1. NigeTheHat
    Offline

    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 2008
    Messages:
    762
    Likes Received:
    580
    Location:
    London

    What makes a story great

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by NigeTheHat, Jan 29, 2014.

    Nice little article here from Quora:

    http://www.quora.com/Storytelling/What-makes-a-story-great

    Before the inevitable cries of 'that's not what I think makes a story great' - no, maybe it's not. The guy's saying what makes a story great to him. It's not meant to be objective.

    But worth reading, nevertheless.
     
    peachalulu, Wreybies and GingerCoffee like this.
  2. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    The first dozen are pretty standard, but it's worth reading someone new articulate the concepts.

    I chuckled at: "13. It's shouldn't be too "on the nose." I liked the information and seeing a typo is always comforting since they are so difficult for all of us to avoid.

    Trusting the reader is an important theme in 14 and 15. It's important to apply it to characters and themes, but also to little filter clauses.
    "He looked out across the valley and saw ..."​
    You don't need to tell us "he saw", we already know that.


    While I'm on the subject, I wanted to thank the thread author who posted Andrew Stanton's TED talk on storytelling, but I can't find the thread and don't remember who posted the link.

    Here's a different link to the same TED Talk.
    http://aerogrammestudio.com/2013/03/12/wall-e-and-toy-story-screenwriter-reveals-the-clues-to-a-great-story/
     
  3. thewordsmith
    Offline

    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2009
    Messages:
    874
    Likes Received:
    124
    Location:
    State of Confusion
    A more removed answer to that question, "What makes a story great?" is that it falls into the string category.
    How long is a piece of string? As long as it needs to be.
    Every great story is, more or less, great in its own way, with its own qualities of greatness. Every writer combines the same basic precepts and practices to mold their story. The trick is to blend them in such a smooth, seamless way for YOUR story to create your own greatness. Sometimes, you just write for your own satisfaction and pleasure, in which case, you know exactly what constitutes greatness for your story.
    Sometimes, you write for the primary objective of publishing and selling your work to a larger audience. In that case, the concept of 'great' is a bit more ambiguous and ephemeral. So you must try to find a way to zero in on the largest percentage of your target audience in such a way that they will consider your work great.

    But... what will that entail? How long is a piece of string?????
     
  4. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    I am writing the story I want to read and tell, so that marketing thing needs modifying. I am working to make one of the themes in my book acceptable to a broader readership, but that's a stylistic issue rather than an issue with the story itself. I cannot accept leaving it out because I might turn some readers off.
     
  5. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,824
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I liked the last bit about ambiguity. That's something I liked to aim for, a story that doesn't quite reveal all it's treasures - not on the first reading at least.
    Number 13 was a hoot - how true. There's so many of those analytical characters out there but in a way even though the guys saying not to do it there are a lot of people out there talking like amateur Oprah's and Dr. Phil's .
    Number 10 - that's a toughy.
     
  6. TDFuhringer
    Offline

    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    589
    Likes Received:
    262
    Location:
    Somewhere South of Midnight
    Interesting. Valuable advice. But like all writing advice, I wish people would include, "Don't take all this as dogma, there are exceptions to every rule." It's good to know every tool in your writer's chest and how to use them. But you don't need to use them all, every time. One of the things that makes a craftsman a master, is knowing which tools to leave in the box and when.
     
  7. NigeTheHat
    Offline

    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 2008
    Messages:
    762
    Likes Received:
    580
    Location:
    London
    That's true. The guy who wrote that article thought so, too:

    That said, I think it's possible to get too hung up on the idea that there are always exceptions. Yes, sometimes, a massive info-dump can be used well and blend into the story without irritating the reader, but you have to be a bloody good writer to pull that off. I think it makes more sense to tell people 'don't info-dump' because 99 times out of 100, it will be good advice. If they're good enough to be the 1 out of 100, they're probably good enough to work out that they're allowed to do something even if it's against what, for want of a better word, I'll call best practice.
     
  8. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    This damn Quora thing wants to know everything about me down to my genome before it will let me read the article. The hell with it. :mad:
     
    Tesoro likes this.
  9. Tesoro
    Offline

    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2011
    Messages:
    2,825
    Likes Received:
    290
    Location:
    A place with no future
    I agree. Why does one have to log in/identify themselves to read an article about writing? I didn't either.
     
  10. NigeTheHat
    Offline

    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 2008
    Messages:
    762
    Likes Received:
    580
    Location:
    London
    You need to log in to read every answer. You should just be able to dismiss the info request to read the first answer, which is what I did.
     
  11. Tesoro
    Offline

    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2011
    Messages:
    2,825
    Likes Received:
    290
    Location:
    A place with no future
    wow, this time it worked. I didn't even get the log-in thing. Thanks! :)
     
  12. Mckk
    Offline

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2010
    Messages:
    4,749
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    @minstrel and @Tesoro - just dismiss it by clicking the little cross in the corner. It's very cheeky of the site to make it seem as though you have to log in and give up all your info just to view the article, I agree! But yeah, you don't really have to :D

    Mind you, the article seemed pretty ordinary to me. I was kinda hoping for some... I dunno, rare gem of insight? But everything's just common sense and things most of us should already know.

    I'd be much more interested in what makes a great story specifically. But then again, I guess therein lies the problem - every story is so unique and built up of a variety of elements that may or may not be present in other books that it's basically impossible to generalise effectively.

    Nonetheless, I wish he'd specified. For example, what makes a great story to me might be a book with a single, focused course of action. I'm not a huge fan of multiple plots because I get too impatient waiting to see what happens next to characters A for me to wanna care about a sudden jump in setting, goal and POV and be forced to read about characters B. In this sense, I find I often enjoy first person narratives. So for me, what makes a great story is one that is focused - and if you really must change setting/pov character/goal, then it absolutely needs to be immediately obvious to me just how it's relevant to the original plot I was following. An example being Elantris by Brandon Sanderson - each chapter alternates between 3 POV characters: Raodin, Sorene and Harldin (I forget his exact name). This did not put me off because from the first chapter with Raodin, I knew who Sorene was - she's his betrothed, only now he's been banished and she's arrived early before the wedding in order to get to know him. Interesting twist plus obvious significance of the character.

    Secondly, what makes a great story for me is a book that makes you think. That's what connects books like Mockingbird, Fault in Our Stars, Hunger Games for me (notice they're all written in the first person, which reinforces my claim that I prefer books with one single plot that does not usually skip and jump all over the place with multiple plots). The context and story of all three books are highly different, the issues dealt with in each book are more or less also very different. But what they have all got in common is this - they question the very way people choose to view their world, they challenge the comfortable philosophies that we have lived with and perhaps even believe, and they offer an alternative lens with which to view these issues by affecting you with deeply emotional and complex characters. (the characters in the Fault in Our Stars is not "deeply" complex, and certainly not when compared to the other two - but what this book has that the other two don't is a lot of morbid humour. I laughed several times over a book that basically deals with death, which worked in its favour in the end because that made the tragedy of the whole thing even more obvious)

    In any case, all 3 of these books have this in common - they're not just stories there for the thrill. Somehow, they dip into thoughts that you may have already had or ways of seeing things you've never seen before. These kind of books are probably also the hardest to write because if mishandled, it would come off sounding preachy - Hunger Games is perhaps the only one that does not directly relate the author's views on things by way of internal monologue or dialogue, whereas imagine any of Atticus's lessons in the hands of a poor writer - it'd be a disaster. You must teach without forcing your views on the reader, you must wrap the lesson in such masterful writing that when the lesson comes, it resonates with you as opposed to feeling like a dull philosophy lesson plonked in the middle of the road - it should resonate with you in the sense that it becomes just the thing you want to hear, just the thing you want to understand because the story has been such that you cannot stand the emotions and thoughts that it's been giving you.

    I guess a final thing here would be - there must be no superiority in the tone of the writing or its characters.

    Mockingbird achieved it by taking the POV of Scout, allowing the reader to walk as a child without feeling patronised and feeling the injustices more keenly that when Atticus comes along, he is a comfort, not a nuisance. Fault in Our Stars has a teenager who, while understands the feeling of dying could nonetheless never tell us why death is, and that's kind of the point - so in that sense, there's no superiority. Hunger Games is the least directly philosophical book and contains, to my memory, no passages that would give any direct lessons or streams of thoughts as the other two do, but Katniss is one of the victims/survivors - again she does not come from the position of being more knowledgeable or wise. She comes from a position of the powerless and her insights are born out of her sufferings - thereby fulfilling the requirement that when the lessons come, it must be something that already resonates with the reader, something they wanted to read or wanted to understand.

    Interestingly, Katniss and Scout are both characters who are utterly unaware of their own courage and wisdom. Hazel is pretty arrogant yet still lovable because of the humour - the reader laughs with Hazel, so the arrogance and Hazel's presumed wisdom is tolerable. In all three cases, they are the underdogs - people of no significance and powerless against the things life tossed at them. In all three cases, they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things - but the things become extraordinary not because of its scale - not necessarily because someone was saving the world (Scout certainly doesn't, and neither does Hazel). But the fruits of their labour are extraordinary because you're so keenly aware of how hard every step was (in Scout's case, all she's achieved is actually growing up).

    In the end, you have to FEEL the character, rather than only feel or enjoy the story. I think that's the difference between a wonderful, unforgettable book versus another that was merely enjoyable and tossed aside the next day. For me, a book where I was able to truly feel the characters - even if the story was a little lacking - is still a better book than one whose story may have been brilliant and engaging and yet whose characters, while not bland or simple, are not deep either.

    But of course, different types of books have different purposes. No one wants to think about the meaning of life every single day and cry a river every time they pick up a book. So when I want something light, I go for someone like Sanderson - solid writing, interesting premise and plot, good characters - nothing special, perfectly entertaining. Or Sophie Kinsella - bad writing with some weird and exaggerated characters that make me laugh, easy to read, mindless.

    But if we're saying a good story - a good book - or perhaps a great book. If we're saying a book I wouldn't be able to forget - then well, it's all about the characters for me, and the questions the story itself poses about reality and humanity. These are usually also books that I wish would never finish, and even after closing the covers, their characters live on in my head, they swim and keep speaking. They move you.
     
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2014
  13. Tesoro
    Offline

    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2011
    Messages:
    2,825
    Likes Received:
    290
    Location:
    A place with no future
    It's probably written for beginners. We (us here at the forum) are advanced writers. :D:D:D We got those advice with the breast milk, lol. ;)
     
    Mckk likes this.
  14. aikoaiko
    Offline

    aikoaiko Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2013
    Messages:
    285
    Likes Received:
    153
    One of the best definitions of great writing I've ever seen was a line from one article that simply said: It has life.

    This is incredibly true, if you think about it. The best writing seems to take on a life of its own, while the poorer examples leave you bored and feeling drained. Even if you have no particular interest in a genre, that quality is still evident because it literally jumps off the page. It's a hard thing to pinpoint IMO, but good writing just glows.:)
     
  15. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I finally read that article. Most of the responses are standard-issue blah, coming from people who aren't writers and might not even be readers.

    To me, what makes a story great is:

    1. Great characters. Fully-developed characters with distinct personalities, problems, and motivations beat stock characters. It's not about Boy Scout heroes and pointlessly nefarious villains. Heroes and villains are really just characters with differing goals.

    2. Great style. I'm not one of those who think the writer should efface himself from the story. A bland, anonymous style can ruin a story. A distinctive style, full of fresh imagery, sensitivity to pace and rhythm, and a bold attitude can give a story life. I'm thinking of writers like Hemingway, Kipling, Nabokov, and Burgess here. Powerful style can elevate an ordinary story into something special.

    3. Great theme. A story should have something powerful to say. I'm not talking about bland statements like "War is hell" or "There's no place like home"; I'm talking about something perhaps complex and difficult to pin down, something that cannot be summed up in a sentence, something that needs the whole story. A novel should leave some kind of psychological residue in the reader, so that the reader keeps thinking about it. It should change the reader in some way, forcing him to see the world in a new way.

    There are other things, I'm sure, that contribute to making a story great, and they'll probably occur to me later.

    Notice, though, that I didn't say anything about plot. Plot isn't as important as some people think it is. I also didn't mention technical things like hooks in the first paragraph, or scenes ending in disaster, or motivation-response units, or any of that. Those are things writers might think about when they're composing their work, but they are not what makes a story great or memorable.
     
    EdFromNY likes this.
  16. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Great writing has heart. Great writing has legs.
     
    TDFuhringer likes this.

Share This Page