Writing Unforgettable Fiction—Part I

Story Trumps StructureA year ago, when I finished my Craftsman class with DiAnn Mills, she recommended I get a book entitled Story Trumps Structure, by Steven James. I finally ordered it last week. Its tagline is How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. I haven’t read it all yet, but I’ve been skimming. This is a book for “pantsers,” those writers who hate the idea of plotting out every little scene and detail of their story. Because most of us “organic” writers know that even the best-laid plots of mice and men are sometimes changed while they’re being written. Click to tweet

This book is entirely different than any other book on writing I’ve ever seen. Today, I’ll focus on Chapter 11, “Promises: The Keys to Building Suspense and Satisfying Your Readers.”

This is not something I’ve thought about when writing my novel. That my story is made up of a set of promises that I have to deliver on in order to keep my reader, by first making those promises, then keeping them. James says there are three scenarios at the beginning of any story: 1) will the protagonist have what they desire at the start, lose it and try to find it again? 2) Will the protagonist see what they desire from a distance, and pursue it? 3) Is the protagonist forced to escape what they dread most? The author says any of these three scenarios will launch the story and initiate the promises that will guide it.

golden typewriter keysBreaking Promises

Here are some of the ways you can break promises to readers: (Pg. 147)

  1. Indicate (by the context, description, or number of words) that something will be important, and then fail to make it significant
  2. Develop conflict, then don’t resolve it in a satisfactory way
  3. Have your characters act in unbelievable ways
  4. Build up a character toward an internal transformation, but end without letting him have one
  5. Resolve too much tension too early
  6. Introduce a character, make readers care, then drop them from the story

All these are promise-breakers. We are to avoid them.

Making Promises

Part of making promises to readers is building suspense. James has interesting ideas on that. Here are a couple of gold nuggets for you. “Anticipation keeps readers interested, so to draw them into your story, include less action and more promises.” And “Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action, but by adding apprehension.” Pg. 153

One way of making promises to readers is using the character’s schedule. “Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedule, you offer a promise that can crate anticipation and build suspense…When characters make promises to each other, they also serve as promises to your readers…Let characters state consequences if their plans don’t come together. Pg. 156-157

One final bit of advice on promises: “Put characters with whom readers identify in peril, make (and keep) promises that create apprehension, show readers what’s coming so they can worry about the consequences, continually tighten the tension, and relentlessly escalate to your climax. Do this, and you’ll sharpen the suspense, snag readers, and envelop them in your story.” Pg. 158

What about you? Does your story make and keep its promises? Did you ever think about your story that way before? Click to tweet Leave a comment and let me know.

#Pantsers #Organic writing #Amwriting

3 Comments on “Writing Unforgettable Fiction—Part I”

  1. Very good, Donna. Wish I could be at your workshop! I know you’ll do well because you love writing and sharing the right way to do it.


    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m looking forward to giving it. It’s called “Plotting for Pantsers: Writing Unforgettable Fiction While Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.” Blessings on your day.


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