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Stand-Out Stories

November 27, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 27, 2012

We spend a lot of time as writers and editors figuring out what works for all pieces of writing—what are the best ways to start a story, end a chapter, introduce the antagonist, write dialogue.

But what I want to consider today are those touches that make our stories and our writing stand out. I don’t want you to think about how your writing fits into a genre or an era or even how each of your stories matches the others in terms of your style. Instead I want you to look at ways you can make your stories push themselves out of the crowd. Get noticed. Make themselves special.

Had you thought about that before, about including special touches to get your story noticed?

Much of the time we’re worried about plot or setting or a character’s goals and motivation. We’re simply busy getting the story from here to there. Too busy finishing, with meeting deadlines, with publicity, and with starting the next manuscript, to take the time to add those elements that would make our books truly shine. Or if not shine, at least warrant extra attention. Be truly memorable.

But you should take the time, either before you begin writing or after you’ve finished a couple of drafts, to plan for and/or add a special touch or two to your fiction.

Consider ways to make your fiction stand out rather than blend in.

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Your stories and style are distinctly yours. But each book should have something special as well. As each child is related to siblings and parents but gifted in different ways, so too should your books be different. Even if you write a series, you don’t want Book Six to be a clone of Book One. If they’re not different, you need to be doing something else for a spell.

Similar, yes. The same, no.

So . . . in what ways can you make a story different not only from other books in the genre but from your own books as well?

Plan to Make it Different

Consider ways to approach the basic elements of fiction in a different way. Know what you typically do—you might need to analyze yourself or your books—and resolve to do something different with your next book or manuscript.

Story world. Explore a time or place that few writers have gone to. Or take a setting or time that’s used primarily for one genre (say, sci-fi) and use it for a different genre (mystery). Or give a conventional location a twist and then another twist. Set a dystopian novel in the past or a paranormal at the time of the American Revolution.

Add humor to story worlds typically ruled by fear and darkness.

Include the unexpected—make a place for it—in a genre bounded by rules.

Theme.  Tap into an unfamiliar theme or bring an old theme back into favor. Use a theme you’ve never used, one that stretches you as you are forced to make it work logically. Talk about something no one’s talking about. Allow a series character to be captivated by a truth unfamiliar to him.

Character. Let your character grow in an unexpected way. Give a popular character an unpopular stand and see if you can sway readers to his side. Give an unpopular character a popular stand and see how that influences his story line.

Give your lead character a skill you’ve never used before, one that tempts him toward the dark side, if he’s the protagonist, and toward the light side, if he’s the antagonist.

Give your cold-hearted lead character a heart. Make your tender-hearted young lover turn his back on someone who needs him.

Write a clueless but likeable character if yours are typically brainy.

Let a character fail spectacularly not once but several times in one book.

Make the plucky, sweet, and darling underdog lose.

Give a character a major psychological flaw.

Reverse Expectations. Skip the happily-ever-after if it’s expected. Or at least twist it so not everyone gets their HEA. I don’t suggest this for current romances, however. The genre expectation is for the hero and heroine to get that happy ending. That wasn’t always the case for romance, but it is today. If you mess up the HEA for your couple, you’re writing something other than today’s romance.

Slip some hope into your YA dystopian novel. Skip a coming-of-age story and substitute an I’m-of-age-now-what-do-I-do-with-it story.

Resolution. Make the end truly unexpected. Kill off someone close to your protagonist (or antagonist) after the characters think they’ve resolved their problems. Make it happen because of them—think booby-trap that catches an innocent from either side. Maybe from both sides.

Write several endings, each logical and inevitable, and use the most unexpected one. The one that will get readers talking.

Emotion. Push past the surface. Make your characters and readers hurt. Make them uncomfortable. Make them laugh. Make them think.

Make a character feel nothing.

Dialogue. Keep dialogue brief or let a character talk more than usual. Let a character blow up at a friend or lover.

Mechanics. Write spare or lush in opposition to the way you normally write.  Use more adjectives. Take out most modifiers. Write longer sentences. Write shorter scenes. Change your typical sentence patterns. Use more foreshadowing (or less).

Don’t use your favorite words, not a one.

Use common words if you typically use the fancier variety. Use poetic words if the basics usually suit you.

Setting. Thread in more than your usual details if your settings are lean. Cut details if you normally include layers of them. Add color. And the senses. Take away one of the lead character’s senses and show how he adapts.

Motif. Give a story a motif or include symbols. Write a story without obvious symbols if you always include them.

Plot. Make the plot convoluted and intricate. Make it straightforward. Go up instead of down, through instead of over.

Boundaries. Push your boundaries and then push them again. Go beyond what you expected you could do. Surprise those who know you best.

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While you want to push at boundaries and stretch yourself, you don’t want to drive away readers who come to you with expectations. But don’t be afraid to be bold, to try something new. You’re sending characters into the wilderness or into frightening adventures—don’t be afraid to join them. Why should they be the only ones to face uncertainty? Going beyond your comfort zone means you have to try options new to you. That means you’ll be producing something new, something different. The something new may even be magnificent.

And yes, you may fail, but fail spectacularly. Creatively. Don’t fail because you played it safe. What’s the point of playing it safe if you still fail? Risk much to gain much. Try, at least once, to be different. To go beyond what you know will work.

Go beyond what you know will work.

Make plot and character stand out from the common and ordinary.

Write stories that capture the reader’s attention and that set characters on new paths.

We, and they, have seen the familiar. Take us all somewhere new.

Tell us a new story. Capture our attention and make us look. Make us look a second and a third time. And make your stories so good that we can’t put them down.

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Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

8 Responses to “Stand-Out Stories”

  1. Vero says:

    Love this.

    I have always planned to make my stories unique, to push the envelope on both genre and POV (and character). And it’s been incredibly rewarding for myself — let’s hope it will also be rewarding for readers eventually. It’s difficult to go against the stream with choices of structure, theme or character, you definitely don’t gain friends among peers, but we’ve not become writers to make friends. We write to share stories effectively and entertain and enlighten readers, and you can’t really do that by sticking to what everyone else does.

    Thank you for a wonderful post, Beth. :)

  2. I love being unique and different: in fact, I always shoot for it. BUT I have found that in the CBA, you have to target your genre very specifically. We were just having an intense discussion on my blog about how difficult it is to get Medieval-set books published (happens to be what I wrote!). It always pays to research what’s selling (for example, Regency in historical fiction) before writing. That said, I wouldn’t have written a Regency. I wrote what I was passionate about. It may or may not get published, and I’m at the point where I’m okay with it.

    And I LOVE twist endings and unique characterizations. I want to read (and write!) something people can’t see coming a mile away.

    Great post!

  3. Vero, I hope your efforts will be rewarding for your readers as well. I love the idea of trying new approaches. Yes, we need to know what works. But we also need to see what else works.

  4. Heather, that mix of surprise and inevitability is so satisfying at the end of a book. Here’s hoping you’re able to provide both.

    While I typically focus these blog articles on what we know works, I don’t want to forget that some element of our stories really needs to make our work stand out from the thousands of other stories vying for a reader’s attention.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  5. Pat Bertram says:

    Wonderful suggestions, as always, Beth. Those are the kind of books I love to read and write, the ones that stand from the crowd. When books follow the genre conventions, they might be easier to sell to a targeted audience, but they are seldom special.

  6. Thanks, Pat. It is difficult to both meet expectations and stand out, but I think we can do both with some work. And if not, then maybe we need to take the time at least once to write the stand-out novel. Dare to be different. This doesn’t mean you don’t write well or don’t entertain, it just means you look for new ways of doing both.

    I’m glad you stopped by today.

  7. Amber says:

    Hello, Miss Hill! This was a very useful article!
    I have a question that kinda-sorta relates to this topic:
    Come this Christmas, I’ll have been working on a story for a year. I’m still on the first draft, so it isn’t supposed to be the perfect end-result, but… it’s horrible. Nothing is flowing as I expected, the important elements seem less exciting than I imagined… is that normal? I mean, I expected to be a little unsatisfied with the first try, but not this badly. Am I taking too long to finish the draft? Do I need to complete more planning before I attempt the first draft? I’m rather confused. :)

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