How should I approach plotting a compelling story, i.e. one aimed at changing the way people think and behave (rather than just being "art for art's sake")?

I want to write a novel or collection of stories that instil happiness in the reader in a way that makes them want to pass on that feeling (think Pay it Forward or 13 Reasons Why) but I'm not sure how to do this in terms of how to trigger this feeling or how to structure a story that would have this effect. Do I need to find a new gimmick for each story or is there a science behind affecting peoples thoughts and behaviour with words?

  • This is a really big, broad question. One that I feel would take a book(or three) to answer. Could you say a little more to help us focus our answers on what would really help you?
    – Dustin
    May 22 '18 at 12:28
  • @Dustin - thanks. I've added more information to the question.
    – robertcday
    May 22 '18 at 12:54

You approach a story with a message the same way you approach a story without one: To make it compelling you need a good plot, good twists, and a hero the audience is hoping will succeed despite the odds being stacked against them and a likely failure.

You avoid the traps of a too-perfect-hero, and perhaps a too-evil-villain. Whatever philosophy you are trying to push must be the cause of the hero's success; or in the case of Pay it Forward, also the cause of their demise.

A message is like "profit" in business: If you only focus on how to increase profit, you fail to focus on satisfying customers, and eventually the corner cutting and other abuses done in the name of profit will catch up, and put you out of business. The trick to increasing profits is solving the difficult problem of pleasing customers for less than it costs to please them. Thus, profit is a residue. You don't increase it by focusing on it, you increase it by increasing the number of customers, or cutting costs that won't change the level of customer satisfaction at all. i.e. you can cut true waste, but not at the cost of quality, service, cachet, warranty or employee satisfaction.

A message in a story is the same way; the quality of the plot, description, character development, pacing, dialogue and most importantly the conflict on every page must come first. There is still room for a message, but "compelling" is separate from it and applies to any story. If you can write a compelling story, then you can try writing one around an integral message.


I want to write a novel or collection of stories that instil happiness in the reader in a way that makes them want to pass on that feeling (think Pay it Forward or 13 Reasons Why)"

It sounds like you want to write a story that is inspirational. Most fiction does inspire in some way. The typical (non-tragic) story goes thus: 1. Main Character wants X 2. Main Character tries to get X, but fails 3. Main Character overcomes personal flaw and gets X

That's usually pretty inspiring in its own way. To take it to the next level where I think you want to take it, you'll probably also want to introduce an inspiring idea on top of that story.

If you remember nothing else from my answer, please remember this: Never make your story ABOUT your inspiring idea. Instead, make your movie about 1 or more characters overcoming a personal flaw that helps them achieve the thing they want most(even if they don't know they want it at the beginning of the story). That's a really abstract description of what I'm trying to say, so I'll give a couple examples of what to do and not do.

"Pay it forward" is a good example of what you should do. If you study the structure of the movie(I didn't read the book, so I can't comment), it's not REALLY about changing the world by "paying it forward". Instead, it is a movie about a broken family and a teacher with a "haunted" past. Only when the teacher overcomes his haunted past, and Helen Hunt's character learns to respect herself, do those characters get what they want: a "REAL" family. The whole "idea" of the kid trying to change the world by "Pay it Forward" is almost incidental to the story.

If you want to write a story that inspires people don't make it about that idea alone. That's too in your face. You want it in the background and let it seep in as part of the story. We as people are jaded and are leery of a story that says "Do this, do this, do this!". Instead, give us a well-developed character or two that must overcome a personal struggle. The character might also be trying to achieve an external goal - that external goal can be your inspiring "idea" as long as it is distinct from the characters internal struggle.

I'm getting really abstract again, so I'll give a tried & true example. If you want to write an inspiring tale about kids standing up to a bully, don't make it the primary(and definitely not only) conflict. Instead, the story could be about the kid or (kids) learning to love and respect themselves. Then, once they've done that, they can stand up to the bully. Or, maybe the story could be about a bully's friend who has to learn it's okay to stand out from the crowd to do what's right. Once he learns that lesson, then he can tell his friend, publicly, to quit being a bully.

Whatever you end up writing about, the key to making people want to share it is that you have a character with a deep desire and a person with an equally deep personal flaw(screenwriters sometimes call it an "emotional wound") that they must go through a deep personal hell to overcome. If your character does that, and at the end is able to achieve something inspiring("Change the world", "save the kid", "find true love", etc...), your audience(myself included) is going to want to shout to the world about it.

Hope that helps.

Standard disclaimer: This is not the ONLY way to inspire someone. This is only a very common way that many storytellers have found successful.


There are a couple good answers here. I would also add one which may help you. As an exercise, you might want to try telling stories. It's deceptively simple, quite hard to master and really helpful with writing a plot.

Here is the exercise: (feel free to adapt to your particular situation). Find a patient friend you like to be around. Have them come over and sit on the porch with sweet tea or whatever your local equivalent is. Tell them a new and original story that has never existed before. It can be about anything. It must have a beginning, a middle, and some kind of ending. It can take place anywhere. It can be any length, but you should try to be able to fill more than 15 minutes with oral storytelling. It can be sad, funny, scary, or whatever you want.

Now, rinse and repeat regularly. After a very few sessions, you will run out of remembered stories and start pulling out pieces of other stories and putting them back together in different ways. After a few more sessions, you will develop a natural instinct for good plotting, when to introduce a twist, how to build suspense, and how a story "wants" to be wrapped up in a satisfying way.

You can do this with anybody who is willing to sit and listen, and you will quickly find that there is some performance pressure to keep things entertaining enough for them to want to come back. This is good.

Once you have gone through the exercise of coming up with entertaining stories on the fly, you will quickly be able to "wrap" a plot around an idea, even a polemical idea. This will introduce a new level of challenge and also give you the tools to write an inspirational story the way you want to.

I have an ambitious prediction: if you spend some time telling stories like this, literally every single aspect of your writing will dramatically improve.

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