Analyzing your story, PART-1: Your story’s purpose

In the online writing group I’m involved in, one of the members is very good at pointing out story flaws from a reader’s perspective. Over the next few posts, I’m going to delve into these issues with the goal of helping you to better focus your story for your reader.

In part one I’m going to talk about your story’s purpose. Before I get into that, I want to clarify that I’m talking “STORY” here, and by that I mean writing that deals with character, conflict (external, internal, or both), and a resolution of that conflict.

I’m not slighting literary fiction, which may venture into a different realm of examining an aspect of human nature, where the conflict resolution may be replaced by some intended resonance with the reader. Such stories may or may not have a conventional ending. For example, the ending may be open or ambiguous. I’ll be dealing with the various ending types in a future post.

For the purposes of this series, I will be dealing with more conventional genre stories where the character either wants something or is put into a situation that he or she wants to get out of or needs to resolve. Conflict involves what stands in the way of the resolution. Let’s take two simple examples:

(1) Main character wants to rob a museum of a piece of art. The conflict is what hurdles he or she must overcome to accomplish that without getting caught.

(2) Main character is framed for a crime. The conflict is clearing his or her name.

Of course, there are myriad other story examples possible that can involve romance, adventure, a quest… You get the idea.

The first thing you must consider when writing (and preferably before starting to write) is your story’s purpose. Before we answer that, we need to break that question into three sub-questions:

(1) What is your story about? Can you tell it in a couple of sentences?

This can be a lot harder than you think, but it’s a VERY IMPORTANT question. If you tell someone you’re writing a novel, most of the time that person will ask “What’s it about?” You should be able to tell that person in a couple of sentences right off. Then if the person asks for more, you give it.

Assume that you’re trying to sell your story to some passerby and that you only have a few seconds to grab that person’s interest.
“What’s my story about” can change as you develop the story and perhaps discover that it wants to go in a different direction from what you originally intended. But until that happens, you should keep focused on what you started out to do.

Once you know what your story is about, then comes question #2.

(2) What is your goal in writing the story (apart from entertaining the reader)? As part of that you must ask what you are trying to convey to your reader or what you want your reader to get from your story. Or maybe a more pointed question is this: What’s in the story for your reader? Why should the reader find your story interesting?

There are two bits of conflicting wisdom out there when it comes to your goal for writing a story. The first says that you should write to please yourself. This makes sense because if you don’t like what you’re writing, then the writing probably won’t be interesting to someone else. I’ve seen cases where you just want to tell a story that you find interesting. That’s where you start.

The other piece of wisdom says you should write with your reader in mind. That can either come later (during the first of your edits), or you can start to incorporate it, connecting with your reader as you go along. My advice is to focus on telling the story first and worry about the reader connection later. I’ll cover that in another part of this series.

As for what you’re trying to convey to your reader, that’s part of your story’s THEME, which you may or not be conscious of while writing. Theme is what gives meaning to your story. It’s that “what’s in it for the reader?”

Once you’ve sorted out the first two questions, we start to get to the nitty gritty: your main character or characters. Show me a story without a main character or principal narrator, and I’ll show you a story that’s probably boring. The characters are what connect us to your story, so they should be interesting. I’ve talked about this a lot before. I won’t be going into that here other than to remind you that boring characters equal boring story.

Finally, we move on to the third big question.

(3) What is your main character’s goal (which may or may not be different from your goal in writing the story), and what conflict is ultimately driving the character’s story?

My writer friend summed it up this way:

What is the character’s desire?
What prevents the desire?
Will the desire be met?

Take a simple example of a basic romance story:

Character A falls in love with character B.
What’s keeping them apart?
Do they get together in the end?

If there is no “what’s keeping them apart” then we don’t have much of a story, not one that’s likely to interest most readers anyway. In fiction writing, where there’s no conflict, there’s no story. Maybe it’s a memoir or an essay or part of a family history, or “how I spent my summer vacation,” but you can’t call it a story.

Perhaps the very best example is Romeo and Juliet. We know immediately what the conflict is. The two lovers come from warring families. I’m sure you can come up with many other circumstances for conflict in a romance. Naturally, a lot can happen over the course of this story, but something has to be driving it.

So those are the initial things to think about as the first step in analyzing your story. Know clearly what your story is about, have a goal in writing it both for yourself and for your reader, and determine what’s driving the story. Above all, make sure that what’s driving the story is sufficiently strong that it gives meaning for the reader.

In the next post we’ll look at making sure your reader knows what’s going on at all times and what’s motivating the characters to act and talk as they do.

—Rick

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