“Is this any good?”
After, “is there any more coffee?” and “can I take your order?” this question is asked the most often by aspiring novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, and other creative story-telling types. Unfortunately, that descriptor “good” is a vague one. We may not even know what we’re asking when we ask it. We may not want anything from the person we are asking except a nod, and maybe their dinner order. We really only want validation that our creative efforts aren’t wasted and that maybe that MFA degree wasn’t a waste of money.
“Is it good?”
If you’re asking, then go through this list and see if it has at least some of these requirements:
1. Being good means having a recognizable structure. Because we were all raised on stories, we have it wired in our brains what it means to create a story. If a story is a watercolor anecdote, a “how we met” story, a novella, a play, a graphic novel or War and Peace, there is an expectation of beginning, middle, and end. If you are going to be a storyteller, then you can’t ignore the recognizable that is required of stories.
2. Being good means creating clear desires for your characters. Each story not only requires a recognizable structure, but it also must have recognizable desires. Your characters must want in a way that is universal to everyone else’s wants. They’re hungry. They’re thirsty. They long for love. They want justice. They want freedom. They want revenge. They want to be rich, famous or get home in time for Christmas. To be good, these desires must clear and set up well from the beginning.
3. Being good means creating interesting characters. While your character does have desires, and I would argue that the desire is the most important part of the character’s development, the details of the character are important too. Your reader needs to know, even if they aren’t familiar with this word, what kind of archetype your character follows. Are they the warrior? The studious professor? The wholesome girl next door? The spunky kid? By clarifying this for your reader, you’re setting up a general expectation for the story. Even if you tweak it, having this in place will invite your reader to come along with you for the ride. It also helps to have a good basic description: an understanding of their appearance, education, age, anything really that would show up on a Facebook profile or job application. It would also help, although plenty of authors have been successful without doing this, to have a psychological understanding of your character. This means setting up their actions and responses in a way that is consistent. Are they extroverted? Sensitive? A planner? Easily distracted? Make the effort to create well-rounded, believable, possibly even likable characters so your reader can identify with them and be interested in their story.
4. Being good means sticking to the story. Unless your name is J.R.R. Tolkien or Victor Hugo, keep your story on track. Do not go into long descriptions of French sewers or the history of hobbits. If there were a spectrum of being overly wordy (Tolkienesque) on one side and then being economical (Hemingway, maybe or Steinbeck) then lean toward the Americans. I know, you spent weeks developing the backstory to your main character’s auntie, explaining exactly how she lost that eye in a freak NASCAR accident, but unless it is important to the story, leave it out. Here’s a thought, write another one with One-eyed Auntie as the main character!
5. Being good means not telling too much too soon. This means that you are telling your story at a reasonable pace. You keep your characters moving forward in such a way that your reader is intrigued, kind of like dropping bread crumbs in a forest. Pacing is tricky. Consider getting a trusted beta reader or developmental editor to help you along if you find yourself getting bogged down or rushing things. You don’t have to get it perfect in the first draft. But you do, need to be willing to make whatever changes you need to enhance the story.
Next week? Five MORE Ways To Make Your Story “Good”
What else makes a story good? Have I forgotten anything? Which is the easiest or hardest for you to do?