I’m taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson currently, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 12% of the way there.
This week, Brandon answered one of the most common questions he gets: How do you make a good story? Many people believe that good stories are based on good ideas—that if you just have a good enough idea, it will make an amazing story. Brandon says that this is not true. “Ideas are cheap.”
I have found this to be true. I almost always have more ideas than I have time to write stories for. I like to keep a list on my phone as ideas occur to me. Once you start writing down ideas, the floodgates are open, and it’s hard to get them to stop. So no, ideas are not what make a great story. (As an aside, Brandon says that because ideas are cheap, there is not much use worrying that someone will “steal” your ideas. The skill of the writer is what makes a story a great one.)
Brandon’s answer to the “How do you make a good story?” question comes down to three P-words: Promise, Progress, and Payoff.
Promise. When you start a book, you make a promise to the reader that what you have to say will be worth ingesting. You promise that the tone of your piece will be consistent. A sure way to disappoint your audience is to begin with an action chase scene and then continue the rest of the story as a reflective romantic memoir. With the opening scenes or chapters of a story, you promise the type of conflict and character development the readers can expect from the rest of the story.
Progress. The middle of a book or story is all about progress. Progress is beginning to give the readers what you promised them. This doesn’t mean that the characters actually progress toward the end of the story, but it means that readers have a sense of progress. Characters face greater and greater challenges and the situation tends to get more complicated. You, as the author, have complete control over how quickly the story actually progresses toward the ending. The important point is giving a sense of progress. Have the characters try and fail. Have them encounter setbacks. Have them discover clues, make accusations, or spy on each other. In the end, the progress should lead up to the point where you are ready to give the audience what you promised.
Payoff. The payoff of your story is when you give readers what you promised them. The goal is to make this payoff “surprising, yet inevitable,” according to Brandon. How do you make your ending surprising? You give your reader what you promised, and then you give them more of it. This doesn’t mean you need a twist ending. The romance genre is a great example of this. You don’t go into a romance wondering whether the leads get together in the end—in fact, many romance novels include a blurb on the cover that mentions that the story ends happily. The important part of the payoff is that it should match the tone of the story. You can learn more about Promise, Progress, and Payoff in this YouTube video.
I like thinking about stories with this framework because it helps me figure out whether elements of my story are essential. For example, I wrote the first chapter of my story in an epistolary format as a journal. When it came time for the critique group, the other students and Brandon all commented in one way or another how they loved the main character and setting, but struggled to believe that anyone would be so open and writerly in journal entries. Journals, they said, were good for defensive and unreliable narrators.
Since I knew that I wanted to promise the reader an open tone and I wanted full access to writerly writing, I made some changes. Although I liked the format of a journal, I decided to switch to a more traditional storytelling form and keep the fun character and writing style.
Stay tuned for more writing tips next week! In the mean time, what do you use to diagnose problems in your storytelling? Have you used the promise, progress, payoff method?