Long before the written word, there were verbal story tellers. These tales offered entertainment, an oral history of the people, or means of survival for the listeners. Because of the necessity to remember the stories being told, the teller had to present his tale in the most memorable and appealing way, much like a writer today.
This came to mind as I sat with my family over the holidays listening to stories. A group of us sat outside around a big stone fireplace with wine in hand and asked everyone to think back to an event from when they were nineteen or eight years old. A few hours flew past as the tales flowed from young and old. One thought led to others and soon we had lots of laughs, gasps, and smiles. Through it all, I noticed the most effective stories had the same basics as a good novel. What are these basics? I picked out several, so see if you agree.
Know your audience. This was easy for my family gathering. We were interested in how grandpa ended up being a pilot, since his goal had been to attend college for a business degree so he could go into the insurance business with a family friend. Or his rendition of what living during World War II was like for the kids at home. Grandpa went through the day of a boy living in a coastal city, tending his block of victory gardens, raising chickens to sell eggs, and the necessity to be inside by dark (no gasoline to drive anywhere, headlights of those that did had the top painted black as no lights were allowed in the city). Grandma talked about beating the odds of transferring into Stanford as a woman by achieving the top score on the entrance exam. The listener or reader must know from the start for whom the author is writing the book (young adults, fantasy lovers, romantics, thrill seekers?). Each category requires a different path, and a unique touch to the method of revealing a story.
What is the purpose of the tale? To teach, to entertain, to make the reader retain the memory of the characters or simply the overall message? A history book reads quite differently from fiction, but even history can be told in various ways. Is it the leadership or heroism of an individual or the achievement of a team that matters? Is it the failures of one battle that leads to success in the next? Is it the story of one of Henry the VIII’s wives, or the changes in religion brought on by his marriages to them?
Lead into the story, perhaps with a hint at the “punch line,” but reveal it in bits over time. Grandma did this with her story of how she married Grandpa. Grandpa attended Stanford University in California when she met him, but she was going to college in Oregon. Since we all knew the outcome, she stated the obstacle they faced upfront. Women were not usually accepted as transfer students into the school back at that time. If she wanted in, she’d have to do something to prove herself. Thus, the tale included the difficulties she had to overcome, the odds of getting into the college, and her process to defeat them.
Don’t forget the emotional impact of a story. Does your hero or heroine leave behind those they love? Have they nothing else in life except the love interest who is torn from their grasp? Has their home and country been destroyed, leaving them lost and looking for hope? Or has the cherished mare that is carrying the heroine across the country, been bitten by a snake and will likely die? Has your dancer suffered a devastating injury and the doctor must reveal she will lose her leg? Each of these touches emotions for readers.
Don’t forget to bring your story full circle. This weekend we watched the movie Moana. A young girl leaves home, knowing she alone is the one to save her island from dying, but also fully aware her father nearly died attempting to leave the safety of their island reef. Once she achieves success through her trials, the story would feel empty without her returning to the island. In my latest release, Under the Radar, my heroine leaves a base in South Africa for a mission and doesn’t return in the expected time. To bring the story full circle, she must eventually return, not to prove she could succeed, but to get more resources to complete a second mission and save someone she has come to love. The catch is that returning with success places her in grave danger from an unknown enemy.
Hopefully these examples give you some ideas as you embark on writing that next great novel. Just remember some keys to good storytelling include:
1. Know your audience.
2. Know the purpose of the story.
3. Lead into the story. Hint at the punch line, but reveal it in bits over time.
4. Be sure to touch on emotions.
5. Attempt to bring the story full circle.
If you enjoy romantic thrillers and adventure, check out my latest two book release, Under the Radar and Off the Chart in the new TakingRisks series.