Being successful in the writing world is about standing out in a ridiculously crowded field (like, in-the-millions ridiculous.) It’s about getting people to find you, but also getting them hooked on your style of writing, on your novels, enough that they decide they trust you and want to get more books from you. They’ve been burned before, you see, so “keeper” authors mean more than ever.
The way to do this is to make sure your stories are memorable.
Easy enough to say. But how do you make your stories memorable?
Please note: this does not mean “throw a bunch of quirks at the character.” We don’t need a bunch of protagonists with peg legs and telepathy who were abused by Joan Crawford as children.
To create a memorable character, you need to do your homework and fully flesh out who they were, build out chronologies, in order to create believable people that the reader will be able to empathize with (or at least understand.) This needs to happen for all protagonists and the antagonist, as well. It is the antidote to cardboard character syndrome.
The other essential exercise for memorable characters: their goals and motivation. A memorable character wants something very, very badly. Their motivation is what makes them unique and what propels them forward in the story. There should be a tangible consequence if their goal is not met.
You can layer quirks on top of that, especially if it matches with your voice (which we’ll discuss in a moment.) But quirks without a solid foundation of backstory and goal are just clothes on a hanger, not on a living, breathing body.
I go through this in more depth in my book, Rock Your Plot, but the bottom line is, without a gradually escalating plot line that draws the reader inexorably forward through the story, you’ll have a hard time presenting a memorable novel.
If you have fully fleshed out and intriguing characters, but they’re spinning their wheels as the plot mires in conflict plateaus and pointless scenarios (i.e., scenes that don’t forward the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal or provide conflict to achieving that goal), then you’re spiking your own wheels. Make sure the storyline is gripping.
You may think “but I’m writing a sweet romance” or “it’s just a coming of age story” or “I don’t need a gripping storyline, this is not that kind of story.”
Don’t mistake “gripping” for a Liam Neeson movie where there are plenty of action scenes and guns blazing and whatnot. (For more detail, check this blog post — Plot Help: How to Blow Shit Up.)
You can have “quietly gripping” where we as readers are still riveted by what happens and whether or not your protagonist is going to achieve his or her goal, whether that’s saving the world or standing up for herself against a pushy sister or finding love.
The trick? Do your character work. Without a memorable, fully fleshed character, you won’t have the fuel to drive a story engine that sticks with readers.
Memorable world building.
World building: it’s not just for sci-fi anymore! 🙂
If you’re going to make your protagonists chefs, for example, you should study the restaurant world and get a feel for how they work. Underwater divers? Race car drivers? Emergency room doctors?
You see where I’m going with this. Do the research.
A caveat to this: know your audience. For things like historical, it’s easy to get lost in the research and dump it all in big gobs. Just because you found something fascinating doesn’t necessarily mean the reader will, and even if they do, don’t dump pages of arcane details at the expense of story.
There are few stories out there that are able to weave in a mass amount of finicky details without sacrificing readers. Novels like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern create a character out of the world, and walk the fine line of losing their storylines. That book presents a wealth of details about the Circus itself, which are fascinating. It does run the risk of losing the story itself with its mass number of POV characters and some story plateaus. (Note: it’s one of my favorite novels anyway.)
A novel like Memoirs of a Geisha presents the details that only pertain to the protagonist and her situation – he could have focused more on politics, for example, but mainly focused on tight-focus personal politics and what affected Sayuri in her quest to survive as a geisha. That doesn’t mean that World War II was ignored. In fact, knowledge of it was crucial to the third act of the book, because it does affect Sayuri. But you don’t read the novel because of its deep dive into World War II Japan.
The details, pertinent, distinctive, and fascinating, are what you want to focus on to make your story memorable.
Think of your favorite writers. Think of the one that’s the funniest. Now perhaps the scariest, or the most suspenseful, or the one that brings you the most joy.
Not the stories. The writers themselves. Your keeper authors – the ones you’ll buy, no questions asked, when they come out with another book, because you like how they write.
They may nail the first three elements, and that’s what got them on your auto-buy list. But odds are good, they have distinctive voices, as well. Voice is how an author tells a story.
I love comedic voices, for example. But there’s a big difference between the urban fantasy humor of Seanan Mcguire’s Incryptid series or Jim Butcher’s Dresden file series, and Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers romantic comedies, or the absurdist sci-fi humor of Douglas Adams. It’s a matter of internal observations in their exposition, I’ve noticed. Or in the witty banter of the protagonists.
When I’m reading scary, I’ve noticed a lot of it is in what they don’t say. Less is often more. Details without a lot of exposition put me on edge. Want me to keep the light on after I go to bed? Don’t tell me I’m scared. Show me why I should be.
Nailing all four of these elements is a master’s task.
That said, it’s not impossible.
You’re going to be developing your voice your entire writing career – your whole life, really. It’s not a matter of creating your voice as discovering it and polishing it. Your voice is an integral part of you. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about it as much as the other elements.
The other elements can be strengthened through study and work.
Focus on character first, since plot without character is useless. Then strengthen your plot skills. You’ll probably wind up diving into research after your initial plot, and then adjusting your plot line as your research provides the details.
Finally, you pull them together and create your memorable story. It’s like Jim Butcher says: it’s like lifting an engine block – it’s not easy, but it’s not exactly complicated, either.
Now go forth, and be memorable!
Need some additional help? I do plot coaching. Contact me, and schedule a one-hour plot consult session today.