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The Art of Storytelling: How to Craft Compelling Narratives

~ Dishari Ghosh

Ms A, a high-ranking detective, is woken up by three simultaneous calls. Three bodies with blue marks on their arms have been found near different lakes, all identically shot. Two girls with blood on their white gowns have been spotted at a bus stop. Only they don't know each other or the dead. Three bodies, two girls, one A.M., and zero witnesses. What could have gone wrong?

Interested to read further, are you? Each of us narrates incidents, interactions, and fables but some manage to captivate their audience from the first word they utter, and some falter. Stories have been told, in some form or the other, for as long as there have existed humans. It's a way of communication, a way of developing bonds, a way of moving forward in society.

Authors who sell have mastered the art of intriguing their readers and hooking them to the story they want to tell; it's certainly a make-or-break. Execution is as important a craft as ideation is. Well-thought-out narratives will not deliver if the narration is weak. String together a series of words in not just a meaningful way but an interesting way is essential. There are several components that will tie your story up neatly and interestingly. Here are some broader elements and thoughts to reflect on while writing your next piece, to make it more compelling for your readers.

Drafting & Editing

Before you begin typing away, having a basic outline of how the narrative will proceed is a good habit. This could include not just the genre of the story and the plot with the beginning and the conclusion, but also a brief idea of the main characters you'd like to narrate the story through, the location that will fit your event as well as any other details you'd like to include to make the book engaging.

After the outline is finalised, the first draft comes. It's pertinent to realise that a book is not finished the moment you write the last word, there will be several rounds of editing, adding in more thoughts and details and deleting any unnecessary words or even sub-plots which do not fit well with the larger story. The final round will ensue proofreading, to make sure there are no grammatical errors, jarring loopholes and the general flow of the book is maintained. After several edits - looking perhaps like "BookNameDraft1", "BookNameDraft2", "BookNameFinalDraft", or "BookNameFinallyGoingForPrint" in your laptop folder, the book will perhaps be ready for the world to witness.

Plot

The narration can only be as engaging as the plot is. Keeping the readers at the edge, thinking 'just one more page', comes with a good plot. The characters are likely to embark on a (metaphorical or literal) adventure in the short span of a book, be it towards finding lasting friendships or partners, saving the magical kingdom, or being realistic and fighting away the wicked illness creeping into their body.

Regardless of what the plot is, it needs to be well-structured. You, as an author, need to have an overarching understanding of what is driving the narrative. Focusing on creating a realistic, relatable and engaging plot is crucial so as to not let the reader wonder what or why the events are occurring - incidents should not be random. Although, the mystery of finding out what happens next shouldn't be eradicated and hence, there is a fine balance that needs to be maintained between the two.

Characters

The driving force of a book is its characters, and writing them can prove to be a challenge. While making an outline, it is good to have an understanding of both the physical features as well as the personalities of any/all characters. The characters will be more appealing to your readers if they are relatable and can form a connection. This can be achieved in more than one way - their ethnicity, language, profession, quirks, habits, interests and so on can play a role here. Finding what is essential to include in your story and moulding the character in such a way is important.

Readers have a vivid imagination, and hence, like to have a general idea of how their central characters might look like. It is essential to weave physical features in the story, as and when it unfolds. However, diving too deep and giving shallow descriptions will disengage them. Another tactic which is appreciated is to describe their personality or their 'vibe'. Including lines like, 'his brows furrowed as he read the letter', 'her dimple deepened as her dog approached her, wagging his tail' or 'heads turned as they entered the room, in their identical duck costumes' gives a more in-depth understanding of who the characters are. These ideas are likely to last more in the minds of the readers than having a basic or dragged description.

Another important reminder for writing characters is that they drive the narrative, and hence, have the control to change the direction of the outcome. In a novel, you're more likely to have evolving characters, rather than ones who remain stagnant throughout. This could be in relation to themselves, with others or with other elements of the story.

Conflict

Any narration usually has five basic elements, i.e., exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion. In brief, exposition introduces the reader to the characters and the basis of the story, rising action drives it forward and leads to the conflict, which in turn, is the most exciting segment - the one everyone's waiting for, resulting in the falling action where there is resolution of the events and all loose ends are finally tied up in the conclusion.

Here, having a strong conflict will keep your readers engrossed. Reading a bland, straightforward story, without a nail-biting conflict, is not something the readers signed up for. Moreover, it ends up being unrelatable as life does not hand out everything on a platter without having to work towards it. A conflict could be in any form - friends or partners having the worst fight and parting ways, an upset child leaving home and meeting with an accident, a teacher found handing out higher grades in exchange for money or just about anything that will divert the direction the story was going smoothly towards. Navigating this bumpy road, filled with boulders, is what will keep your readers wanting to read further - to see how this conflict ultimately gets resolved and how it impacts the characters. Do the characters have a change of heart, is a secret revealed or was there simply a miscommunication? It is up to you to drive home your narrative here and leave a lasting impression.


Conclusion

Has Ms. A finally found out who killed those three and what about the girls, were they murderers or had they simply wound up in an unfortunate state? The conclusion is ideally where the story becomes airtight and the loose ends are tied up. Plan in advance and decide where you want your narrative to go - is it a happy or tragic ending? Is it fantastical or realistic? Many people prefer the former, while others are more drawn towards the latter. Ultimately, however, it is your narrative and you are allowed to be as whimsical or as realistic as you would like.

Regardless of the direction you choose to go in, it should fit well with your story. Is there a happily ever after for the lovers on two different continents, do all the victims stuck in a robbed bank unite with their families, is the much-loved dragon who escaped safely, will the underprivileged man with a dream for the top college pay his fees - all such queries, based on your story, needs to be answered here. The choice, though, needs to bode well with the majority, for the readers will give the final verdict about your book. Having weak endings, with sub-plots unresolved, would not garner the best reviews regardless of how 90% of the book turns out.

Other Factors to Keep in Mind:

Point of View (POV)

A POV is how the readers engage with the characters. There are multiple forms and angles to it, and you can mentally view the story's feel when you choose the POV. You could either employ the first person or the third person and in some interactive cases, the second. The first person uses I, we and us throughout the story, while the third person uses he, she or they and the second person would use you.

Some examples of the same are, 'I heard mumbling sounds from the room which has been locked for over a year now. I looked left, unable to decide whether it is wise to move towards or away from the door.' 'There was a white bird perched on the top branch of the tree facing her window. Was the universe telling her to make peace with her neighbour?'

A first-person POV will give your readers a chance to be in the mind of your protagonist. The emotions, conundrum, thoughts etc are all explicitly revealed on the page. When it comes to a third-person narrative, it can either divulge everything that one or more character is witnessing or stick to being a distant observer, without revealing much.

The narrative can go forward with either of the POVs, depending on how much you would like to go in-depth with or how well-rounded you would like your readers to know your character/s. It is certainly interesting to read through the first person, being in their place and having events pan out in front of our eyes. But, in other cases, it gives immense pleasure to know everything all of the characters are thinking or feeling.


Timeline

Is everything going forward from the months of April to October in a linear fashion or are we in August, having flashbacks from May? This is something that you can work with. Many narratives are linear, while some have dual timelines or more (you certainly can weave in more too!). Keeping point D in mind, the story can either progress forward towards points E, F and G, in case of a linear timeline or can keep on revealing incidents from points A, B or C as and when required, if it has a dual timeline.

Both have a terrific way of captivating the readers, as they understand more of the backstory, the incidents that made them who they are or why they chose certain things in life - when it comes to dual timelines, or how they will react to certain events, what will they choose in future, who they will evolve into - when it comes to a linear timeline.

'As I pick up my favourite book for the 10th time, I am reminded of how my sister used to read snippets from it at bedtime. [Next Chapter] I am lying in bed, with the fairy lights switched on, my soft bear tucked in with me. She comes in, sits next to me and asks me if I want to listen to more of what the carpenter built. I nod a simple yes, with a smile on my face.' This is how authors tend to switch between the past and the present, diving deep, digging up memories, and supporting incidents.

On the other hand, a linear timeline will go something like this, delving into what the future will hold, and where the characters will go from here on: 'She is running towards the bus stop, with her files flying away from her, coffee about to spill and phone about to fall, when she knocks into another equally dishevelled girl around her own age. By this time, coffee sure flies away from her, but so do sparks. Or is it only because she's touched a live wire?'

While writing a narrative, be it ten pages or a thousand pages, can be a challenging course, there are several methods, techniques and ideas that can bring the process and the final product together. It is best to keep experimenting with the approaches, as there is absolutely no fixed formula which will yield the best results. An approach can elevate one kind of narrative, while some others will do that for another story. It's up to your discretion to comprehend what makes your narrative compelling!


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