Throughout this site (and my books) I detail many of the structural and mechanical elements that deliver genuine story. As I wrap edits on my cyberpunk novel, I found myself reflecting more abstractly on what really makes a “good” story.
Below are my personal thoughts in order of importance as best I reckon.
1. Pulls You In and Doesn’t Let Go
When I was a kid, I actually had trouble reading a lot of books for school. The topics just didn’t interest me and the minute I wasn’t interested my mind would wander. I’d think about movies, Nintendo, Sega, Amiga, mutants trying to overrun the school, just about anything but the story at hand…
So for me, one of the biggest things with a good story, is that it grabs my attention, pulls me in and doesn’t let go.
It makes me disappear in the world/setting, to the point where I forget about the real world around me.
I think this one is pretty broad with a lot of supportive elements. The core elements are that the story progresses/escalates quickly, with interesting, attention grabbing character action. This, working in tandem with a steady flow of surprises and reveals creates a narrative that’s hard to step away from. Scene selection also plays a critical role. No matter how well you write and flesh out a bunch of flat scenes, they’ll still be flat at their core.
When you start reading and the next thing you know the mac’n’cheese is burning, the story is on to something.
2. Subjects That Matter
This one is especially important as I get older. Time is precious and there’s not much more that I dislike than sitting down to invest 6-10 hours in a book that’s neither here nor there.
The subject, concept and premise must tackle something that makes me think. Teaches me something. Gives me something to think about. Compare and contrast my own life against, to see if I’ve been doing it wrong all along or can keep going in my crazy ways.
In 2019, it feels like we’re constantly bombarded with mindless ‘spectacle script‘ entertainment. I’ve grown really particularly with which authors and how often I turn my brain off for this kind of entertainment. Generally I want something more meaningful (and when I engage with a spectacle script, I demand much more from it, so it better bring its A game.)
The core element here is a combination of Master Theme and really, just an interesting topic. I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because a person can do (or write) a thing, they should. I see this so often in comics. Sorry, Goat-Man.
3. Writing Doesn’t Suck
It would be easier to say “well written,” but I think it’s more accurate, for me, to say, it’s just not written badly.
Not everyone can articulate themselves excellently. You may not be a good public speaker, but you might still be able to tell a great story.
Some folks are only engaged by beautiful, razor sharp, well oiled prose. I’m not one of them. OK or average writing works for me if the story is really good. I don’t need perfect prose or dialogue to keep my interest, actually, I generally prefer simpler, straight forward writing.
But bad writing, clunky writing, riddles with structural flaws–that detracts from the story. Struggling with the writing pulls you out of the experience and works directly to undo #1.
The core element here is to avoid the major, obvious stumbling blocks. Incorrect sentence structure, grammar, spelling, passive writing. The list can be pretty long, but they are all easy things to avoid.
4. An Entertaining Voice
If anyone’s ever told a story without having a voice, I missed it.
The writer’s voice is what makes his telling of the story unique to him.
Ask me and three other guys to tell you ‘three little pigs’ and while it may be recognizable, it’ll certain sound different–mine will be the one with parasitic aliens and flame throwers. But even if you gave us the same script to read from, each telling would have small idiosyncrasies that make it our own.
Just like we each find different people attractive, we find the way people talk and carry themselves alluring… or repulsive.
Think of being stuck in an elevator with someone who doesn’t shut up for a few hours straight. I know for me, a monotone, deadpan, robotic narrator would drive me nuts. If I’m gonna be in that uncomfortable steel box, at least give me a comedian with a lot of energy, a poet with dramatic flare, or someone with a devilish wit… I might actually enjoy the conversation with somebody like that.
The core element here is finding your style and having the courage to express it. You don’t have to break the mold just for the sake of it, but find who you are, and be who you are… whoever that is. And remember, you can’t please all the people all the time.
5. Plausible Causality
It’s fiction, but stupid fiction is a big disconnect for me.
I personally need mostly believable. Logical consequences. And realistic plausibility. As the old writing rules says, I can forgive one big lie, but after that my patience starts going downhill… fast.
PC is one of the few areas that if it tanks too bad, I will stop reading early on and shelve the book, permanently.
The core elements here are well thought out plot, character reactions and cause and effect consequences. Keep all these ducks in a row and that’s one major hurdle, jumped.
6. Evokes Emotion
People generally don’t have emotional responses to things they’re unattached to. You knock a glass off the kitchen counter and it shatters, big deal… but make that glass, your favorite smurf glass, the last thing your mom gave you before she passed, I can already hear you bawling.
So a story that doesn’t evoke emotion hasn’t touched us. It’s like eating a fabulous meal when your sick and can’t taste anything.
The core element of emotion in a story are the characters we journey alongside. If you don’t empathize with the characters, you’re unlikely to feel anything in the story.
Give me a story that breaks my heart, makes me throw my arms up in triumph, shout in anger and laugh out loud. That’s all I ask.
7. A Genre I Relate To
So you write teen mystery romance, that’s awesome I couldn’t care less.
Watching one of those singing movies like Glee or I can Sing Better Than this Girl, is a painful experience for me… I don’t care how well acted, how good the music, how well it’s written–I just don’t connect with the genre.
My tastes are actually pretty broad, but there are a few that just don’t get me out of bed. To think I could be reading or watching some awesome sci-fi, fantasy, horrror, western, or a dozen other genres, but teen musical, or sappy vampire romance… Good Lord.
The core element here is knowing your genre and delivering on it, without being cliche. Remember the three key words for the professional writer, Honesty, Objectivity and Passion. Be honest in what genre you’re writing and who your target audience is. Objectively assess your work–make sure you’re giving the fans what they want. And bring the passion. If you’re not passionate about the genre, write something else.
You’ll hear me quote Da Vinci often, “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”
But even a well executed simple concept, needs to have depth, richness and colors. Layers, like an onion, that can be peeled back and explored on successive readings. Each time, revealing new discoveries which support and strengthen the story, entertaining the reader each time, no matter how many times they go back for more.
The core elements here are details. The devil’s in the details but if the author never bothers to include them, you’re gonna have one strange lookin’, mighty useless onion. Subtext and symbolism, also plays a big role in depth of a story. If everything comes at you face value, that doesn’t leave any room to revisit and find new interpretations.
I hope my abstract insight into what makes a good story, good gives you something to think about and perhaps apply to your own work. Genuine story is a lot more complex than most people think. I’m sure I missed a couple key aspects that make a story awesome. What are your top ones?▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.