Reading is a unique activity. No other form of entertainment (with the possible exception of virtual reality, which is still beyond the budget of most of us) enables us to so completely immerse ourselves in the action. Movies and TV shows can give us a great thrill ride, but they cannot let us become the main character in the way that a book can.
This is why we read. Whether it’s the thrill ride of an action-packed suspense, or the intellectual puzzle of a whodunit, or the experience of falling in love in a romance, if a book can take us along on an emotional ride, we’re hooked.
It really is that simple.
Don’t believe me? Look at the reviews for books like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. You’ll soon see how many reviewers slammed the quality of the writing – yet these books were still hugely successful. (And I don’t know about you, but if someone is willing to turn a book into a big budget movie, I count that as a success, even if the author uses too many adverbs, or writes split infinitives, or puts commas in the wrong places).
This is why I’m such a huge believer in writers learning the craft of storytelling. Because, unless you’re writing literary fiction, it’s the story that grabs the reader, not crafting beautiful words. Readers will forgive a lot when it comes to grammar and formatting and spelling, but if you don’t get the story right, you won’t hook them.
But what do we mean by ‘story’?
From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, story is “a series of connected events, true or fictitious, that is written or told with the intention of entertaining or informing. Narrative is a more formal word, referring to the kind of prose that recounts happenings.”
That’s a great place to start, but I far prefer this quote from Philip Martin’s How to write your best story:
“If the string of events is fairly neutral and straight-forward, we might call it a narrative. A narrative might not be more than a sequence of things that happened, one after the next.
I did this. Then I did this. Then this happened.
If a narrative is basically what happened, a story takes it to the next level. It creates a structure to seek and hold far more significance.”
If narrative is a series of events, then story is what gives it meaning.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve spent our whole lives absorbing basic narrative structure. From the books we’ve read since childhood, and from watching television and movies, we’ve learnt to expect that stories will have beginnings, middles and ends. We expect that the action will rise through a series of events to a climax, and then will end with a resolution that gives us exactly the emotional pay-off we were led to expect.
But as much as this knowledge might seem to be embedded in our DNA, transferring it into our own novels is unbelievably difficult. Perhaps it’s that flickering cursor on the blank screen, or the blank piece of paper staring back at us, that makes us unable to transfer what we know into the words we write.
Luckily, there are all sorts of tips and tricks writers can use to give their narrative meaning, to take it to the next level of story.
For me, the best tool in the writer’s toolbox is narrative structure.
Following an established narrative structure does not mean that your book will be formulaic. Personally, I loathe the word ‘formula’. Formulas suggest science. When you follow a formula, you know exactly what result you’re going to get, and it doesn’t leave much room for creativity.
I prefer to think of narrative structure in terms of biology rather than science. For me, narrative structure isn’t a formula, it’s a skeleton.
Viewed through X-Rays, our skeletons all look pretty similar, allowing for minor differences such as height and gender. It is our muscles, sinews, cartilage, skin and hair that make us unique. Viewed through human eyes, two people with similar skeletons can look completely and utterly different and unique.
In the same way, narrative structure gives all our stories a certain bone structure, while still enabling our books to be unique. But the benefit of using an established narrative structure is that it enables readers to immediately identify with what they are reading. Is this book human (and therefore relatable) or butterfly (cute, but not so relatable)?
In my work as a writing coach and mentor, I often see aspiring writers create their books from the outside in. They start with the muscle, skin and hair (interesting characters, interesting plot, good writing) yet something is missing. That something is usually the skeleton – that narrative structure which is so deeply embedded in our psyches that without it, the overall shape has no meaning.
This is why I believe it is so crucial that beginner writers learn the craft of narrative structure, and how to use it to give meaning to their words. By learning how to use these tools, we give our readers an experience they can not only relate to, but which they can live into and experience emotionally.
If you would like to learn the basic tools of narrative structure, sign up for Romy’s four week course on how to use narrative structure to create an emotionally satisfying read, right here on Savvy Authors.
As a 2016 finalist for the Romance Writers of America® RITA Award for her novel Not a Fairy Tale, and Chairperson of ROSA (Romance writers Organisation of South Africa), all of Romy’s dreams have come true. She is not only a multi-published author but as a writing coach and teacher, she now helps make other writers’ dreams come true too.
Though Romy’s heart lies in Europe, she doesn’t cope well with the cold, so she lives in sunny South Africa, in the City of Gold, Johannesburg, where she is mom to two little princesses and a pet dragon (okay, he’s a bearded dragon, but that counts!)
Romy writes contemporary fairy tale romances and short 1920s historical romances. She loves Hallmark movies, Country music, travel, and losing herself in stories. Her favourite authors range from Christina Lauren and Melanie Harlow to Kelly Hunter and Charlaine Harris, JD Robb, Katherine Kerr, Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer.
Not a Fairy Tale
And the award goes to…
Not Nina Alexander that’s for sure. With her best gracious loser face firmly in place, Hollywood’s hottest starlet is hoping to end her evening of disappointment with a graceful exit stage left. Only an unexpected proposal and an awkward wardrobe malfunction mean that this is certainly going to be a night to remember… for all the wrong reasons! So what girl would resist the gorgeous Dominic Kelly coming to her rescue?! Especially when he’s whisking her out of the paparazzi’s prying eyes on the back of his motorbike – and wearing a tux to rival James Bond!
Nina soon realises that the only way to recover from such a scandal is to toughen up and snag the role of the decade in the year’s hottest YA screen adaptation. Who better to train her than her very own professional stuntman? Getting up close and personal with Dom will take Nina well out of her comfort zone – both professionally and in her closely scrutinized private life. But this A-list couple know only too well that’s it not all happy ever afters in Hollywood…