Story Or Character: A Book’s Secret Sauce

At its core, storytelling is about characters. But what makes a good character? What makes a great one? The answer lies in how much an author can let us see into the character’s mind, thoughts and feelings. 

The best stories are the ones that make us feel like we’re living through them with the characters and experiencing everything they do, especially when those experiences are painful or scary like having your heart broken by someone you love.

For me, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was an example of this kind of experience. I felt like I was right there with these characters who were going through unimaginable things as they tried to survive on their terms in Jamaica during some very dark days in history.

Rob Stenberg: “The Secret Sauce of Storytelling” – YouTube
The interplay between story and character is
a crucial element in crafting engaging books.
Balancing a compelling plot with well-developed
characters can result in a captivating reading
A strong story can drive character growth and
transformation, while well-rounded characters
contribute to the authenticity of the story.
Successful authors master the art of weaving
story and character together, creating a
harmonious narrative that resonates with
Finding the right balance between plot twists,
character arcs, and thematic elements is the
key to creating the secret sauce of a
memorable book.

Sometimes, The Story Is A Character’s Journey

The character’s journey is a story about a character’s growth and development. It’s the story of how he or she goes from one place to another, from being a boy to being a man, or from being a woman to becoming self-actualized. 

But it can also be the story of how he or she goes from one state of mind to another, such as having no confidence in oneself and then building up enough internal strength that you can face anything head-on.

A great example is The Lord Of The Rings by JRR Tolkien Bilbo Baggins starts timid and unwilling to take risks; by the end, he has become brave enough to lead an army into battle against Sauron himself!

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Sometimes, The Story Is An Event That Changes A Character’s Life

Sometimes, the story is not about the event itself; it’s about how the character deals with their life after the event.

This could be something as simple as changing your name when you move to a new town, or it could be something much more complex, like having your heart broken and becoming someone differently because of it.

As an example of this type of story structure: I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir, who also wrote The Book Of Strange New Things (which I didn’t love). 

This book is about astronauts on Mars and how they deal with being stuck there for several years without contact from earth or other people. It’s told from the first-hand perspectives of two characters who were stranded there during different missions but are now reunited on one ship headed back home.

Sometimes, The Story Is A Question Of Fate

Sometimes, the story is a question of fate. This is where you have to make a choice: do you write in the straight narrative, or do you go with an unreliable narrator?

If it’s the former, then your character will be the one asking questions that set up your story’s premise. If it’s the latter, then their answers will determine what happens throughout their journey. Either way, they’ll be actively trying to find out if they have a destiny and if so, what it is!

A prime example of this kind of story would be “The Hunger Games,” where Katniss struggles to understand why she was chosen for her role as a tribute and what fate has in store for her outside of that arena as well within.

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Sometimes, The Story Is A Mystery

If you’re writing a book, it’s helpful to think of the story as a kind of machine. The parts that make up this machine are called “story elements.” The story elements are:

Characters. These are people or animals in your book who do things and have feelings, like detectives and victims. You can also use characters to represent ideas or even places (like cities). Some authors call these “protagonists” or “antagonists.”

Plot points. These are events in your book usually big ones that move the action forward in some way and give readers something to look forward to (or dread). For example, A detective discovers a body; someone is arrested for murder; someone confesses their love for another person; etcetera etcetera etcetera…

Sometimes, The Story Revolves Around An Object

Sometimes a story revolves around an object. The object can be a person, a place, or a thing. It can be symbolic of something else (like the death of love). It can catalyze action in the story (like when someone steals your car). Or it can be one of its characters (like the dog who comes to life).

It could also just be there as an object that represents something else: say, maybe you’re writing about your relationship with pizza and how it reminds you of your ex-boyfriend because he only ate cheese pizza.

But never got sauce on his shirt so now whenever you see someone with sauce on their shirt in public when they’re eating pizza on their lunch break from work then it makes you think back to that time when your ex was wearing his favorite jeans that day which were black.

But not washed out so much yet still dark enough where they didn’t look like jeans anymore because he didn’t care about things like washing clothes before putting them back into circulation again among other people’s dirty laundry.

Instead of doing laundry or buying new ones just so he could wear them again soon after being washed which would have been fine except he wasn’t washing anything either since he didn’t have time since working two jobs meant barely ever seeing each other anymore let alone having any time left over between those two jobs plus having another job.

Managing ten different businesses outside those two full-time positions meant hardly ever seeing each other at all anymore which was why this particular evening felt like such an important moment

Sometimes, The Story Is A Day In Someone’s Life

Sometimes, a story is a day in someone’s life. But sometimes, a story is just the day of a character.

We told you this before: the point of an arc isn’t the result; it’s what happens on that journey that counts. 

There are many ways to show this kind of growth for your characters making them do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done or see new things about themselves and others. Sometimes, these changes can happen over one single day (and even less).

What’s great about writing such stories is that you don’t need to think far ahead into your plot or spend much time fleshing out your setting; all you need to do is make sure what happens stays true to who these people are now and how they’ve changed since where they started when everything begins!

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Sometimes, The Story Is A Family Reunion

This is an opportunity for characters to interact in ways they don’t normally do. It’s also an opportunity for them to learn more about each other and their families history, which can create conflict or bond the characters together depending on how it’s handled! 

If you want your story to be about a family who doesn’t see each other often, this could be a good chance for them all to come together for some reason that brings them closer together than ever before (or pushes them further apart).

Sometimes, The Story Is About Conflict

Conflict is the driving force of a story. Without it, there would be no reason to read or watch anything at all. 

Think about your favorite stories: Harry Potter and his friends fighting Lord Voldemort; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battling each other; Katniss Everdeen choosing between Gale and Peeta in The Hunger Games; Hiccup as he tries to outwit Drago Bludvist in How To Train Your Dragon 2. 

These are all examples of characters being pitted against others (or themselves) to achieve some goal whether it’s defeating an enemy, winning the heart of another person, or finding out what you’re worth when placed against an adversary who threatens your way of life.

Sometimes, The Story Is About Friendship

Sometimes, the story is about friendship. You could even argue that it’s the most common theme in stories, especially those aimed at children and young adults. The moral of the tale is always something like: “Hey kids, it’s important to be friends with people who aren’t like you!” or “Hey teenagers, don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers.”

But you know what else? Friendship is important in life! Even as an adult and a parent myself, I can tell you that having friends who care about me and my family has been crucial to my mental health over the years. 

They’ve helped me when I was going through hard times; they’ve cheered me up when I needed cheering up; they’ve listened patiently when I needed someone willing to listen patiently and on top of all that, they’re just nice people who enjoy spending time together.

So if friendship is such an important part of our lives both inside and outside of books (or movies), why do we sometimes find ourselves so frustrated by characters’ friendships? Why do we get annoyed when two characters are getting along too well? Why do we cringe every time two besties hold hands or give each other meaningful looks? Well.

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Sometimes, The Story Is About Love

You may be familiar with this concept from books like Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby. But love can also be a theme in any story even when it’s not what the book is supposed to be about. Love will always be present in some way or another because it’s a feeling that lives inside all of us, whether we realize it or not.

Love can motivate your character (to get married before she dies) or serve as her goal (to find true love). Love can be an obstacle for her (her boyfriend cheated on his wife) or an obstacle between two other characters (their parents don’t approve). 

Or maybe your main character has something else he’s hiding from everyone: perhaps he has fallen in love with his best friend’s wife? 

Love can also play into what makes him weak: maybe he feels weak because of his feelings for this woman! Sometimes the lack of love will make someone strong; think about what happens at Hogwarts when Harry Potter loses Dumbledore. 

Sometimes, The Story Takes Place In Another World

Sometimes, the story takes place in another world. It’s not Earth. It’s a different period, or maybe it’s set in a different place altogether. Maybe it takes place on another planet one that doesn’t even exist yet!

The thing about these kinds of stories is that they’re easy to write and hard to pull off well. If you’re going to write a novel like this, make sure your characters are still relatable (even if the setting isn’t). 

And remember: whatever the specifics of your story are supposed to be, don’t forget why people read fiction: for an escape from their realities and troubles into someone else’s life for a while.

Sometimes, The Story Focuses On One Person And Just Their Thoughts And Feelings

Sometimes, the story focuses on one person and just their thoughts and feelings. You could say that these stories are more about what happens inside of a character than what happens to them.

These stories often tell the inner journey of a character through life-changing events the death of a parent, divorce, moving away from family, or falling in love with someone they shouldn’t love. 

But they can also focus on how characters deal with conflict in general or how they deal with questions like “How should I live my life?” and “What do I want out of it?”

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I hope this little guide has helped you think about what kind of story you want to tell. As I said earlier, no one knows the exact formula for success in fiction but these are some of the most common elements you can find in successful books. 

If you’re still having trouble coming up with an idea or feel like something is missing from your story, don’t worry! Many authors don’t start with a fully formed plot or even characters until well after they’ve written their first draft or two. 

If all else fails, just remember that sometimes it’s better to start writing than not at all because then at least there’s something on paper that could be molded into something great later on down the road when inspiration strikes again.”

Further Reading

Conflict in Storytelling: Learn how to effectively utilize conflict to create engaging and dynamic narratives.

Secret Sauce for 30-Day Writing Challenges: Discover the key elements that contribute to successful completion of a 30-day writing challenge.

Humor in Children’s Books: Explore the potential of humor as a powerful ingredient in creating captivating children’s books.


What is the significance of conflict in storytelling?

Conflict adds depth and tension to narratives, driving character development and plot progression. It keeps readers engaged by presenting challenges that characters must overcome.

How can I succeed in a 30-day writing challenge?

Succeeding in a 30-day writing challenge requires setting realistic goals, establishing a consistent writing routine, and embracing the creative process without excessive self-criticism.

How does humor contribute to children’s books?

Humor can captivate young readers, making stories more relatable and enjoyable. It helps children connect emotionally with characters and themes while maintaining their interest.

What types of conflicts can be used in storytelling?

Story conflicts can be interpersonal, internal, or external. They can involve personal struggles, clashes between characters, or challenges posed by the environment, all of which contribute to a compelling narrative.

Are there specific techniques for incorporating humor into writing?

Effective humor in writing often relies on wordplay, unexpected twists, relatable situations, and a keen understanding of timing. Balancing humor with the overall tone of the story is essential for success.