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?