Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Components of a Good Story, Part One

I was having a discussion with some fellow writers the other day about what makes a good book. What goes into it? Why is it good? Most people talked about their favorite books, and why they're favorites. But that seems like a subjective way to answer this question.

So, I attempted to dissect a story from a technical perspective. What goes into a story? How is it put together? How do all these things equal "Good?" Let's tackle these questions one at a time.

What goes into a story?
Well, a story has Opening Lines, Characters, Setting, Theme, Plot (Beginning, Middle, End), Resolution, Voice, and Good Writing.

Opening Lines
This is the hook that grabs the reader and makes him want to keep reading. The hook doesn't have to be dramatic or shocking, it just needs to provoke a question. For example, Charlotte's Web by E. B. White: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" The reader immediately asks himself 1) Where is Papa going with that ax? and 2) Why the heck does he need an ax? We keep reading to find out the answers.

The characters are the people in the story, and they need to be strong. This doesn't mean the main character needs to be a go-get-em hero type. It means he needs to be authentic, believable, well-rounded, and sympathetic. We need to relate to him, so we'll want to follow him to the end of the story. And, the main character needs realistic supporting characters and antagonistic characters, or the reader will simply put the book back on the shelf.

The setting is where it all takes place. It needs to be vivid and capture not only the physical details, but the flavor of the place. The reader needs to feel like he's there, hearing the breeze rustle the leaves on the trees, feeling the roughness of the worn fabric on the arms of the sofa, or tasting that deep dish pizza at the cheese oozes over his tongue.

The theme is the main message the story conveys. This is the heart of the story, what the author really wants to say, and one of the main reasons it was written. And it must be subtle, almost to the point of unnoticeable. Readers don't like to be hit over the head with morals or lessons. They just want to enjoy a great story.

Plot (Beginning, Middle, End)
The plot is how the story moves along, and contains the conflict that makes it interesting. Simply put, the plot should have the reader asking himself "What's going to happen next? I have to turn the page!" It doesn't have to be an exhausting adventure of non-stop action. Just a well-paced story that interests the reader. "That's all?" you say? Well, not really. It's extremely difficult to create an engaging plot, but it's possible to learn how through writing classes, critique groups, books on the craft of writing, etc.

This is the very end of the story where the main character achieves his goal(s) and all loose ends are wrapped up. It should be unexpected yet logical, satisfying yet leaves a bit to the imagination, and complete. If any one of these elements is missing, you risk losing readers of future books. I, for one, feel as though I've wasted my precious time if the resolution isn't satisfying. And I'm less likely to pick up another book by that author.

This is kind of a nebulous aspect of writing. It's where the reader keeps reading, but doesn't really know why. I suppose you could say that Voice is similar to the flavor of the story, the nuances of the main character, the subleties of the time period, etc. It's hard to define, hard to teach, and therefore hard to master. Some might argue that you either have it or you don't, but I, personally, don't believe that. :)

Good writing
This is probably the hardest component to get "right." The writing needs to put the reader into the story (show not tell, authentic dialog, appropriate descriptions, etc). Truly great writing is transparent - the reader doesn't read a sentence and then think "wait, I didn't get that; let me read it again. Or even "wow, that was a beautiful and elegant choice of words." Instead, the reader should be so absorbed in the story that he takes your choice of words for granted. I, personally, take that as the highest compliment, ever.

That's my take on what goes into a story. Anyone have anything to add?

That leaves us with the remaining two questions: How is a story put together, and What makes it good? I'll tackle those in my next post.


Write2ignite said...

Nice post. It echoes many of the things Pam Zollman explained in the workshop we attended this weekend. Looking forward to your next post!

Tabitha said...

Glad you enjoyed it. :)

I often use this blog as a way of sorting out all the pieces that go in to writing, and making a career out of writing. It helps clarify things in my mind.

Is that something you do? Or anyone else?

Mary Witzl said...

Yes, absolutely. I sort out things I've been thinking about whenever I'm stuck on something I'm writing. If the weather is good, I'll go out and pull weeds or dig in my garden, always chewing over the problem in my mind. I tell myself that as long as I'm thinking and writing, I'm not really procrastinating or bogged down with writer's block.

There are two other things I look for in writing and am always happy to find: some sort of spiritual growth or understanding on the part of the protaganist (sounds cheesy, but there it is), and humor. Barbara Kingsolver's 'Bean Trees' is one of my favorite novels. Her opening paragraph about the exploding tire is one of the funniest and best hooks I can imagine. A humorless writer can be brilliant, but without that funny spark, I am seldom tempted to go back.

Tabitha said...

"I tell myself that as long as I'm thinking and writing, I'm not really procrastinating or bogged down with writer's block."

You betcha!! :) I feel the same way.