Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We often look at the elements of fiction and the areas of writing separately so we can analyze them, figure out, without distraction of the other elements, how to use each.
But no part of writing exists in a vacuum. Characters and plots are intertwined, setting establishes mood, dialogue flows from action, and reaction comes from dialogue.
Story elements are connected to what has come before them in the story and connected to what comes after. Plus, one story element—one line of dialogue or one character action—can be connected to several other parts of the story. Thus the links are not from one part of a story to only one other part, as though untouching strings are laid out end to end. Instead, the threads cross and cross again, more like complex webs that meet at many points along their lengths.
When we talk of story threads, we need to be sure we’re referring to the same subject; stories make use of at least two kinds of threads. We can speak of narrative threads, the plots and sub-plots that make up the events of the larger story. We also have connecting threads, threads that link story elements and create cohesion and depth and fullness in our fiction. It is these connective threads I want to look at today.
Beginning to End
At the most basic level, story elements need to connect. And for the most basic of the basics, the ends of stories need to be connected to the beginnings. The climax and resolution are the answer or fulfillment of the opening dilemma. If there is no connection between story opening and story ending, the writer has failed his story in the most profound way.
Connect your story beginnings to the endings. Write the ending that matches the beginning. And write the opening that will lead to the ending you want to portray.
If your story turns out to be a different one than you intended when you wrote page one, if the beginning points in one direction but the story follows a different path, you have a duty to return to the beginning and rework it so that it matches what follows. This is, of course, assuming you like the direction the story took. If you prefer the setup of the opening pages, you can always change the direction of the middle and end sections, rewriting those to match the promise of the opening pages.
Whichever course you take, make sure the connection between opening and ending is solid. Inevitable. Complete.
Let’s look at ways to create those story connections using basic story elements. Keep in mind that you can tie any elements together, not only those I mention here, and you can weave those connections through at any point in the story.
Your protagonist is going to be linked to a variety of story elements. His actions will be a primary mover of plot. His dialogue will increase conflict. His reactions will reflect that conflict and will lead to plot action.
His personality and quirks, his mannerisms and the props he handles, his perceptions and the other story details that he pays attention to will push your story forward and give it color and flavor.
Characters, especially the protagonist, influence—and should be influenced by—every other story element.
Plot events shouldn’t diverge too far from the protagonist—when something occurs, the protagonist should have either caused it or had a reaction to it. His words and thoughts and emotions should be entangled in story events and the other characters’ words, thoughts, and emotions.
A protagonist may not be onstage in every scene of your novel, but he is always active. If he’s offstage, he’s still doing something, starting something, trying to figure out something. And the onstage action is affecting him and his story in some way.
Incidents may not seem to touch your protagonist, but if something happens that takes an ally out of the picture or that causes the antagonist discomfort, your protagonist should feel the effects of that action. In these situations you’ll use a deft touch, perhaps not drawing too much attention to the connection. But when the protagonist is affected, you know you’ve connected your story threads in a productive way.
Should I repeat what I said about the protagonist here for his antagonist? The antagonist, whether he’s villain or simple impediment, should also be tied to a multitude of story elements. What he does affects others and the actions of others affect him. He may not have a reaction to every story event, but he should not be unaffected by all of them.
All characters in fiction serve a purpose; otherwise, why include them? But not all characters get the same amount of page space. Not all get to challenge the protagonist the way your main antagonist does. Not all get to offer help the way your lead’s best buddy does. Not all get in the lead’s way, causing delays or doubts, the way the lead’s mother does.
But all characters do something.
Even background characters—shoppers in a store or pedestrians on a street—add color and depth and reality to scenes. They bring veracity to story settings.
Connect your characters to their setting to give readers the experience of a real locale. Put props in your characters’ hands so those characters seem real and more than one-dimensional.
Tie characters together by their love—or hatred—of someone or something else. Tie characters by their proximity to other characters or story events. Join characters through their motivations and goals, their backgrounds, their skills, and by their secrets.
Setting and tone are often threaded together for story cohesion. Some settings—a dark, lonely road; a sunny beach; a battlefield—lend themselves to familiar tones. You can, of course, write counter to expectation. But you can also use setting to set the tone, to keep that tone in the reader’s mind as she travels through your story’s locations.
Character and setting should also be connected. Some characters don’t belong in the coal mines of 1880 Wales. A man with the sensibilities of a Roman warrior from 89 BC is out of place in a Regency drawing room.
We typically talk about creating an emotional response in the reader, but characters also have emotions and those emotions drive their actions as well as the actions of others. You only have to see a little girl’s sad face, a result of a broken heart, to know that her daddy’s gonna do something to make her feel better. To make him feel better.
Weave emotional threads between characters, between characters and place, between characters and their dreams (goals). And then tug on those threads. Make the reader notice them, feel them. While some character decisions will be wholly rational, others will be pure emotion. Don’t overlook binding characters to their stories with emotional threads.
Remember to vary both the type and level of the emotion; no one ever runs only at 100%. And introduce emotion through a character who typically doesn’t show his emotions. A character’s reaction is especially moving when the emotion that breaks him is one foreign to him or one he’s fought all his life.
Threading character reaction through a story is a key method for tightening story elements. When one action leads to a reaction which leads to another reaction and so forth through scenes and chapters, story events and characters are pulled together. Motivation becomes clear when readers see what caused Bob to fire Tom, which caused Tom to drive recklessly and run over Jude’s dog, which made Jude’s big brother tie one on and beat up an undercover cop at the local bar and . . .
Story threads guided by action and reaction (logical reaction) unify the hundreds, maybe thousands, of parts that go into stories.
When characters fail to react, a connection is not made. Why have one character tell another a secret if the second character does nothing with it? Why build to an elaborate series of events if they cause no character reaction?
Use reactions to tie seemingly unrelated elements together, giving readers that Ah, I get it experience.
Like action and reaction, like setting and detail and character, dialogue can easily pull story threads together.
A character need only mention something that another character said or did 50 pages earlier and you’ve connected the present scene with earlier action, the earlier dialogue, the characters present when the earlier event took place, and the emotion and setting of the earlier event. That’s a lot of connection points based on only a word or two or three.
Pretty powerful entities, these words of ours.
Dialogue is perfect for stirring up conflict between characters as well as setting a story off in a new direction. But a new direction doesn’t mean you lose the story connections you’ve already established. Instead, you take them with you. So whatever happens during a stretch of dialogue—and that includes the story elements and threads already attached to the characters and events and the setting and the emotion that led to the dialogue—moves forward into the story with the characters.
Dialogue obviously links both to characters who speak it and to those spoken about, but dialogue also sets off reactions.
And dialogue is colored by emotion and past events and character expectations and goals. Dialogue is linked to back story and foreshadowing, two story elements we haven’t even touched on. Subtext, another fiction element, adds depth to dialogue and adds to the tone of a scene, the mood of a novel.
The more connected the story elements—the more they’re connected in logical and meaningful ways—the more believable a story becomes, the better able it is to stand because its foundation is strong and wide.
We won’t go too deeply into them here, but keep in mind that plot threads need to be related. If your sub-plots go off onto tangents and are never resolved, you haven’t created a cohesive plot. Readers will wonder why you introduced three characters and sent them on quests but never followed them on their adventures and never mentioned them after you sent them away.
Sub-plots have to be related to your main story in some way. So if you’ve got us following a romance between secondary characters, the actions/reactions between those characters, the emotion or conflict between them, should touch both the main plot and your lead characters, if only to bring comic relief in a tense situation or give your main characters ideas on how to, or how not to, conduct their own love affairs.
Your choice of words is an obvious connection between story elements. Characters should be consistent in the way they speak (and think) from story beginning to story end. Characters can grow and change, of course, but they are still themselves, and the words they use and the way they string them together can be a thread that pulls the story tight.
Word choice should be influenced by era and genre, character history and background, and story events.
When a character reacts, his words should reflect what has happened and what he feels about those events. Word choice in dialogue should be planned to elicit the desired response from other characters. Word choice in exposition or description should be geared toward touching reader emotions and raising tension in the reader.
A theme that’s not woven through the story but baldly stated one time is not a theme. It may be something the writer wanted to say, but it’s not what the story says. A theme is revealed by what the story says to the reader. It’s revealed through a character’s growth and by his decisions and emotions.
Theme, then, must be laced through a story to even qualify as theme.
Repetition can be used as a haunting reminder of what happened earlier. Echoes of earlier conversations or emotional moments remind readers of what came before. Even the barest hint of repetition in phrasing or description or event can create a connection for the reader. Thus you can pull early story events into the last chapters of a story with a reminder of what happened earlier.
Repetition can be strong or subtle, a verbatim repeat of dialogue or the merest wisp of a poetic phrasing that had been introduced earlier.
Foreshadowing and Anticipation
Foreshadowing does what repetition does but in reverse. Thus foreshadowing creates a link from early in the story to events that come later. To keep readers waning to turn the page, give them a hint of where the story’s going and what might befall the lead characters.
Create anticipation in both reader and character, making it inevitable that they push forward toward the events and ending you dangle before them.
They touch one another, these story elements (and others I didn’t mention). They connect to themselves—character to character, action to action, dialogue to dialogue—and they connect from one type of story element to another.
They touch at the beginning of the story in a way different from the way they touch mid-story or at the climax. Threads that are pulled tight, threads that pull story elements together, make for full stories.
Any element can be tied to any other. And they can be tied using different characters and story events. The connections can be explicit, direct and overt, or they may be indirect and oblique. You won’t want to bash readers over the head with these threads. Let readers discover your story connections, let them be surprised when characters become allies over a shared motivation or a moment of personal history.
Draw the threads tight so that by story’s end those threads can’t be untangled, so that a single story makes connections at every level and no one piece is left dangling, so that the story is cohesive and whole and full. If a passage isn’t needed to support several story elements, yank it out. It will come out fairly easily and not cause the story to cave in on itself. If the story thread is necessary, you won’t be able to pull it out without toppling plot actions or character motivation or tone or theme.
Now, this is not saying that every thread, no matter how well laced through the story, is the best thread you could have chosen to pull your story elements together. It is saying that if you’ve linked those elements at many levels, you’re likely to have a tighter story, one of inevitability and satisfaction and resonance for the reader.
Purposely weave threads between all the story elements. And when you find a thread you didn’t know you created, see if you can’t make it work in other ways, attach it to other elements.
Use restraint, however, so every event and moment of dialogue isn’t weighted down with Deep Meaning or high purpose. Use a light touch as well as a more obvious one. Again, think of ways for readers to discover story threads rather than stringing them out, glaring and obvious, as breadcrumbs through an otherwise empty landscape.
Readers should feel the effects of strong story ties, not necessarily see them in black and white.
Have you been thinking of ways to connect story elements in your fiction? Try a thread between elements that you hadn’t considered. Change the level of a connection, perhaps moving from overt to subtle.
Keep in mind that readers won’t feel the same connections that you’ve imagined if you don’t lace them through the story. Use implication or state them boldly, but include connections and threads to create a consistent narrative.
Connect the thousands of words and the hundreds of events of your story using threads that keep the story moving forward in a logical way and that keep readers surprised and satisfied and interested.
Write a full story.
Write good story.