The Elements of a Story

When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business. Flannery O’Connor
 
 
What makes a good story? Many people have differing views on the subject, but they all generally end up agreeing on several points.

 1. A good story is one that touches people in some way. It’s no fun reading a story where nothing goes past your brain into your heart. A story has to make you feel what the characters feel – pain, shock, love. A good story should make you laugh, drive you to tears (or your knees), and perhaps even bring you closer to God.

2. A good story has to have substance. A good plot is essential. I’ve read books where the story had so much potential – but it simply wasn’t dealt with properly. It was left unfinished, like a lineart drawing that just needed to be colored in. I’ve done this before with NaNoWriMo novels – unlike what Chris Baty says, no plot IS a problem.
3. A good story needs conflict and resolution. The hero or heroine has to have something to DO, after all! They need a main purpose, a goal to strive for, even if it’s something they don’t quite yet understand. It could be something as simple as fitting in, or it could be something more dramatic, say, saving the universe from destruction. Whatever it is, there needs to be a conflict and a resolution that only the hero or heroine can deal with.
4. A good story creates vivid images. If a book is good enough, it paints pictures in my mind. Vivid ones. I can see and hear everything that’s happening, like a movie playing in my head. I’m no longer sitting on my bed or in the car reading a book; I’m in the story, I’m part of it. (Which makes it all the more annoying when I have to put the book down to do something as menial as eating). One thing I find very useful in creating this vividry is comparasins. “The weathered traffic cone sat on the overgrown sidewalk like a wizard’s hat, battered and discarded.” (I’m rather proud of this one; it popped into my head in the Publix parking lot). Doesn’t this provoke a better image than “The traffic cone sat on the sidewalk”?
 

For me, a good story is one that transports me to another world. A good story is a spellbinding one. As C. S. Lewis said (though I don’t agree on the ‘first reading’ rule, though I happen to be one of those people who rereads my books), “we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust has been given its sop and laid to sleep are we at leisure to savor the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”

What makes a story spellbinding for you? What makes you want to pick it up and read it again? The characters? The plot? The imagery? I’d love to hear from you!

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3 thoughts on “The Elements of a Story

  1. YES! Truly true, all that is 🙂 I love a story that has REAL meaning- an eternal meaning. I also love a story that draws you in by events, feelings, or choices that you can relate too. And I love a story with imagery- the element that takes hold of my imagination (and then enables me to make illustration easy!)
    Thanks, Mirriam! 😀

  2. I agree that a good story must transport you to another world, and I think all the story elements you mentioned are important components of an excellent book.

    An engaging voice, one that hooks me and compels me to keep reading is something else I look for, something that makes a story truly spellbinding. Most of all, I need a strong connection with the characters–without that, the story can’t hit that deeper level.

    Oh, and you used two quotes that I love. 🙂

  3. Spellbinding…there’s many things that make a book spellbinding for me, and sometimes what works in one book wouldn’t necessarily work in another. But in general, I’d say vivid atmosphere (related to vivid imagery) and/or a great character(s) are the two most important to me, personally. Atmosphere is incredibly subtle and tricky to write, but what a difference it makes! : ) And a great character (hero or even antihero) can pull me along through the book, even if the plot’s boring or if the other characters are cardboard cutouts.

    Interestingly, too, it’s the characters that a person tends to remember, be it in a book or a movie. Whenever my family and I have a spontaneous movie discussion (love those!), we always end up focusing on the characters, and why we do or don’t like them.

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