What Makes a Good Story?

What Makes a Good Story?

What makes a good story? Ask twenty different readers and you might get twenty different answers. Patterns usually start to emerge, though. Certain elements tend to draw people to stories, though the most important element will vary among individuals. Readers like stories with interesting characters they can connect to and identify with. They like exciting conflicts. And they like satisfying resolutions.

What makes a character interesting and identifiable? Again, the answer depends on the individual. But in a general sense, characters are interesting when they’re three-dimensional, with history to support their behavior and character quirks that make them jump off the page. Characters are identifiable when they have understandable motivations, and when the actions they take to fulfill those motivations match their history and established behavior.

What constitutes an exciting conflict (aside from explosions)? Action is great, and while it keeps a plot moving at top pace, it isn’t actually what drives stories. Tension is. Tension leads to conflict and confrontation, whether or not those things involve violence. What makes conflict more exciting than explosions is the characters we love standing to lose something. In other words, high stakes that stand to change a character’s life or world forever.

But it isn’t enough just to have high stakes. Readers want reasonable resolutions that either match their expectations or fulfill the promises made by the story in a meaningful way. Even if a book doesn’t end the way a reader wants it to, they should at least feel satisfied with what they get when they come out the other end.

I’m painting with broad strokes here. But in general, these are the elements that make up a good story.

A Good Story Is More than the Sum of its Parts

Lots of people think that having the elements of a good story in their book is all it needs. But a book can have the best characters in the world and still be a steaming pile of garbage if those elements aren’t assembled in a way that makes logical sense.

I once read a book that spent the entire plot trying to convince me the main character was a man worthy of both respect and pity. He had a tragic past that robbed him of contact with his family and left him wondering if both his wife and daughter were dead. But the author started the book with this man – still wondering if his wife was alive – being tempted into a sexual liaison with another woman. And after hundreds of pages waxing eloquent about how everything he did was for the benefit of saving and reuniting his family, he murdered a child in cold blood. For no apparent reason.

Was I convinced that character was likeable? No. Did I think he had reasonable motivations? Sure, but the way he tried to fulfill them made no sense. And unfortunately, my inability to get behind the main character made the rest of the book feel like a pointless waste of time.

No story is perfect, and readers are pretty good at forgiving mistakes and omissions when they’re enjoying something. But the more instances that trip them up, the more likely they are to abandon or reject a story. Ultimately, they may choose to finish, but still feel unsatisfied. This is where negative reviews come from.

Conflict and Tension are the Core of your Plot

As a follow-up to my discussion on using plot structure to help a manuscript sing, it’s important to pay attention to tension when you’re writing a book. Since tension is what ultimately draws a reader through the work from beginning to end, you need to keep an eye on when your tension rises and falls.

If the tension has been rising for awhile, it might be a good idea to give both your characters and your readers a break. There are several ways you can lower the tension on the page without resolving a major conflict.

You can lower tension by:
-Lowering the stakes
-Allowing a character to achieve some kind of victory or overcome some sort of obstacle
-Resolving or advancing an aspect of a subplot – this is a great way to offer payoff for the reader without having to resolve your main conflict
-Giving your characters a chance to regroup and make a plan of action
-Using humor (though be careful not to over-use humor)

Likewise, if the book feels like it’s starting to drag, that’s a good sign that you should raise the tension in your novel.

You can raise tension by:
-Raising the stakes
-Revealing new information that affects the main tension
-Having your characters encounter an obstacle or participate in some form of conflict
-Forcing your characters to act or react to a situation or new development
-Forcing your character(s) to confront an uncomfortable truth

Checking the tension to make sure the rises and falls are logical is a great way to make sure your plot flows together in the proper order.

Actions Demand Equally Opposing Reactions

Consequences are another important part of a novel’s plot. And one that doesn’t get a lot of attention. When the tension of a conflict is resolved, the resolution needs to feel equal to the consequences.

I recently considered abandoning a book that felt like it wasn’t pairing its conflicts with dire enough consequences. Its romantic subplot was all over the place. In the early stages of the book, the female lead had a harmless encounter with a man who took her home from a party. The book went to great lengths to establish that the two didn’t have sex.

Later, the female lead got together with a different male character, one she connected to more strongly. This man saw her with the man from the beginning of the book – the one she didn’t sleep with – and man did it turn out badly. The new love-interest decided that he simply couldn’t trust the female lead because she had been seen with this man. Even though she made it clear she wasn’t interested in him and hadn’t been with him. And even though that encounter happened before they got together.

Fast forward to the last quarter of the book. Our female lead has gone on a soul searching mission. In the midst of it she has a decidedly sexual encounter with a third man. She isn’t enthusiastic about it, but does nothing to stop it. Given how sensitive her love interest is about this sort of thing, you’d think there’d be some major fall out over it.

Except there isn’t. The encounter is never mentioned again, never shared with the love interest, and the love interest has suddenly forgiven the lady lead because he’s head over heels with her.

This is not a logical plot progression.

In Conclusion…

Novels are complex creatures. Successfully putting one together involves juggling a lot of balls, keeping track of an entire tapestry worth of threads, and having a knack for navigating the dictionary. It’s an inexact science even on the best of days.

But paying attention to the little details clearly pays off. Most readers can tell when something is wrong even if they can’t articulate exactly what it is that bothers them. They’ll notice drastic changes in style – Game of Thrones is proof of that. They might not be able to tell you when a plot element is missing, but they can certainly express their confusion. And if a book feels slow or plodding it might be because it’s missing an action beat (such as a turning point).

I used to defend my habit of reading books to the end whether I liked them or not because poorly put together books taught me a lot about writing. But now I’ve learned to better identify the elements of a story that put me off, so I can set them aside before I get too entangled. And that, in turn, has made me a better writer too.

And hopefully, talking about these experiences can help other writers as well!

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