Recently, I was wondering why some writers were more successful than others. You might think it’s all down to their reputation, fan base and clever marketing or simply serendipity. But reputation and success is normally built on the solid foundations of quality and creativity that may take many years to achieve.
One feature many great writers have in common is that they can create distinctive memorable characters (such as Katnis, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter and Robert Langdon), which become almost a separate franchises in themselves.
But it is important to understand that these characters were not developed in isolation, but were part of an original story idea or concept. So at the heart of most great stories, such as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code, are some unique story ideas and concepts.
If a new writer uses a story idea or concept that doesn’t appear new, interesting and exciting, then readers are unlikely to want to look much further. Therefore the holy grail for most new writers is to find exciting new story lines for their readers.
But this is much easier said than done. In fact, if we look more closely at movies and novels today, there are few if any genuinely new stories. Even the most succesful stories are normaly variants of stories that have already been told many times before. The trick is to find a variation of the story that appears fresh and exciting by changing some of the factors at the heart of the story idea.
So what are these factors? All stories are about a major problem or opportunity that comes into the main character’s life and which they have to deal with. For example, a cop must stop terrorists taking over a building and killing his wife and other employees (Die Hard). A new local cop must stop a shark terrorising a small sea-side resort (Jaws). A hero must stop a monster terrorising the inhabitants of a village (Beowulf). A young boy farmer on a distant planet must rescue a princess from the evil clutches of an evil Emperor (Star Wars). Or the story maybe about an opportunity to make a new life as a lawyer fighting for a just cause (Erin Brockovich).
All these different ideas and concepts depend on a number of different factors. Genre, will influence the type of story readers will want to read and type of theme they expect within the story. For example, most romance stories will normally have a happy ending. It is therefore important to write within the confines of genre expectations. However, sometimes even this rule can be broken. Until G R Martin came along fantasy stories such as those of Tolkien had positive endings. But G R Martin created a whole new dark fantasy genre, which has far from happy endings.
Simply changing the setting or the characterisation of the hero/heroine can have a profound effect on the story. For example, taking a ‘monster in the house’ story like Beowulf and putting it in space with a female protagonist, as in Alien, will feel like a very different story.
Changing the stakes can also have a fundamental effect on the story line. What’s at risk if the protagonist fails? Is it his own life, someone dear to him, a bus load of children, or perhaps the future of the human race. Whatever the stakes are, they need to be high for the reader to care. If it’s not literally a matter of life and death, it should be about the emotional or psychological death associated with failure. No one wants to read about something of no consequence to the protagonist.
The engine at the heart of any story is going to be the main character’s all encompassing desire to deal with the problem or opportunity he/she faces.The more difficult the challenge, and the obstacles they face, and the higher the stakes of failure, the stronger is the engine driving the story forward.
Story is not just about how the main character reacts to the opportunity/problem he/she faces, but also about how dealing with this conflict changes him or her for the better or worse. That is most stories are about character transformation if not of the main character then about one of the characters close to him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker at the end of a Star Wars was very different from the naive young farmer at the beginning of the story. However, not all stories are necessarily about transformation. Some are about resolution to remain the same inspite of extreme pressure to change.
Lastly, there is the theme of the story. Theme is really about the message behind the story (the underlying moral or truth). Theme may well be closely related to the type of ending whether posive, negative or uncertain. Thus by changing the end of a story we can change the whole meaning of the story. Hollywood has seems to show a prefence for positive story endings and moral themes as it fills the box offices. Perhaps this reflects the blance of human nature.
Whatever idea or concept at the heart of your story will have a profound effect on whether the story will be successful or not. It’s therefore well worth spending some serious time thinking about it before hitting the keyboard or putting ink to paper. The right idea won’t guarantee success, but a poor idea or concept will almost certainly guarantee failure.