[note: this article first appeared as part of the How to be a Good Writer series on the C.P. White Media Blog.]
Good writing has certain elements that cause it to be compelling, realistic, successful. And savvy authors wield these elements like a skilled craftsman uses his tools. I'm talking about good fiction. Today we're going beyond the nuts-and-bolts talk, beyond subject-verb agreement, tense, and even the difference between present participle and gerunds (which is extremely important stuff), and we're dealing with high-level, meta-picture kinds of things. Following are a few things Good Writers know.
Disasters: Every scene must end with some kind of disaster for the protagonist. More importantly, when it does not, the story is over. Why? Because the thing that drives Story is conflict. Coincidentally, that's the same thing that keeps readers turning pages. And it's the same reason reality TV has been so successful. Why do you think Survivor was such a hit? And why do you think The Office, with its truly cringe-worthy moments, kept people enthralled for so long? You're right; it's because everybody likes a good train wreck. Which explains NASCAR, mostly.
I suppose I should mention here a little about consequence. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and if you look to life for symmetry in cause and effect, you'll rarely find it. Evil prospers and good often suffers. Cf. the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. In the best fiction, I think authors are hypersensitive to all the potentialities of the scenes they're writing and how they want them to play out in the lives of their characters. The best authors just flat out notice things, and all the time. Read Klinkenborg for more on noticing.
Just remember, too, that when you're writing a scene, it won't necessarily feel natural to keep your hero from the One Thing (the Story Goal) she's striving toward. But you must be cruel. And realistic too, and that goes for all you scifi and fantasy nerds out there as much as it goes for all you family saga bow tie-wearing spendthrifts, because no matter where, people are people, whether it's just outside of Alpha Centauri or somewhere in Yorkshire. Yes, people will be total jerks—or completely selfless (rarely)—to each other no matter where they are. And that means there'll be arguments. Sometimes, those arguments are big enough to produce a story, which segues nicely into my next point.
Story-Worthy Problem: This is much like the age-old Meaning of Life question, in that your Story must have a reason to exist if it's going to be at all legitimate. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the story-worthy problem is that the ring of power is in the Shire, and further that something must be done about it. Finding out what makes one turn the page, again and again. In Lost, the story-worthy problem is that the little band of strangers has been cut off from the world by having crashed on an island in a plane, and further that everyone wants to know how to fix it. In any Sherlock Holmes story, the story-worthy problem is usually that something inexplicable has occurred, and further that at least one of the characters is desperate for a solution.
Note that in the paragraph above, I have italicized the second half of several if-then statements, if you will. There's a reason for this. In my mind, there's a cause and effect relationship between the story-worthy problem and what precedes it. See, all great stories start off showing the protag at rest, at peace, at least reasonably. Then something happens, and that produces ultimatum, which is a lot like real life. That something that happens is the Inciting Incident, and without it, you've got no impetus, no motive, and the story is dead on the slab, having not even gotten to the point where a story worthy problem can surface. So I think the Inciting Incident and the Story-Worthy Problem depend on each other. One of them does come first, and produces the other, but if they stand alone they lose context, and therefore most of their power.
Story Goal: While we're talking high level Story here, it's worth mentioning that there must be a point to it all. some kind of resolution, even if dissonant. If there's not, your little tale exists in a vacuum, which is impossible, at least for things that live and thrive. If there's a working part of a good story that breaks the calm (Inciting Incident), and another working part that provides motive (Story-Worthy Problem) even through every kind of setback (Disaster), then there must be a reason why the protag endures to the end. A goal, then. One worthy of the story you're telling.
For Frodo, it was to return Middle Earth to a state of peace and rest. For Neo, the goal was to take down the Matrix. For Jean Valjean, it was to discover, no matter how much it cost him personally, true justice.
When the goal is reached, the story has climaxed. All that's left is the wrapup. And that's optional, especially nowadays, with everything being a saga or a series. Drag things out as long as you like. Just remember to season it liberally with conflict and consequence, deglaze with hope, and garnish with at least a little romance.
Scene goal: I've got to set this up a little here. If you've read this series for very long, you know at least a little about the difference between scene and sequel. Scenes are mostly dialogue and action, sequels are mostly narrative. Sequels don't need an inherent goal; they're just telling a bit of backstory or developing a character (when I use the word "developing," it's in the sense of bringing an image into its fullness on film). Scenes, though, should have a goal.
Scene Goals are quite different from Story Goals, because they're never fully realized for the protag. If your hero's goal is to make it to Laramie before the villain does, perhaps he'll accomplish the Laramie bit, but he'll be faced with an ambush by the villain. If the hero's goal is to save the patient's life in the ER, perhaps she does save him, perhaps she doesn't. Or maybe she saves him, but there are unforeseen consequences that will begin to play out in the following scene.
The key to a well-executed Scene Goal is to never give your protag total satisfaction. If you allow that, the story will end and you'll find you need an all new Inciting Incident, Story-Worthy Problem, and so on. So write smartly.
About Chris White:
You know what they say—that behind every great man is an unstoppable rebel force—and it’s true. Like Moriarty was to Holmes, C.P. White is the reversed polarity doppelganger behind it all. Author C.P. White blogs about weirdness on the C.P. White Media Blog and spins dark tales, psychological thrillers that you’ll want to read with the lights on. Author Chris White works in the front office writing romantic YA paranormal fiction with Aaron Patterson, collaborates with illustrator Joey Zavaleta on the Great Jammy Adventure children’s books, and even serves as editor to award-winning authors. Learn more at www.cpwhitemedia.com.