What Makes a Good Story?

Currawong Creek is all set to be published in June. I’m now 20,000 words into my new novel, and have been dedicating a fair bit of thinking time to the deceptively simple question of what makes a good story?

Tell me a storyFor me, the most important thing is that a writer needs to have something to say. Now this might appear to be self-evident, but think about it. Have you ever been bailed-up by someone who can talk and talk and talk, but really, has nothing to say? You begin to look for escape routes, ways to politely excuse yourself. It’s easier than that for readers. For if a novel isn’t animated by a powerful theme, then the reader can just close the book.

Writing from the heartA good writer in my view, writes from the heart. And an interesting novel must in some way take a stand. It must confront its reader, by presenting conflicting values and beliefs. Think of your favourite books, and consider for yourself, whether or not this is true. For me, writing that lacks a point is lifeless, full of ornamental adjectives and decorative imagery maybe, but lifeless just the same. Readers won’t waste their time on sentence after sentence without meaning, BUT If the writer believes, that whatever he or she has to say, MUST be said, that passion will come through the pages and grip us, as readers. We’ll care about the characters, we’ll suffer with them, we’ll hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding story tellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they are. Let them power your story. Let them challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care a lot about the subject of your writing and it will show.

Writing the breakout novelI’d like to finish with nine gems from Donald Maass, legendary New York literary agent. His seminal work, Writing The Breakout Novel has long been my bible.

  1. Think writing tools, not rules.
  2. Emotions are what connect us to the characters of a novel. What engages your heart will engage your reader. 
  3. Create interiority. Create an emotional landscape that the characters travel through–your story’s interiority.
  4. Reveal yourself through your fiction by writing from a personal place, a place of passion, a place of experience, a place that matters. Give these emotions and motivations to your characters.
  5. Genre categories have become a palette from which writers may draw from to create unique hybrids. Great fiction will not be bound by conventions.
  6. Surprise your readers. Don’t just write about the emotions that they expect. Think about the strongest emotions that you have experienced and then think about the underlying ones, the subtle ones. Write about those emotions instead of what the reader would expect from the scene/plot. Again, surprise your readers.
  7. Write your stories like they matter, and they will matter. Powerful fiction comes from a very personal place.
  8. Readers read to make sense of the world.Your reader wants some kind of insight into the antagonist. Who looks up to your antagonist? What does he have to gain? To lose? Why must he reach his goals? How much will he lose to meet his goal? What will he gain? Help your reader view life through the villain’s motivations and perspective. Make your antagonist multi-dimensional.
  9. Beautiful Writing + Commercial Writing (page turners) = High Impact Writing.


4 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Story?

  1. A very thought provoking post Jennifer. I recently read an enjoyable story but when I received an Amazon email asking me if I wanted to review it, I couldn’t remember what the story was /about/. And it’s only been a week since I read it. I guess that says it all.

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