There are four key elements we’re going to focus on. Characters. Conflict. Execution. Continuity.
Those elements are linked together and depend on each other to get your story from start to finish. It’s important to realize that they also work in layers.
Characters are what we expect, the actors in the story. They’re the good guys, the bad guys, the little guys, and all the other guys in between.
Conflict is the the thing that the story is about. It’s the fact that early in the story your protagonist will establish a goal, and then stuff (in large part, the antagonist) gets in his way.
Execution is the joint production of the emotional and narrative arcs. The characters will be shaped by their efforts to achieve their goals and the conflict details will shift depending on what the characters do. It’s how a story gets from point A to point B – the scenes that flow into and out of each other, and the growth and change that happens in their duration.
Continuity is the challenge of shaping the execution and making certain it stays true to not just itself but also to your vision of what it should be. You can check out my post on continuity for a more in-depth breakdown.
When it comes to evaluating those four elements within a story, it’s worth noting that they work together in pairs. Continuity and execution must be addressed in tandem since manipulating one creates ripple effects that must be addressed with the other. Characters and conflict are also two sides of the same coin – changing a character changes the conflict, sometimes in subtle ways other ties in large ones, because conflict is part of the characters. The pair of character/conflict and execution/continuity also follows this behavior, and changes to the character/conflict portion of your story will require evaluating the execution/continuity to be certain they match.
If you haven’t yet downloaded my Story Structure Outline to your plot, you’ll be able to see an even more hands-on example of how those elements weave together.
Finding the balance of those elements is the best way to produce a tale that your readers will both enjoy and leave them wanting to come back for more. Having a perfected executed plot with solid continuity won’t do much without fantastic characters and a core conflict the audience will care about. And no character, no matter how unique, relevant, or identifiable, will be able to keep an audience’s interest if there are continuity and execution problems.
Key things to evaluate:
- Does your dialogue suffer from too much “talking head” syndrome?
- When there are only two characters talking – or at least one who is very distinctive – it’s safe to have “talking heads” for two-four lines of dialogue. Three or more characters in a scene, or non-distinct voices mean your readers might get confused as to who is speaking. This should always be avoided.
- Do you have page after page filled with large blocks time inside a character’s head, monopolizing the prose with internal monolog?
- Too much internal monolog is often a half-hearted mask for info dumping. There are much better ways to give your audience the information they need than simply having your characters thoughts written on a page. Find and eliminate as many instances as you can, no matter how brilliant, witty, or engaging the writing is. There might also be more details than the audience really needs to know, so evaluate the contents with a critical eye.
- Does your description of the setting go too far about the fibers in the fabrics of the couch or the vegetation and topography?
- Your audience is reading a book. That means they’re used to filling in details for the little things. This doesn’t mean you should never fill in specific details about the surroundings, but you should make certain that if and when you do, there is a significant reason behind it. Otherwise, let your readers populate the minutia of the settings. They don’t need to know a hill has a forty-five-degree angle, just that it’s difficult terrain.
- Do you explain something technical with such detail and precision that you can count the number of heartbeats it took for someone to pick a lock, as well as which pin gave them the most trouble?
- Research is great. Realism is a useful tool. Be care not to stray into overwhelming. Describing things in detail will slow down the pace of your story. This can be useful when done intentionally, but being too focused on the details all the time will wear down your reader’s patience.
Some sound advice: An excess amount of detail or overuse of a particular story element can and will reduce the reader’s interest. You run into the danger that they will skip over the passages containing frequently repeated details, hoping to find the next thing that keeps their interest. Sometimes they will put the book down and never pick it up again. Narrative, action, and dialogue must be proportionate. This is often the core of what is referred to as story pacing.
An example of repeated, overused detail is found in Tad Williams’ Bobby Dollar Books, specifically the first of the series, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. I’m a fan of Tad Williams from his book The War of the Flowers so I was disappointed to see this problem in TDSoH. There are several occasions (more than I can count on one hand) when Bobby goes to visit heaven and nearly every time is it described precisely the same way – that heaven is “odd” and “feels different” and that “time isn’t the same” as it is on Earth. The first few instances I encountered it in the book, I thought it was an attempt to underline part of the description, that memories made in heaven are sometimes not as concrete, even for angels. However, by the fifth such occurrence, I was forced to conclude that it was an editorial oversight. By the sixth, it simply irritated me, which obviously brought me out of the story experience.
Repeated details are commonly a symptom of getting back into the writer-mindset – we remind ourselves of the world our characters are in by typing a few paragraphs at the beginning of a writing session that run the risk of having redundant information. This isn’t the only reason such repetitions end up in our stories, but it is one of the most likely. Do your best to keep an eye out and remove them when you go through your first self-edits.
Another pacing/balance tip: It’s important to balance dark and light moments. Having scenes with extreme emotional tension or impact will cause sympathy emotions in your readers – fear, sadness, or anger, for example. Give them frequent breaks and balance those exhausting emotions with light moments. Elements of humor, relief, or comfort in alternating scenes will allow the reader to enjoy the journey from start to finish without running the risk of overwhelming them.
Characters & Conflict
Every character should have a goal.
Goals are what drive the conflict in a story, typically exemplified by your protagonist having a goal that is in direct opposition to the antagonist. Even minor characters will have goals because they are all people and people generally want things in life. It will add to their three-dimension feel for the audience, and it can also be useful to add in subplots that compliment the main conflict of the story.
For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s sisters all have their own trials for their future and love-lives. Each time a sister goes through a change because of their own goals, Lizzy interacts with them and forms her own opinion regarding what her sisters want. In other words, each sister’s pursuit of love allows Lizzy to grow and to solidify her own goals for love. This is why at the end of the book, she looks at Mr. Darcy very differently than at the beginning – she had the chance to learn what she really wanted because her sister’s goals complimented her own.
Execution & Continuity
Beginning, middle, end.
All the micro-parts of your story – scenes, chapters, sections – should have a beginning, middle, and end. Especially plots and subplots that cross over scenes chapters and sections. Everything that contributes to the story as a whole will have these three key points, and you need to identify them as the story progresses. Beginnings are where something starts, middles are what is happening now, and the end is the lead into a new beginning.
The reason you want this progression (and you probably instinctually wrote a few solid micro-parts even if you didn’t think about it while you were doing it) is so the reader feels like there is progress being made toward a goal. Sometimes that progress is indirect, but it’s about the feeling of moving forward that matters the most to story progression. They can be physical – like Frodo’s walk to Mordor – or they can be emotional – like John Wick’s attempt to bury his past a second time by setting new concrete over his assassin stash.
As each micro-part (stepping stone?) wraps up, there will be changes to the characters. They will feel more hopeless or more hopeful or will have learned something about themselves. There should always be some sort of internal change that goes along with the external progress, and sometimes it can be helpful to keep track of.
A few questions to round out this post:
Have you ever made a change to a second draft that you wish you had written in draft one? What portions of your story are your favorite to outline – character & conflict, or execution & continuity? Have you ever found yourself focusing more on one than the other? If you change a minor character’s goal, would you favor it being more complimentary to the protagonist or more in opposition? Could the antagonist’s goal change over time, becoming more solid the more they are in conflict with the protagonist? Do you have any tips to share for how to keep track of the balance of characters, conflict, execution, and continuity? The comments are always open.