Ingredients for a Good Story Mix
Now you’ve chosen your project, it’s time to gather your ingredients and sketch out a recipe. For some, this will mean jotting down a few key details, whilst others will prefer to plan every minutiae before moving on. If you’re a new writer, discovering the level of detail that works best for you will be one of the key things to learn during your early projects.
But whether you’re a pantser or a planner, stocking your shelves with the essentials and having a sense of how they’ll be combined will help you avoid writing yourself into a corner or producing a gloopy mess. As a minimum, I recommend establishing the following before picking up your tools and starting your mix.
The setting for your story is a vital ingredient—it affects the development of your characters, the potential situations they could end up in, and the evolution of your plot. The more detailed you make your setting, the more realistic your story, and everything in it, will seem. This isn’t to say you should drown your readers in descriptive detail, but rather that there should be a sense of depth to the setting beyond the constraints of the story. Hints at the scope of the wider world, the political state at the current time, mention of off-screen characters in dialogue, etc. All these things will add to the sense of realism. Here are some questions to help you get a sense of your story’s setting, whether it plays out on Earth, an alternative Earth, or another world.
- How much of the world will your reader see? A single room or house, a town or city, continent or entire world?
- What is the landscape like? (Mainly forest, hills, wetlands, etc?)
- What natural resources are available? (This will impact types of housing, clothing, furniture, etc.)
- What is the weather like?
- What is the political setup? (is it a dictatorship, democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, or something unique to your world?)
- What religions are prevalent, if any?
- When is the story set? (If set on another world, does it mirror a time in Earth history?)
- What level of technology have the people reached? (Have they discovered forging, gas, electricity, etc?)
- Does magic exist?
- If so, what form does it take? (Can it be used by people, or is part of nature? Is it widespread or scarce?)
- What sort of culture is prevalent? (Is there an honour system, class system, spiritual connection to nature, etc?)
- Is education free for all or limited to the rich?
- Is there a monetary system, or are services exchanged for goods?
- Is unemployment an issue?
Not all of these questions will be relevant to your story, but they will all impact the lives of your characters. The environment in which they grew up will affect the way they act, speak, think, and view the world. The better you understand where they come from and where they are now, the better you will be able to determine their reactions going forward.
Who is your protagonist? This is the character you want your readers to root for, the person who will fight (willingly or unwillingly) for what they desire (be it the end of a war, escape from an unpalatable situation, or another’s love).
Who (or what) is your antagonist? This is the character or obstacle your readers will root against, the person or thing standing in your protagonist’s path. This could be anything from an invading army, to a haunted house in which the protagonist is trapped, to a love rival or overeager protector.
What other major characters will they encounter? These are characters who are present for large chunks of the story or play pivotal roles at vital moments. (Lesser characters can be fleshed out as they’re encountered.) What is their relationship with the pro/antagonist? Are they a friend, relative, or employer/employee? A stranger trapped in the same situation, or someone seeking to take advantage for their own gain?
For each of these characters, ask yourself the following:
- How old are they? (An exact age isn’t vital.)
- What do they look like? (What is their skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, build, and height? Do they have any remarkable features? (Hooked nose, scars, twitches, etc.) Do they have a visible disability? If they aren’t human, how are they different?)
- What is their social background? (Is their family rich or poor, working class or part of the ruling elite, or part of a distrusted minority?)
- What is their education level? (Are they well-spoken and knowledgeable or street-wise and uncouth?)
- Brains or brawn first? (If locked in a windowless room, would they be more inclined to: break down the door and overcome the guard, pick the lock and sneak past, talk the guard into releasing them, or wait to see if a better opportunity to escape presents itself?)
- Are they intelligent, and in what way? (Would they make a better scientist, psychologist, artist, or strategist?)
- Are they different from the norm? (Are they on the autism spectrum? Do they have downs syndrome? Are they emotionally or socially stinted? Psychopathic or highly empathetic?)
- Are they LGBTQ+? (And is it legal where they live?)
- Do they have any phobias?
- What major incidents have impacted their life? (Did one or both of their parents die? Did they witness a traumatic event? (murder, plague, drought, etc.) Have they been a victim in a crime? Made homeless?)
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should help you get a sense of who your characters are. Answer in as much or little detail as you’re comfortable with, skip questions that don’t fit in with your story, or add any others you can think of. With each character you work on, you’ll refine your technique, gaining a better sense of the level of analysis that works for you.
Aim to make your characters unique, avoid stereotypes, but don’t let them be restricted by your answers—this could lead to them coming across as one dimensional or predictable. What you’re creating here is a baseline—who the character is on a normal day.
Point of View
When deciding what point of view (POV) to use there are two important questions to ask yourself:
- Whose eyes is the story being seen through?
- What style will suit the story best?
These questions aren’t mutually exclusive.
If you want the reader to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist or other main character, then first or third person POV would work best. This will allow your readers to get inside your character’s head whilst restricting their knowledge of wider events.
If you need multiple POVs (because, for example, events take place in two different locations), but want the readers’ knowledge to remain restricted, third person POV is probably the best option. First person can still work, but you will need to ensure the POV characters sound different enough to be identifiable whilst reading.
If, on the other hand, you want to share information with your reader that the characters aren’t aware of, an omniscient POV will allow you to do so. This works like a movie camera, zooming out for some scenes to get a broader view of the world then sitting on a character’s shoulder to view key events with them. The downside to this is, if you share too much external information, you can drain the tension from the story, leaving the reader wondering why your characters can’t see the obvious (to them) trap, traitor, or clue, etc.
Finally, there is second person POV. This is where your reader becomes the character, so instead of writing, ‘He ran up the hill,’ you would write, ‘You ran up the hill.’ Or instead of ‘Mark’s arms trembled,’ you would have, ‘Your arms trembled.’ I have no experience with this POV, so cannot offer any advice on its use.
Creating a Novel Recipe
Now you’ve gathered your ingredients, it’s time to create a basic recipe. It doesn’t need to be a precise, step-by-step guide at this stage (though it can be if you prefer). But I recommend outlining the following key elements to give you a fair idea of what to do next.
A strong opening scene is vital if you wish to hook your readers’ attention and keep them turning the pages. It should serve as a tantalising teaser, providing a taste of the story to come. Aim to include:
A Believable Setting
For readers to engage with a story, the scene’s setting has to believable. In the ingredients section, I discussed the story’s setting on a large, overarching scale. Here, by contrast, the focus is on the physical location in which the scene is set. Try to envision it as you would a theatre backdrop or movie scene.
What are the major architectural features in view? This could be pieces of furniture, large or unusual buildings, or features of the landscape such as hills or a river, etc.
Where are your characters within this setting? Are they sitting, standing, or moving about? Are there any small items within touching distance they might fiddle with? Any interesting features they could study? (paintings, books, knick-knacks, etc.)
Are there any other people around? Is your character likely to glance at them and notice what they’re wearing or doing?
If it helps, write a detailed description of the location, draw a picture of it, or make a map. The better you can visualise the setting, the easier it will be to show it to your reader.
An Interesting Situation
What is going on in your opening scene to snare your reader’s interest? Is your character in physical danger? Do they see or hear something they shouldn’t? Or is the conflict more of an emotional one? Perhaps they’ve been fired, made homeless, or uncovered a secret that puts their life at risk.
The situation doesn’t have to be connected to the main story arc, but it should help give the reader a sense of who the character(s) involved in it are, and what their everyday life is like.
An Engaging Character (Or Characters)
One great way to hook a reader is to get them emotionally invested in your characters. This doesn’t mean they have to like the character but rather that they care if the character succeeds or fails.
Given the short time frame in which you have to do this (anything from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages, depending on the patience of the reader), you can’t spend long on a character’s background at this point. Introducing a chunk of back story or pausing to let them reflect on their looks and personality, thereby taking the reader out of the moment, is best avoided in an opening scene.
Instead, you need to give your reader a sense of why the situation matters to the character. What is motivating them? What do they have to gain or lose? How will it impact their behaviour going forward?
Bringing Everything Together
On their own, the setting, situation, and character are unlikely to hold the readers’ interest for long. It’s the way they’re combined to create a unique, enticing flavour that will keep the reader wanting more.
Try to weave the scene descriptions through the action rather than have page-long blocks of scenery. Show the environment changing as your character moves through it, or have them interact with various objects.
Introduce your reader to the conflict as soon as possible. Start the scene in the middle of a discussion or argument, or have the character’s routine interrupted within a paragraph or two.
And have your character react to events in a way that makes them feel real. Have a reason for them yelling at the person they claim to love, or for looking in a forbidden drawer. The reader doesn’t need to know every little detail, but there does need to be a sense of purpose from the character.
For some, this may come instinctively. You’ll hear the characters talking in your head, or visualise the scene as if you’re watching a play. Often times, though, what seems to be a complete scene (or story), ends up being more of a shadow sketch when you write it down. As someone who tends to hear scenes play out, I struggle with the visual elements when I’m writing. This can slow me down when I have to work on physical descriptions of people or places, or the actions of the characters as they talk. Using these outlines to work on weak areas can have a significant impact on the time it takes to write a scene.
Obstacles and Setbacks
If a character’s path to the final climax is too easy or lacking in conflict, your story will end up like a cake without a filling—dry and unappetising. To avoid this, plot a few obstacles or setbacks for him or her to encounter. If it’s a romance, a much-anticipated first date could be scuppered by a family emergency. If it’s a mystery, a planted clue could lead the character astray. In an adventure where a group is crossing unknown territory, a hostile encounter could lead to injury or death.
The genre of your story, along with the ingredients list you created at the start of your planning, will help you narrow down the potential choices. When thinking of possible conflicts to use, try to tie them into your main plot (or sub plot), make sure they fit with your characters and setting, and trust your instinct. If something about one of the obstacles feels off, it may not be the right choice for your story. (Don’t scrap the idea though—there’s a good chance it will be a better fit somewhere else.)
As with the opening scene, consider the setting, characters, and situation involved in each event. Note them down in as little or as much detail as you like.
At this stage in the planning, don’t look at these obstacles and setbacks as being set in stone. Use them to guide your story as you write your first draft. As you get to know your characters and world better, a certain obstacle or resolution may no longer fit. When that happens, be prepared to return to your outline and adjust it as needed.
The final key element to your outline is your ending. Or endings, if you’re like me and want some flexibility to shift direction as the story unfolds. Ask yourself what sort of ending you’re aiming for:
- A happy one, in which your protagonist is successful?
- A bittersweet one, where success is countered by a degree of loss?
- A tragic one, where the protagonist fails?
- One where the protagonist discovers s/he was wrong and then works with the antagonist for the greater good?
- Something in between?
If you want to, sketch out a rough outline of how the ending will evolve. Will it need much build up? Where does it take place? Who’s involved? Will multiple elements need to fall in place before it can be resolved?
At this stage, having a general sense of the type of ending you want will help you stay focused as you work on the first draft, avoiding story twists or tangents that could make your planned ending(s) impossible. Unless, that is, one of those twists or tangents allows you to end somewhere better.
With these key elements in place, you now have a beginning, middle, and end to your story. Before plunging into your first draft, take a moment to look over your outline, fill in any gaps where possible ideas spring to mind, or tweak or replace any plot points that no longer fit.
Don’t worry if there are big gaps in the story at this point. A lot of my ideas tend to come to me as I’m writing, as I’m actively engaged with the characters and setting. When you view those gaps, look at them as secrets waiting to be uncovered rather than debilitating black holes. They’re your mystery fillings or hidden centres, to be uncovered and savoured when the time is right. Focus on them too soon, and you’ll cripple your output as your creative side batters itself against a brick wall.
Finally, here’s an example of my outlining from my most recent work. As you can see, I don’t go into huge details. Instead I note down what I need to recall my plans for each scene. I’ll also revisit my outline as I write the first draft, adding notes (see section in square brackets for scene 2 for an example) or new scenes as needed. And once I’ve written a scene, I strike it through in the outline document so I know it’s done.
-Opening scene: B and mum talk. Discus his feelings for Chris, etc.
-Scene 2: Lucile and Chris talk. Chris confesses he’s struggling to face illness. Angry at lost years and only have a few left. Wants to be grateful of time he’s been given with B but can’t. [Swap to scene 1 and have her arrive after overhearing his playing disjointed music? Mirror opening scene book 1—he observe that like when first met Rashelle.]
-B and Demne: B asks why Demne failed him. Demne tells B his faith was too shallow to be a godsmen, and would remain so unless he faced hardship and world outside palace. Also that he’s too soft—always wanting to help and guide, and that godsmen need to honour all gods, not few. Offers to teach B to access power as apology for over reaction last time.
-B talk to land owner about irrigation and prisoner use etc.
-Talk with Lorcan about hiring new bodyguard.
-B and Lucile discuss Kenrhys’s future.
-Lucile and queen talk.
-B overhear his parents talking about him one night?
-Queen talk with Chris.
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