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How to Write a Compelling Story

What makes a story interesting? Hasn’t every original idea already been taken? Trying to write an interesting story seems impossible when so many books have been written, and if you’re at the start of your literary career (or trying to start your next book!), you might be daunted by the task of originality. In other words, how to write a story that is both compelling and original?

Learning how to write an original short story will buoy your career to new waters; however, you don’t need an ivory tower education in writing to avoid being a copycat.

Let’s dispel a myth right away: nobody is 100% original.

Let’s dispel a little myth right away: nobody is 100% original. Writers have been sharing ideas and borrowing from each other since the dawn of language. In fact, this borrowing of ideas is well-documented: Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost reinterpret Biblical canon, just like William Golding based Lord of the Flies off the children’s book The Coral Island.

If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. —Isaac Newton

So, what makes a compelling story, and how can writers ensure their originality of work? This article explores the nuances of authenticity, identifying basic story structures and exploring how to write a plot twist.

If you want to write an interesting story, you’ll need to start with the basics of plot and fiction writing. Let’s learn how to write a compelling story, with readings and exercises along the way!

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The Paradox of Originality

Have you ever noticed odd similarities between two completely different fictional works? For example, Moana shares several plot points with Lord of the Rings: both involve an eccentric mortal who comes into (regretful) ownership of a powerful relic. Through a series of unending hurdles—including dangerous raptor-like monsters, interfering deities, and/or wayfaring monsters—these heroes eventually return these relics to their origins, restoring some form of cosmic order to the world.

Does that make Moana derivative? Certainly not. Each plot has its own set of characters, antagonists, worldbuilding schemes, and audiences. Despite sharing similar plots, Moana shouldn’t be considered a ripoff of LOTR: one of them has Disney songs and cultural awareness, the other has an entirely artificial language and intensive worldbuilding.

In other words, both stories are original, despite relying on unoriginal plot structures. What makes a story interesting if not a unique plot?

A compelling story doesn’t rely on plot to be interesting, it relies on the elements of storytelling to make that plot interesting.

A compelling story doesn’t rely on plot to be interesting, it relies on the elements of storytelling to make that plot interesting. Such is the Paradox of Originality: In order for us to tell new stories and generate exciting ideas, we must write stories that participate in the real world, using ideas and structures that have already been used. If no man is an island, then no artist is wholly original. However, our job isn’t to be wholly original. As artists, we seek to explore and expand the boundaries of the human experience; as writers, we explore that experience in words.

6 Basic Plots for a Compelling Story

If you reach back far enough to your 9th grade English classroom, you might remember three types of conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. This distinction is one way of parsing the basic plots of all stories—but not the only way.

As writers, we need solid frameworks to build from for our stories. The “man vs. thing” categories don’t give us much information about the plot. After all, Star Wars and Hamilton both involve man vs. man conflict, but I’m struggling to find any other similarities between the two. To learn how to write a compelling story, we’ll need a better framework.

So, scrap whatever categories you previously held for plots: a compelling story is sure to use one (or more) of the following frameworks. For convenience, each plot is diagrammed using Freytag’s Pyramid.

This list of plots is not comprehensive, and writers should feel challenged to bend these structures for their own stories, but understanding these basic frameworks will help you master the art of story plotting. Use these plots to write an interesting story!

1. The Wayfarer

A protagonist is lost (on a journey)

Will Odysseus return to his wife? Does Pi return to Pondicherry? Could Jane find a place to call home? In each of these stories (The Odyssey, Life of Pi, Jane Eyre), good people face unspeakable odds to return to the people they love, and the journeys they traverse seem endless.

In this compelling story plot, the protagonists decisions are based on a constant search for survival. Of course, “survival” can be metaphorical—the protagonist in Lisa Ko’s The Leavers has little trouble staying alive, but his constant search for home and family presents its own kind of haunting journey.

In other words, these stories involve internal journeys of self-transformation, reflected through external journeys towards home or survival. Most stories involving a Lost Protagonist include the following:

  • Exposition: We often meet our protagonist before their life is changed forever. Sometimes the story begins in media res, but before long, the reader must know about the uncontrollable circumstances pushing the protag on a journey.
  • Rising Action: Most of the journey takes place in the rising action. New characters may be introduced; we may also meet all of our characters in the exposition. More importantly, conflicts with other people within this journey escalate, often predicting or foreshadowing the climax.
  • Climax: The climax of each journey usually occurs when the protagonist is pushed to their limit—whether that limit is physical, spiritual, emotional, or professional.
  • Falling Action: What happens after the climax? Is the protagonist homebound, or doomed to be lost forever? The more suspense the reader feels, the better.
  • Resolution: Not all stories about journeys have resolutions, but if the protagonist returns home or creates a new home, the reader might appreciate a comfortable ending. Show the protagonist coming to terms with their destination.

The Wayfarer Archetype prominently features in Bildungsromans and many adventure novels. Stories with prominent wayfarers are found in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, and Voltaire by Candide.

2. The Escape Artist

A protagonist is trapped

Some protagonists grow throughout the journey; others are trying to embark on one. In stories involving an “Escape Artist,” the reader becomes intimate with a character stuck in a trap. Sometimes that trap is a building, like the prison in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Other times, the trap is society or the government, much like Offred’s desire to escape Gilead in A Handmaid’s Tale.

A compelling story about a trapped protagonist often includes the following:

  • Exposition: Much of the story’s opening dwells on the trap itself—society, prison, the self, etc. Our protagonist often colors this worldbuilding with their own feelings of entrapment, allowing the conflict to naturally unfold. Can our protagonist escape by the end of the story?
  • Rising Action: Of course, escaping from anything requires a lot of planning. Yet, the longer the protagonist waits to escape, the more complicated things get. The boys of Lord of the Flies set out in unison, but seeds of division quickly complicate the boys’ chances of leaving the island.
  • Climax: The climax often begins the moment the protagonist leaves their prison, like when Bertha sets fire to her house in Wide Sargasso Sea. However, the climax is sometimes a brief moment within the escape where the tension peaks. The Handmaid’s Tale peaks when Offred enters the black van, and the reader ends wondering whether she escaped or is sent to her slaughter. This novel’s successor, The Testaments, reaches its climax on a river between Gilead and Canada. In any case, the climax is when the protagonist is put in the most danger, and their future is often decided in this moment.
  • Falling Action: In the case of both Atwood novels, the story ends at its climax. Indeed, there’s often little to tell once the protagonist exits their labyrinth, though the story doesn’t have to end here. In Persuasion by Jane Austin, we get to see Anne settle into a happy marriage after years of captivity to her family. We also get to see Dantes escape from prison in The Count of Monte Cristo, though in this case, the years after prison are the story’s rising action.
  • Resolution: If falling action is rare in stories about the escape artist, a resolution is even rarer. But, if it’s important for the reader to know where the protagonist ends up, the resolution will likely stay brief and concise.

The Escape Artist also performs in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. In addition to classics, this story structure shows up a lot in contemporary fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery/suspense novels, though it just as often comprises the whole story as it does a minor facet of one.

3. The Justice Seeker

A protagonist searches for vindication

Justice sits at the heart of many stories, both classic and contemporary. What constitutes fairness? Is vengeance moral? Do just people receive just rewards? Such are the quandaries—and, thus, the climaxes—of this compelling story archetype.

The Search for Justice includes the following:

  • Exposition: For a story about justice to be just, the reader needs to see all sides of the story. Thus, the exposition involves a lot of scene and character building.
  • Rising Action: The rising action starts when injustice occurs or is realized. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the rising action begins when Guy Montag starts questioning his values; around the same time, his wife overdoses and new neighbor goes missing. More recently, the novel Power by Linda Hogan picks up when Ama Eaton kills a panther. After one (or several) instances of injustice, each character seeks retribution, vengeance, or some other form of “righting the wrong.”
  • Climax: The climax occurs around a sentencing of justice, and sometimes includes the immediate fallout from this decision. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic example of the justice narrative. Tom Robinson’s conviction and subsequent murder shake Jem Finch’s trust in the justice system, forcing the reader to consider the many fractures in America’s broken courts.
  • Falling Action: Often, the story’s climax abandons justice, while the falling action restores it. Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell in TKAM’s falling action; alternately, Milkman finds the beauty of life in the falling action of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, though he also (maybe) dies at the end.
  • Resolution: Did our hero pave the road towards a more just world? Or do they ultimately give up? Often, neither: it seems rare for a story about justice to end unambiguously. The search for justice is ultimately squashed in George Orwell’s 1984, as Winston’s story ends when he decides to love Big Brother; yet, Carton seems to find justice in A Tale of Two Cities by dying for Lucie.

The search for justice takes place across dystopias, historical novels, and both classic and contemporary fiction. Any of the aforementioned novels offer great examples of justice seeking; this plot also features in novels like The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and virtually any novel in the Golden Age of Russian Literature.

4. The New Neighbor

A protagonist encounters a stranger

While researching how to write a compelling story, you may have encountered the quote “there are two plots: a person goes on a journey and a stranger comes into town.” This story plot involves the stranger, who certainly deserves their own plot. After all, there are about 8 billion people in this world that neither you nor myself have met. Any one of those people could be the catalyst for dramatic new changes in our lives—positive and negative. Isn’t that exciting?

In most novels, the protagonist ends up meeting new people, but when this new person triggers a journey of growth, the story often follows the plot of a New Neighbor. New Neighbor plots have the following structure:

  • Exposition: Before someone new shakes the protagonist’s life, we first need to know what life is like. The exposition focuses briefly on daily life, including any essential worldbuilding and basic characterization. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina shows us upper class Russia before Anna even enters the story; conversely, Nick Carraway is both the narrator and the stranger of The Great Gatsby, so his exposition explores the world of New York’s 1920s socialites as he enters it.
  • Rising Action: The appearance of someone new is the catalyst for the story’s main events. In John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, a stranger offers Ethan Hawley a lucrative (but illegal) opportunity. Though Ethan declines, the opportunity sparks something in his subconscious: a ruthless desire to rebuild his family name.
  • Climax: The climax doesn’t always involve the stranger who comes into town; sometimes, the stranger merely incites a series of events, as in The Winter of Our Discontent, or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Much more often, that stranger is the story’s focus, like in the climax of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Alex Thomas is both the catalyst for the story’s rising action and a focus of the climax, and his presence stokes tension through the story’s many winding roads.
  • Falling Action: The falling action usually dwells on the aftermath of the relationship between the protagonist and the stranger. Will they part forever, like Selin and Ivan in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot? Do they die together, like Romeo & Juliet? Can they stay in each other’s lives, as in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Otherwise, if the stranger is merely a catalyst, the falling action examines the aftermath of the climax.
  • Resolution: The resolution wraps up loose ends that might remain untied after the falling action.

The New Neighbor plot features prominently in romance and suspense novels. Who can resist the mystery of a stranger? In classic and contemporary fiction, this plot features in stories like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (and adapted for screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna).

5. The Deadline Pusher

A protagonist is running out of time

Many of the stories we’ve mentioned include a race against time. In some instances, like Atwood’s The Blind Assassin or The Testaments, this “race” is the narrator’s desire to finish the story before she dies.

However, this plot can also be the primary focus of the novel, setting up the story for powerful examinations of time and man’s relationship to time. After all, suspense is often what makes a story interesting, so this plot structure is inherently suspenseful.

A compelling story with a “Deadline Pusher” often follows this structure:

  • Exposition: The exposition should lay the groundwork for the rising action. What kind of “deadline” would upend normal life? What does normal life look like for the protagonist(s)?
  • Rising Action: A deadline is usually the start of the story’s rising action. “Deadline” can mean many different things. We’ve already mentioned narrators with only a few months to live, but it can also be a race against a wedding (as in Romeo & Juliet and some romance novels), a race to survive (like the sisters running out of food in Jean Heglund’s Into the Forest), or a race before a killer finds another victim (as repeatedly happens in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None).
  • Climax: You would think that the climax coincides with the deadline, but that’s not always the case. The climax should be the decisive moment of the story, so many novels situate their climax around the protagonist’s chance for success. H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has an implicit deadline: defeat the aliens before they defeat us. Yet, the climax of the story is when the aliens commit the most destruction, not when the humans win the war. (After all, the humans win because the Martians can’t survive on Earth’s conditions, so the ending is rather anti-climactic.)
  • Falling Action: If the story explores what happens past the climax, the falling action usually ties up loose ends. What happens next if the deadline is met? What’s next if it isn’t? For example, in Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World, the climax occurs when the protagonist realizes he can’t prevent his upcoming death, and the falling action is his acceptance of this truth.
  • Resolution: Like the falling action, the resolution ties up loose ends. In Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, the protagonist confronts his own past after finding the mysterious sheep with a star in its pelt.

Mystery and suspense novels often use the race against time, as do works of political and historical fiction.

6. The Thinker

A protagonist marvels and despairs at the world

This last class of compelling story plots is a bit overarching, and there isn’t a good set of examples that fit into Freytag’s Pyramid. The Thinker refers to stories about people who don’t do much but observe a lot about their world. The story often mixes exposition and description with characterization and worldbuilding, and the story’s climax, if it exists, consists of emotional or philosophical revelations in the protagonist’s thoughts.

Such is the nature of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Vladimir and Estragon don’t do much in the story; they simply wait and talk about their lives, their issues, and Godot—a mysterious figure who never arrives. Despite the simplicity of this anti-climactic plot, Waiting for Godot houses a number of different interpretations, from being an allegory of the Cold War to being a postmodernist reminiscence of the nothingness of life.

Haruki Murakami also employs “Thinkers” in a variety of his novels. Murakami’s work bends the genres of magical realism, Eastern folklore, and literary fiction precisely because of his pensive protagonists. In Kafka on the Shore, the main story involves a boy running away from home and an old man who searches for cats; yet the story’s puzzles, solutions, and many meanings occur in the twin protagonists’ introspections.

Thinkers are often what makes a story interesting, though they’re best for long, decades-spanning novels. Though Theo goes through many challenges in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch—including drug addiction, art theft, and antiques forgery—the novel’s plot intends to capture a slice of the contemporary American experience. Theo’s incredible depth and harrowing wit provide the melody to this musical and introspective story, as do the Thinkers of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

How to Write a Plot Twist: 6 Curveballs for Any Compelling Story

A plot twist is when the story takes a turn that couldn’t be predicted, like when the aliens get sick in War of the Worlds, or when Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke’s father in Star Wars.

Let’s get something out of the way: interesting stories do not need plot twists. Often times, a plot twist can ruin the reader’s experience of the story, especially if it ruins the story’s momentum or if it feels like a lazy ending. Knowing how to write a good story plot means knowing when to surprise your reader, and when to let the story finish itself.

Still, learning how to write a plot twist can come in handy, especially if you’re hitting a roadblock on where to take your story. The following 6 ideas are plot twists to help you break the mold of your own story. You will most likely use these twists at your story’s climax, but think of these plot twists as different frameworks for approaching your story plot, and take these ideas how you like in your own works of fiction.

  1. Disrupt a Binary. Your story might be setting the climax up for one of two endings. If you tease these two possibilities, you can successfully twist the story by writing a third, unexpected ending. For example, in Romeo & Juliet, the play’s characters expect the couple to either be married forever or be separated forever. Neither happens; the two star-crossed lovers die and are buried together, ironically concluding their tragic story.
  2. Shift the Point of View. Playing with the story’s frame of reference can provide chilling moments of introspection and worldbuilding. Such is the case in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The third part of the story is told from the monster’s perspective; at the time, this was a huge literary gamble, as very few books have been told from the vantage of unwanted monsters. This gamble was highly successful for Shelley, who humanized the monster and questioned man’s right to “Play God.”
  3. Offer an Ironic Revelation. If your plot twist is “out of left field,” so to speak, then making the plot twist ironic might make the story even better. In Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, the plot twist occurs at the end when Mathilde finds out her original necklace was a fake, and not at all worth as much as she despaired.
  4. Bring an Option Back. Original readers of Jane Eyre would never have expected the novel’s ending. One would think that Jane had walked out on Rochester forever—after all, he did lie about his past marriage, toying Jane on while hiding his wife in the attic. Nonetheless, Jane’s return to Rochester completes her quest for home, surprising and satisfying the reader.
  5. Surprise the Protagonist. Sometimes, a protagonist is shocked by their own actions. In Half of a Yellow Sun, nobody expects Ugwu to commit war crimes—least of all Ugwu himself—yet his abduction by the Biafran army and loss-of-faith in the world results in the village’s gentlest citizen committing a horrific act of violence.
  6. Write a Second, Unexpected Climax. A reader might expect To Kill a Mockingbird to reach its peak when Tom Robinson is killed. Yet, shortly after this, Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout, since their father disgraced the Ewell name for the rest of Bob’s life. This unexpected aftermath results in a second climax, offering the reader much to think about justice and social inequality.

Lastly, it’s important that you never try to trick your reader. The reader enters a story with trust that the author has written something enriching and meaningful. Learning how to write a plot twist means learning when to surprise the reader; don’t twist the narrative with something lazy or gimmicky, twist the narrative with something that deepens the story altogether.

Write an Interesting Story with Writers.com

What does every compelling story in this article share with one another? It’s not the use of plot twists, rigid structures, or original storylines; rather, each story has an authentic voice and a startling vision. Readers of these classic and contemporary novels marvel at each work’s surprising relationship to reality. To write an interesting story, you need merely stare truth in the face, then write about it mercilessly.

If you’re stuck making a compelling story come to life, the instructors at Writers.com are here to guide you. Learn how to write a good story plot with us! Take a look at our upcoming fiction courses, taught by masters of the plotting and writing craft.

2 Comments

  1. OLIVIA HICKS on March 21, 2021 at 10:07 am

    This was very helpful–but in “Persuasion”, Anne Elliott was never had a first husband [not the one I just read]. She was “imprisoned” by her father, family expectations and, to some extent, Lady Russell.
    It’s given me a direction I’ve needed for a novella I’ve been chewing on for a while…
    Thanks!

    • Sean Glatch on March 22, 2021 at 5:08 am

      Great catch, Olivia, I changed “husband” to “family.” I’m happy we could provide some direction for your novella! Happy writing!

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