The best book I’ve ever read on crafting a story is Story: Substance, Structure, Style & The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. It was actually recommended to me by a priest a few years ago who happened by my blog and read a post in which I was lamenting not knowing what to do with my story. An editor had graciously, and accurately, pointed out its flaws, but I had no idea what to do with that information. I hadn’t set out to write a flawed story – I had done the best I could. How could I possibly fix it when I was given vague information like “lack of character development” and “lack of conflict?”
McKee’s book, while intended for screenwriters, is very useful for anyone attempting to create a story that will keep an audience interested – whether they be reading a book, or watching a play or movie. The advice I found most helpful was the examination of the elements of an event. In a play or movie, this would be a scene. In a book, it is a chapter.
McKee writes, “A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.” While your story should have one main conflict and one (or more) lesser conflicts to be resolved over the whole of the book, each chapter should feature some element of conflict as well. Something in the story should change as a result of that chapter, otherwise the chapter need not exist. The value McKee refers to is an emotional monitor. Emotion should change over the course of the chapter, changing from positive to negative or vice versa.
For example, if a character starts the chapter happy or excited, he or she should end up sad or disappointed. If he or she begins angry or frustrated, he or she should calm down by the end of the chapter. Of course, something must happen to the character (conflict) during the course of the chapter to create that change.
I found this advice extremely helpful in my own writing. Like many beginning writers, I struggled with creating an interesting story. In revising my story, I kept the central plot elements and basically started over making sure that each chapter served a definite purpose and had an emotional shift. I feel that it helped greatly. If you are struggling with revising or creating a story, I invite you to pick up a copy of McKee’s book – it may be just the help you need.