Sunday, May 29, 2016

Story Ingredients: What Makes a Story Great?

As some of you may know, I’m currently a Creative Writing grad student. In the last class I attended, the focus (and indeed the title of the class) was “The Successful Story.”

The professor of this class and my fellow students were all fabulous and throughout the course had some great insights and commentary about what makes (or breaks) a good story. During this class I also had the opportunity to read more than 80+ short stories—some by established/published authors, some by fellow classmates, some by aspiring writers hoping to get published—and discuss what strengths and/or concerns each of those stories had.
Fist Full O' Short Stories

One of the key learnings for me from this class—and this quantity of short story reading—is that it is a rare thing indeed for a story to be perfect, to not have a concern or two, no matter how well written or thought out. Likewise, it is also rare to have a story with absolutely no merit—that even if there are certain glaring problems with a story—often there are good things going on in the writing as well.

Another take-away for me is that not all readers (or editors/publishers) have the same criteria for what might make them love a story vs. hate it. For instance, for some readers having grammatical problems in the prose is a “deal breaker.” For me, as a reader, I’m not as concerned about that (and can forgive it to an extent), but if I don’t feel some emotional response to the story, or like at least one of the characters, in the end I probably will not like the story—if I finish reading it at all.

Following is a list of key story components (some from my scrawled class notes) that might help make—or break—a story.

Plot structure
-           Scenario
-           En media res (start in action)
-           Strong first line, paragraph, page  (I heard author Joe Hill say recently that your most important thing that happens in the story should probably happen on page 1)
-           Strong ending? (Endings seem to be hard to get right)
-           Clear conflict? Problems stated up front to help move the story (Hook!)
-           Back-story
-           Flashbacks
-           Layering (complexity—more than one thing going on)
-           Timing
-           Twists?
-           Promises fulfilled (character earns the reward)
-           Ambitions of story achieved
-           Climax (involving key players)
-           Character change (or lack of change) during story
-           New insight or understanding by character
-           Motivation – is it clear immediately what the character wants?
-           Flawed, interesting characters
-           Indirect characterization
-           Seeing how main character interprets other characters (relationships)
-           POV (point of view)
-           Convincing dialogue
-           Empathetic characters (give me someone to care about)
Beautiful writing/prose/craft
-           Vivid, sensory details, descriptions
-           Given only details that matter
-           Strong syntax (sentences, imagery)
-           Realism or surrealism
-           Showing in writing (vs. telling)
-           Letting reader conclude what is going on (don’t over-explain)
-           Does the story take risks? Stylistic or thematic
-           What’s unique about the story?
-           Strong voice (umph! not bland)
-           NOT passive voice, vague details
-           Mastery of language, unity of purpose
World Building
-           Setting (details)
-           Strong sense of time
-           Strong sense of place
-           A reason to keep turning the pages
-           “Cliff hangers”
-           Character motivation and goals
Emotional Response
-           Menace/danger/tension
-           Good times and bad times for character
-           Does the story have deeper meanings? Does it say something about the human condition or society?
-           Is the story memorable?

So there you have it—over 40 components that an author could consider and labor over in a great story. Did I miss any?

For you as a reader or writer, what’s the most important writing component to include—or get right—in a story?

Do you have a “deal breaker(s)” where you will stop reading if the author gets it wrong?




Shawn Enderlin said...

Why yes I do have deal breakers!

#1 When the author, as a plot device, forces a character to make a mistake for which their experience would not otherwise support. Totally takes me out of the story.

#2) dialog sandwiched into the narrative, without quotes, so that you end up with one long incomprehensible paragraph after another. Apparently, I am one of the only people with this problem because that's exactly how Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is written. And that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Go figure.

Jon said...

Agreed on both counts. The Forced Mistake is maybe the ultimate story-killer for me. With a close second going to the "oh no my foot is caught on something!" moment. And as much as I love Cormac McCarthy, I really wish he'd mark his dialogue in his stories.

Mark Teats said...

Good points, Shawn and Jon.

On the McCarthy dialogue/quotes thing... I'm not sure it's a deal breaker for me, but in general I don't like it when authors do something stylistically in their writing that just seems to be done because they are trying to be "clever"--or maybe to see if they can just get away with it. This is kind of how the McCarthy dialogue (missing) quotation marks thing feels to me.

In my list of all the things that might be included in good writing I realized this morning that I forgot one: Writing that allows me (the reader) to learn/experience another person's life experiences, culture or POV in a convincing way.

Peter said...

I almost never stop reading a book. When I do, however, it's almost never because the author has transgressed some unwritten law. Rather, it's due to the fact that I don't feel engaged. Most recently that happened with Neil Gaiman's newest short story collection. I found the writing and the stories to be pretentious. They were clearly well put together I just didn't care about them. I didn't feel anything.

Qlaudie said...

I hate 'no chapter' books, or really long chapters. Not a deal breaker, but it drives me nuts not to have a natural pausing place. I don't have many other things to do aside from reading, but I have a few.
If there are a lot of grammatical, spelling and punctuation mistakes, my respect for the author drops significantly, but if I'm reading a honest to goodness physical book, my frustration is mostly with the publisher. They've diminished the value of the work by not considering it worth the time to edit.
But mostly I'm with you guys. If I don't give two figs about the characters or the plot...that's the main thing that's going to make me put the book or story down. That or if it's just plain bad writing.