10 Key Steps to Writing a Meaningful Story

Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.
Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.

If you’re like me, then you’ve read, re-read, and absorbed tons of stories over the years, from novels and short stories to comics and interactive fiction games. What I love about any good story is how you can get lost in a fictional world or in a character’s quest for something. And since I come from a background in literary criticism (even though it focused more on “the classics” than genre fiction), I’ve worked out a few ideas on what generally makes for a good story, regardless of plot or genre.

So to all you fellow writers now reading, here are 10 things to keep in mind for creating your own meaningful story.

1. Pick a genre for your new story.

In a perfect world, we’d judge anything worth our time by its story and its characters. In the real world, genre matters. Some people prefer horror and suspense, others prefer science fiction set on alien worlds, and still others care only about the everyday trials of 21st-century teenagers in suburbia. So this really comes down to deciding what kind of story you’re going to be telling and what kind of audience you’re looking for.

Some Examples to Consider: Science fantasy for Star Wars. Crime drama for The Godfather. Teen romance for Romeo and Juliet.

2. Identify your inspirations.

No story comes from out of nowhere. Maybe you get your ideas from a real-life occurrence, like how losing her child was what inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. You can also get your ideas from someone else’s story, like how Twin Peaks continues to be a source of inspiration for the cartoon Gravity Falls and the video game Life is Strange.

Some Examples to Consider: Akira Kurosawa films, Flash Gordon, and Westerns for Star Wars. Real-life organized crime stories for The Godfather. Pyramus and Thisbe for Romeo and Juliet.

3. Build your own world.

So where does your story take place? What are the customs there? Who’s in charge or who’s at war? These are the kind of questions that not only give your world depth, but also help you frame the conflict that drives your tale.

Some Examples to Consider: A galaxy far, far away for Star Wars. New York City under the Five Families for The Godfather. The Montagues and Capulets of Verona for Romeo and Juliet.

4. Decide whose story you’re going to tell.

Not every protagonist has to be a hero or even moral, but they should be sympathetic. We, the audience, should be able to care about their struggles and their goals, no matter if they’re guaranteed a happy or a tragic ending. It’s also important that they do something to achieve that goal, even if we’re only watching them through some passive narrator’s eyes (think Jay Gatsby being watched by his friend Nick Carraway).

Some Examples to Consider: A young farmboy who gets involved in a galactic war (Star Wars). A war veteran forced into his father’s criminal empire (The Godfather). Two young lovers caught between a family feud (Romeo and Juliet).

5. Create a goal for your main character to pursue.

Fame and fortune. Find true love. Bring down the empire. Expose the truth. Overcome personal flaws and achieve a better relationship with the world. These are just a few (concrete) examples of what your character can be seeking. At least give us something that we can see them achieve, whether it takes place on the page or onscreen.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke wants to go to Alderaan and save the Princess (Star Wars). Michael wants to protect his family from a gang war (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet want to get married  (Romeo and Juliet).

6. Develop every obstacle in the path to the hero’s goal.

So this is a bit tricky. Yes, bad things happen along the way to the hero’s goal, but they should at least make sense within the story’s context. Having random stuff with no lasting consequences impede your protagonist isn’t good storytelling. It’s an excuse of a plot. This is where your antagonist(s) come into play. They should be opposed to the hero’s goal, whether for good or bad reasons. And they should be a threat to everything the hero holds dear, even if they’re sympathetic characters in their own right.

Some Examples to Consider: The Empire destroys Alderaan and Darth Vader kills Luke’s mentor (Star Wars). Michael loses both his brother and the woman he loves while hiding in Sicily (The Godfather). Romeo is banished from Verona after killing Juliet’s cousin (Romeo and Juliet).

7. Figure out a plot device to aid the hero in their goal.

“Plot device” is a term that gets tossed around a lot, usually as writer’s shorthand for “I made this up so we could move the plot forward.” But is that so bad? A plot device can be anything that helps move the story forward, from a ring that turns the hero invisible when enemies are near to a best friend with a truck who helps you get away from the monster.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke has a team of unlikely heroes to help him rescue Princess Leia (Star Wars). Michael uses his father’s advice to expose the traitors in the family (The Godfather). Friar Lawrence helps Juliet fake her death so she and Romeo can be together (Romeo and Juliet).

8. Create a setback for the hero and a showdown with the adversary.

Eventually, whether it’s a short story or a feature-length film you’re writing, your main character will need to confront their biggest problem (the plot device can only do so much, after all). Of course, the climax is also a good chance for your character to show off how much they’ve learned along the way or how they’ve changed. And if you’re writing a tragic story, then you show how their fatal flaw has ultimately doomed them by this point.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke joins the Rebel fighters as they try to destroy the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael’s father dies, leaving Michael to set up a meeting with Don Barzini (The Godfather). Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb and encounters her suitor Paris (Romeo and Juliet).

9. Bring about the hero’s victory with a sharp price.

Victory can mean a lot of things: the end of a long battle, a confession of love, a verdict in the courtroom, or even the chance to leave town and start over somewhere else. Of course, don’t make it easy for the hero. Your audience won’t forgive you if the plot is resolved with no serious struggle or even a few lasting scars (well, maybe it will if you’re writing a fairy tale or working for Disney).

Some Examples to Consider: Luke loses his friend Biggs, but is able to blow up the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael takes out his enemies, including his brother-in-law, and becomes head of the Corleone family (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet are reunited through suicide (Romeo and Juliet).

10. Capture the story’s theme by the final scene.

The final scene of any story is always important because it carries so much weight. It’s a chance to see what the hero’s victory brought about. It’s our chance to see whatever tension was in the story resolved, a short breather at the end. And if you’ve been developing a good theme throughout—like, say, how far you can go into a life of crime to protect your family—then we’re going to see how well that premise has paid off in the finale.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke, Han, and Chewbacca are honored as heroes for their bravery (Star Wars). Michael lies to Kay about his family business as the new “Don Corleone” (The Godfather). The warring families make peace while grieving for their fallen children (Romeo and Juliet).

So those are my tips for putting together a solid and memorable story. Do you have any ideas of your own you’d like to add? Any anecdotes about your own writer’s journey? If so, please share them in the comments below and thank you for reading.

One thought on “10 Key Steps to Writing a Meaningful Story

  1. Pingback: My Rules for Writing (And Beating Writer’s Block) | Mr. Rhapsodist

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