On the cover of our November/December issue, you will find best-selling author Steven James, who is a master at storytelling. In our feature article, Steven was most gracious in sharing his experience and expertise with our readers. Steven has also written this article below, which is so full of valuable advice that we wanted to run it today in Suite T. —Susan Reichert, Editor, Southern Writers Magazine.
What Drives a Story Forward?
by Steven James
Over the years as I’ve taught at writers conferences throughout North America and abroad, I’ve found that too many people think of stories as a series of things that happen. But stories are much more than that.
At its heart, a story is about tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. So the secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is to create more and more tension, not to make more and more things happen.
So plotting stories is not a process of asking what should happen next, but what would tighten the tension.
This shift in perspective will forever change how you shape and tell the stories that you write, whatever the genre.
Romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.
Action stories are not about action, they are about resolving problems. Once the conflict is resolved, the story is over. One exciting event happening after another does not make an intriguing action story. In fact, it gets boring unless the reader can see what is at stake, unless he can understand and identify with the unfulfilled desire of the main character.
Thrillers are not stories about scary things happening, they are about the promise of pain. Suspense happens between the promise of something dreadful happening and the actual event itself. So when writing suspense, the key is to include less action and more promises.
And then, as the story rises in escalation, to keep all the promises you’ve made.
So all of this means that as you write a story you’ll both save time and write better stories if you stop asking yourself, “What should happen?” and start asking, “How can I make things worse?” It also means that stories, at their essence, are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. All stories are tension-driven.
For example, you can write a fascinating description of a character or have thirty chase scenes in your novel, but after a while readers will grow tired of hearing about what the character is thinking or eating or wearing or doing if we do not know what their unfulfilled desire is. And we will get bored of seeing car chases unless we know what the people chasing (or being chased) want.
Readers need to know what the character wants.
Readers need to know where the action is leading.
So, stop asking yourself what should happen and focus instead on tightening the tension—on making things worse. Always come back to the unmet desire of the characters and you will create the tension that you need to drive your story forward and keep your readers coming back for more.
Steven James is the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of more than thirty books including the award-winning thrillers The Rook, The Bishop and The Queen. His latest book, Placebo, introduces a new series, The Jevin Banks Experience.
Steven earned a Master's Degree in Storytelling from ETSU in 1997 and is an active member of International Thriller Writers, The Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and International Association of Crime Writers.