About Writers, editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

What IS a Good Story?

While working with editors to screen stories submitted for publications, I find many are rejected because the submission is not a story. It is a scene, a statement, a monologue, maybe a rant. Sometimes, the rejected submission is beautifully worded sentences that literally have no point beyond themselves.

It is not true that any account of a series of related events or experiences constitutes a story. I know that is the definition of a narrative. But for our purposes, it is no more a story than is the space in a building between two adjacent floors. We need stories with conflict, or tension, or surprise, or extraordinary characters or character behavior, or controversy, or mystery, or suspense, or -you get the point. Something that interests a reader and draws them in. And, will give readers reason to buy the next issue of the magazine or anthology.

Google “what makes a story good” and you’ll get thousands of returns. Many writers and teachers of writing offer useful advice for crafting a story. But that advice is useless to the writer who has no story of interest to tell. Editors reject stories with form letters that say nothing. But among themselves, they share reasons such as,
“The writing is good, but the story is uninteresting.”
“A boring telling – no effort is made to pull the reader into the story.”
“I’m sure this entertained the writer more than me.”
“Uninteresting with a predictable ending.”
“No. Not a story.”

Obviously, we all know a good story when we see one. Maybe I’m attempting to categorize an observable element although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters. But if someone could succently state what a good story is, they would be helping all of us to get more work published.

What do you think?

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17 thoughts on “What IS a Good Story?

  1. MamaSquid says:

    I’ve studied a lot of perspectives on story structure, so I guess I would say that there are indeed people attempting to define what a good story is, and I think they have been successful. The most succinct way I would put it is that a story is about a catalyst that forces a change. At its most basic level, you have your ordinary world, you have your central conflict, and you have an outcome in which things are different at the end than they were at the beginning. Sometimes the difference at the end is really subtle, but there’s always something. Some new insight, or growth in character, or change of circumstances as a result of the character’s action (or inaction) in the face of conflict. Whether a story is “boring” or not is a bit more nuanced, that often has to do with narrative drive, setting up questions that the reader wants answered and really delivering on the micro scale. We want fluid prose, we want a strong voice. But those things are not story. Story is change.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I think this is particularly true with collections of short stories. Many of them read like a chapter from a longer piece. I love Jane Jago’s dribbles, where she puts a delightful twist in the last line of a 100 word piece.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I see those chapters as submissions too, Mike. It’s OK if the “chapter” has a “story” ending and doesn’t leave the reader dangling on loose ends.

      Jane is a delight and so is her friend E.M. Swift-Hook. Tell them I said “Hi” the next time you send them a comment?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Perhaps I’ve been naive about what qualities define a story. I never considered “interesting” to be optional, but “interesting” is deeply subjective. If everyone finds a particular story uninteresting, it will not flourish. I know, for instance, that Romance is the most popular genre on Amazon, which indicates to me that many people must find it interesting enough to read. I do not. I find it formulaic and trite. Irritatingly predictable. Maybe romance readers don’t find the stories interesting either, but merely crave the titillation those stories are apparently required to provide. Does that make those writings anything other than stories? (I do, however, see a valid place for romance to be folded into a larger, more complex story.)

    Mamasquid calls out change as a necessary quality to make a story. I agree that’s essential. It gives a tale value — a reason to be told. I’m not convinced 100 words are sufficient to accomplish that with any depth, but the twist at the end that Mike and probably most of us enjoy does change the reader’s expectation. Maybe it’s more a scene with a twist. Like a joke with a satisfying punchline.

    The first four of GD’s editors sharing their reasons for rejecting stories seem to me to be saying only that they subjectively found the story uninteresting, each for a different reason. But the fifth editor saying, “No. Not a story,” seems to render that judgment as though there is no denying it by any standard. And because “Not a story” might mean it’s a scene or a rant or cheese Danish, I would have to ask, “How is it not a story?”

    Mike also mentions stories that read like a chapter from a longer piece. I agree that would be problematic if it left me feeling like there were things I needed to know about the characters or setting or situations that were left out, but I prefer stories that leave me something to speculate about. They linger like stories that are all buttoned up at the end with a bow on top do not. “And they all lived happily ever after” is simply unbelievable and unsatisfying. Give me a story that leaves me thinking there may be storm clouds on the horizon.

    Liked by 4 people

    • From a practical viewpoint, decisions are quick and final. That’s because most editors have a job, a family, a life, and simply don’t have the time for debate. The Rabbit Hole V anthology is a good example of the process. We have received 250 submissions. Each story is placed on Google Drive with the author’s name removed. We read and judge them to be Yes, Maybe or No. A story is published or rejected if three editors independently reach the same conclusion. If needed, we can reach into the Maybe file and use a story to fill out the anthology, otherwise, Maybe becomes No.

      The only motivation is to give writers of good stories a chance to be published. The editors and 90% of the authors in The Rabbit Hole anthology series have their earnings given to charity. And a really good story does stand out.

      Liked by 4 people

    • MamaSquid says:

      “I know, for instance, that Romance is the most popular genre on Amazon, which indicates to me that many people must find it interesting enough to read. I do not. I find it formulaic and trite. Irritatingly predictable. Maybe romance readers don’t find the stories interesting either, but merely crave the titillation those stories are apparently required to provide. Does that make those writings anything other than stories? (I do, however, see a valid place for romance to be folded into a larger, more complex story.”

      Interesting. I write romance, and often find myself at a loss for understanding what other people see in certain romance novels. A lot of them are rated very highly when I think they are quite bad, and it makes me worry I’m missing something about romance readers that’s going to bite me in the ass when I finally hit publish. There’s enough of a disparity that I must concede I probably read romance novels for a different reason than most romance readers. I’m most interested in the gradual development of a partnership – the more antagonistic the relationship at the beginning, the better – and the necessity for significant personal growth in order for love to be possible. When you have an intimate moment with someone (not sex, I’m talking emotional intimacy), and you’re surprised to find yourself vulnerable with someone, and feel the need for more intimacy with that person despite all apparent obstacles, that’s what keeps me reading. And a lot of writers get it wrong. I’m not at all opposed to sex in a novel, but a lot of writers use sex as a stand-in for emotional intimacy. I find those stories unfulfilling.

      That said, romance novels are rarely about only romance. An external conflict is required in order to drive the character change necessary to realize the love story. They are no more formulaic and predictable than an action story that ends with the hero saving the day or a crime novel that ends with the crime being solved, but I think people tend to be more tolerant of tropes when it’s a genre they like. And romance can be quite complex. I’ve read historical romance novels where the heroine is a Black Pinkerton spy posing as a slave during the 1800s, trying to have a relationship with a white man, dealing both with the imminent danger of such an arrangement and the question of how you have an equal partnership when there is such a high level of social inequality. I’ve read romance novels where the heroine is a telepathic space pirate trying to unify the warring factions of her own people. I’ve read the Shakespearian romance of Lois McMaster Bujold, where the protagonist plots his campaign to marry his lady love with all the scheming gusto you would expect of a rogue Admiral, to hilarious and poignant result. (Seriously, A Civil Campaign made me fall off my couch. It is that funny.) My own WIP is about a founding revolutionary being pushed out of his own political movement due to his unwillingness to address the psychological aftermath of months of torment in a political prison. There’s a whole action plot there about a secret spy cabal, and public pressure to delegitimize a terrorist splinter group growing in influence, but the romance is the catalyst for his ultimate worldview shift, which is necessary in order for him to move on with his life. In all of these tales, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the romance is folded into the story. The romance IS the story. Love is the catalyst for fundamental character change. I see a lot of this complexity, but I also read deeply in the genre.

      I have noticed that people bash romance novels and the women who love them more than any other genre. It’s so frequent and vicious that I used to be embarrassed about loving to write romance, and didn’t want to admit what I wrote because I knew some people would assume I’m an unserious writer. I just told people I wrote “science fiction” (which is probably the second most embarrassing genre to write in the eyes of the fiction world) or “thriller” (which is certainly true, my books are also thrillers) but God, of course what I write counts as a story. My work may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is as thoughtful, nuanced, and complex as any other kind of story. Hopefully you can now see there are reasons far beyond “titillation” that would compel someone to pick up a romance novel – or in my case, write one.

      Liked by 3 people

      • My daughter writes fantasy romance novels. Her first did have ample titillation but she listened to her readers and the next two -in a series of three- focused on character development and interrelationships. Kinda like soap operas, I guess -not my genre- and that’s now the way she writes.

        Liked by 2 people

      • There’s a bit of snobbery about romance, due no doubt to the effect of the Harlequin novels, often criticised for recycling the same plots and stereotypical characters. It’s a shame the genre as a whole has suffered as a result. But Mama Squid’s answer convinces me that the genre can be much richer than that.
        As to what makes a good story, I can do no better than refer everyone to a text from Atthys Gage, who judged the first Book a Break Short Story competition:

        A Word from the Judge

        Liked by 3 people

      • “A lot of them are rated very highly when I think they are quite bad,” describes my admittedly limited experience with the romance genre. If any of the romance novels that were recommended to me by seemingly serious readers had contained the insight and wit of Pride and Prejudice or the complexity and nuance you’ve described in your own writing, I might not have given up on today’s romance.

        As for writing science fiction, I’m not embarrassed to say that’s most of what I write, but I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard people insist, “I don’t read science fiction.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • MamaSquid says:

          I read both romance and science fiction heavily! This series (uh, let’s call it the Levian War Trilogy) is my first attempt at anything speculative, and I’d say it’s more like futuristic fantasy or soft sci-fi. Sci-fi romance is technically a thing, but it’s 100 variations on “Kidnapped By the Alien Warlord.” Not a lot of innovation there. I hope to change that. There are readers that want a cheap thrill and then there are people like me who want something a little more substantive, and I know there must be other people out there like me.

          I used to complain that there were too many bad romance novels until I started trying to read in other genres and I can say definitively that there are too many bad novels, period. One of the benefits of self-publishing is that we now have access to novels that are daring and different (I once found a really provocative romance series where the heroine was a serial killer… you’re not going to see that in trad pub.) The flip side is that there is an enormous amount of junk to wade through. I think that’s true no matter the genre, but a lot of people are trying to quickly cash in on romance simply because it’s the most popular genre. These people are not giving their all as artists, and they may not even like the genre personally, they just want $$$. And people will pay them to read half-assed fiction for some reason. So here we are.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. I just finished re-reading Big Trouble by Dave Barry–maybe the funniest book I’ve ever read. I love his story craft. He weaves together multiple plot lines–each with its idiosyncratic characters–then ties it all together at the end.
    It’s not a mystery–despite the police and FBI chasing the bad guys–you can see where it’s going. Doesn’t matter–at the end, the seconds count down ominously. I think it meets all of J.D.’s criteria.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Good story?
    Maybe Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave us a clue when he described his threshold test for obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”

    He explained it as an “attempt to categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters.”

    We are attempting to define a subjective, “good,” in a category that lacks clearly defined parameters, “story.”

    No wonder there are varying opinions! 😂🤣

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I believe that what makes a good story isn’t an easy answer. Part of me thinks it depends on style, for mystery the slow reveal or the Sherlock finish. For fact based I lean toward time lines and keeping linear to be more digestible. Long story short depends on writer and reader preference.

    Like

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