If you enjoyed reading Writing Great Stories, please visit our Shop to add it to your collection.
Book Cover

Simply the Best Writing Book On the Market!

Mr. Hampton spent years as a well-paid non-fiction writer, all the while researching the techniques practiced by the most successful fiction writers in the industry. The result is Writing Great Stories, probably the most unique book on the art and craft of storytelling ever written.

Part I of the book takes you by the hand and leads you step by step through the process of creating the kind of story that sells best, then testing the story against the work of a variety of great writers. Once your story is created, Part II provides all the craft you need to professionally write the story. Part III offers up several bonus chapters on topics you won’t find anywhere else.

SUSPENSE - The book contains a unique chapter on how any writer can create real page-turner suspense.

The book has been hailed by beginning writers and published authors alike as the best they've ever read. But, don’t take the publisher’s word for it. Have a look for yourself.

The bottom line is in this book, you'll meet and become a fan of the Golden Quill of Storytelling because it can give you all the help you need to write that bestseller hiding inside of you.

Chapter 1 - The Quest for Story

Let me tell you about the Golden Quill of Storytelling. It is a magical, double-ended stylus said to possess the power to transform an ordinary wannabe writer into that most godlike of all beings—a master storyteller.

How is this possible? I’m not certain, but according to legend, one end of the stylus grants the possessor the wisdom to recognize and create a good story, while the other end bestows all the craft skills needed to masterfully write a story, once created.

In this world of modern technology, why is such ancient wisdom so important? Fair question. Listen to the words of Donald Maass, successful author and literary agent. Chapter 13 in his book The Career Novelist opens as follows:

“It is one of the eternal frustrations of publishing: exquisite stylists languish on the shelves while popular novelists like Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, and Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) skyrocket to the top of the best-seller lists.”

Why? He explains a few paragraphs later, declaring:

“What most people want from a novel is not fine writing, but a good story.”

Someone once said that a good story can sell mediocre writing, but even great writing can’t sell a bad story. Someone else once said that bad writing can be edited into good, but a bad story will never have the chance to be edited at all. So, with those two notions in mind, it seems logical first to learn the wisdom of the Golden Quill of Storytelling about how to create good stories, then learn the craft skills needed to write them well. The purpose of this book is to teach both how to create a good story, and then how to write it using the best craft.

Do I believe in the Golden Quill? Well, I must, because I have spent many years of my life in a quest to find it, encountering along the way far too many counterfeit quills, mere pretenders, possessing much glitter, but little power.

Still, I know the Golden Quill exists, because almost daily I read the works of master storytellers who own and use it. I also know it exists, because I’ve finally found it. In fact, I now hold it in my hand and, even as I write, feel myself being transformed.     

Have I really discovered the Golden Quill? For that answer, you’ll have to read on and decide for yourself.

Genesis of a Quest

Years ago I wrote a mystery novel and nervously submitted it for critique to three friends who were successful novelists and members of the Southern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

A couple of weeks later all three responded from the same song book, “Chuck, your copy’s good. Your dialogue is clever, even amusing. Descriptions are vivid, action exciting, characters credible, but—well, frankly, Guy, your plot is kinda thin.”

“Huh?” I said. “Plot? What are you talking about? I thought—”

“We mean story,” they sang. “Yours is kinda weak. Get a better story and you’ll do fine.”

Smarting, I replied, “Oh, yeah, sure. Thanks. Uh, I really appreciate your help.”

I stumbled away, scratching my head. What the blazes were they talking about anyhow? Story? Better check this out.

Optimistically I went to the dictionary to look up the word story. Among other unsatisfying definitions I found the following:

“Story— the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.”

The dictionary rubbed salt into my wounds by giving an example of using the word story in a sentence. It said:

The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.”

Yeah, thanks! Obviously this was going to be harder than I thought. Still, somewhere there had to be a clear set of specifications or at least a simple recipe for a good story! All I had to do was find it, and when I did, I’d have it made. After all, I was already a pretty decent writer (my friends had said so), and I had enough self-confidence to believe, within reason that, if I could define a thing, I could do that thing. Thus began my quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling.

Exciting Discovery

“Eureka!” I cried one dark night a few years later. I was reading in The Art of Composition, mentioned in the Author’s Preface of this book. The passage that had flipped my switches said something like:

A story is a narrative in which events are recounted in some sort of temporal sequence.

Not so special. Kind of like the dictionary definition, in fact. But then came the eye opener. Two sentences later it said:

The basic principle of all good storytelling is suspense.

“The basic principle!” I breathed. “The basic principle! Suspense! Of course! Now I’ve got it. A story is just telling what happened, but a good story keeps ‘em in suspense! Yeah!” Excited beyond measure, believing I at last had found the Golden Quill, I grabbed a dictionary and looked up the word suspense. What I found was:

Suspense is a condition or state of uncertainty or excitement induced by being forced to await a decision or an outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.

“Hee, hee!” I laughed fiendishly. I loved it. Now all I had to do was use all my writing skills and write a book full of suspense, and I could become a truly diabolical, master storyteller. Look out publishing world! Here I come! Yeah!

Pretender to the Quill

It really was a dark and rainy night, unusual for Southern California. Another of my published author friends had just looked up from reading the first 100 or so pages of my latest novel. The book was a science-fiction thriller in which I had used every trick I could think of for creating suspense. I held my breath as my friend took a sip of sauvignon blanc and blinked at me.

“Well, don’t just sit there!” I growled. “What do you think?”

“Well, ah—” Another sip of wine. “Ah, interesting, Chuck. Remarkable, actually. It’s a real page-turner, but—”

“What? What?”

“Well, uh, what’s it about, Chuck?”

“Huh?” Dumbfounded.

“I mean, there seems to be something missing. This is great copy and you really grabbed me and kept me reading, but I still don’t know what it’s about. What’s the story?”

“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “How can it be a page-turner and you don’t know what it’s about? That’s—well, that’s crazy! What about all the suspense I put in it? Huh? Huh? What about that?”

“Yeah, well, it’s got suspense, all right. No question about it. But it doesn’t seem to have any focus. Couldn’t figure out what it’s about.”

I glared at him, struck dumb. Shrugging, my friend calmly rose, placed the manuscript on his chair and gulped the last of his wine.

As I followed him to the front door, he muttered in an embarrassed tone, “Chuck, I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, ‘No one ever waits in suspense for the suspense to begin?’”

“Yeah, so what? I got lots of suspense here. Said so yourself.”

“Well, just suspense isn’t enough, either, Bud. My suggestion? Get yourself a story. Then you’ll do fine.”

Devastated, I watched him climb in his car and pull away. Bitterly I realized I hadn’t found the Golden Quill after all, merely another pretender.

With a resigned shrug, I turned back inside to begin the quest all over again.

The Golden Quill of Storytelling

August 17, 20__, 10:59 P.M.

After my ill-fated experiment in suspense, time seemed to fly. As always, I continued to do commercial writing during the day to live and research at night to fulfill my dreams. I won’t bore you with the details, but during the next couple of years I discovered many other pretenders after the Golden Quill. They came in many guises: magical plotting formulas, fantastic techniques for characterization, sure-fire methods of structuring scenes, tips about themes, the art of dialogue, even recipes for writing bestsellers. But, in the end they were all the same—mere pretenders, vicious lifters, then dashers, of hope.

Now, though, now on this fated August evening I was sitting alone in my cramped little writing room, staring in awe at my computer screen. There, emblazoned in twelve-point Courier New, was the primary wisdom of the Golden Quill—my long-sought-after definition of good story!

And this time I knew with absolute certainty I had found the real thing. No pretender, this! I was so excited, I had to share it, so I picked up the phone and called Bill, a long-time writer and friend.

“Bill, I’ve got it!” I yelled into the phone when he answered.

“Got what, Chuck? What time is it?”

“The Golden Quill. The perfect definition of a good story!”

“Oh, that again.”

“Damn it, Bill, listen! This is important. I’ll read it to you.”

“Okay, shoot.”

I took a deep breath and started reading. I read slowly and clearly, mainly because Bill sounded like he’d had a couple of whiskeys.

“Okay, Bill, here goes,” I said, beginning to read.

The Golden Quill: Definition of a Good Story

“A good story is a narrative of events that does four things:

 1.  It gives readers a hero with whom they can identify and about whom they can care.

 2.  It gives that hero an important goal with terrible consequences if he/she fails to achieve it.

 3.  It early on plants in the reader’s mind an important story question: Will the hero succeed in his goal or not?

 4.  It creates suspense by causing doubt in the reader about whether there will be a happy answer to the story question.”

I stopped reading. “Well, what do you think?”

“Hmmmmmm. . .yes, that’s pretty clear. But. . .”

“But? Did you say but?”

“Yes, I can understand the need for a likable hero the reader cares about,” he said. “Who wants to read about somebody they don’t like? And, I can understand the need for the hero to have an important goal in the story. If the hero has no goal, he’s just a piece of driftwood. But. . .”

“But again? But what?”

“Well, what’s this stuff about terrible consequences if he fails to achieve his goal? Why is that important?”

“Ah,” I said. “Look, suppose a guy’s goal is to borrow $100,000.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Suppose he tries everywhere he can think of to borrow the money. You know, banks, credit unions, loan sharks, you name it, but no one will lend it to him? He doesn’t have collateral.”

“So what? Let him go to work and save it.”

“Exactly!” I was triumphant. “But what if he needs the money right away for a major operation that can save his wife’s life? What if by failing to get a loan, he condemns the one he loves to a long, painful death? What then?”

“Damn, Chuck, in that case, he has to get the money somehow.”

“Yes!”

“I got it,” Bill said. “Without having terrible consequences in case of failure, who cares? On the other hand, by having the reader worry about the story question—will he or won’t he succeed?— the reader stays in suspense ‘til the story is finished, until he either gets the money or doesn’t.”

“Bill, you’re a genius!”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “It would be even more suspense-filled, if the wife was young and beautiful and had once saved his life. Then the reader would care even more. Every time he tries and fails, she moves one step closer to death. Holy smokes, that makes me worry just thinking about it. So how does he do it?”

“Do what?”

“Get the money, you boob. He has to get the money. Did he try the mafia? Or maybe he should rob a bank. How does he solve it?”

“Bill, we just made this up. It’s not real!”

“Oh, yeah, right. Good work, chum. I think you have it this time. I’d better go to bed.”

He hung up, and so did I.

I was too wired by my discovery to go to bed. I looked again at the definition on my computer. It was such a delicious, malicious definition. It told exactly how a writer can torture his readers by keeping them in suspense. I loved it. I tore my gaze from the definition and continued reading the journal entry I had written earlier. It said:

If this is truly the Golden Quill, a true definition of a good story, then a weak story must be a narrative that has a weak goal without consequences for failure and no central story question driving it. Mmmmmmmmmm! Maybe that’s what my novelist friend was trying to tell me about my suspense-packed science-fiction thriller. It had no central story question to tie together my exciting episodic events. No wonder he couldn’t figure out what it was about! (End of journal entry.)

I blinked at the monitor for a few minutes more. I had done it! I was certain I had discovered the The Golden Quill, the perfect definition of good story that could lead to writing a bestseller. Now all I had to do was test the definition to prove my favorite storytellers used it to create their books, too. But that was for another day.

I turned off the computer and went to bed, dreaming of becoming a bestselling master storyteller.

God, I love that dream.

 

 

Chapter 2 - The Test

All good ideas should be tested to be sure they will work.

—The Golden Quill

Driven by excitement about discovering the Golden Quill, I felt a strong desire to prove that it was not just another pretender. To do this, I turned to the works of a few best-selling storytellers.

Four of the many books I examined were Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, a work of “art”, Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, and Robin Cook’s Invasion, three pieces of “crass commercialism.” All four works were highly successful.

Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea

Nervously I re-read and analyzed Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, one of my absolute, all-time favorite stories. When I finished, I was joyful. Even this literary giant, I discovered, used story questions to keep his readers going.

In fact, in this short novella he used four questions, one overall question that served as the backbone of the entire book and three related sub-questions. In case you haven’t read the book I’ll summarize the story questions for you.

In the beginning Hemingway quickly plants the hero’s goal and the resulting story question.

Goal: regain his lost self esteem and regain his place in the village as a great fisherman.

Main Story Question: Will the old man, who has been the village’s best fisherman in the past, be able to break a long-running spell of unsuccessful fishing and regain his self-respect, as well as that of the villagers?

Terrible Consequences: He loses his self-esteem and his will to continue living.

Of course, Hemingway makes us realize just how important achieving this goal is to the old man, so it becomes important to us, too. A young village boy, who loves and cares for the old man, wants to see him achieve his goal of regaining his status. Then the old man goes out alone into the ocean, and the story question becomes very specific.

Can the old man hook a really big fish in order to regain his self-respect and status among the villagers?

Finally, after considerable suspense and doubt, the old man hooks a truly huge fish and the story question shifts again.

Can this tired old man, working alone with inadequate equipment, land this monster fish and thus regain his self-respect and status in the village?

After a suspense-filled, heroic battle against fish and sea, he lands the fish. But this gratification is short-lived, because his grand prize, lashed to the side of his boat, is suddenly attacked by sharks. The story question switches again.

Can the old man, exhausted, bleeding, hungry, successfully defend his catch against the voracious sharks so he can prove to the villagers that he caught it and regain his status and self respect?

The suspense here is almost unbearable. (I actually hated those sharks.)

In the end the overall story question is answered in a highly realistic, not too satisfying way (in my humble opinion), which is one of the differences between art and commercial fiction, I guess. Personally, I wanted the old man to win and shove the great fish up the villagers’ noses. Hemingway was more subtle, however, which is why he’s Hemingway.

Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity

A second book I examined was Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, a New York Times No. 1 Bestseller. This is a complex thriller about an amnesiac whose powerful goal is to discover his true identity. And, by the way, Ludlum helps us care about the hero, by having an admirable young woman fall in love with him and care for him, just as Hemingway used the young boy to help us care about the old man.

In The Bourne Identity, which essentially is a puzzle story, I found the following main goal and story question.

Goal: learn his identity.

Main Story question: Will Jason Bourne’s investigations into his past reveal he is really a good guy and thus allow him to live happily ever after with his one true love, or will he learn (as he suspects) he is a vicious assassin with no future at all but death?

Terrible Consequences: his own death and probably that of the woman he loves.

Note there are alternative consequences for success. Will he succeed in finding his identity and be happy or will he succeed in finding his identity and die?

Why can’t Bourne just say to hell with the goal and walk off into the sunset and be happy? Because he is being chased by the authorities and a world-renowned assassin. The only way to save himself is to learn who he is and fight back. Never once throughout the book does the hero’s main goal waver. It remains a powerful desire to find out, “Who am I?”

However, once the hero meets the heroine, the story question becames the one I mentioned above. Even in a second reading I found this book to be a page-turner, filled with suspense. The author never once strayed from the double-edged central story question, which he deliberately planted early in the story. He also, with malicious intent, held back the answer until very near the end by placing obstacle after obstacle in the hero’s way.

Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons

In Angels & Demons, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, has his hero, famous symbologist Robert Langdon, travel to a Swiss research facility where he discovers an Illuminati plot to use an anti-matter bomb to destroy the Vatican and all the Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church. Once Dan Brown introduces the plot, the main story question of the book becomes:

Goal: Save the Church by defeating the Illuminati

Main Story Question: Can Robert Langdon use his knowledge of the Illuminati to foil the plot and save the Catholic Church and its Cardinals from total destruction?

Terrible Consquences: Failure will herald the end of the Catholic Church.

This story question carries the book and keeps the reader in suspense to the very end. The obstacles to answering the question are both physical (the bad guys fight back) and intellectual. Langdon, along with a beautiful young physicist from the research institute, must solve a series of puzzles along the way before finding a happy resolution. Certainly the consequences of failure were terrible enough for most readers.

Robin Cook’s Invasion

Robin Cook’s novel, Invasion, is about a terrible virus planted on earth long ago. Now the aliens are dropping little black rocks, which, when picked up by a human, prick the finger and activate the virus. The virus then begins changing the person into an alien, part of a hive, with no human emotion left at all.

The virus spreads like wildfire until more than two-thirds of earth’s population are infected. Only a few medical heros are left capable of fighting against the virus. They band together with one goal: save mankind by finding a way to destroy the virus. As soon as these heroes know what they are facing, Cook plants the main story question.

Goal: Save the human race.

Main Story Question: Can the small group of heroic medical people find a cure in time to save the earth from the aliens?

Terrible Consequences: Failure to achieve the goal will mean the end of the human race on earth.

This story question successfully carries the reader in suspense to the end of the novel. Why? Because the consequences of failure are terrible, the destruction of the human race as we know it. The suspense is enough to keep the readers biting their nails in doubt about the outcome.

Conclusions

After studying famous bestsellers, I have concluded that the Golden Quill’s recipe for a good story is perfect. Every major book I studied used the same story recipe:

                     They give the readers a hero with whom they can identify and about whom they can care.

                     They give the hero an important goal with terrible consequences if he/she fails to achieve it.

                     They early on plant in the readers’ minds an important story question: Will the hero succeed in his goal or not?”

                     They create suspense by causing doubt about whether there will be a happy answer to the story question.”

For your own enlightenment, I strongly suggest you reread the books you couldn’t put down. This time write down the questions they planted in your mind. Check to see if they use multiple sub questions, as did Hemingway or just one main question as did the others. Convince yourself that it is those questions that created the suspense. Above all, check what you are writing against the definition of good story, then restate your story as a question along the lines of ones of the above.

If someone asks what your story is about, give an answer like, “My story asks and answers the question. . . fill in the blanks.”

If you can’t find a powerful, central story question in your own work, you may be headed for bitter disappointment. In fact, without one, don’t be surprised to hear such comments as “weak story” or (worse yet) no comment at all except a rejection slip.

Creating a Story

In the next chapter we’ll take a look at the practical side of the story subject by actually creating a story from scratch.