What makes a good story?

Does it depend on the format / context of the writing?


Or probably not.

Good stories have something in common: they tell us something about someone.

Bad stories have something in common: they reveal nothing about those in them.

So is that it?

Well no.

So what else?

We have to care about someone in the story, we have to have some empathy for them. That’s not to say we have to like them (so ‘empathy’ may not be the right word), but we have to have a way to understand their feelings about what’s happening to them and how they react to it.

Bad stories leave us not caring about the people in them, as if we’re reading a list: things happen, they are catalogued and off we go. Bleurch.

We have to be able to visualise the world the story is set in. There has to be enough detail to give the story some context and some atmosphere. Too much detail can feel like it takes us away from the story, back to that ‘cataloguing’ thing again. Not enough and we wander off, making up things for ourselves to answer questions that crop up and get in the way.

The flow is important, the sequence, how things unfold: can we follow it? Even if it’s not in chronological order, does it make sense, does the story get served by the flow? If the flow is broken then we are jarred out of the setting, out of our suspension of disbelief… wait? Our what now?

Suspension of disbelief. Why is that important?

We have to find the story credible in itself, it has to have internal consistency to make us believe the things in that that are happening could happen. Otherwise we just won’t care – it’ll be like a child’s make-believe, which is great if you are a child, but as adults we have more inquiring minds that need satisfying on many levels. So just enough to keep us satisfied, but not enough to distract or confuse.

So how do you cram all that in and not end up with a confused mess?

Focus on the story and who it’s happening to.

Keep that central to the writing. All the writing has to serve that.

First time around we’re brainstorming, getting it all out, laying down enough foundation to build a whole city block. Then we trim out stuff that isn’t serving the story. It may be nice, interesting, have the possibility to energise a different story (clip it out and save it for that other story) but it just gets in the way here.

After that we can see what’s left, where we need to put our energy in getting the characters and the surroundings filled out.

It’s a process that increases in focus by decreasing the amount of words on the page that don’t serve the story.

So… what’s the story? Tell us!