Writing advice, Writing and Editing

On Story (part two)

Last week’s episode established, or at least made a strong case for, everyone being a storyteller. It’s as much a part of human nature as war. Everyone tells stories, from your kooky Uncle Albert to the high school kid who mows your yard. Everyone tells stories. However, everyone does not tell good stories. Everyone is not good at telling stories. If we want to be brutally honest, we all know a person or two who probably just shouldn’t tell stories at all because they will inevitably mess them up, no matter how good the story itself is.

But back to story. Why are we drawn to some stories and not others? What makes a story good? What makes others not as good?

The obvious answer is that the best stories resonate with us, infect our imaginations, and pique our curiosity. The rest don’t. Some are just forgettable. Some are told so badly you can’t even finish them (if you can escape without committing a heinous social gaffe).

But again, why? What makes a story good? And I’m not just talking about short fiction here—the traditional short story—I’m talking about all forms of writing. Because when you tear it down to the bare bones, every form of writing, from poetry to history to the hardest of hard journalism does the same thing. It tells a story. And every story we consider good shares a few common characteristics, a few rules if you would.

They appeal to one of our major emotions. Be it love, fear, anger, horror or humor, a good story will generally excite one of our emotions. The bigger the emotion and the emotional response and the more we tend to like the story. Conversely, if the story does not strike an emotional chord with us, the audience, we tend to dismiss it.

Plays on our ability to empathize. Before any story can resonate with any of our emotions, it first has to appeal to our empathy. No story, no matter how deviously conceived (for fiction) or factually faithful (for non-fiction) can draw an emotional reaction from the audience if we don’t or can’t empathize with the characters involved.

They have a beginning, middle, and end. Our nature is to believe that life’s events are linked by a series of cause and effect decisions. By presenting the audience with a beginning situation, the storyteller begins to draw them in to the situation. In the middle, she presents the audience (already empathizing with the main character) with a challenge the main character faces and draws them further into the story. Then, with the end, offers a satisfying resolution to the problem or situation the character faces. The audience’s emotions have been appealed to and catharsis achieved.

The ending is organic. No matter how surprising or far-fetched, the ending (in hindsight) must be a satisfyingly logical result of the actions or situations articulated earlier in the story. Anything else, such as a previously unknown superhero sweeping in to rescue the main character from certain death, will leave the audience feeling cheated. Worse, it will make the storyteller look like she is either too lazy to figure out a better ending or that she doesn’t have enough respect for her audience to go to make the effort.

The storyteller does not waste words. In the best stories, regardless of the genre, every single word is working. There are no extraneous tangents. The storyteller does not spend two paragraphs describing the New York Public Library if the library building is not an intrinsic part of the story. The same goes for characters, dialogue and everything else. Every single word is an essential piece of the mosaic that leads to the story’s logical ending.

Last of all, the title, or tag line must be intriguing. The title (in the case of a formal story) or tag line is the first opportunity for the storyteller to gain the audience’s attention, to intrigue them. The good ones don’t waste it. They spend nearly as much time devising a title as they do creating the story itself.

There are probably several other traits common to all good stories, but I haven’t been able to think of them. Please feel free to make suggestions in the “comments” section. But I believe if you examine your favorite stories you will find they all share these simple (to define. Harder to execute) traits.

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