How to Write a Good Story--Part 1: What Defines "Good"?

judgmental cat is editing.

judgmental cat is editing.

This all sort of falls from a tweet I made, which went something like this: People ask me how to get published, or how to get an agent, or even for marketing advice (e.g. "Will you review my novel?"), but the burning question no one ever asks me is how do you write a good story?

I made the tweet in jest and several people replied, some of whom actually wanted me to write a blog post on the subject. What I learned from this experience is to be careful what I tweet.

However, you said you wanted such a post and I said I would write one, so here we are.

I'm going to break these up into individual posts until either I run out of things to say, or you lose interest, whichever comes first. I don't usually give writing advice, because like the matter of what makes a story "good," writing advice is very subjective. What works for me might be an utter waste of time for you. However, if you manage to find information in these posts which is useful to you, then WHOO-HOO GOOD ON YOU, as they say in the trenches of Twitter.

They don't really say that on Twitter. I made that up. I write fiction. See how that works?



What makes a story "good"?

I don't know.

I still cannot peg why some stories resonate with readers and others don't. "Good" can be defined by genre. The qualities that constitute a good romance novel don't work for a good fantasy novel. Even literary novels follow certain patterns:

  • upperclass man is conflicted [NOTE: The protagonist is usually male in literary fiction. If the protagonist is female, then it is called Chick Lit unless the author is male, then it is automatically classified as literary fiction, because penis=serious fiction.] ;
  • man suffers terrible tragedy;
  • man leaves wife who loves him and is at home raising his progeny so man can venture into the world on a deep inner journey;
  • man meets a new and intriguing woman who doesn't define herself by society's expectations;
  • man forgets vows to wife and engages in the kind of sexual experience with new intriguing woman that lands the author a Bad Sex Award;
  • new and intriguing woman helps man find information, which leads him to reach the end of his inner journey, which, in turn, is somehow related to the terrible tragedy;
  • man returns to loving wife, who is a prop;
  • the end

So my first piece of advice is, quite simply, to study the genre you want to write. Evaluate what the audience, the publishers, and the reviewers consider to be a "good" story, and use this as your baseline. You can always do better, or worse, but you first need to establish your own barometer for "good."

(NOTE: When I say reviewers, skip the New York Times Book Reviews and read the bloggers who are reviewing fiction--The NY Times only reviews a certain segment of male authors while bloggers tend to review a much broader group of titles and authors.) 

Don't forget to read outside your genre. 

Train yourself to study the fiction you read. I had an agent once, who said something very wise to me: Anyone call tell you why a story is bad--the hard part is defining what makes a story good. Once you understand what makes a story "good," then you can translate those techniques through your style.

Pay attention to story structure. Most stories follow the three-act story structure. This is done for a couple of reasons:

  1. It's a good structure for storytelling. I know there is something out there called the Snowflake Method. If this works for you, fine. I won't be talking about it here, because it does not work for me.
  2. People read fiction for enjoyment, and the three-act structure is easy to follow. I know this seems obvious, but it's something that all authors need to keep in the back of their minds as they write. People, myself included, read books the same way other people watch television--as a way to shut off the world and escape into another reality. The average reader doesn't mind working to get through a story as long as they don't have to work too hard.

Learn to identify the acts of a novel and watch how authors execute these techniques as you read. Once you begin doing this, you will find it sucks some of your enjoyment out of reading fiction for a while, but do it anyway. If you want to write stories, you need to identify the aspects you want to emulate. After a while, seeing the three acts as you read will become obvious. Other times, you'll fall into the story and forget to identify the acts. When that happens, go back through the novel and see what the author did in order to suck you into the story.

Yes, we all want to write the next GREAT [COUNTRY OF YOUR ORIGIN] NOVEL, which is filled with INSPIRING PROSE, but you have to build up to that. As easy as it sounds, not making the reader work too hard, is much more difficult to execute in a story than you may think. However, if you look at a lot of the popular novels on the market, these authors are not making their readers work hard to get through the stories.

The next post will begin at the beginning and we'll talk about the dreaded three-act story structure. Or whatever pops into my head between now and then.

Meanwhile, please don't forget to buy my books.