Cooking Up a Great Story -- The Necessary Ingredients

In talking with a friend of mine the other day, it occurred to me that writing novels is somewhat similar to being a standup comedian. For in the end, you are out there on your own. No matter how well you've formulated your material, how detailed you've crafted your characters, or how many people have helped you with the editing, at the end of the day it is your name alone that goes on the book cover.

I've always admired comedians for their courage, for what they do is also a very singular effort. Whether they wrote their own material, or have a staff of writers behind them, when the time comes it is the comedian that stands alone in front of the audience. When they step out on stage, they face an audience that is sitting there, staring them down, mentally daring them, "Go ahead, make me laugh".

There is literally very little difference for a writer, and I say this from personal experience. Every reader who decides to purchase your book has, at least subconsciously, challenged you, "Go ahead, keep me entertained". They've paid good money for your book and they're expecting a fun ride in return. The good news is that if your book succeeds in meeting their expectations, they're going to tell others about how good it was. Sadly, however, this blade cuts both ways. Should they find your novel to be less than fulfilling, they'll share that also, sometimes much more loudly than you'd like for them to.

So how do we keep that from happening? How do we keep a story line going so that the reader simply cannot wait to get to the next page? To answer this, I went to the experts. I walked over to my bookshelf and pulled out the books I enjoy reading the most. By studying them I determined distinct elements that my favorite authors use to keep me coming back for more. Fortunately, for all of us, these elements can be replicated by good writers everywhere.

Like many people, I read most often to be entertained, to escape, to temporarily leave the real world behind, along with its many challenges. And in doing so the last thing I want is to be bored. That said, pace is the first element we'll look at. The pace of a novel is so important. I cannot stress that enough. While I appreciate that not every page can contain a climactic moment, one needs to keep the story moving. If you ever take a writing class you'll hear "show, don't tell" over and over again. And one of the best ways to achieve this is through dialogue, the active interaction between characters. Although well intentioned, too often I see writers getting lost in long, drawn out, extraneous detail that in the end really wasn't necessary anyway. Good editing can catch a lot of that, but really good story tellers keep things tight, respecting the space they have on the page, and making that space sacred.

Hand in hand with the pace of a story, especially for mysteries, is the writer's ability to create and maintain a sense of tension. In my mind, for mysteries to be suspenseful, that sense of tension should never be far away. While I certainly want the reader to enjoy the journey, I don't ever want them to relax. A relaxed reader tends to nod off. As with our hero, the reader should be ready, always anticipating something to emerge from the shadows when least expected. Many things can contribute to this and one of the most important is the setting. Here's a good example. For most of us, being in church on Sunday mornings, surrounded by friends and family, gives one a warm sense of peace and well-being. Actually the only possible tension there is getting caught putting next to nothing in the collection plate. However, change the time of day from morning to midnight, remove all the people, and have your character making their way alone in a dark cathedral, wondering what that noise was they just heard behind them. The scene has now taken a complete 180 and there is a definite sense of tension. To successfully maintain this sense of tension, tell the story in such a way that the reader is never quite sure what's coming next.

Many of us grew up solving crimes with the game Clue -- Colonel Mustard, in the Library with the candlestick. It was great fun! So it's not surprising to find that many avid mystery readers today are also armchair detectives. They revel at the chance to dig in and solve the enigmas facing the hero, beating them to the punch, if possible. Therefore, one of a writer's responsibilities is to provide the reader with all the necessary clues. They don't have to be obvious. Clues rarely are, but they do have to be there. To have the uncle from Ireland, whom nobody has ever heard of, show up at the end and solve the mystery is cheap, unfair, and you'll likely never see that reader again. Good mysteries provide the clues, but the clues also provide the twists that keep everyone guessing. View clues for what they are, obscure pieces of a puzzle. They're not clear cut and can be open to various interpretations.

In my first novel, The Dark Side of the Cross, I worried that what I had written was too obvious and it really bothered me. I feared that I was giving it all away. As it turned out, I heard from many of my readers and thankfully they loved it and didn't figure out the ending until they, well, got to the end.

So, once we combine a strong, well-paced story, with a continuous sense of tension, and the clues necessary to solve the mystery, we're really only missing one final element. It is this final element that puts the icing on the cake for a truly good story. There needs to be a sense that this could really happen. It needs to feel realistic. This allows the reader to get on board with you, the storyteller and ride along thinking in the back of their mind, "...this could happen to ME!!!!" If your hero gets hit, it hurts. If a character sprains an ankle, it doesn't heal in an hour. And if there's something really scary happening, everyone's nerves are on edge-the reader's and the character's. Everyone! The story of Superman has already been written. Keep your hero, as well as your other characters, human. By doing so the reader will be able to relate to them and you will find that this will endear your readers to your characters.

So there you have it, writers-The "magic formula"!

If only it were that easy...