What Makes A Good Story?

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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”.

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Video removed, see why further down.

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.

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What the author meant

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I’ll admit it: I did English Literature in high school. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I’ll exclude all my other excuses as to why I didn’t do well in Lit – like my general lack of motivation in school and desperate need to complete the final level of DOOM – and blame my poor grades on the above graphic.

Obviously not the graphic itself, that would be silly. I mean the message that the graphic is trying to relay, and not just that the curtains may be blue. In school and even now, I find that literature is often over-interpreted. I remember clearly one example of this when we were forced to study Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Studying a play by reading it already had me wanting to throw stuff at the teacher, as plays are meant to be watched, not read. But I remember the teacher being adamant that there was a very important juxtaposition and allegory in the comedic scene of the drunken porter.

If you can’t remember this scene in MacBeth, suffice to say it is one big joke about how being drunk makes you pee and ruins erections. Dick jokes never go out of fashion.

Apparently there is a lot of deep and meaningful stuff going on….. Dick jokes can be deep and meaningful. I always thought that MacBeth chucked in that joke scene because the rest of the play was so dark, and it gave his actors a chance to change costumes before the next act. Essentially, I thought that it was just a necessity and the master playwright had made it fun for the audience. My teacher disagreed.

But that is the thing, unless Shakespeare wrote down his intentions, or there are some amazing insights recorded from his time, then it is just conjecture, or playing with themselves. Occam’s Razor would have us take the simplest answer that fits and not try to overcomplicate things.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t deeper meaning in any artistic work, far from it. But a lot of the deeper meaning is about the reader’s projection as much as what is/was written. Take as an example the list that the wonderful Mental Floss put together:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/30937/famous-novelists-symbolism-their-work-and-whether-it-was-intentional
Many famous authors, many misinterpretations.

Now some authors and genres love to go overboard with the hidden meanings, or at least like to make it seem deep and meaningful (see Steve Hely’s satire on this). Some authors just do it accidentally as part of including various themes and ideas in their work. But literary analysis really does take that interpretation to another level.

Essentially, why can’t people just enjoy a book?