.

3. Don't let the problems defeat the character. 

Make them heroic in the face of the all the obstacles. Brave Irene was, well, brave. She kept plodding along, determined to reach the palace. Even if she got grumpy or whined at times, we still admire her because she didn't give up. She's a worthy hero and someone we want to be like.

All too often we're tempted to let the problems depress our characters to the extreme. While we want our characters to react believably (show disappointments, heartaches, etc.), we also want them to rise above their problems and handle them with the kind of heroism and strength we wish we had.

4. During the black moment, the catalyst needs to be organic to the story.

When our characters hit rock bottom (their black moment), they'll want to give up. But there's always that last little bit of inner strength that keeps them from caving in completely.

Sometimes we can use another character to impart wisdom and encouragement. Other times, we can trigger a memory that gives the character hope. Perhaps we have the antagonist say or do something that spurs the heroine to make one last effort.

There are numerous ways to get the character out of the black hole we've put them in, usually something we've hinted at and set up earlier. We need to keep our rescue or catalyst moment true to the story, instead of throwing in a miracle that suddenly and neatly gets our character out of trouble.

What about you? How are you doing in heaping problems on your characters? Do you ever struggle to realistically get them out of all the trouble you've put them in?

20 comments:

  1. That's exactly what makes out the best stories from the rest.
    I'm currently stuck in the middle of a story (the greatest danger to tension) and you totally reminded me of what my job is, to ruin the life of my protagonist. ;) Thanks, Jody!

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    1. I hear you! The middle is often a place where we can forget to keep adding on the problems, but that's really the time to vamp up the tension and make things even worse for our characters. Glad the post resonated today! :-)

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one, Jody. I believe the challenge with good storytelling is to make things hard enough on your characters to keep the reader caring but also keeping it believable. It's a fine line in my opinion. If you go overboard it's just drama. If you get it just right it's a great story!

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    1. Good morning, Shelly! I think when we hear advice like this our tendency can be to go overboard! Making those problems inherent to the story can be tricky and takes some thought, but I think we can increase the problems and keep it believable. We definitely don't want drama just for drama's sake! :-)

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  3. Donald Maass touts: conflict, conflict, conflict, as well. Personally, I like stories that aren't quite so obvious in the formula, but the point is well taken.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Julie! Without that conflict or the problems, I think we have more of a chance of losing our readers' interest. But hopefully we can also figure out unique ways to add in those problems so our stories don't come across as formulaic! :-)

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  4. I especially agree with what you wrote about how the problems shouldn't defeat the character. I admire characters (and people in real life) who are strong enough to resolve their problems and overcome them; I'm much more likely to enjoy a book if I can relate to a character or admire him or her.

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    1. Absolutely! Even though we want to relate to our characters through their weaknesses, we also want them to be able to handle the problems better than we ever could! :-) We want them to be the kind of people we can look up to and aspire to be!

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  5. I think I feel inspired after reading this to continue a piece I have started. This advice is just what I needed to hear.
    Thanks, Jody!!

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  6. Great post, Jody! Your poor hero! I feel sorry for him already!

    Cheers,
    Sue

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  7. thanks for interesting post... i really enjoy to visit this site :)
    jelly gamat

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  8. Great post. Bookmarking it... :)

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  9. Great lessons.....thanx for it..enjoyed your post....

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  10. Excellent points. Story is conflict. We need to see characters triumph, but in such a way as to still know it was through their own courage or wits or skill.

    I'm writing the third book of my trilogy at the moment and I'm always looking for ways to ramp up the stakes more for my hero.

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    1. Wow! I can't believe you're already on the third book in your series!! My how time flies! And yes, our poor heroes! *Insert evil cackle!* :-) Hope things are going well with your publishing experience Paul. I'm sure things are just a bit busy these days with those new babies and writing!

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    2. I know! Feels like yesterday I was querying Book 1.

      Yeah, things are busy, all right. But I'm making time where I can. I'm enjoying every bit of it. :-)

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  11. Jody, Great reminder. Donald Maass is the first one I heard saying, "Think of the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist. Now make it worse."
    Just finished re-reading Breakout, one of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. In it the protagonist (sort of an anti-hero) starts out getting arrested, and from there it's one catastrophe after another. I was worn out when I finished the book, but he kept me turning pages.

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    1. LOVE that saying by Donald Maass. Perhaps we won't make things horrendous EVERY moment of the book, but the principle keeps pushing us so that hopefully we truly will keep our readers turning the pages!

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  12. Jody, thanks for this informative post. I'll be printing this off and add it to my writing binder. :-)

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