What makes a good story? It’s one of the questions of the ages. Well, it is from a writer’s perspective. You ask it every time you set out to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). You think about it through all the various edits. And if you’re not careful, it can haunt your dreams. Ok, that may be a wee bit of an exaggeration, but not by a lot. We all want our stories to be good. If we didn’t, there would be an entire subset of how-to books that would go bankrupt. But that still doesn’t answer the question. The definition of a story is: a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse; tale. *crickets* *Sigh* Thanks a lot, Webster. Ok, never mind the dictionary. There are the ‘no duh’ things that you need for a story. Like a beginning, middle, and an end come to mind. Yeah, yeah, a no-brainer. But little things like, oh, an ending, can get lost if you let yourself write into a dead-end. I know, I’ve done it before, more than I like to admit. As long as I’m being insultingly obvious and honest, I’ve also managed to forget one or more of the importance of setting, character, and plot. Yeah, I’m terrible. But I’m getting better. I promise.
I’m not a world traveler. When I write about a place, it tends to reflect the places I know. Which, more often than not, is small-town Americana. But actually visiting a place every time I happen to write about an exotic location just isn’t going to happen, no matter how many times I say “pretty please.” Oh well, that’s what they created the Travel Channel for, huh? That’s where research and imagination are your best friends. Not to mention all of the fantasy and science fiction locales there are to be created. There’s not a passport around that’ll help you there.
My characters are the heart of my stories. Without them, there’s just a tumbleweed blowing across a desert or an alien swamp bubbling away. I’ve seen many different pieces of advice over how to create characters. Some of the formulas work for me, some don’t. Most of the time my characters are just “there” on the paper. Exceedingly helpful, I know. But they tend to be stubborn. If there were an insane amount of choice when it came to where to put your characters, it’s paled by the amount of characters writers and readers create and love. I’m not a fan of the perfectly good protagonist or the impossibly evil antagonist. There’s a bit of darkness in my good guys, and a bit of goodness in my bad guys. I think that it adds to the realism.
If characters are the heart of a story, then the plot has to be the lungs. A place can be pretty, a character dynamic, but nobody is going to want to read about them going to the market. Unless, of course, they get abducted by aliens, or ninjas, or alien ninjas! If it’s not interesting, why would anyone read it? And if no one is reading, game over. But what makes it interesting? Alien ninjas are a good start. Then again, that may just be me. I abuse my poor characters. That’s what they get for being stubborn. But they can take it, they’re a tough lot. They get through whatever I throw at them and they ask for more. It’s what they do. It’s their job.
And we still don’t have an answer. I’m about as helpful as the dictionary, huh? The thing is, I don’t think that there is a single one to be had. The whole idea of what “makes” a story is like religion and politics; there are myriads of views, all very personal, all very subjective, and with no wrong choices. Because of all those different outlooks, there are so many different tastes in story preferences, so many things that make a good story. Yay!