We all know we need a strong story with drama. We all know we need to make our stuff interesting. After all, we're all hoping people will pay us for our words. So how do we do it? How do we make our writing so interesting that we can convince those elusive consumers to cough up their cash?
Actually, doing something interesting isn't that hard. Drop your trousers or start a fight with a random person in the street and it would be interesting - for a while at least. But the real test for writers is not writing something interesting but writing something interesting for the duration of the work. Now that's real magic. It's also real hard. So how can we possibly achieve it?
Cause and Effect
Buy yourself a pack of record cards and if you have a head on your shoulders it shouldn't be too hard to fill each one with an interesting event. Trouble is, without some causal relationship between those events writing a script or novel around them would end up being the literary equivalent of the conveyor belt in The Generation Game – you might grab interest for a bit but you won't maintain it.
Well, theoretically you could. If you had a strong and likable character that linked those episodes you might get away with it, particularly if those events were really mini-stories with their own cause and effect sequence. This is called the 'episodic' plot, for which you can read - a plot where the writer wasn't able to string their episodes together into a causal chain. But more of that later.
What the cause and effect sequence will give you over unrelated episodes is narrative drive – a reason for the reader to keep on reading in order to see the effect of that cause you just set up. If you give the reader a bite size chunk she may just take that bite then go off and read someone else's book. Cause and effect is more likely to keep her hooked.
Cause and effect is a good start, but it isn't good enough. A story needs an increase in narrative tension from start to finish – from the beginning, throughout the middle and on to the bitter end. The breakdown of story into these three phases seem stupidly obvious but they do indicate a deeper narrative meaning that goes some way to explain the resilience of the three act structure not only in plays but in literature as a whole. Firstly, they imply wholeness. Compare your favourite play or feature-film with your favourite TV series. Most likely the TV series you'll want to keep watching because it never feels like it ends until you get to the very end of the series – and sometimes not even then. This is typically achieved by having an overarching story that isn't resolved until the series finale or by making sure that the stories within the series are not closed before new ones are started – the most compelling series will have a combination of both these devices.
Beginnings typically represent a change in the characters' world – a call to adventure or a unavoidable problem that needs to be solved – what some practitioners refer to as the 'inciting incident'. But the beginning can be as simple as the start of something – the beginning of a new day, the start of a new job - whatever the case it must promise interest, dramatic events, fascinating consequences – a reason for the audience to stick with us.
The middle can often be the hardest part of the story to write. It is the most important part of the story because it makes up the bulk of it and yet is typically the least dramatically significant - the beginning and the end usually offer the most significant turning points. This is why the dramatic question asked by the inciting incident must be powerful and complex enough to drive the entire story – the resolution of that question has to take the entire novel or play to resolve.
The middle is best thought of as a series of complications that lead up to a climax i.e. the events that happen as a consequence of the story characters dealing with the inciting event. The resolution of that climax constitutes the end. It can be helpful to visual represent the three act structure diagrammatically with 'tent-poles'.
It's this escalation in narrative tension that is the different between stories you just can't stop reading and those you can.
But it's not just about structure. For a story to have emotional significance for the reader it must have an emotional impact on characters that the reader cares about. It is often mentioned that characters should go through an arc – a process of change – and this should certainly be the case where the story is about the effect that the plot has on the character. The recent Bond films have tried to add substance to an old franchise by developing Bond and introducing an arc for him, particularly in Casino Royale, but there are plenty of examples of compelling narratives where the character doesn't change at all. You wouldn't want Columbo or Inspector Morse to undergo fundamental change in their stories – their characters are the very reason you keep coming back for more.
Complexity can be as interesting as change – the lesson here is that fascinating characters can carry narrative interest for a long time and be the very thing that creates interest across unrelated episodes - but if you can combine a fascinating and likeable character with a great, cause-effect sequence draped over a carefully structured plot you really will have a story that can't be put down. And that can't be a bad thing, right?