An important key to how to  improve writing skills can be found in a single word: shape.

All well-written stories have a compelling shape. Think of story shape as the underlying form or structure of a piece, often called the story plot.  Some writers envision story shape like a pyramid, hourglass, stack of blocks, or a line graph. I like to imagine the tale as a lump of clay which takes on human form and meaning in the hands of a skilled writer. While the plot is more about advancing the story from one point to the next, shape involves how those plot points integrate and flow. 

There are nine essential parts of a story:

  1. Hook (theme)
  2. Sense of place
  3. Interesting characters
  4. Compelling dialogue
  5. Strong storyline (logical pattern)
  6. Appropriate pacing
  7. Unique voice
  8. Particular point of view
  9. Slowly-revealed secret or answer (presentation)

These rudimentary fragments are the same for every story. But the way the components fit together make the story unique. Each element has a particular job to do, and each must flow with all the other ingredients toward a single objective or theme.

A book usually begins with embryonic features. Over the course of the story development, complex parts emerge and strive toward a single destiny—a final whole that becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Most writers know the basic story elements: beginning, middle, and end. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. But it is the way in which the story takes “shape” that captures the reader.

Just as the human body is composed of mind, body, and spirit, the well-shaped story reveals:

  • emotions, desires, passions
  • sight, sound, smell, and touch (the senses)
  • actions, direction, and
  • goals, dreams, intentions
  • the sense of or belief in something more substantial and more meaningful than one’s self.

In all art and design (and writing), form follows function. Each part is uniquely designed to work in a certain way to compliment or join with other pieces. When all of the elements work together seamlessly toward a definite conclusion, your story comes to life!

When a story fails to get, all these centipede-like elements moving smoothly together the story form feels clumsy, or disjointed. It has a head but no tail. It has eyes but no heart.

The glue that binds these elements into a cohesive human story involves:

  • a universal theme, one to which a broad audience of readers can relate.
  • a secret or question to reveal; a puzzle or dilemma to solve.
  • an event that leads to another and another with ever­ increasing urgency.
  • a vibrant pattern or texture made of exciting and colorful pieces of the puzzle.
  • a driving force toward an overall objective or The puzzle must, in the end, reveal the total picture.

Lastly, the story must come to a satisfying conclusion, consistent with reader expectations, that is, the story must fit the audience for whom it was intended.

You, alone, are the sculptor with the power to give your story a unique form. You play a game with your reader, deciding how much or how little to show, and when to reveal the whole picture to the reader.  Think of your story as shapes and patterns. Study the storylines of successful authors. Chances are, you’ll begin to see more possibilities in your own tale beyond a mere lump of clay.