Is there a magic secret to crafting stories that sell? Yes! But it’s no secret. Every commercial author uses it instinctively. Here are the five elements of story success that pros will rarely tell you.
Every new writer yearns for the magic secret.
Will a Power Plotting Plan hype my story into the best seller lists? How about that great 3-step trick? Or this seven-point formula? The web is full of nostrums and notions. Strangely, no great author has ever needed them to write a classic work. Instead, they used - instinctively - a plan much like this...
First, draft total rubbish.
Got a vague idea for a story or episode? Don’t be afraid to write down the first thing that comes into your head - but write 1000 words of that every day, without fail. Use clichés, long-whiskered phrases, anything that conveys your meaning, after a fashion.
Whatever you do, don’t stop! Brace yourself to ignore that drivel. If you take your editing pen to it now, you’re doomed. The Muse will abandon you. Content yourself with getting down the essence of the story. Any time spent now in ‘enhancing’ your tale is wasted. You’ll cut out all that fine language anyway, at the final stages.
Psychologically, this method works because it’s a lot easier to improve a bad draft than stare at a blank sheet of paper. You’ll also say goodbye to writer’s block. Typically, that’s just the mind tying itself in knots by trying to create a perfect work the first time. It isn’t possible.
However, if you tell yourself ‘I now plan to write absolute nonsense for one hour’, you’ll succeed. And you’ll feel very proud of yourself afterwards.
Second, fall in love with your television.
Personally, I loathe soap operas. That said, you can learn a lot by taking a notebook and suffering through them. How do the actors behave, in every circumstance? There’s a peak of emotion every ten minutes in a tv drama. That gives you plenty of opportunity to note the actors’ body language.
Has Emma discovered Joe is having an affaire with her best friend? Watch her face when she discovers it. Check her shoulders, hands, body movements. And how does Joe respond, when she confronts him? Check his body language too. You’ll soon compile a whole encyclopaedia of body expressions, suitable for any occasion, that you can drop into your own stories.
How have the producers kept you engaged in the story, even through the commercial breaks? Look out for the ‘scene hangers’ they use. Does every scene finish on a note of mystery, alarm or question? Jot down each scene hanger as it occurs. You can adapt and use each one for your own stories.
Third, overhear people’s conversations.
This step might get you into trouble, unless you’re discreet... Hang out in public places and just listen.
You’ll soon pick up colourful phrases, turns of speech, funny asides - even whole anecdotes - that could find their way into your tales. Jot them all down. (Some writers even put them in a database.).
You’ll also realise that real conversations bear no relationship to those in novels. Folk in bars or restaurants do not orate at each other in perfect sentences. They stumble, mutter, swallow their words. If anyone pays the slightest attention to grammar or correct word use, they’re probably just showing off...
Get that flavour of real speech into your tales - the way Elmore Leonard does - and readers will believe them.
Fourth, learn the trick of little ‘epiphanies’.
I have a great exercise for my creative writing students. I tell them to wander around the campus at random, stop, and describe - in their notebooks - the first thing they see. If all they see is a blob of chewing gum or the dean’s rusty bicycle, or the dean himself, fine. Something boring is the best challenge of all.
I ask them to define that object using every one of their five senses. And to jot down those perceptions as a prose poem in one terse sentence.
No, they can’t use clichés in this exercise. Their words and phrases must resonate with power, colour and originality. Then they read back their exercises to the class. It’s amazing how even the dean’s bicycle can resolve into an epiphany, a dazzling insight.
Some students find this drill difficult. It takes practice to unhitch our minds and just observe something, without judgement or interpretation. However, get into the habit of it and you’ll never be content to write a dull description again.
Fifth, resign yourself to endless rewrites.
I once watched a veteran reporter telephone a story to the copy desk at The Times newspaper. He dictated it off the top of his head, flawlessly, without referring to a single note. (He then lurched back for a second bottle of wine.) But then, he’d been practising for 40 years.
Most of us find we need to re-write a story a dozen times before it’s fit to show anyone.
Here’s a tip: put your ‘perfect’ story in a closet for several weeks. Fish it out and you’ll find it has bred amazing errors, moments of dullness and grotesque stupidities, without you coming near it.
This is the right time to re-write your story. You can view it with detachment. If necessary, you can even tear it up, without losing any sleep. But don’t try to edit a story just a few hours after you’ve written it.
Do professional authors use the ‘closet’ technique? They sure do. But some will rely on their agents or copy editors to perfect their ms. Such authors know their work will never be better than 70% perfect, even at the umpteenth draft. It doesn’t matter. The publisher will tidy it up.
Of course, a newbie author can’t afford to be that sloppy. So we must brace ourselves to re-write our stories as much as a dozen times, each at an interval of weeks.
Is there a secret for story writing success? Yes, of course there is. Only, it’s no secret. The five steps above are known to every pro author. But amateurs rarely apply them. Put them into practice and your own talents as an author will grow quickly.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:
Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humour, some of them intended to be humorous.
(Thank you so much, John, what great tips! And if you haven't guessed by some of the spelling, John is from the UK.)