We know that when it comes to a writer giving out the coveted red rose, plot and character are first to receive one. But guess what? Alone, they won’t get very far. A great story is a team effort, so let’s look at other key storytelling elements needed for our book to earn a spot on the bestseller’s shelf.
Theme & Symbolism
Just as it’s so important to craft characters who are mirrors of your readers in some way, we should also be thinking about the broader message of our story. A plot about a man who kidnaps and tortures another person might be adrenaline-thrumming, but it isn’t memorable. A story about a loving father losing himself in a moral tug-of-war when he tortures a mentally handicapped man with knowledge of his daughter’s kidnappers (Prisoners, 2013), well, that makes you sit up and lean in. This horrifying premise sticks with you because you can’t help but wonder what you might be capable of doing if your own child’s life was on the line.
Theme is the author’s viewpoint, their reflection on an aspect of the human condition. Put another way, theme is what the story is truly about.
Stories without a theme keep your readers at the shoreline of a lake. Sure, they can enjoy the sunshine and shallows, but as the cold water laps at their ankles they stare out at the dark water and wonder what it would feel like to be immersed in the water’s depth. What will they discover about themselves as they leave safety behind, exploring the sensations that come with a new experience?
The best stories will make a reader think and perhaps view their reality a little differently. They come away from the story more thoughtful, reflective, educated, or even changed. Theme doesn’t need to be heavy-handed or moralistic. It simply nudges the reader toward questions, challenging perceptions and ideas. It encourages them to think a bit deeper about their own life and what they know to be true of the world.
Theme may not be something you know at the start of a story, but often inklings are in the background whether you are aware of them or not. In revision, themes should be identified (if they haven’t yet been) and then brought more to the forefront using symbolism (a word, phrase, person, or object embedded with deeper meaning) and motif (a recurring symbol to reinforce an underlying theme).
Theme, symbolism, and motifs are important enough to be included in our descriptive database at One Stop for Writers (see below), so this would be a good starting point for brainstorming themes and then finding the universal symbols to describe them to readers.
One Stop for Writers Resources:
One of the many important decisions we need to make in storytelling is about the point-of-view, which is the perspective you will show story events from. There are multiple aspects of the point-of-view conversation to consider, so let’s dig in.
First Person: In this case, the author erases themselves from the narrative as much as possible and tells the story from the “I/me” viewpoint, becoming the character. Readers are exposed to direct thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the POV character.
Second Person: This viewpoint turns the reader into the star of the story using the “you” perspective.
Third Person Limited: Third person is where the narrator relays the POV character’s experiences using he/she/they pronouns. By controlling narrative distance using close/deep POV techniques, readers are brought into the character’s experience.
Third Person Omniscient: In this case, the narrator is God-like in that they can relay the actions and thoughts of multiple characters, but only in observation mode. This means the author can relay a character’s thoughts or feelings to readers, but not directly.
Deciding which one feels right for you may take a bit of experimentation. Try writing a scene in different POVs and see which one feels right. If you are newer to writing, 3rd limited or 1st person is a good starting point.
Choosing Your POV Character(s)
Now this is the meat and the potatoes of the conversation, because who you choose as the focal point of the story will shape the reader’s experience and funnel them to a specific type of story. What does this mean? Re-envision what Harry Potter might have looked like with Albus Dumbledore as the main character. Or Snape, Ron, or even Hagrid. The same world and overarching events, yes, but the rest would be very different!
It can be hard for some writers to decide which character to make the center of the story. Like your children, how do you decide who is the favorite? Should you? (Yes, you should – choose favorite characters, I mean, not children!)
The character you choose should fit the shape of the story you want to write. Their complexities and arc should pull at you. Who will best fit the plot and draw readers in the most? Who has the most fascinating backstory? Who has the most to win or lose in this story? The answers to these type of questions should lead you to your central character. Once that is decided, you need to make a second decision: will the story be told only through their POV, or will you give other characters air time too?
The answer here will again tend toward your preferences. You may want to have dual protagonists, or have the protagonist and the antagonist tell the story, or include other characters. Just make sure that you have good reasons for giving a character a share of the stage. In general, you don’t want to have too many POVs in a story, and you don’t want to use POV as a crutch (say, to show readers something important that happens when the POV character is absent). And there are other potholes to be wary of, such as head-hopping, improper transitions, and too many characters. The articles below should help with those.
One of our very best tools for drawing readers into the character’s experience is to use Deep/Close POV. This is where we remove filtering language (he knew, I saw, they wondered, etc.) and just show the scene directly. I heard the leaves rustle against the pavement becomes dry leaves scraped the road. And when you tie description to emotion, it becomes a doubly immersive experience: Dry leaves scraped the road like skeletal fingers scratching a coffin lid.
Further Reading & Resources:
Voice is another area that requires some study and practice to fully get it right in the story. And to make it even more fun and complicated, there are three voices to consider: Authorial Voice, Character Voice, and Narrative Voice. As we covered Narrative Voice under POV, we’ll focus on the other two here.
Authorial voice is yours, the voice of the author. It’s your unique style that conveys authority. It’s the sum of who you are, what you know, and what you believe about the world and how it works. It imprints itself on the story. It’s how fans of Stephen King know they’re reading a book by Stephen King, not another writer.
This voice will change and evolve as you do. Your author’s voice is something that just is, and you shouldn’t spend a lot of time analyzing it, trying to shape it, or wondering if it’s “right.” Focus instead on writing, learning, and being curious about the world. Trust that your voice will come through the more you use it…by writing.
The character’s voice is one that will vary from book to book, and yes, there are some high stakes involved. For readers to connect with your characters, those characters need to feel authentic, as real as you or me. They also need to feel special, having unique insight or experiences that readers want to know and experience for themselves.
The key to a strong character’s voice is the author knowing who they are down to their bones. To do this, writers need to spend time getting to know them: what they want, fear, need, care about, and believe. Once we understand a character’s essence, we can think about how that will be expressed, and we’ll feel capable of sharing their exact story with readers. Every word, thought, and action will have a specific flavor. They will speak a certain way, think a certain way. Their behavior, interactions, decisions, and expressions will be unique to them and no one else.
If you like, start this get-to-know-you process with a character interview. Or go even deeper and explore your character from all angles using our Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. There’s no right or wrong way, only the process that works best for you.
Think about the language that feels right for them and how their viewpoint of the world will be communicated by what they say, think, and do. Spend time experimenting. It may be that it takes time for the voice to find a cadence and rhythm, and in revisions, you can work to bring it more to the forefront.
Voice: The Soul of Your Story
Finding Your Voice Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated
Making Your Characters Shine from Page One
Diversifying Your Characters’ Voices
Three Ways to Differentiate Your Characters
Crafting a Body Language Voice
Voice Tips from the Pros
Another element we may not realize has a lot of power in the story is pacing. Your story will have a certain rhythm to it as conflict ramps up and down. Pacing can be manipulated to slow down events and draw readers, helping them experience something more keenly. It also can be sped up, causing them to miss a vital clue that will come into play later.
Pacing is a huge topic, and one we’ve covered well, so take a stroll through our many posts here at WHW on the subject:
Also, if your pace needs some CPR, check out our Tip Sheets on Pacing (Pacing & Pressure Points and Plot Pushes) as well as checklists on Backstory and Flashbacks so you can decide if those are needed in your story. While you’re at One Stop for Writers, come see this symbolism entry on the Passage of Time to help with transitions!
In most novels, dialogue exchanges can be half the book—meaning, we really should invest the time to understanding how to craft them well. Every conversation should be adding to the story in some way: pushing it forward, characterizing the cast, revealing emotion, etc. If it isn’t…then it’s time to slice and dice that scene.
Two questions you should be able to answer for every character involved in a dialogue exchange is What is my character feeling? and What does my character want? What your character wants will dictate what they feel, and they should always want something: to gain information, to avoid pain, to seek help, to escape, to be safe, etc. And dialogue exchanges become electric when your characters want different things. The tension created through a tug-of-war of wills as both parties try to get what they need without conceding their power will keep readers glued to the page. We’ve got many articles to help you in this area, too:
Writing Better Dialogue
Crafting Strong Dialogue Exchanges
Show-Don’t-Tell: Revealing True Emotion in Dialogue
Using Colloquial Speech to Spice up Dialogue
Writing Realistic Dialogue
Using Communication Breakdowns to Craft Authentic Dialogue Exchanges
9 Tension-Building Elements to Use in Character Dialogue
Tension & Conflict
Tension and conflict is another necessary duo for successful storytelling. Some people view them as the same thing, but they are actually quite different:
Tension: The feeling of uncertainty, expectation, fear, or dread
Conflict: The obstacle or block in the way of the character’s goal
These two are usually spoken in the same breath because they are a power couple—meaning, they are most effective when used together. Conflict alone may not pull readers in: oh look, someone forgot to put the e-brake on and now that car’s running downhill. Interesting. But if we add another element: the character’s four-year old playing with sidewalk chalk in the car’s path, we get tension: Oh my gosh, this is terrible! Will the character reach her daughter in time?
It’s the same if we work the other way. A writer could show the protagonist turning the corner to see her two friends mid-argument and there’s tension: what’s going on here? but without something more, that tension dies on the page. Are they arguing over where to eat lunch, which hockey team is more likely to win the Stanley Cup, or something more? Add conflict: the fight is about who is going to break it to the protagonist (who is trying oh-so-hard to fit in) that she can’t come on their girl’s weekend. Now we have a perfect tension-conflict combo.
For tension and conflict to marry well, we need something to pull them together: stakes. What will happen if things go bad? Stakes represent the threat of negative consequences should the character not succeed. That’s why in storytelling, something is always at risk: if the character doesn’t achieve X, Y will happen, but Z stands in their way. Conflict should build throughout the story, tension should be ever-present (which can be positive or negative), and the characters should move from safety to jeopardy frequently without rest until we hit the climax.
Further Reading & Resources
The Conflict Thesaurus
Adding Conflict & Raising the Stakes Tip Sheets
What Does Conflict Look Like?
Conflict Vs. Tension
Goal-Oriented Storytelling: Tension
No Story Conflict? Explore Your Options
Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Type of Novel
Raising the Stakes
How Stakes Set up Expectations
How to Turn Your Setting into an Obstacle Course
Need More Help?
Don’t miss these step-by-step story roadmaps we’ve created at One Stop for Writers!
How to Plan a Story or Novel (Coming Soon!)
How to Write a Story or Novel (Coming Soon!)
How to Revise a Story or Novel (Coming Soon!)