What Makes a Good Story?

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What makes a good story?

These are my notes from my “What makes a good story?” talk at Greenbelt 2006 – later expanded to become an article in the November 2006 issue of the BSFA’s Focus magazine.

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What makes a good story?

An essay from the November 2006 issue of Focus, by Simon Morden

‘A good story, well told.’

Judging the 2005 Arthur C Clarke award meant reading 47 novels in a few months. It also meant working out what I thought made a good story – something I could compare the diverse styles and subjects against – or doom myself to thrashing around in a sea of indecision. (As it was, we were almost late for our own awards ceremony.)

So I decided what I looked for most in a novel was a good story, well told. In this article, I intend to concentrate on the first, and not on the second – though parts of ‘well told’ have impact on the ‘good story’, in that it’s much easier to tell a good story than a bad one.

For me, ‘story’ has three parts. It needs a plot, it needs characters, and it needs a setting. If I find all three, I stand a chance at finding a good story.

Plot

It has to do something

That ‘something’ is making the reader want to read on. It is a non-trivial task to get someone so caught up in a story that they don’t want to stop. What it doesn’t need to do is preach the gospel, contain a moral or push any particular agenda you might have. Preaching in general, makes for bad storytelling. This is not to say that your story is bad because it contains a message – but the message should not be your primary reason for telling the story.

The story has to go somewhere

The somewhere doesn’t have to be to a geographical location, or be your typical ‘quest’ story. But events that happen to the characters have to in some way affect them. Things cannot be the same at the end as they are in the beginning. For the Clarke awards, I had to pick a shortlist of six books. It is no coincidence that the six I chose all had good stories and were well told. Too often I read a book which had strong characters, an interesting set up, but which went absolutely nowhere – nothing had changed, no one had changed.

Something non-trivial has to be at stake

If nothing is at stake, then why should anyone (least of all the characters) bother? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering: the fate of a world, a nation, a president, a person even. It just has to be important to the characters concerned. It can be a marriage, or a business, or keeping a child off drugs. A story about lost car keys can be trivial – unless there’s a body locked in the boot.

Characters

We have to identify with the characters

‘I do not care about these people’ are the seven deadly words no author wants to hear. In the baldest sense, if I do not care about what happens to the characters, I will not enjoy the story. This does not mean that your protagonist has to be a saint, but it does mean that your protagonist has to be real. And look, people identify with anti-heroes – some of the most compelling storytelling in literature and film revolves around characters whose qualities are far from all good.

The characters should be changed by their experiences

It is natural for people to grow and change through the passage of time. If your characters don’t, they won’t be as engaging as those that do. The changes they go through could be radical, subtle, or a mixture of both, but change they must. They might gain a better insight into themselves, they might have new knowledge about the world to assimilate.

The outer struggle must be mirrored by an inner struggle.

If, to take an extreme example, a character is racist, yet they find themselves in a position where they find their attitudes challenged – a foreign soldier protecting a village – the story should show them struggling with their attitudes. It need not necessarily show them ‘winning’.

Archetypal characters

Archetypes are more than symbols within storytelling: they seem, for some reason, to resonate deep within the soul (apologies for getting metaphysical). So if I say ‘Hero’ or ‘Mentor’ or ‘Magician’ or ‘Trickster’, you immediately conjure up how each of these archetypes behave. It isn’t what they look like, or whether they’re male or female, young or old, or where they come from and how they speak. It’s what they are. Once you have a good idea of how your character will behave in any given situation, you have a character that will live within the story.

Vicarious experience

Another aspect of your characters’ development is the ability to give vicarious experiences to the reader. I’m a bloke; I have no idea what it’s like to give birth. Unfortunately, neither does my wife, so I can’t ask her… but then again, I’ve never shot anyone at point-blank range, I’ve never put on an armoured exoskeleton and fallen to Earth from the edge of space, I’ve never been tortured to death, I’ve never talked to aliens living inside my head, I’ve never been stalked by a fallen angel. Yet, at various times, I’ve tried to convey precisely how this feels. Part of a storyteller’s job is to make unreal things real. It’s not a question of describing the scene, it’s living it through your characters.

Setting

Setting is where your characters are and the plot happens. Setting should be treated like another character – not described to death, or entirely superfluous to the plot so that your story could have happened anywhere.

The setting should matter to the plot

Setting is the third leg of your story, inasmuch as Rapunzel would be nowhere without a tower or Hansel and Gretel without the Gingerbread House. It isn’t just a painted curtain behind your characters. It has flavour, atmosphere, a solidity to it. The setting should be integral to the plot because it is a character.

The setting should influence the plot progression

In precisely the same way characters influence the plot, the setting should influence the plot.

The setting should influence the characters’ actions

This one’s obvious, but so easily missed. The setting can be interacted with. It can be picked up, thrown, read, looked through, lit, sat in, walked around. Your characters should be doing that – if they’re in a library, they should be whispering, looking around, reading the spines of books. If they’re in a coffee shop, they should be drinking coffee, eating muffins, clattering teaspoons.

The setting should be memorable and imaginable

Your readers are relying on you to paint a word-picture which is sufficient for them to both imagine the scene and remember it the next time you use it. Over describing and under-describing are both problems – you need to be able to give a sense of place without drowning the reader with two or three pages of adjectives and adverbs. This is, admittedly, pretty hard to do straight off, but it can be learnt.

Research

A word or two about research. There is a broad middle ground to inhabit between the twin evils of doing no research at all, because after all, you’re making all this up, and spending all the time you should be writing, reading.

As a rough rule of thumb, you should know stuff that has an impact on your story. This can range from simple things – seasonal weather patterns in Nairobi – to obscure things – what sort of sniper rifle a Russian veteran of Afghanistan would use. A friend once put out the call to discover how far a palanquin – that’s one of those chairs carried on poles at shoulder height – could be carried by one team of slaves in one day. Another friend actually arranged a test. About ten miles is the answer.

As another rough rule of thumb, you should never be tempted to use your research findings to show your readers how much research you did for your story. That rifle I’ve just mentioned was never discussed or described in the story I used it in. But I knew the character who used it better because I took the time and trouble to find out what weapon he had. I knew what it looked like, how heavy it was, how accurate it was, how he fired it.

Why is research important? Because it adds the flavour of authenticity to your story. If, as writers, we’re trying to suspend the reader’s disbelief, anything that helps is good. Anything that hinders is bad. Worst of all is the point where the reader is suddenly dumped out of the story by the writer doing something stupid.

And specifically, why is research important when you’re writing SF or fantasy? Aren’t you just making stuff up? I would argue that you have to do more research than if you were writing chick-lit. For contemporary fiction, the world is a given. If your world is different in some way, it has ramifications over the whole of history and society. Nothing is a given anymore. Sorry to add to your workload…


Simon Morden is the author of “Heart”, “Another War” and the “The Lost Art”, as well as the short story collections “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Brilliant Things”. He was editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine, “Focus” for five years, and was a judge for the 2006 Arthur C Clarke Awards.

Published under a Creative Commons license – Simon Morden 2007