What is a story?

Compelling stories follow a single idea: An interesting character overcomes increasingly difficult obstacles to achieve something desired. The main character either succeeds and is victorious, or is defeated and fails.

Though simplistic, this short definition carries the essential elements a story requires to be compelling:

  • A story’s main character, called the protagonist, is someone with an active will. The story is shaped by the main character (whether that character is the narrator or not), making conscious decisions to push towards his goal. If the character is simply wandering, or buffeted without reason, the reader quickly loses interest.
  • The protagonist must be interesting. The protagonist can have special skills like Sherlock Holmes, or is complex with significant qualities and destructive flaws, or is funny and shy, or has peculiarities or an unrevealed complicated backstory or anything else that forces the reader to pay attention. The protagonist doesn’t even have to be “good” as long as the character is interesting.
  • Problems and obstacles create tension, drama, and a plot. If someone can coast from place to place, the reader will not continue reading. These problems and obstacles must be significant. The problems may be another person or people, or society, or nature, or internal forces, but no matter the antagonist, the main character must be seen in battle.
  • The character must have a deep enough desire that he or she is willing to fight. The more important the desire to the character, the more the story will resonate. The detective must solve the crime, the romantic woman must win her man, the superhero must conquer the villain, the alcoholic must defeat the inner hurts that drive to drink.
  • The character must achieve change and resolution for the story to satisfy the reader. The main character can be changed into a better person in some regard, or the situation may be resolved so that the world is in a better shape in some way (positive outcomes), or the character turns darker, or the world becomes worse (negative outcomes). Whether positive or negative, the reader must be given some sense that a change has occurred and at least a major change is resolved.

Your task as a writer is to create a story with an interesting character who overcomes (or is overcome by) tremendous challenges, all the while fighting for all she’s worth. The degree will vary based on the story. Comedies are almost always centered on challenges that we see as trivial but are all-consuming for the character. Thrillers are almost always centered on giant organizations of people and technologies trying to kill the protagonist(s). Westerns are usually life and death struggles while police detective stories concentrate on stopping the evildoer before that person can strike again. Whatever the degree, and whether the stakes are spoken or implied, the protagonist must be challenged with real stakes and real potential to fail.

Create your story with a character or characters who display their active will in fighting for something they deeply desire and you’ll have a solid foundation every time.