Browse any writing forum and you’ll notice a pervasive question manifested in a myriad of forms. How do I keep the reader engaged? What is the correct ratio of adverbs to words? What plot structure works best? When should I use passive writing? What should be the make up of my cast?
The kernel of such questions is: How do I write a story?
Writers set out to deconstruct the writing process and label each fragmented mechanism. They study each mechanism independently of the whole until they are certain of the concept. When all the pieces are scrutinized and tagged, they strive to push the pieces together hoping for a masterpiece. Frustration soon follows.
The story of man’s creation in the Judo-Christian-Islamic tradition follows the same pattern as our attempt to construct a story. Clay was gathered, shaped into the form of man, and nothing. Not until a soul was breathed into the collection of parts did the inanimate come to life.
And this is the truth of our creations. No amount of science can make the lifeless live. No formula exists to crack the code of imagination. Your story needs a soul, one as real and mysterious as the first to kindle life in the shaped clay.
The only real advice a writer should follow is to know that a story is the sum of its parts. Make sure all aspects live and your story will too.
What are these parts?
Primary Cast of Characters
A story without characters is just a series of events. Very few readers, if any, will care about the timeline in your world. Readers need to feel that something is at stake, and characters are the connection. Just be sure to make each member of your cast a viable, independent character with their own consequences and aspirations. Unless, of course, you’ve consciously decided not to.
Secondary Cast of Characters
We often relegate the background characters to plot devices. It’s a lazy practice that denies a reader a dynamic story. Make sure the background characters are as viable as the primary set. Keep in mind that every character in your book should be able to support their own story should you have the mind, and time, to write it.
This is fantasy, after all. The world should breathe and move just as surely as your characters. Give thought to the world, make sure it adds immersion, that it adds tension and obstacles, no matter how subtle, and that it’s all plausible. Plausibility is directly equal to the amount of thought a writer has invested into worldbuilding.
Much like the secondary cast, the antagonists are often plot devices with a cape. Writers often make them caricatures of evil ideals rather than people in opposition to the protagonists. Nowhere has it been divinely or scientifically decreed that an antagonist is a soulless, mindless epithet bent on the destruction of all the protagonist holds dear. Make the antagonist as real as your protagonist. Give them plausible goals that fall within the spectrum of their experiences.
Prose is a servant to your story. Once your story is formed, alive, and set in motion, the prose will follow. There are standards that should be adhered to, unless you’ve consciously decided against them, but the nuances should adapt to your intent and not the other way around. Understand the mechanisms, but only put them together once you have a soul ready to instill in the collected parts.
The Soul of a Story
Don’t take my words as a stance against writing technique. As a longtime member of this site, I’ve seen the same questions asked, mostly by new members eager to create. I fear the enthusiasm that compels us to fill the screen with words often pushes us past the goal of our original intent. We are creating a story, an art form older than any other.
Just as in the living, no one can define the soul of a story. Some may attribute it to voice, theme, or moral parallelism. Whatever it is that sparks the life of a story, when that spark is absent from the pages, the story is left lifeless.
In your experience, which parts of a story are the most frequently neglected?
In your opinion, what is the soul of a story? What is necessary to spark the life of a story?