Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:
Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.
Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.
A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:
A central premise.
Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)
I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….
Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.
As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.
I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?
Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.
Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.
This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.
I have long-held a disdain for the way reading and books are presented in schools. At a time when kids are trying to be cool by gaming, watching the right TV shows, seeing cool movies, Snap-chatting themselves half-naked, and sleeping until noon, schools try to suck all the fun out of reading.
Up until high school kids are more likely to read regularly for pleasure. At high school this rate declines markedly, and doesn’t really recover until retirement (if at all, as I’d argue that the older people making up those Pew survey numbers grew up in an age before internet, decent TV, and gaming). Not only are teens exposed to more other potential entertainment sources, they also find less enjoyment in reading. Something happens in high school. Something terrible. We assign them standardised texts to read!
In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher explains why the American system has been failing kids and how to fix it. I think many of the points apply to any nation that utilises an emphasis on standardised testing for schools. Below is a summary presentation that you can navigate to by clicking on the image. Worth a look for any fellow book nerds and/or parents.
I don’t actually agree with everything in the overview, namely the idea that classics are classics for a reason. You have to remember that the reason a book becomes a classic is often chance, or because some person reckons it should be, not because it is always good. Plenty of good books have undoubtably been lost in obscurity and thus to history. An example of a book now regarded as a classic that was almost lost to history is Moby Dick. It faded into obscurity after its release and was pretty much forgotten until one literary critic – Carl Van Doren – revived the novel 70 years after its publication. So one guy reckoned it was good, others nodded and agreed with him, and so that means it’s a classic.*
The idea that kids should be reading classics or literary “masterpieces” is part of the problem, in my opinion. This is very much a top down decree of what is important by people who have made a career out of lecturing others on what is important…. to them. Just because they like it doesn’t mean that it will inspire kids to be lifelong readers.
Now, that isn’t to say that those “important” books aren’t worth reading. But it is to say that there is a stark difference between what a literary critic or scholar deems good, and what a kid who just read Harry Potter for the first time deems good. School curriculums would be better off without trying to bash kids over the heads with books they are unlikely to enjoy.
This is a great breakdown of why readers give up on reading and which books are the biggest culprits. I largely agree with most of the sentiments and books listed. It is very interesting to me that “slow and boring” is the #1 reason people abandon a book. Not just #1, it is number two and three as well, as the next reason had less than half the polling. I’ll offer a few comments on each part of the infographic.
Top Five most abandoned:
Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling – This is no surprise really. I’ve heard it is a particularly dark book and the remark that people were expecting it to be more like Harry Potter shows that no-one read the blurb.
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James – Who’d have thought that Twilight fan-fiction would be poorly written?
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – When you have a trilogy that could have been edited down to a single book there are bound to be a few readers, like me, who think this ‘thriller’ is slow going.
I haven’t read or heard of anything to do with the other two on the list.
Top Five most abandoned classics:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – When people don’t get it then of course they will abandon it. One of the rejection letters for Catch-22 said, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say…Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – I can see why some people wouldn’t like this book. While I loved it, there are unnecessary characters, events, chapters, scenes, language use… Okay, it’s long and waffly.
Ulysses by James Joyce – At a thousand pages, unless you like an abridged, tiny text, 600 page version, this was never going to be an easy read.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville – I read this when I was in primary school. It made my brain hurt. Very hard to read and spent a long time between the interesting scenes.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Great doorstop, selfish drivel to read.
Reasons for and against abandoning:
It really doesn’t surprise me that the reason most people give up reading a book is that it is boring and slow (46.4%). What does surprise me is that the reason people keep reading a book is not because people are enjoying the book but that they like to finish a book regardless (36.6%). Clearly too many people are reading books that they don’t like. Given the popular books, like the already mentioned Stieg Larsson and EL James, it shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve read instruction manuals with more action than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I remember working out roughly how many more books I could read in my life. I have averaged reading roughly 100 books per year for the last few years. Now excluding a major accident or the zombie apocalypse, I should be able to continue this average until I die peacefully in my car travelling the wrong way down the freeway at age 90. That means I can only read another 5,500 books in my life! There are more than 8,500 books published every year in Australia, so my chances of reading all the great books I’d like to are slim. We really don’t have time to waste on bad books.