The ability to dream up and pass down stories is what makes humans special, and the stories that we believe wield tremendous power over us. They can shape, transform, save, and end lives—and they don’t need to be true or well-crafted to do so. Just look to the world of politics for all the evidence you need.
What makes stories so powerful? I have some ideas.
As a developmental editor, it’s my job to analyze stories. When I evaluate a manuscript’s potential, I look for six special ingredients I call Story Boosters: Novelty, Mystery, Urgency, Agency, Harmony, and Gravity. These ingredients make stories in any genre more attractive and memorable. Think of them as the finest ingredients you can feed your plot bunnies.
I developed these Story Boosters as my experiences teaching and mentoring teen novelists made me think deeply about what well-crafted stories have in common and what first drafts tend to lack. The earlier you add these ingredients to your story concept, the stronger your first draft will be.
The Story Boosters
1) NOVELTY: A Fresh Idea, Setting, or Perspective
We’re naturally drawn to stories we haven’t heard or seen before. Originality builds excitement. This doesn’t mean that every aspect of your narrative needs to be unique. Forgive me for mixing metaphors, but this is more about putting your own spin on the wheel than reinventing it—a story doesn’t have to be new to feel fresh. Though Novelty mainly comes from approaching familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways, it also comes from an author’s enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is infectious, in a good way. The scenes you’re most excited to write will become the scenes your readers will most enjoy reading.
So stay in touch with what excites you about your story idea as you write your draft. Stay in touch with the initial “What if?” question, lightbulb moment, or snippet of a dream that gripped you, and return to it for strength when you get stuck. And when you’re ready to publish your manuscript, tap back into that excitement to help you articulate what makes your story fresher than its competition.
To add Novelty to your story, ask yourself:
- How is my story different from the works that inspired it?
- What excites me most about my idea?
- How will I dazzle or shock my audience?
2) MYSTERY: An Intriguing Central Question
We’re drawn to stories that raise provocative questions, and we stick with them because we trust authors to deliver satisfying answers. You need an intriguing central question to turn your story premise into a plot. Think of Mystery as the thesis for your entire novel—the question or problem that will drive your main characters’ actions throughout the story. And if you have side questions (subplots) in mind, make sure they lead back to the central question somehow. (Further reading: Major Dramatic Question, or MDQ.)
Audiences forgive clumsy storytelling all the time for the sake of wanting “to see where this mess is going.” If the answer to the story’s central question is satisfying enough, audiences might decide it wasn’t such a mess after all. Conversely, a flimsy answer to a strong central question can transform a masterpiece into a mess—just ask some frustrated fans of Lost or Ronald D. Moore’s version of Battlestar Galactica. (Full disclosure: I liked the ending of BSG but am still angry about Lost.) And audiences will embrace ambiguous answers, as long as they’re delivered fairly. For example, the ending of Inception suits the story’s plot and themes beautifully.
Because the answers are almost as important as the questions, it’s ideal to figure out your story’s endgame before you get started. Having an endgame not only makes you more likely to complete a draft but also helps you finish it faster than if you have no idea where you’re heading. You can always tweak your endgame if a fluffier new plot bunny comes along, but think through the implications first so that the bunny doesn’t lure your story over a cliff.
To add Mystery to your story, ask yourself:
- What question will my characters work hard to answer over the course of this story?
- How can I make the question increasingly difficult for them to answer?
- Do I have an exciting answer ready, or do I need to find one?
3) URGENCY: Pervasive, Meaningful Dramatic Tension
We’re drawn to stories drenched in conflict and tension. Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling in every genre. I know you love your characters, but it’s your job to torture them. Even lab-grown diamonds must endure extreme heat or pressure to achieve brilliance, right?
Every story needs a central source of conflict to generate the Mystery and create ongoing, rising tension. But if there is nothing at stake, your characters could just walk away from their problems anytime, creating plot holes that might deflate your story like a botched souffle.
Urgency will make solving the Mystery necessary and, well, urgent. It comes from threatening what your characters hold dear: their survival, reputation, livelihood, loved ones, and so on. The simplest way to add Urgency to your story is to give your characters a deadline for solving the Mystery. Be sure to place frightening, tangible risks along the path and a transformative reward at its end; have your protagonist lose something precious so the stakes will feel real. (Further reading: Narrative Drive.)
Though I advise authors to add conflict to their stories early and often, there’s a catch. In fiction, audiences naturally expect conflict and tension to mean something and lead somewhere. I call this principle “Chekhov’s paper cut”: all setbacks and struggles in a fictional story, even paper cuts, must advance a plot or character arc somehow. Audiences also expect characters to have realistic, rather than convenient, reactions to their misfortunes. Meaningful dramatic tension creates lingering impacts.
To add Urgency to your story, ask yourself:
- What is the main source of conflict (tension and danger) in this story?
- How did that conflict spawn the Mystery my characters must solve?
- What deadlines or stakes will force my characters to face and overcome that conflict?
4) AGENCY: Resourceful, Dynamic Characters
We’re drawn to characters with clear goals, understandable motivations, and urgent problems that force them to grow stronger and wiser. Character agency reveals itself through your main characters’ daring feats and agonizing choices. Even in Greek tragedies, where the answer to the central question “Can humans defy fate?” is always a hard nope, we love watching characters struggle to defy it anyway. Stories are more meritocratic these days. We expect modern characters to earn their successes and failures, and to be (or become) proactive about solving their problems.
So once you know the Mystery driving your story, consider whether you’ve put the right characters in charge of solving it. And if you’re struggling to devise an endgame for that Mystery, ask yourself: How do I want this journey to change my characters? I recommend centering your story on the character who has the most to gain, lose, and learn in pursuit of the solution. Make sure that character is the one who does “the thing” that reveals the answer to the central question and resolves the main conflict.
To add Agency to your story, ask yourself:
- What makes each of my point-of-view characters worth following?
- How will they show moxie and gain wisdom?
- What feats or choices will define them and seal their fates?
For more guidance on giving your characters agency and depth, I recommend GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, and Story Genius by Lisa Cron.
5) HARMONY: Satisfying Logic and Execution
We’re drawn to stories that proceed logically and rhythmically. Harmony comes from your story’s structure, pacing, and believability. It is revealed through a satisfying balance of setup and payoff. Balance in general is the goal—balancing plot with character development, balancing action with description, and so on:
- You want to do enough research and world-building to make your setting seem realistic, but you don’t want lengthy descriptions to overwhelm your story’s action.
- You want your characters’ thoughts, words, and deeds to suit them, but you also want them to evolve over time—and for good, traceable reasons.
- You want your plot structure to suit your story’s genre, but you don’t want to bore your audience with trope combinations they’ve seen or heard too often.
Harmony builds on all the previous ingredients. When I encourage you to ready a solution to your Mystery or make your Urgency meaningful, I am nudging you to invest in your story’s Harmony. Harmony is notoriously tough to get right in a first draft. It is also the #1 reason that getting editorial feedback before you publish a story is crucial. Plot holes obviously disturb Harmony, but so do typos.
Done right, Harmony creates a sense of immersion that makes readers forget they’re experiencing a work of fiction, even when a story takes place in an impossible setting. But Harmony is subjective, like our tastes in music. Different genres attract different audiences who crave different rhythms and timbres.
To add Harmony to your story, ask yourself:
- How much research or world-building must I do before I get started?
- Have I arranged my plot events in a logical way? Is the pattern of cause and effect clear?
- Are my characters acting and reacting appropriately to plot events, especially traumatic ones?
- Does the action obey (or convincingly bend) my setting’s laws of physics?
6) GRAVITY: Emotional or Intellectual Impact
We’re drawn to stories that make us feel (make us laugh and/or cry) and think (offer us new ideas and/or challenge our old assumptions). Gravity is the force that pulls us to and through a story, then clings to us long after the story ends. It can thread a great story throughout an entire culture’s DNA, shaping generations. In other words, Gravity is what gives stories the power to transform us.
Gravity can feel like the exhilaration of the Avengers assembling, a scary story that makes a child see ghouls in the shadows, or a hilarious line of dialogue that makes a reader shriek with laughter in an empty apartment after a bad day at work.
Like Harmony, Gravity is subjective, requiring authors to understand their ideal audience’s wants and needs—then manipulate them using all the ingredients listed above. Your story doesn’t need to be life- or world-changing, but you can still generate Gravity with relatable characters, evocative descriptions, and suspense. Feedback can help you ensure the story’s Gravity pulls readers in the intended direction.
To add Gravity to your story, ask yourself:
- What message or warning do I want to share with readers of this story?
- What do I want readers to feel or think as they experience this story, and how can I make them do so?
- How can I give my story a fitting and memorable ending?
Using the Story Boosters
Keep these Story Boosters in mind when testing a story idea, trying to work through a creative blockage, crafting an outline, or deciding which details to feature in your query letter or pitch. The key here is figuring out which ingredients are most important to you. Why? Because you are the most important member of your target audience, especially when you’re writing a first draft. Different stories call for different main ingredients. Novelty is more crucial in science fiction than it is in romance. Urgency is more crucial in thrillers than it is in literary fiction, where Gravity takes precedence. Yet the most beloved stories in any genre contain all these ingredients.
My Story Boosters Chart lists each Booster along with questions to ask yourself as you develop your concept, craft your outline, and write each scene.
As a developmental editor, I love helping authors of all ages and experience levels master these ingredients. Learn more about my editorial services and rates here!
Which of these ingredients excite you the most? Let me know in the comments. My favorite stories go heavy on Novelty and Gravity, which explains my love of science fiction.