Does Anyone Really Know What Makes a Story Good?
Header images via Andrea Piacquadio & Mike van Schoonderwalt
Obviously, my premise here is that it is harder to pinpoint what really makes a story good than many might think. I believe the extremes of the spectrum are easy to identify. A really great story or a really terrible story probably both have elements that lead to shared conclusions about their quality. But even in those cases, the consensus is likely not universal. So what would happen if I put the terrible story in the hands of an experienced, creative, and talented writer? How much change would they have to affect in their version before we saw it as something good? If we wrote a list of what made the difference, would it be actionable? Likely there would be subtle differences that changed our perceptions of quality that we wouldn’t immediately recognize. Even if we did identify those game-changers, they would still be difficult to quantify or teach. They might not transfer to a different story and have the same effect, and wouldn’t benefit a writer to use all the time.
The rest of the list would contain generalities on craft that apply broadly across most stories and genres. No doubt, the great writer redeeming the terrible story broke some rules and took some risks to make it work. We are then in the territory of telling newer writers that rules can be broken, but they must first know the rules. That sounds a little like the wisdom criminals might trade around in prison.
Likewise, if we started making alterations to a great story, how many changes would it take to lower the quality enough for people to agree it was worse? Would people not even notice the difference? Could we accidentally make the story better as a result of this experiment?
That general list of writing conventions from our evaluation of a great tale versus a terrible one gives us a starting point. These are the things we can teach aspiring writers that they can learn through experience and regular reading. We can explain why characters looking at themselves in the mirror to provide a description for the reader isn’t good writing. We can explain why “it was all a dream” is a bad twist for a story. We can discuss why certain words are stronger than others. Why overuse of adverbs tends to weaken otherwise strong sentences. Poor editing and too many typos can ruin a story for readers. More generally, we can discuss pacing, character development, motivation, word choice, sentence and paragraph variation, and more. After we’re done with all that, we have no guarantee who will go out to write good stories or mediocre ones.
This is where we get into the weeds a bit. Editors, publishers, and reviewers would like to believe there is a concrete definition of what makes stories work. They are the ones that need to be able to tell the difference. Most readers probably decide whether they like a story, and then search for the reasons why after the fact. But editors disagree with each other sometimes. If you take those same elements and search out other stories, you can find good stories with the same bad qualities or bad stories with the qualities we claim made the first story work. Then, we have to explain why these tales are different. Those distinctions can then be searched for in other tales as well, ad nauseam.
I’m not claiming there are no differences between good and bad stories other than perception. I will say that more and more I’m starting to believe that the difference involves more intangibles than we might have previously thought. I think there are little things in well written stories beyond the tangible conventions that are easy to pinpoint and discuss, that flip the switch for readers, editors, publishers, and reviewers between like and dislike. Those switches completely alter whether a story failed to meet basic standards of quality or a skilled author broke the rules in a way that made the story stand out. If this is true, it’s not terribly helpful and not easy to measure or prove.
Subjective vs Objective Measures
Writing is more art than science, but it is not divorced from specific articulated rules many of us learned in school. Going from basic grammar on up through elements of style and voice, the subjective and objective are forever intertwined in parsing out how to write a good story and being able to recognize whether someone else's story is good.
The fact that authors often stare at a finished work and ask themselves, “Is this good?” is very telling. We employ beta readers to do everything from finding errors and continuity issues to answering questions of quality. Even then, we’re not sure. We pass it on to editors and publishers to get their verdict. Any two of them can offer polar opposite opinions. Those same gatekeepers are sometimes writers themselves, and go through the same “is this good?” dance with their own work. And there are a number of factors, both subjective and objective, that make this a harder question to answer than initially thought.
• The Halo Effect
Ghostwriting made me aware of this form of cognitive bias. I have bestselling and award nominated books in all sorts of genres. All I had to do was write them for someone else and let that person put their name on it. In more than one case, those same publishers rejected work written under my own name, and gave specific reasons why it didn’t work for them. So either name matters more than quality, my work is good but has gone unnoticed, or there is a huge quality difference between what I write for myself versus what I write for someone else. I’ve had editors claim they use a completely blind reading process, and perhaps that is true, but I’ve seen this phenomenon of ghostwritten work getting past these “blind” processes, too. Take from that what you will.
Moving away from the nefarious implications of the situation, we are more likely to give an author we have enjoyed in the past a chance to win us over. Reading the same work from an unknown writer, we might tap out earlier if it doesn't hook us. The same is true when evaluating a story once we finish it. I’m not saying anything needs to be done about this, but this is one factor that can influence our evaluation.
• Editor Preferences
I had a story accepted for Best Horror of the Year Volume 5. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Right up until I got paid, I still suspected I was being scammed. It was a weird little zombie story that was all show and no tell. I reread it more than once to see if I could figure out the magic formula. Later, I realized I had stumbled by accident into elements of cosmic horror. I also learned the editor had an affinity for music and that played a huge part in the story. That was one of those intangible touches that connected to that specific editor.
I had another story accepted that was a kind of wandering, overreaching mess. It had a couple in it who got together too fast, but their relationship worked somehow. There was a dangerous ex involved. I found out later that these character elements mirrored the editor’s own life in odd ways. This was an intangible that gave the story deeper meaning for that reader, who happened to be the key gatekeeper.
There is no way to completely game these things to your advantage. I know certain editors who don’t like child protagonists, or hate zombie stories. I have those details filed in the back of my mind and I don’t send them those types of stories.
Every person has biases. Even in a blind submission with a forward thinking person; life experiences, cultural background, previous reading, and even personal style will influence what they connect with. To deny this would allow those biases a bigger influence over our assessments. A good story from another cultural reference point might be a more difficult connection for us. It might require us to take a step back to really evaluate the quality of the story. That process of taking a second look can influence our assessments in different ways as well.
• Show Don’t Tell
This is a good idea that has been used to the point of cliché, and is losing its meaning in a lot of circles. It has a chaotic evolution that has caused it to mean different things to different people. Telling a writer to “show don’t tell” is an act of telling and not showing.
This advice has its limits, even if we agree on its meaning. Let’s say John punched Doug in the face. Editors might disagree on whether this is showing or telling. They’d probably agree that it is better than saying, Debra saw John punch Doug in the face, because the second example is filtering the scene through someone else’s perception. We can go with John’s fist crushed Doug’s nose. Some would say that is still telling. John’s already bloody knuckles crunched into the cartilage of Doug’s nose, bringing tears to Doug’s eyes, making them blood brothers for the second time. There’s a lot more going on there. But some might argue that stating they are blood brothers is telling instead of showing, while others would agree it adds history and depth to the characters in the midst of the action, while also implying that Doug’s nose bleeding without saying it outright. There is an adverb in there some might edit out. Others might say we need to describe the blood from Doug’s nose or add details about the sound. Still others might think the scene needs to be told from Doug’s perspective. Eventually, you have a whole paragraph on the glorious first punch, and the fight scene is now a Renaissance mosaic of vivid detail paced at a standstill. It might serve the story better to just have John punch Doug and get on with it.
Some of the most memorable lines, the ones we cherish, the ones that make a story dear to us, were the author straight up telling us something that resonated with us. That being said, it is likely supported by sentences and paragraphs that leaned into showing the action more clearly. Broadly, I think the phrase “show don’t tell” is far less helpful and less specific than people think it is.
• Breaking Rules Well or Badly
Sentence fragments are considered poor writing, but they are peppered throughout many great stories. Overuse may rob them of their punch and make a story choppy. Starting a sentence with a conjunction is considered incorrect, but can be used for emphasis. Use this affectation too much and it pulls the reader out of the narrative. Breaking the rules can turn your audience off, or have you heralded as a genius or the father of an entirely new subgenre.
There are people who like a slow burn and those who loathe any sort of padding in a story. Strip it to the bone, they say. Faster pacing is more likely to produce a story people think is good. A slow burn can be seen as great, but is harder to get right. Whichever type of story you write, the delivery impacts the readers’ experience, and can split their opinions as well.
• Character Work
Many of the best writers and best stories employ strong character work. But it is a fine line. We can come up with all sorts of examples of great character driven stories and why they work. We can also find examples where too much description ruins the pacing of the story.
Beautiful, vivid description can draw a reader in, but too much bogs a story down. There are plenty classic authors who are guilty of writing paragraph upon paragraph of descriptive filler. Any writer turning in such work today would be tossed out after the first few, self indulgent pages. Today, writers are rewarded more for concise, careful description that paints a bigger picture within the reader’s imagination. These shifts in style over the years indicate changes in preference versus any universal agreement over what makes writing "good."
• Writing What You Know
Writers can achieve authenticity by starting with what they know. Jobs they have worked, places they have lived, characters based on people they've met, etc. However, this idea has limits if we are going to write about monsters and alien worlds. We can supplement knowledge with research and reading other, diverse works. There is a risk in writing about cultures or details we have no experience with. All of this impacts what the reader thinks is good.
• Negotiation Over Suspension of Disbelief
Great authors tend to be great negotiators. They give enough reality-based detail for the reader to buy into their world. In return, they ask that we turn off our disbelief when they introduce elements that are clearly beyond the scale of typical experience. The judgement over good and bad quality often comes down to how well that negotiation is handled within the text and the reader’s mind.
• Marketing and Time
There are stories that are appreciated more upon reflection. This is true for readers as well as editors. There are great stories weren't read by enough people to make any lasting impact. Stories that develop buzz, are talked about, and get more eyes on them garner more opinions. All of that impacts what the individual reader ultimately thinks of the story. Over enough time, the prevailing opinion of the quality of a story can shift dramatically.
• Familiarity vs Uniqueness
We are attracted to what we can relate to. Our level of comfort helps us buy into a story. But reading the same things over and over again bores us. The unique aspects of a story are what make us think it is special, or maybe too weird to understand.
Why Do I Like This?: The Magic Mix
While there are some touchstones we generally agree upon and use to separate the good from the bad, there is a broad lack of universal agreement. It’s often a coinflip on any given story with any given individual. Over time, our opinions and preferences tend to solidify. We become more sure that our opinions are right. We reinforce those opinions with like-minded people who agree. Now, we have a consensus on what makes a story good. Sort of. But not really.
There is a lot we know about writing from these confluences of consensus in various circles of people. The conventions that arise from these tacit agreements are tools that can help writers better approach a “good” story. Understanding these known quantities can also empower creative writers to bend and break the rules in ways that will have some crying their greatness while others desperately try to convince everyone they suck. One of my goals in life is to become great enough that people feel the need to argue why I’m not great. This combination of elements doesn't map out a sure path to creating a good story, but it does point out the territory where good stories are made.
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