What Makes a Good Story?

If you’re someone like me, you love to read and you love to write! You may not be the best-selling author you were so sure you’d be by the time you turned twenty-five…but you might have had a few wins along the way. You have probably had your fair share of rejections too. Let’s face it, what self-respecting best-seller-in-waiting hasn’t?!

Maturity has shaped my writing abilities. It has also shaped my ability to learn from rejection. If you are fortunate enough to receive a rejection from an editor that contains an appraisal of why your submission was deemed unsuitable, consider it a bonus! Not many have the time (or the inclination) to provide an honest critique, so be thankful for the feedback and use it to your advantage.

A recipient of such comments, I have taken on board suggestions and insights, and feel more empowered as a writer for them. With a passion for quality fiction, I now subscribe to the tried and tested methodology that still holds true in today’s market for what yields a fine tale.

A good story is a sublime gift.  It has the potential to make you feel a multitude of emotions.  It can make you laugh or cry, it can shock, scare or appall, uplift or depress.  It can change your whole perception, or it can simply be a pleasant diversion from your everyday routine.

Whatever the effect, there are a number of ingredients that are thrown into the pot and stirred with precision to achieve the emotive impact that keeps bookworms universally addicted to a tightly written tale.

As a reader, we don’t want to be concerned with the author’s struggles with structure and plot, his niggles over narrative or his dilemmas with dialogue – we read for pleasure and enlightenment.  However, as a writer, it is imperative that we have a fundamental working knowledge of every element that goes into the multi-faceted construction of a story in order to make it work.

How I yearn to be another Poe, Conan Doyle, Wells, Saki, Dahl or Archer – what masters of their craft!  Their seemingly effortless grasp of necessary skills has provided me with hours of escapism.  Characters have flown off pages and made me love, loathe, pity or fear them.  Landscapes and worlds I have never visited have been as clear to me as if I was looking into the familiarity of my own backyard.  Dialogue has caused me to gasp, cry, cheer, or simply made me laugh until my sides have ached.

Now that I am equipped with a better understanding of what comprises a good story, it is clear to me that the above authors are not magicians, who can conjure a well written piece with mysterious skills elusive to the rest of us.  Coupled with a considerable degree of natural talent, they are utilising the standard elements that cause a story to run like a well oiled machine.

When assessing these elements, no particular importance can be placed on one or the other.  Rather they must all work in a harmonious balance to achieve flow, credibility and structure.  However, as individual attributes, they must all be granted the same care and attention in order to achieve said harmony.  No two elements rely on harmonisation greater characterisation and plot.

When considering characterisation, it is important to create personalities that are believable enough to make the reader care what happens to them.  From both a reader and a writer’s perspective, I prefer a realist angle to characters as, for me, they seem to work best in capturing the essence of the story and interrelating the plot and narrative.  All the components ascribed to a particular character – all their physical, emotional and psychological features, eccentricities and motivations are fundamental not only to the reader’s mental image, but also to drive the overall plot.  Who, for example, could forget Uriah Heep?  What a marvelous character!  I challenge anyone not to squirm when they first make his acquaintance and shudder as his evil machinations spur the heroes and the plot on to further misadventure.  Dickens was a master of characterisation able to capture the register of his creations like few others.  “I’m ever so ‘umble, Mr Copperfield,” Heep repeatedly proclaims, and we can clearly visualise his oily writhings.

Plot and narrative structure serve to give a story its shape.  Surface structure and deep structure narratives are employed to assist the “design” of the story and events – whether they be kernel, catalysts or sequencing – are the elements that will either advance, expand, maintain or delay the main actions of the plot.  The classic structure of a story dictates that there is a beginning, middle and an end with a thesis, followed by a catharsis, followed by an antithesis.  However, some of the most successful stories don’t necessarily follow this dictum.  These components can be rearranged to add intrigue to a story, or simply to grab the reader’s attention by starting with the outcome of the story and outlining the series of event which led to this.

Whether it is the characters or the plot driving your story, neither will work well without a strong element of descriptive writing.  For me, nothing offends more than an overuse of adverbs or adjectives.  Similarly, clichés (which admittedly I sometimes find hard to avoid) are equally obnoxious to ones senses.  Descriptive writing serves many functions.  It conveys information, can introduce a theme or mood, complements action and provides irony.

If dialogue is to be incorporated, it should be well chosen to illuminate characters, dramatise events or simply to move the plot along.  Attributions should be neutralised wherever possible – what is said should be sufficient to convey the meaning.  Take, as a divine example of dialogue at work, P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Woosterand Jeeves’.  I have long been a fan of their respective foppishness and genius, and nowhere are their characters better captured than in the witty dialogue Wodehouse penned.

Narrative voice should be well considered.  What is revealed to the reader could be hampered by a plot viewed only through the eyes of the narrator, limiting the reader’s opinion of the other characters.  Alternatively, the ‘I’ voice has the advantage of creating a sense of intimacy in the reader.

Crucial to the story is the setting.  The landscapes we create as writers have a huge impact on character and, in turn, plot.  Whether our characters inhabit Mars, Middle Earth or suburbia, this will have a major influence on atmosphere and function.

Notwithstanding these vital elements, one cannot underestimate the importance of syntax.  Grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, which may draw a collective groan from many authors, are the bricks, if you will, with which we lay the foundations of a good story.  I believe there is simply no excuse for laziness when it comes to the laying of these bricks.  English allows for so much flexibility that editing and redrafting can be an indulgence in itself when it comes to fine tuning our work.

Why do I read?  I read for pleasure.  Why do I write?  The answer is the same, although I do hope to one day to have a readership of my own.  In the meantime, I am happy to keep practicing the above rules … and maybe break a few on the way!

Happy reading, happy writing and, of course, happy days 🙂

Rebecca Fraser

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About Rebecca Fraser

Rebecca Fraser is a full time copy and content writer and part time speculative fiction author based on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Her dark short stories, poems, and flash fiction have appeared in various anthologies, magazines and journals since 2007. Rebecca holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and a Certificate of Publishing (Copy Editing and Proofreading). To provide her muse with life’s essentials, she supplements by freelancing for the corporate world, however her true passion lies in storytelling.
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