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How to Write an Exciting Story: Learning From C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

The Life of a Writer

Here is the life of a writer in brief: while going about their daily routine – working, cleaning, (for certain strange breeds of author, socializing) – suddenly something catches their imagination. A spark flickers behind their eyes. If you were talking to them, they are no longer hearing you because they have been transported to someplace far, far away. This writer detaches as quickly as possible from whatever they were doing and retreats to begin their true work. And so, a story is born.

Paragraphs turn to pages, pages to chapters. Perhaps this goes on a long time, perhaps only a short while, but inevitably something dreadful happens – they pause. Suddenly daily life floods back in to their mind, and they no longer see the words they have written through the same lens. Now the sentences seem disjointed, the pages long, the chapters interminable. And in that awful moment, the writer thinks, “Could anyone find this exciting?”

I do not think I am overgeneralizing when I say every writer knows that sinking feeling of sudden doubt. Ultimately, discipline must carry the writer onward until inspiration can take hold again. Writing cannot wait only for moments of passion, nor should the writer worry that they were almost “drunk” with that passion, and so merely failed to see how terrible their writing was. A story can only be read in its own atmosphere – no one picks up a book and views its contents from their daily life, they enter into the story and are carried along by it. When writing, enjoy the passion when it comes – save the critical eye for the editing!

But, in those periods of ordinariness, how can we reassure ourselves that our story was not begun in vain? Well, when passion fails, we must resort to intellect – What makes a story exciting technically?

Two Types of Readers

Over the last few weeks I have found myself struggling to write. Works I have already begun resist being taken up again, and new works sputter in the first paragraph. Lacking passion, I turned to discipline. Lacking discipline, I left my desk and sat down to begin reading C. S. Lewis’ “Of Other Worlds,” which is primarily a collection of essays. In the very first essay, “On Stories,” I found the answer to this recurrent question.

Lewis demonstrates that there are two kinds of readers who find excitement in two different ways. For the purpose of this article, we will call these Threat and Aura. His primary example was from a conversation he had with a pupil who relayed how excited he had been as a boy reading a Cooper novel: as the hero lay asleep, and Indian was creeping up on him ready to kill the sleeping protagonist. The pupil laid all the excitement on the threat – would the hero wake before it was too late? Or would he be killed in his sleep? Lewis, on the other hand, when reading similar stories, saw the excitement as stemming from the very nature of the enemy – it had to be an Indian. If the same scene were to play out on a street in modern New York or London with a gangster and a gun rather than an Indian and a tomahawk, it would have lost all interest for Lewis. The American Indian had his own culture, his own history, his own ways – his own aura. The image of a gangster is almost humdrum compared to the savage image of Indians in western tales. The same was true about pirates threatening a ship on the high seas rather than a French frigate, or death entombed in a mausoleum of kings rather than in an erupting volcano – any of these are a threat, but they have a very different aura about them.

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Excitement from a threat is nothing new. When a hero is suddenly attacked, regardless of who is attacking and why, the risk of life and limb is exciting. Gun battles, sword fights, ticking time bombs, this is pretty straight forward. Of course, some stories aren’t action movies, sometimes the threat is the hero losing the one he loves, failure, defeat in all its forms. For many readers, this kind of excitement seems to be enough. As long as the story has built enough sympathy for the protagonist so they actually care about the outcome, this is all that is needed for excitement. Like Lewis’ pupil, whether the threat is an Indian or a gangster matters little.


The Aura of a threat (whether that be an antagonist, the elements, or some undefined source) is the atmosphere that surrounds it. A pirate has an aura of lawlessness, cruelty, and callous disregard for life. An Indian in a western has an aura of savagery and carries the weight of cruelties described in countless other tales. This aura doesn’t require us to see the actions of pirates and Indians in the story itself, because they bring that aura with them.

This can also be created inside a story’s own framework. Tolkien created the Orcs as the primary embodiment of the Enemy by stories told within the story, dialogue, and imagery. Tolkien created a culture for the orcs which they carried everywhere they went. You never needed to see the deepest acts of cruelty the orcs perpetrated to imagine what they might do to Frodo in Barad-dur. When the heroes of The Lord of the Rings fought the Orcs, it was unlike any other fight, because the orcs had their own mystique. You hate them, but simultaneously you are fascinated by them. Somehow they make you want to know more about them and see more of them.

The Same is true about Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” Lovecraft spends the entire length of the short story building the aura of his threat which is only physically manifested at the very end. Indeed, it is a long time before any harm is fully realized in this story. The excitement stems from the feeling that builds around the threat – this strange other-worldliness that slowly creeps into the world we know. It is a feeling that follows the threat, not the threat itself.

Lovecraft's "Colour Out of Space" builds a deep-rooted aura around its "antagonist" long before any true threat is realized.

Lovecraft's "Colour Out of Space" builds a deep-rooted aura around its "antagonist" long before any true threat is realized.

An Exciting Story

It should be obvious to the reader that, while threat can exist without aura, aura requires a perceived threat. Its not enough to build an aura around orcs, they have to actually enter into the story. This is perhaps what separates the wheat from the chaff – great writing from decent writing. Each author, just like each reader, will vary the auro/threat ratio. Some writers don’t require aura at all, some are fascinated by it to a fault. The Colour Out of Space will not likely appeal to the vast majority of modern readers, because aura is virtually all you have through most of the story, on the other hand a story with only threat and no aura may appeal to some, but many will find it flat and unimpressive. The most universally exciting story will likely have healthy amounts of both, but it is up to the writer to decide which they are most passionate about.

Tolkien was a master of aura – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are rich in their own cultures, peoples, and mystiques. The movies made of Lord of the Rings capture a decent amount of that aura, but far less than the books. This is the reason many who love the books disdain the movies, and many who love the movies find the books slow and laborious to read. No one can say Tolkien isn’t a great author, it is simply a matter of taste. The important thing is to supply both aura and threat, and let the reader choose which they are most excited by!

© 2018 B A Johnson

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