You must have a great concept. This is the premise of the story or what you answer when you’re asked, “what’s your story about?” Down to the most basic level, you should be able to describe this in one sentence. For example, “My story is about a blonde girl who finds an empty house in the woods and then confronts the confused bears who live there.” Or, “My story is about a Kansas farm girl who is whisked to a magical land where she searches for justice and a way home.” In your concept, you must include a main character, a simple desire that they have and a conflict that keeps them from getting what they want. This concept will help you write the blurb on the back cover. It will also help you create your elevator pitch. It will also keep you focused as you draft all of the scenes. The concept of your story is the most important part, for out of it, everything else comes. You need to master this and build on it with confidence, or you’ll have no story at all.
You must understand story structure. With broad strokes, most of us can tell a story that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. But if you want to be really skillful, then study the requirements of each act in a three-act structure. If you want to take it further (and slip into literary geekdom) then spend some time with Freytag’s Pyramid or Vonnegut’s structure of stories. The Save The Cat Beat Sheet is my current favorite structure tool. Structure is critically important, even if you don’t usually outline your stories. I’d almost say that after concept, structure should be the next thing you master.
You must have worthy characters. The characters need to have significant depth enough so that the readers want to follow them along on their adventure. They also need to have some sort of character arc in which they are changing, for better or worse, throughout the journey of the story. They need to be distinguishable from other characters around them. They need to have a drive that propels them forward. They need to have objectives for the story themselves, even if these objectives are inconsistent with the drive. They need to make choices throughout the story, some for good and some for bad. They don’t need to be likable, but they do need to be interesting.
You must have good, solid scenes that move the story forward. Scenes are the building blocks of the milestones of structure. Scenes put the characters in situations in which they are either pushed toward their goal or pulled away from it. Scenes are what drive the story forward. If you have weak scenes, then you will definitely lose your reader. Within each scene, you need to incorporate the right amount of description, conflict, progression, and good pacing. At the end of the scene, you need to be able to see that your main character is literally or figuratively in a different place than when they started. Scenes can be tedious to write, but they are critical. Take good care of your scenes, and your story will be strong.
You must have a unique voice. The voice of the author and the voice of the narrator of the story need to mix together well so that in the telling of the story, the reader has a unique experience. Unlike structure, voice is hard to define and hard to describe. The best way to develop a voice is to practice writing constantly, read voraciously, and experiment. The bestsellers of tomorrow will definitely come from the writers who have great voices today. Voice will come with practice. So don’t neglect to practice.
You must have a theme, even though it doesn’t have to be obvious. A theme can be a lot of different things. It can include the universal truths that many people would agree with like, “love conquers all” or, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It can also include questions that the characters raise about right and wrong. It can also include symbols or metaphors. The purpose of the theme is that it creates subtle messages that resonate with the reader. With a good theme, there is a sense that that story matters — it’s not an empty tale told for the sake of killing time.
You must have a good grasp of the rules. Good spelling, punctuation, and grammar are all necessities. There really is no excuse for laziness in any of those areas. If you can’t learn it, you can get software to help you. If you can’t get software to help you, then you can find an editor. The publishing world is far too saturated for you to take a chance that the rules won’t matter. They do. Respect your art and your readers by aspiring to excellence in the rules. And don’t use personal style as an excuse to be sloppy.
You must present your story well. Sadly, readers do judge a book by its cover. Take care to have a good, competitive cover. Format your manuscript with care to make it readable. Make it easy for readers to find and buy. Have a positive online persona that makes people want to hear about your work. Do nothing to tarnish your reputation. If you set yourself up for success, then it’s far more likely to find you.
Now there are other issues that you may want to address as you plod along with your work-in-progress, like point of view or genre. But these eight are crucial. Learn all you can, practice all you can, and get all the help you can. And you can be an excellent storyteller.