A story needs to begin making sense right away, starting from the first page. This means the reader must be led towards the point of the story from the get go.
If you take the time to figure out the point of your story before you begin writing, the story will be so much easier to write. Not only that, you'll spend less time editing, rewriting and fixing it.
When a story doesn't have a point, it's just a bunch of unrelated things that happened around the same time span. If you don't have a good and short answer to the question,"What's the story about?," you don't have a point.
A common trap many aspiring writers fall in is focusing only on the most visible and explicit part of a story - the external events that shape the plot but don't add up to anything meaningful. A gist of their overall story often looks like this:
Robert has been genetically engineered to have a perfect memory of anything that happens to him at any time. He never forgets what he sees or hears, and can recall and present it exactly as he experienced it.
Ever since his childhood, he was raised to be a spy, so he never had a normal life. Now he's a member of an elite group of ATS operatives travelling the world and handling the hardest security threats.
He was doing a great job, until he starts feeling something for a woman he was spying on.
A lot has happened in this summary, but it still leaves the reader wondering, "So? What's the point?" The following 3 ingredients are essential for a story that wants to make a point.
There are lot of complex definitions out there when it comes to theme, but the gist of all is this: What is the writer saying about human nature?
The theme of the story determines how the characters will treat each other. So the first problem with the sample above is lack of a theme. Here's a possible theme, for example.
We have a tendency to get so carried away with technological progress that we forget to consider its ethical implications.
Whatever a human is programmed to do, he can't escape his humanity, and will ultimately seek meaning, purpose and connection.
The great thing about this theme is that it gives the reader a little clue about both: how the story will end, and how the world will treat the protagonist.
Can you see now why it's so important to do the ground work before you start writing? You may think of some other theme, and that's fine too. The important thing is to have one.
Now let's turn to the 2nd essential component.
Your protagonist should have inner issues to deal with, and those issues should have a role to play in establishing and conveying the point of the story.
In other words, there should be one or more internal beliefs holding him back, and he must overcome and deal with them to achieve one or more goals. Here's an example of what might that be for Robert:
Robert was technically programmed to handle top-secret projects that no ordinary human can handle.
Therefore, he doesn't think that he has the right to feel human emotions, question his programming, or take decisions about his future.
The belief that he doesn't have the right to act human is a great inner conflict. With every turn your plot takes, you can push the character to deal with this issue. This will lead to some hard decisions and dramatic actions.
For the story to be able to hit the reader hard with the point, its plot should be an escalating cause-and-effect progression of external events - events that force the character to deal with his inner issues in order to solve the external problems.
Now that you have decided on what the theme and inner conflict is, you can craft a plot which is more interesting, meaningful and which makes your story's point. Here's an example of what the plot for Robert's story may be:
Robert is sent on a mission to spy on a foreign woman because the CIA tells him that she is trying to overthrow the government.
He finds himself pulled towards her in an weird way and he doesn't know what's happening to him. This causes him to question everything he's taught - ever.
As he investigates more, he comes across evidence that the woman isn't the one trying to overthrow his government. The CIA is trying to overthrow hers.
More surprisingly, he realizes that weird feeling he has towards the woman might be love. But it's something he was told he's not capable of.
Now he has to choose between finishing the job he was assigned and overcoming his programming to let something more confusing, messy and satisfying emerge - his human side.
Filter Your Story
Another reason it's so important to know the point of your story or scene is to filter out everything that's irrelevant.
A reader automatically assumes that everything you tell them will have something to do with the plot. If they don't need to know something, don't tell them.
Sometimes writers find it hard to let go of something that has nothing to do with the point of the story, just because they're attached to how beautifully they have written it.
But if you tell the readers something they don't need to know, they're going to attach some meaning to it anyway. And that meaning is more likely to be the wrong meaning, because you haven't given them the right one.
The more it happens, the sooner your story will stop making sense.
Link Cause & Effect
On the same note, a good story doesn't have things happening at random or without any reason. Everything should be connected and make sense.
Any event that's too convenient or coincidental weakens the plot and turns off the audience. Take this story for example:
A woman comes home in the evening after a day of shopping, only to find her pet dog choking and unable to breathe. She rushes to the vet, and leaves the dog there for emergency treatment.
When the woman arrives at home, her phone was ringing. "Get out of there right now," it was the vet shouting.
"Why?," she asked. "Just do it! Go to a neighbor's house. I'll be right there."
Startled by the tone, the woman agreed and got out.
A few minutes in, a couple of police cars came charging and parked at the front of her house. Horrified, the women was trying to figure out what's happening.
With their guns drawn out, the cops ran inside her house.
Meanwhile, the vet arrived and explained that he found a human finger inside the dog's throat! So he figured the dog must have caught and bit a burglar.
Sure enough, a man was found in one of the closets, holding onto a bloody hand.
In this story, help comes from the vet who has already been introduced and established in the story. Not some random miracle that happened by chance.
The barriers, actions, or helping hands should come from within the story. Not suddenly out of nowhere. A plot is the simplest answer to the question, "What happened and why?"
In the choking dog story, the dog is choking. Why? That's the first why that comes to a reader's mind. It happens again when the vet tells the woman to get out of the house. The reader wonders why.
He is already anticipating there is a link between the two incidents. And it turns out there is. So the reader is satisfied.
A series of such links that connect different parts of a story or novel together is the plot. Without these links, without the plot, the reader has disconnected details that add up to nothing.
A Story Without Plot
A story with a strong plot has a sequence of action and reaction. Now let's read a story with a really weak plot.
A fisherman was fishing as usual when he catches a weird fish. He gives it to his wife to clean it. After cleaning the fish, the wife was washing her hands in the sea when suddenly, a killer whale emerged and pulled her in.
The killer whale took the wife to its home beneath the sea, where the wife began to work as a slave. A shark helped the fisherman locate the whale's house, and they rescued the fisherman's wife.
Were you gripped? Was it compelling? Did the reader get the experience expected from a story? The answer is no.
The choking dog story arouses readers' expectations and directs them while the fisher husband story does not.
Each event in the choking dog story is connected to another to form a unified whole. It triggers the question "Why?" at a couple of instances and ultimately answers them.
The fisher husband story, on the other hand, just conveys what happened and to whom, but not why.
Is there a connection between fisherman catching a weird fish and the whale taking the wife? Was it revenge? Or the whale needed a new housekeeper? The reader doesn't know.
Readers want the second event to happen because of the first event, but there are no clues connecting the two. And why did the shark help the fisherman? Where did it come from?
No answers again. A source of help out of the blue weakens the plot even more.
The fisher husband story fails on what people expect a story to be. There are no barriers keeping the character from saving his wife.
The fisherman and shark simply achieve their goal without any resistance. There is no conflict, neither internal nor external.
Knowingly or unknowingly, readers expect a strong plot. Take another example. "A man died and his mother died." Two events. Plain and simple. That's a story.
Now connect the first event to the second. Make the second event a result of the first event. "A man died and his mother died from grief." That's a plot.
A story is a sequence of events. The audience asks what happened next. They don't need to remember what happened before, though they will because they expect a plot.
A plot is more. The audience expects to know why. They remember the events that have led up to here and try to find connections. The mystery entertains them and draws them in. Keeps them invested.
When it comes to our taste in stories, we prefer logic to chaos and order to disorder. When listening to a joke, all the details play a part in building up to the main punchline.
So a story with a plot should have a cause and effect - all the parts coming together to make a unified whole.
Based on all we have covered so far, here's a brief checklist to help you zero in what your story is about. Ask yourself:
~ What is the story leading up to? What will people walk away thinking about? How will your story bring about a shift in reader's worldview?
~ What's the theme? What will your story say about the human nature? What useful insight it has about what makes people tick?
~ What inner issue is the protagonist struggling with? Does that issue, the theme and the plot work together to answer the story problem?
~ Is the theme reflected in the way people treat the protagonist? Does each plot twist force the protagonist to deal with the issues holding him back?
Once you have answered these questions, you can also pass the ultimate test: summing up your story in a short paragraph. It's hard but take your time. It's worth it.
If you can concisely sum up what your story is about, so you can be aware of what its point is, it'd be a lot easier to write.
How about some practice? Take a look at this series of happenings and apply the principles we have discussed so far. Try to give this story what it's missing: a point.
Elsa is a professional cyclist, riding around the nation and raising funds for her favorite causes. Then she gets stuck in the middle of a hurricane in a southern town and loses everything, including her backpack and bike.
With no money, she has no choice but to get a job to save enough for buying a new bike. Around that time, she starts dating a local cop. This goes on for about a year, until she saves enough to get the bike and get back on the road again.