As part of my career over the past decade, I’ve had the enjoyable opportunity to interact with most of the Big Five publishers in the U.S. and around the globe, as well as a multitude of Hollywood agents and producers. During those conversations, I’ve found they both have a very similar set of criteria they look for when trying to find the next great story for page or screen. Sadly, what they tell me is most of what they read lacks one or more of the five critical elements essential to every great story.
The essential elements
So what are those essentials elements they look for?
An inciting action
This needs to happen very near the beginning of the story. It is the action that draws me in and makes me want to care. A body is found. A bank is robbed. A person is kidnapped. Children meet a friendly dragon in the forest. Whatever it is, it sets the story in motion and introduces me to the main character or characters. It also helps me understand what’s at stake for the rest of the story. Will the hero stop the asteroid from hitting the earth? Will the two lovers, separated by war, get back together? All great books and films have an inciting action. So take a critical look at your story. Do you have an action that draws me in at the outset?
Once it is clear who the main character or characters are and what’s at stake, I want to know what obstacles they face that prevent them from accomplishing what is set before them. I want to know if they can overcome challenges and beat the odds even if they are stacked against them. So review your manuscript and see if the conflict is clear and immediately identifiable.
This is probably one of the most neglected elements of the five. Too many first time writers just don’t finish the story in a satisfying way. They set up the conflict, make the characters interesting and then resolve it with something that comes out of the blue. In their effort to be creative, they end up making the ending implausible, which hurts the story. Even if you are writing a series, you need to bring some closure to the story. You can still set up the next book, but you don’t want to leave readers asking, “What?” So this is where an outline can help as you write. Think of it as a GPS for your story. Write where the story starts, what turns do you take along the way, and most importantly, where do you end.
There needs to be a main character I care about. That means you have to do more than just writing a description. I want to understand why he or she does what they do. Sounds simple, but it can be very challenging. However, it is critical if you want to keep an audience interested. Also, don’t be afraid to expose flaws or struggles. Often times that is what draws us to a character. We can identify with their humanity or human weaknesses.
Life is often about struggle and overcoming opposition and so great stories present those challenges. Many times the resistance comes from another person, an antagonist who prevents or impedes progress. As with the protagonist, make sure you don’t just describe the antagonist. Help me understand their motivation for opposing the protagonist. Most times, the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist is a struggle between good and evil, but it doesn’t have to be. The antagonist is an oft-overlooked piece of your story, but it remains one of the essential elements to great storytelling.
Now, none of these five elements should be surprising. But what is surprising is how many books and stories are missing one or more of these crucial elements.
How about your story? I suggest you step back from your writing and see if you can identify these five essential elements in your work. If you can, that’s great. If not, take a moment to make sure your book has all the hallmarks of a great story.