(Some) Major Elements of a Compelling Story
By: Breanne Ross
Freytag’s plot pyramid whittles narrative composition down to a blueprint: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Still, no true formula exists which dispels the secret to writing a compelling story. Every storyteller desires the same thing—to capture and keep a reader’s attention. But how do we maintain the reader’s interest? Until the fairy dust exists, we rely on instinct, utilizing effective writing devices to keep readers captivated, increasing the likelihood they will finish what you’ve written.
While in graduate school, I studied under prolific writer, Julianna Baggott and I can still visualize her writing across my workshop submissions, “Start in scene!” While stories can begin a number of ways—from dialogue, setting, summary, or scene, to name a few—Baggot’s point stressed that engaging the reader from the very first sentence is imperative. Let’s examine a couple examples:
“Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train.”
James Baldwin’s, The Devil Finds Work begins by providing the reader something to look at. Technically speaking, Baldwin’s opening sentence is a fragment, but immediately we can see the image in our mind, curious to know, what about Joan Crawford’s back? He holds our attention by including us in the action using the first-person point of view before revealing where we are and what we are doing. Within two sentences, we’re on board for the story, compelled without choice to read on.
“Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.”
A story’s setting provides both time and place, and Sherman Alexie’s, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, begins by giving the reader precisely said information. But orienting a reader alone won’t persuade him to read further. I’d be less interested in Alexie’s story if the opening sentence read, “It was 1976 on the Spokane Indian Reservation.” What propels the reader forward are the rich details about the setting that arouse our suspicion—the scene painted: a hurricane in winter, hundreds of miles from the coast in a geographic location atypical for tropical weather. Then, before we even reach a period, we’re introduced to a chronic problem: Victor suffers from nightmares. Everything about what is happening in the first sentence of Alexie’s tale disrupts the reader’s logic, and because the human brain needs to make sense of information, we’re inspired to read on.
At the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference, Lee Gutkind once said, “Don’t tell the reader what you want them to know until you want to tell the reader what you want them to know.” A well-written narrative should drive a story forward, utilizing literary and plot devices, pacing, and sensory details to keep the story interesting. For example, foreshadowing, which places subtle clues to indicate a future event, can help build suspense and interest. Revealing the “punch” to the story too soon, however, deflates reader curiosity.
In addition to plot devices, a varied use of dialogue, scene, and exposition provides balance to writing, not only for how it looks physically on a page, but also for the different ways it engages a reader’s brain. Neurologically speaking, the human brain gets bored after about ten minutes (or less) of doing the same thing. As such, after too much narrative exposition, or too much dialogue, the brain literally gets tired. To achieve re-engagement, transition to a different storytelling technique.
· Narrative Exposition – Provides background information to plot, characters, setting, or historical context.
· Dialogue – The written or spoken exchange between two or more characters.
· Scene – a story within the story, with its own beginning, middle and end. Scenes provide building materials for the larger narrative.
Earnest Hemmingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The Indian Aesthetic Theory of Rasa emphasizes that art, written and performance alike, should evoke emotion in the viewer or reader. It’s easier said than done, but the truth is if you feel bored by your writing, your reader will feel bored, too. Because humans are hard-wired for storytelling, instinct provides the best guidepost for the craft. It isn’t fairy dust, but chances are it’s even better.
Breanne Ross graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing & Publishing program. She is a cancer survivor who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry, and is currently working on a memoir exploring the link between mental wellness and physical disease. You can follow her on instagram @thebreanneross and on her blog.