With enough time, a new storyteller becomes an old hand at finding new premises and creating a basic plot structure from them. Once you get there, the next step is to be a little more discriminating about which stories you invest time in. This doesn’t have to mean throwing away your new darling. Simply benchmarking your ideas based on ANTS criteria and making tweaks can do wonders in improving audience enthusiasm when you’re done. Let’s go over how to do that, letter by letter.
The first step is to make sure your main character is someone readers will bond with. This can be especially tough because we always love our main character; it’s hard for us to realize that other people might not. Think of it this way: your hero has to prove themself to the audience in the same way they have to prove themself worthy of being the story’s hero.
Start by checking if your character has sympathetic and/or selfless traits. If you need ideas, see my handy list of likable character traits.
- Sympathetic traits entail your character enduring some kind of hardship. They must not deserve the hardship they are enduring, but it must also not feel forced or manufactured on your part – generic social stigma often comes off that way. Instead, look for something that real people experience every day.
- Selfless traits entail your character doing something for others, with no gain for themself. That includes social credit – if your character saves someone from a burning building and is cheered on the way out, it doesn’t count. It works best if your character takes on additional hardship as a cost of helping others, because this also produces sympathy.
It’s most effective to have both sympathetic and selfless traits, but it’s not essential. If you are missing one because you have a character who’s comfortable or selfish at the start of your story, I would work to bring the other aspect out as much as you can.
- Relatable characters are bland by nature, with traits that make them feel like an average person of their demographic. Generally they should start the story out with few, if any, exceptional abilities. The audience will live vicariously through them. Harry Potter is a great example of this type of character.
- Distinctive characters have traits that are really unusual. These traits are used to add novelty and make them entertaining for audiences to watch, helping them bond with the character. Deadpool is a great example of this type of character.
Once you think about these things, you should know the general strategy you will be using to get readers to fall for your character. Next, plan how you will bring these things out in the beginning of your work. It’s not effective to just tell audiences that your character has these traits. Telling includes making other characters talk about your protagonist or alluding to things that happened offscreen. The audience needs to see these traits in action during the story’s opening. Maybe the hero helps a cat out of a tree, and as a result, they’re late to work. Perhaps they give up their meal to someone hungry on the street. Do the best you can to weave it into your overall plot.
Novelty comes in many forms, but speculative fiction is powered by highly novel settings, so we’ll start there.
Start by considering the basic elements of your setting.
- Is it on Earth, an Earth-like world, or a very alien world?
- Does it take place around today, in the past, or in the future?
- What are the aesthetics of the setting? Will there be a lot of cyber technology, clockwork, or natural landscapes?
- Is it particularly dystopian or utopian?
If you don’t already know your subgenre of speculative fiction, these considerations should help you find it. While a future dystopian cyber-tech story is almost certainly cyberpunk, an Earth-like world with lots of natural landscapes is probably some type of medieval fantasy. Resist the temptation to think of your work as alone and apart from the rest of speculative fiction. Even if it’s truly unique, romanticizing it will not help you make it better. Find what commonalities you can.
What you’ll do next depends on your setting and subgenre.
- If your setting is flexible or hasn’t been determined yet, look for something unusual that will complement your story. We have a list of underused settings that you can get inspiration from.
- If you’re in a pretty broad and popular subgenre like urban fantasy, epic fantasy, or space opera, look for ways to make your setting stand out from others. Maybe your spaceships are actually powered by magic, or your fantasy world is a dreamscape created by a sleeping god.
- If your setting is part of a more niche genre, you may want to focus your attention on giving your world a strong theme related to that genre and making sure all the pieces of your story emphasize it. If your story is cyberpunk, make it cyberpunk. Your setting will still benefit from a unique take, but a large alteration is less necessary.
The best choice of setting will not only have a cool and unique aesthetic to it but will be something you can personally get excited about. If possible, choose something related to an area of expertise or interest you have. If you’re into environmental causes, choose a setting where ecosystems are important. If you’re in the tech industry, choose a setting with the type of technology you are familiar with.
Your personal expertise and excitement are important because a setting that’s unique in theory but not fleshed out on paper won’t provide any novelty. If your space opera story uses magitech for space technology, you might have a ritual chamber instead of a warp core, and the ship’s AI might be some kind of divine spirit. You’ll need to feel engaged with the setting to generate details like these, and a wealth of details is what matters. If the setting doesn’t feel like it’s magitech, then it might as well not be.
Note: If you’re working on a short story, you may not have room to do a lot of worldbuilding. In that case, try to feature one setting element your audience can get excited about, like plant golems, fairies riding songbirds, or sapient computer programs.
Plot and Character Novelty
For the rest of the story, the biggest thing you’ll want to do is check for clichés. The more well-versed you are in your subgenre, the easier it will be to judge what’s cliché. For characters, understanding typical archetypes like villains, love interests, or mentors is very helpful. If your characters feel like typical examples of a common archetype, they could come across as cliché. For your plot, watch out for anything that feels too predictable.
However, not everyone has time to read all the things. When in doubt, ask some fellow genre fans or look to see how many uses of the convention are listed on TV Tropes. Keep in mind that most tropes are not cliché; they’re just patterns that have been seen before. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Finding clichés isn’t the end of the world. You’ll just want to look for something unique to add. For instance, if your main character is a great hero foretold by a prophecy, you might give this trope a twist. Here are some examples:
- The force behind the hero turns out to be evil, and the hero has to subvert their destiny.
- Someone else was actually the chosen one, but that person died unexpectedly. In a last ditch effort to save the day, the main character has to take on their role.
- The prophecy actually says the hero will fail to save the day. However, the main character feels it’s important to try anyway.
If you decided on a distinctive hero in the last section, you may also want to think more about what uncommon traits you can give them that the audience will find interesting. For inspiration, I also have a list of some underused character ideas.
If you’ve gotten all the way to optimizing your story ideas, you’ve probably already learned a lot about this. When we start storytelling, conflict is usually the biggest thing missing from our stories, so much of our focus goes into creating it.
The reason we need conflict is to raise the story’s overall tension (the uncertainty over a problem that matters). Mastering basic plot structure means your story has some level of tension. However, some basic checks before you start writing can help you manage and maintain tension throughout the story.
First, in longer stories it’s important to have a plot progression that doesn’t get your protagonist and antagonist fighting life-or-death battles too early. If the antagonist actually wins, your protagonist is dead, and if the antagonist loses, they won’t feel threatening anymore. Bye bye, tension. You can use several different strategies to prevent this.
- Make your antagonist’s big goal something that doesn’t require killing the hero. Then your antagonist can actually succeed. This is a great way to escalate tension in the story. After the antagonist succeeds, the hero has to turn things around.
- Make your protagonist too insignificant to take on the antagonist in the beginning. Instead, your protagonist should struggle to stand up to the antagonist’s weakest minions. Your protagonist should grow in power enough to face the antagonist by the end, but the hero should still feel outmatched.
- Plan some preliminary steps that need to happen before they can face each other. The hero might be focused on uniting the resistance while the evil overlord is seeking a McGuffin to make themself more powerful. After their forces are gathered, it comes to a final showdown.
Next, make sure the story’s tension never disappears. That often happens when the hero’s chance of succeeding gets too high or after those chances improve significantly. To maintain tension, make sure there’s always some level of urgency to the big plot problem. A passing day should matter, either because people are dying or because there’s a big deadline looming. In addition, if your hero ever has a significant win or gets new allies, etc., you’ll need to raise tension by introducing a new twist or making something bad happen. See my list of ways to restore tension.
Even though it’s important to have tension throughout the story, you don’t want nonstop urgent action. That will quickly become tiring. To give the story some breathing room, you’ll want to trade off between different types of conflict. Alternate exciting action scenes with interpersonal scenes that focus on character arcs. Characters can have a nice chat while they’re hiding from the big bad, while they’re fleeing in a vehicle, or while they’re locked together in a prison cell. The big problem is still looming over them, but they’re not running around at that very moment.
Whereas tension is about creating and maintaining compelling problems, satisfaction is about how those problems are solved. Once the outcome of a problem becomes certain, the conflict’s resolution has been reached. But to leave your audience feeling satisfied, they must feel that the character they’ve grown attached to earned their resolution.
One of the most common ways satisfaction is ruined is by robbing the story of character agency. Conflicts in a story need to be proactively addressed by the protagonist. You can get away with less agency in the story’s beginning, when the protagonist might be a fish out of water. Even so, they should be making choices that change the outcome of events. If the character just watches as the conflict happens or is dragged around by other characters, conflicts will feel unsatisfying – often even before the resolution appears.
Examining your protagonist in early stages can encourage agency. Look for two things.
- What does your protagonist contribute that no one else can? To encourage attachment and make explaining easier, it’s common to have a protagonist who is just an ordinary person caught up in incredible events. But if you’re not careful, that ordinary person will be overshadowed by more qualified characters. So give your relatable protagonist a special skill or ability, or otherwise modify your premise so it’s impossible for anyone else to solve the big problems of the story.
- Give your protagonist motivation for solving problems. Sometimes storytellers get caught up in the stage of portraying a reluctant hero. If your hero has a personality that makes them refuse to solve problems, you’ll have to give them a compelling reason for why they can’t avoid it this time, or you’ll need to change their personality.
Aside from that hurdle, the most important thing to examine in early stages is how the climax will work. If you’re a discovery writer through and through, you can make revisions later, but it’s much easier to pull off a satisfying climax by stepping back and thinking it through. Climaxes are tough to get right because they have a lot of requirements.
- The tension of the story should be at its highest, which means the protagonist is facing a challenge that’s difficult to solve. If it seems easy, you have a tension problem.
- Despite the fact that it’s difficult to solve, the protagonist still has to solve it somehow. Others can help during the scene, but there must be a single moment in which the protagonist does something that turns failure into success (or success into failure, for a bad ending).
- The protagonist must succeed or fail because they deserve to. This sense of karmic justice makes endings satisfying. The protagonist might use their wits, previous hard work, or integrity to win the day. See my list of karmic solutions.
- The solution they use must be adequately foreshadowed, so it doesn’t feel like you, the storyteller, just made it up on the spot.
Altogether this is a pretty tall order. It’s quite common for storytellers with otherwise strong plotting skills to trip up at the climax. With such a challenge, the earlier you think about it, the better.
After enough drafts and revisions, you can create your own checklist. You might have little trouble with making sympathetic characters but have to do an extra step to add novelty. Take notes on what you could have done better, and look through them when starting the next story.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.