What Makes a Great Story?

Coming off of our BHP Book Banter, I’m wading into the gridded, graphed, somewhat-unfamiliar world of data analysis. I like to imagine myself hacking through a dense jungle of spreadsheet rows and columns with a machete of clarity, because that sounds significantly more interesting than organizing survey responses.

Armed with that particular brand of melodrama, I found that while some of the sorting and graphing is a bit tedious, there are so many interesting comments and conclusions that it’s hard to be bored. I’m going to share one in particular that I think readers and writers alike will appreciate.

When readers were asked “What elements make a great story?” I noticed the feedback often clumped up in contrasting pairs.

Characters should be “flawed” but still “likeable.” Plots that are both “believable” and “surprising” make the best stories. Novels that “make you laugh” and “make you cry” were listed as favorites, often by the same person. The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”

HOpeAnd it made me think: good stories hold opposites in tension because The Story does too.

It doesn’t have to be Christian fiction, or even fiction written from the point of view of a Christian, for this to come through, although one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: “It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.”

A special note for you writers—seeing these comments, I realized again that what you do is hard work. No other way around it. To write the novel described in these surveys you have to…

  • Give us characters who are better than us in some way so we look up to them…but also just like us so we can relate to them.
  • Portray a beautiful romance (which in real life can be a little dramatic, because lovebirds aren’t necessarily the most rational beings) without being cheesy, cloying, or over-the-top.
  • Maintain tension and suspense without slipping into melodrama or crossing the line into the improbability.
  • Make the heroes or heroines people with admirable qualities so we cheer them on the whole way, while still giving them deep flaws and weaknesses.
  • Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.
  • Create an ending that has some element of unexpectedness, while still being nicely foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel like it dropped out of the sky.

Here’s the thing, though: you have everything you need to do this.

As a person of faith, you hold these contrasts together all the time. You believe that people are both made in the image of God and deeply broken by sin. You pray in the name of Jesus who was fully God and fully man. You listen every Easter to the greatest example of a surprising yet inevitable ending.

Aslan2

Another contrast from C.S. Lewis, who liked writing about paradoxes.

Keep telling your stories, Christian writers. The world needs them because the world needs more hope.

Readers, which of the bullet points above do you think would be hardest to balance? (Writers, if you want to chime in with which one is most difficult for you, you’re welcome to do so!)

8 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Story?

  1. ‘The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”’ Ha!

    I’m grinning because — yes! — this post hits on one of the hardest parts of writing. Writing books is like walking a tight rope. You want to give the book plenty of XYZ (romance, humor, uniqueness, flawed characters, plot, etc) but not TOO much XYZ. I’m always shooting for ‘just the right amount’ of any one element, and I do it by intuition in the rough draft. When I read the rough draft straight through from beginning to end, just like a reader, I often realize the balance isn’t right. I’ve fallen off the tightrope somewhere! So I rewrite and rewrite, trying to find the right balance.

    For me, the trickiest bullet point you listed is: ‘Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.’ Characterization comes much easier to me.

  2. Really interesting post and love the parallels of contrasts within our faith. I really love suspense novels and think those writer struggle with being able to write a complex story line without losing their readers with all the details necessary for intrigue. OR pacing the story so fast that the characters lose any realism within their relationships.

  3. I would say for me as a writer the part that I struggle with the most is “Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers… but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.” Being able to self-edit my work does help me avoid confusing the storyline.
    However, as a writer I can be so close to the work (knowing the ins and outs) that I might miss something; that is why what also helps me is having beta readers read my stories and give feedback on if there were any areas in the manuscript that they had trouble following.
    By the way, I love the part where you write: “one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: ‘It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.’”
    This is so true! We all can see how chaotic the world is. Knowing this makes it even more important that we as Christians be that source of light in the darkness that draws people to put their hope and their trust in Jesus Christ.
    Great post!!

  4. I would say for me as a writer the part that I struggle with the most is “Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers… but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.” Being able to self-edit my work does help me avoid confusing the storyline.
    However, as a writer I can be so close to the work (knowing the ins and outs) that I might miss something; that is why what also helps me is having beta readers read my stories and give feedback on if there are any areas in the manuscript that they had trouble following.
    By the way, I love the part where you write: “one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: ‘It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.’”
    This is so true! We all can see how chaotic the world is. Knowing this makes it even more important that we as Christians be that source of light in the darkness that draws people to put their hope and their trust Jesus Christ.
    Great post!!

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