Rachel McLean

– Thrillers That Make You Think

The 4 Elements of a Great Story

I went along to a fabulous book club this week, not too far from where I live. They asked me questions about my books (including my views on Brexit, yikes!), did my Division Bell quiz and bought lots of books. Lovely people!

I wasn’t planning to talk to them about story structure but a discussion of another book they’d been reading led into the subject and I think they found it more interesting than hearing about my books – and certainly my views on Brexit!

Story is hard to get right. It’s the thing I spend the most time on, and the part of my craft that I’ve focused the most effort on developing over the past year. If a sentence is wrong, you can easily edit it. If a chapter doesn’t work, you can pull it. Even a character can be drastically changed, as I’ve done a few times. But if your story is wrong, you have to start from scratch, so it’s crucial to get it right from the beginning.

Here are the four elements I think a great story needs to have to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next and to fully engage them – a ‘thriller that makes you think’.

1. An Inciting Incident

Around one eighth of the way into the story, something important should happen that kicks things off. Things will never be the same again for your characters after this.

It needn’t be dramatic – that’ll depend on the type of story. But it needs to kick the story off and change the protagonist’s world in some way. It’ll cause them to consider what they should do in response and make some pretty big decisions.

Some examples of inciting incidents from literature and film:

  • In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke meets Obi-Wan and watches Princess Leia’s plea for help.
  • In Jane Eyre, Jane accepts the governess position at Thornfield.
  • In 1984, Winston meets Julia and is instantly obsessed both by her and the possibility of danger.
  • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Hagrid appears in a raging storm and tells Harry he’s destined to become a wizard.

In the average novel of 350-400 pages, this comes at around page 40-50. If nothing exciting has happened by page 50, I start to get bored. If it still hasn’t happened by page 75, I put the book down. If you’ve ever found yourself doing the same, then the book is probably missing an inciting incident.

2. Intertwined Character and Plot

Many authors find one of character and plot more tricky than the other. I tend to think of my plots first, then develop characters, then develop a more detailed plot based on their character arcs.

But character and plot are inextricably linked. A great story is driven by the characters, and the characters are driven by the events of the plot.

At the beginning, the protagonist normally has a problem, even if they don’t know it yet. They want something, or they’re haunted by something. But that’s different from what they need.

The story will be their process of overcoming obstacles in order to meet their goals, and along the way discovering that what they need is different from what they want. At around the middle of the book, they’ll have a lightbulb moment where they realise what it is they really need – but they won’t be able to shake off that pesky thing they want till right at the end. Which is their character arc.

Again, some examples:

  • In Star Wars, Luke thinks he wants to play his part in blowing up the Death Star and defeating the Empire. But what he actually needs is to embrace the Force so he can play a much greater role.
  • In Jane Eyre, Jane wants to be independent, and believes she’s unlovable – but what she needs is to accept that Rochester does love her and that she deserves happiness. This can only happen after the fire and her inheritance, when she’s no longer his subordinate (and he no longer has an inconvenient wife hidden in the attic).
  • In 1984, Winston wants to rebel, but what he needs is to accept his place in the world. It’s the only one of my examples with a downwards arc, and the ending made me cry when I first read it.
  • In Harry Potter, Harry wants to get away from the Dursleys and succeed at school, but he needs to take his place as a great wizard who can defeat Voldemort. It takes him his entire school career (conveniently) to learn this, but he takes steps towards it in each book.

3. Great Pacing

Think of those books that everyone loves to hate but sell by the bucketload. Anything by Dan Brown, for example.

What is it they do so well? It’s pacing.

Pacing is about pulling the reader through the story, about making them want to keep reading. I do it by timing my twists and reveals, and keeping my chapters short so people don’t switch off before getting to the end, then want to read the next one. It can include the use of cliffhangers, but that’s not the only tool.

If each chapter is like a funnel that pulls you through and spits you out into the next one wanting to know what happens next, the book is well paced.

It’s probably the hardest thing to do, which is why those that do it well (Dan Brown, James Patterson and their like) may not win awards but do have millions of happy readers.

4. A Satisfying Conclusion

This is a controversial topic for me to write about, as I’ve published one book with a cliff-hanger ending, A House Divided. But that’s part one in a trilogy so it doesn’t really count.

I recently read a book which had been recommended to me by a few people whose taste in books I share. It had great reviews and was a bestseller. But I couldn’t see what everyone loved about it – until I got to the final 100 pages. Suddenly the story promised in the blurb emerged and things started to get interesting. I spent much of the time reading the book wanting to abandon it, but at the end I loved it. Why? Because it had a satisfying ending.

A satisfying ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending. (See 1984, above). But it does have to make sense. It has to tie up loose ends and conclude the various threads that have been running through the story. And it doesn’t have to involve a Darth Vader ghost or ewoks!

So those are the four things I believe every great story should have. What do you think? Join my book club to continue the discussion (and get some freebies).

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