3 Tips for Writing a More Compelling Story

I do a lot of different things on this blog. I started it a while back with a vague aim of providing advice for my fellow self-published authors. After running out of advice to give, but still feeling I should maintain a blog, I started branching out with my material. If I see something I find strange, yet high in potential for comedy, I'll jump on that shit. On slow weeks, I'll sometimes dig into the past for inspiration. Occasionally, a wealth of comedy gold will drop right into my lap.

Thanks, Phil!

Thanks, Phil!

But one thing you won't see a lot of on here is advice on writing. Though my books are doing well enough for me to live the dream of making a living as a writer, I don't consider myself a master of the craft, certainly not so much so as to presume to be able to educate others. But I have learned a couple of tricks along the way.

What has worked for me may not work for you, but here's what I've got.

1. Feed your babies.

You'll find one consistent piece of advice quoted in book after book and blog after blog about the craft of writing. Sometimes it's "Murder your darlings." Sometimes it's "Kill your babies." It all amounts to the same. You have to be strong enough to cut out those little self-indulgent passages from your work that you were so proud of while writing.

This advice is not without its merit, especially for people who suck. There's nothing worse than cringing at some purple-prosey puddle of word-splooge which you just know caused the author to shed a single poignant tear.

But I've never had a lot of use for this bit of conventional wisdom. My books are, like, 90% darlings. The Land Before Tim was written almost entirely around one joke. Characters and setting expanded outward from that joke until I had most of a story written. My "darling", as such, was used as a seed, which then grew into one of my most popular short stories.

I could see this process being disastrous in the hands of someone who doesn't treat it with the necessary subtlety to avoid an obvious setup and punchline, awkwardly crammed into an otherwise smoothly-flowing story.

So proceed with caution. But if you're stuck for a story idea, why not give it a shot? I write comedy, so most of my darlings are jokes. But it could work the same for any badass line of dialogue or ultra-cool-yet-isolated circumstance idea you might have kicking around in your head.

2. Give your protagonists impossible situations to get out of.

That first entry is hit-or-miss, but this one is something I rely heavily on in my work. One of my readers' favorite recurring tropes is my characters' unconventional uses of mundane spells and magical items. (And you guys can look forward to plenty more of that in CF4.)

"Well... fuck."

"Well... fuck."

Almost all of these creative uses were the result of me backing my characters into a corner, and challenging myself to have them figure out a way to get out of it using the limited resources at their disposal.

One of my biggest disappointments as a reader and watcher of stories (in books, television, and movies) is when the central conflict gets resolved by the hero conveniently stumbling onto exactly what he needs exactly when he needs it, or because the villain is hilariously incompetent

That's cheating, and it's lazy storytelling. 

Now I'm not suggesting you don't cheat. Everybody cheats. You have to cheat if your hero is going to beat the odds and get out of the story alive. I'm merely suggesting you don't be lazy about it. Once again, subtlety is key.

There are many different ways to subtly cheat your way to a believable and successful conclusion for your protagonist. Two in particular come to mind.

You can plant seemingly innocuous information or props in the beginning of the story, which your audience will hopefully accept when it becomes vital at the end. The problem with this method is that your audience might spot the obvious plant and call bullshit.

A method I've found more effective is to just run the protagonists into a seemingly hopeless situation and let them figure out how to resolve it. 

"How is that cheating?" you may ask. Surely, that's the exact opposite of cheating.

I disagree. You, the author, have an advantage over both your protagonists and your readers which you can exploit. That advantage is time. While your protagonist has only what time passes in the story, and your reader has only the time it takes to read the story, you've got all the time in the world when you're writing it.

If you spend enough time and imagination trying to solve a problem, you'll probably eventually find a solution. The trick here is to find a solution to the problem that would not likely occur to a reader in the time it takes to read it. The best part is that there's nothing to call bullshit on, because your reader doesn't know how long you actually spent thinking about it.

3. Don't outline (at first)

One thing you want to avoid as a storyteller is predictability. And the best way I've found to avoid that is by having no idea myself what is going to happen next.

"I took the road less traveled, and now I'm fucking lost."

"I took the road less traveled, and now I'm fucking lost."

I know some authors swear by the outline, meticulously planning and charting every plot point before writing a single word of prose. If that works for them, I can't argue with that.

Some take a more hybrid approach, charting the major plot points, providing certain sets of circumstances they need their characters to reach, but allowing some wiggle room as to how they reach them.

Myself, I like to set the characters loose and see what kinds of trouble they get into on their own. In the back of my mind, the story's antagonist is also carrying on with whatever his or her (or their) plans are. When the two forces inevitably clash, I move on to the hybrid phase. The finished story has to have some kind of structure, after all. 

Maybe none of this will work for you? But if you're an indie writer struggling with the craft, trying some new things couldn't hurt. Just make sure you have a trusted beta-reader to make a final call on those fat babies of yours.

"Adorable!"

"Adorable!"


You can find Robert Bevan's fat baby collection HERE.

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