How to write a gripping story
‘Do not read this while attempting to dock with orbital satellites.’
Every good story should carry that health warning. It would alert the reader that they are at risk of becoming so absorbed by the fiction in front of them that they may grow oblivious - fatally - to their everyday world.
As writers, how do we achieve this desirable effect?
First, forget about ‘plot’. If we define it simply as a pattern of emotive incidents, plot doesn’t make a story.
Here’s a plot: man meets fish, man loses fish, man meets fish again, fish kills man. Who cares? Only the fish, the man and the water bailiff who has to appear at the silly man’s inquest.
But that’s Moby Dick.
Of course, Melville tangled the tale with so many emotional highs and lows that the tale - although probably more revered today than read - has become a classic.
Without realising it, Melville had discovered Freytag’s Pyramid. In 1863, a German scholar Gustav Freytag analysed many of the extant dramas of ancient times and concluded that all peaked emotionally in the middle.
Freytag's Classic Pyramid
However, critics pointed out that the pattern didn’t work for the successful 19th century novel or short story. Their pattern was invariably a slanted pyramid, with the peak of tension coming close to the end. The upward climb was a zigzag of emotional heights and depths, of little triumphs and suspenseful torments, leading to a grand finale.
Freytag's Modified Pyramid
The reader was then eased gently back to the everyday world in the final episode where all villains were scotched and broken hearts mended.
True, sometimes the villains triumphed and the hero/heroine expired in a threnody of melodrama. But at least the loose ends of the story were carefully tidied up in the epilogue.
The formula is long-whiskered now but it still works. Arrange your emotive incidents around it and you have a story, no matter how trivial the incidents. A rabbit ventures into Mr McGregor’s garden? The result is an epic! But without that slanted pyramid, even a battle of the gods - a veritable Gotterdammerung - will fail.
These pyramid-like structures are often found in stories, but they fail:
1. The Needle.
The tale starts with a bang. Readers drop their marmalade sandwiches. Even jaded literary agents turn to the next page. Then nothing.
2. The Camel’s Back.
Great start, great ending. A hole in between.
Today’s typical reader, having the attention span of a gnat, will toss our story in the abyss.
In the early 17th century, the veteran playwright Ben Jonson advised playwrights to write a strong start and finish but to let the middle take care of itself. His Jacobethan audiences always nipped out for a beer after the first Act, he said, leaving nobody in the theatre anyway. But they invariably came back for the salacious jig in Act V.
Nowadays, we can’t be so sure our audience will return.
3. The Cliff Edge.
Wonderful buildup, dramas galore, a great climax. Then a blank page.
Readers will shake the book in search of the missing last episode, where the meaning of the climax is made clear. A short story might well end successfully at a cliff edge; a novel (I contend) can’t. Bring the reader down, gently.
Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories ended in a circular tour. Holmes and Watson came back safely, after heart-rending adventures, to their Baker Street chambers and the comforting normality of the tobacco pouch in the coal skuttle. Likewise, the Victorian reader returned, mentally, to his or her own living room. And that’s where the next story began: in the same mundane room.
Moral:to grip your reader, arrange your tale shamelessly around Freytag’s jagged pyramid, a cliché though it is today. Old saws may be shop-worn but they still cut.
More tested writing tips can be found at the short fiction contest site Writers' Village.