If they don’t stumble, trip them

I’ve tried lots of structural things to keep the reader moving through the story. The first and easiest place to start is with mechanics. Things like cliffhanger chapter endings, ominous foreshadowing, alternating storylines, out-of-order plot sequencing. I’ve read lots of good books that use similar techniques, and to great effect. For my own writing, I’ve found that all of these techniques work, at least to a point.

But none of them are particularly good substitutes for simply writing a compelling plot.

So, how do you write a compelling plot?


I’m not sure you can teach a non-storywriter how to write stories. See my footnote below.

But if I were asked for advice (and, by virtue of this week’s assignment, I was), the best advice I can offer is a long-standing mantra I’ve been spouting for years: throw your characters down the stairs.

It’s simple and obvious advice, and yet it’s hard advice to accept. Because storywriters develop stories and characters that we love and cherish. Torturing our characters is often…uncomfortable.

But it’s necessary in order to write a good story.

One of the best examples of stair-tossing I can think of comes from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. In it, the protagonist, Roland, is an exceptionally talented gunslinger. Probably the best that ever lived. As a reader, you can easily visualize Roland firing his six-shooters with perfect, mechanical precision, loading bullets faster than you can blink. He’s like the ultimate wild west superhero. As a young man reading those books, I absolutely wanted to be the Gunslinger.

So what does the masterful King do with his hero? He has creepy crab creatures bite half the gunslinger’s fingers off.

It’s…brutal. It’s incredibly cruel. When I first read the story, I remember feeling angry at King. Horrified by the callousness of the scene. And desperate to keep reading to see how Roland would overcome such a horrendous turn of events.

It’s strange witchcraft: the worse an author treats his/her characters, the more irresistable the resulting storyline becomes. Be cruel to your babies. Embrace your sadistic side. Your readers will thank you for it, while cursing you in the same breath.

Footnote: if, as a writer, you’re spending much time actively worried about this question (keeping the reader turning the page), you should…stop. Just write your story. If it’s good, the reader will read it. If it’s not, they won’t. Sweating the structure, or forcing a plotline just for page-turning points, that’s just asking for trouble. When it comes to good storytelling, either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And you’ll know soon enough either way.


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