Someone recently asked, what are the elements of a great story? Everyone had a different answer. I am sure you have your own answer, and I would bet it relates to a story you once read that you considered great. It may relate to some ideas you gleaned from a creative writing class, or MFA program or writer’s retreat or critique group. All of that stuff may be wise, good and true. I won’t argue against any of it. I only want to suggest three basic things, because I believe if you can master these things, you can produce a great story of your own.
1. Setting. Whether Atlanta is burning or Bogart is stumbling around Rick’s café in Casablanca, the setting, where all of the story takes place, must hold the reader’s interest. The best words are unique and fascinating. We may live in a world of Google travel, but the human desire to seek out strange and exotic places is not diminished.
If it is a mystery, people are tired of the same old bar scenes, and gin joints and the same old wealthy mansions (that may be haunted). If it is science fiction, what makes your space ships different from all the generic ones on paper and in the movies? If it is fantasy, must we suffer through yet another medieval world? When are all the demons, vampires, werewolves and slayers going to discover that there is life outside the cities? And honestly, how many stories can really take place in Amish country among a people whose lives have remained essentially the same for centuries?
Authors who would not be caught dead with generic characters often place them in the most generic settings. Be careful. Dull settings can kill a great story. Make it fascinating, unique, strange, exotic, a place where people want to go (or perhaps decidedly do not want to go, if you know what I mean).
2. Characters. Too much has been said by too many people on this topic already. Everyone has a take on how to build complex, well rounded characters. In fact, I do not wonder why so many new writers become confused about the issue. Information overload, and to be sure, not all the experts agree.
My take is much simpler. You don’t want characters. You want to people your story with people (human beings). The better you know people, the better your people on paper will be. It really is that simple. Human beings are complex, fallible and, well, you know.
The thing that stands out for me with regard to characters, though, it consistency. Yes, half-way through a book that rotten neighbor can show that they have a heart after all, but I have found that even for some authors who have well-rounded, well-developed human on the page, consistency can be a problem.
If Aunt Linda would never say such a thing, don’t have her say it. If Pamela would never be caught dead in that situation, help her avoid it. I know the temptation is to have whomever is available say something or do something vital to move the story forward; but for me when people say something they would not say or act in an “uncharacteristic” fashion it can kill a great story.
3. Plot = for God’s sake make something happen already!
Sadly (I feel) literature (what some professors and experts consider GREAT literature) remains full of stories that are little more than naval gazing on paper. I have no interest in reading such shorts or novels because they aren’t stories. Sometimes I get trapped into reading such works and always get to the end and think, that was a day (four days) of my life, wasted.
Now, it may just be me, though I suspect there are plenty who agree with me. I don’t care how great a work of literary art the academic community calls it. In my opinion, if things don’t happen to hold my interest and make me want to turn the page, I am not interested. (I guess that is like saying water is wet stuff). People may respond, but consider the great philosophy, consider the great expression of the human condition, consider the great writing – it is poetic, brilliant! I just sigh. But it is not a story, and certainly not a great story.