In 500 words, how to make a story, essay or article compelling. This was originally commissioned, along with another, longer piece, for the Irish Independent. Both pieces were intended for students preparing for the Leaving Cert. This one didn’t get published due to a lack of room (though they still paid in full for it), so I’m posting it here.
You haven’t much time. You have a story to write, perhaps an essay or an article. Your reader will have many, many of these to read. They’ll be checking that you’ve ticked the right boxes and then they’ll just move on to the next one. This is a person you’ll never meet and as far as they’re concerned, your piece is probably going to be nothing special. You’ve got to convince them they’re wrong – make them remember you . . . and the clock is ticking.
10: First, don’t write. Stop and think. Where do you need to end up? What’s the last thing you’ll say? Your ending doesn’t have to be set in stone, but you need a direction to head off in.
9: Get their attention. What’s the situation you’re describing? Present a problem in need of a solution. Pose a question in the reader’s mind: How is this going to work out? It’s the key to suspense: Ask a question . . . make them wait for an answer.
8: You have a problem to be solved, but why should your reader care? What’s the strongest negative emotion it can provoke? Provoke it by describing how bad the situation could be. If this is a story, dump your main character right in the middle of the problem. If it’s an essay or article, make a strong statement, then tease the reader towards your justification for making it.
7: If there are no characters, if it’s an essay, remember that emotion is as strong a persuader as logic. Passion can be convincing. What do you feel strongly about? What can you argue passionately for? Why?
6: Write it as if you’re feeling it. Make your reader feel it too. Write in the present tense, or moment by moment in the past tense. You’re emotionally affected by this and your reader should be there with you. First person or third? Or maybe even the second person, throwing the emphasis back on the reader.
5: Characters need to be believable individuals, different from each other. Each has a distinctive job to do in the story. Sometimes the clash between the different characters is the whole story. Often, it’s how they fail that keeps us reading, how their personality is ill-suited to the task at hand. Maybe they caused the problem. We’ll cheer for them all the more if the cause seems hopeless, but they don’t give up.
4: Reinforce that question hanging in the reader’s mind. Start offering up solutions, but then knocking them down. Create suspense through failed attempts at success.
3: Things have to be at their worst right before the end; the tensest moment, the most threatening event, the worst element of the issue. All is about to be lost.
2: The punch-line, the pay-off, the climax. You deliver the goods.
1: Wrap it up and be quick about it. Drawn-out endings are boring and you haven’t got time.
Now let it go and move on. You’ve got other things to do.