What’s the story

At the moment, I’m judging entries for a particular well known romance writing contest. This one is a biggie – many previous finalists have gone on to book deals with big noise publishers. Looking at entries is interesting on a number of levels – firstly because it gives some sort of idea of what editors are faced with every time they give a few hours of their life to the slush pile (hours they’ll never get back) and secondly because it’s interesting to see, in unpublished rather than published, polished, edited work, why some stories work and some, well, don’t.

And story is a key term here. We all know about snappy dialogue, about building characters who have quirks, about layering in clever description to build a sense of place. Yet you can do all this, and more, write a hundred thousand words, and not have a story.

I’m going to say that again. Because it’s absolutely key. A hundred thousand words isn’t necessarily a story.

A story has form. It has structure. A story is more, so much more than a series of interconnected scenes, a walk from A to B. It’s more than characters spending a weekend at a beach house, or meeting at work and going on dates. It must be logical. Foreshadowing is everything. If you want to pull a gun out of a cupboard, you’ve got to put it in the cupboard first.

And a story is about something. By that, I don’t mean ‘it’s about these two people who meet and argue and then fall in love.’ It might be about confidence, or about trust, or about identity, or about secrets, or lies. Just like a piece of clothing, there’s a common thread that holds all the pieces together.

Without it, you’ve just got some imaginary people going for a walk. And not very good scores on your contest entry.

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