There is not a lot of magic in writing a story. Skill, hard work and imagination all count but the elements of a good story follow a well-developed tradition developed by classic playwrights. The concept even has a name, the arc of a story. It is the plot that lifts and rises across three acts, from a beginning through the middle section to a cathartic resolution at the end. A good plot traces a protagonist’s emotional development over time. The trick is to make this story journey as interesting as possible.
The nuts and bolts of crafting a good story is to make every written scene count. Scenes should move characters through the plot, developing characters and relationships as the story moves through time. In the beginning, from the very first page, the author must make the reader identify with the characters. The characters must be believable and the reader should have an inkling of what the characters want, how they want it, and why it matters. By the middle of the story the main character undergoes a transformative change. Even before the character experiences that crucial “aha” moment, scenes must be full of situations creating tension and conflicts that force the character into unexpected change or circumstances. If there is any magic, it is the twists and surprises that the writer launches in the path of the character, imagination at work.
Professional writers, those who are paid for their writing and who are under a deadline, draft an outline. High productivity requires an outline because it prevents the writer from stalling, losing time, or deviating from the end goal. In some genres, like mystery novels, planning scenes is imperative to the outcome, but stories that focus on emotional development tend to have looser outlines. An outline is not always an academic table of contents, they take all forms from a collection of index cards, diagrams, or charts. Anything that addresses the beginning, middle and ending will work.
My favorite explanation of the universal story, and a detailed analysis of plot, is by the Plot Whisper, Martha Alderson, who turned her passion for good books into plot analysis and workshops. I get, love the concept, and have heard about this approach from others, but the ending of my story is still not mapped out. One day.