“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 story teller, 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 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.
6. Being good means building rising action. This means that the trouble your main characters get into needs to be progressively more treacherous or complex. Spend the first fourth of your story setting up your characters and getting them ready for the big adventure, spend the middle two fourths putting them in more and more trouble as they pursue the objective, then, have a spectacular moment when they either get what they want or they don’t and there are no other options. Then, spend a fourth, or even a bit less, cleaning up the mess and settling things down for the reader.
7. Being good means creating mutually exclusive choices. This means that your climax or your big spectacular moment puts your character in the position of either one serious objective or the other. Either they save the world from destruction or they get the girl. Either they keep the suitcase of diamonds or they keep their buddy from getting shot. Either they keep their reputation as a rule follower, for a lifetime of security, or they marry the shyster with the great hair. It’s this choice, and all of the stuff leading up this choice, that will keep your readers enticed. Then, when they make the choice, make it believable, satisfying but not too predictable, so that your reader can finish the book thinking, this was a great story!
8. Being good means creating high stakes. High stakes means that the potential loss to your characters if they don’t reach their goal will be heartbreaking, devastating or embarrassing. You can raise the stakes as the story goes along by throwing in natural disasters, untrustworthy companions, something from the past that shows up wanting something or a sheriff who shoots first and asks questions later. Having the right amount of risk for your characters will keep your reader interested, so make those characters suffer!
9. Being good means clear, concise writing. After you’ve gotten the main parts of the story just right, go back and make sure it’s told well. Simple, clear writing, that generally follows the rules of good grammar, will do fine. Don’t try to impress your reader with big words. Don’t try to sound like some other author. Wise writers recruit savvy buddies to help out. None of us are perfect. So make the effort to do the best you can. Oh, and there’s this: bad writing can’t save a good story. Excellent writing can make a good story into a great one!
10. Being good means being free of errors. Once the story is perfected and the writing is polished, go over your art a couple of more times and look for tiny mistakes. Generally, these are easy fixes in punctuation, grammar, or spelling that can add professionalism to your work. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, then make sure you’ve done all you can to make your work worthy of your readers.
If you’ve done all these things, then your story is probably “good”, but even word “good” is open to interpretation.
And a good story can’t become a great one unless these ten issues are perfected. My advice to you? Pour yourself another cup of coffee, finish your shift and make your story the best it can be. It may never be good, but you, as a result of the hard work, will definitely be better.
What else makes a story good? Have I forgotten anything? Which is the easiest or hardest for you to do?
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.