Friday, June 7

The Basics of Good Storycraft: 5 Tips

The Basics of Good Storycraft: 5 Tips

In How to Publish Your Book and Sell Your First 1,000 Copies Joe Bunting lays out the basics of good storycraft. He writes:

1. Your Protagonist Must Choose

A protagonist who doesn’t make important choices that determine his or her fate isn’t a protagonist at all. He or she is a background character.
Have you heard of Dan Wells? Although he's a well known author, to me Dan Wells will forever be the fellow who explains the seven point plot system for short fiction.

Today I read an article by him, The Superman Problem, and my bet with my brother, where he talks about the Superman problem, and the importance of making your character make difficult choices. He writes:
[The Superman Problem:] If your main character will always make the right decision and can always defeat any bad guy, your story is boring because it has no tension.  (The Superman Problem, and ...)
Not so, Dan Wells says:
Here’s the thing about The Superman Problem: it’s a complete and utter fallacy. No character actually has this problem unless they’re being written poorly. The best writers will always find ways to put their characters into situations where there is no clear “right” choice, and will strive to pit their characters against conflicts and obstacles they can’t easily overcome; this applies to Superman just as much as it applies to anyone else. Yes, Superman can beat up any villain–so what? Is every good story in the world solved by the main character physically dominating everyone else? If we truly believe what our mothers tell us about violence never solving anything, Superman’s ability to punch bad guys is arguably the most useless super ability ever; a good Superman story, like a good anyone story, will test his wits, his judgment, his will, his emotions, and so on.
Great stuff. Makes me want to see the new Superman movie.

2. These Choices Must Be Hard

The most important decisions we make, such as who to marry, whether to change careers, when to have children, are difficult, and we rarely make them in a moment’s notice. Your protagonist shouldn’t either.

3. Cut Superfluous Characters

Stephen Koch says, “The warning sign of a story that is growing disorganized is likely to be too many characters.” It’s difficult to cut characters or merge two together—these are your creations, your friends, after all—but it will tighten your story and add drama.
Just today I read Janice Hardy's wonderful blog post, Does Your Novel Have Too Many Characters?, which steps you through an exercise to help you determine just this. Well worth the read.

4. Set the Scene

Readers shouldn’t be confused about where or when your scenes are taking place. Unless it’s already clear, make sure you describe the setting and time at the start of every scene.

5. Three Drafts

Most professional writers write in three drafts. The first is for figuring out what your story is about, the second, for major structural changes, and the third is for polishing. One draft is rarely enough.
Yesterday I set up my writing schedule (using Excel and Google Calendar) for the next month or so and noticed that's what I've started to do: three drafts, just like Joe says.

That's not written in stone, I could see longer projects taking four or so drafts, and shorter projects perhaps only requiring two--or even one! But if it seems a story is going to take more than, say, five drafts I need to think about either doing a rewrite or putting the story away for a bit to get some distance.

But part of the beauty of writing is that it's not the same for everyone. What works brilliantly for me may not for you. What are your basics of good storycraft? Please share. :-)

Photo credit: "Berry Hard Work" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I don't know, I couldn't imagine a novel taking only four drafts. That would be like having a first draft, going over it once real quick, third draft after working with comments from beta readers and final draft after an editor. I mean, I guess it's possible, but you're really cutting it tight on drafts.

    True, small stuff like short stories, I'll do maybe two drafts, and only because I want to catch stupid typos, but larger works like novels and epic novels need 5-10 drafts easy.

    1. Different strokes. Stephen King (who of course has oodles more experience than I do) uses three drafts, so do many other authors.

      If a person wants/needs more, terrific! There's no right or wrong, just what's right for each writer.

  2. When you're working towards a publishers contractual deadline, there's no time for 5-10 drafts!

    1. I'd love to read an article by George R.R. Martin about how he works, how many drafts he goes through. My guess is that some of his books push 200,000 words. Going through 5 drafts of a book like that would be hell!


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