Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Makes A Great Story

Recently I have found myself very interested in the craft of writing. How DO these authors do what they do—what makes a good story? Well, I’ve found out a few things, and thought you might be interested.

So, grab a delicious, calorie-laden muffin and a cup of something soothing, cuz this is gonna be fun! *grin* WARNING: This is a longer post then I usually write, so forgive me. And I won't feel bad if you skim.

If you are like me and you like reading—and I know you do, then you might very well have similar ideas about what makes a good story. And when you find a story that meets all your nitty-gritty criteria, you have found a friend for life! Now, authors know all these things that we as readers want (how do they know?!), and they do their best to weave them together for our benefit, and boy, am I glad they do.

Not everyone’s tastes are similar—if they were, then everyone in the world would read only inspirational romances in third person POV, just like I like to do. But the things that make universally good stories aren’t the POVs/places/times/plots of a story, per se. The things that make gripping stories are more general and can be found in any story, no matter how different they are—from GONE WITH THE WIND to STAR WARS. (Or if we want to focus on historical romance here, we would mention A HOPE UNDAUNTED and TO WIN HER HEART.) Both those stories are mind-blowingly awesome for the same reasons.

Let me explain. (Here’s where you take a sip of that drink, and a nice little nibble of your muffin.)

Here are the four ingredients for what makes a marvelous story (there may be more or less, depending on who you talk to, but these are the ones I have found to be most important). These ingredients make the kind of story you will want to read over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and….well, you get the point.

1: Make mine a Hero (and Heroine!) sandwich, please.

Characters are paramount!

The hero and heroine of the story are where it starts for me, folks. You might have an awesome book—fabulous plot, great conflict, etc. But if the characters are so awful you’d rather watch reruns of BONANZA for twelve hours straight, then we have a problem.

When I read a book, I want the characters to be so real, so believable, so likable and sympathetic that I feel like I know them inside and out. I want to root for them, laugh with them and cry with them. All you have to do is read a Julie Lessman book and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

If the hero (or heroine, of course) in the book is believable, and I can sympathize with him, if I feel for him and can desire what he desires, then I will follow him anywhere!

This leads me to point number 2…

2. Excuse me. Why did you just do that?

Motivation, people. That’s where it’s at!

If I can understand the hero’s “motivation” and know his “goal” (I’ve learned these are terms writers use), then it doesn’t matter if he’s saving the planet from an alien invasion or simply ordering a Happy Meal—for himself, mind you—I’ll be right there with him, cheering him on every step of the way. I love a story where the motivation is real and driven by powerful emotion, because without the emotion behind the motivation, well, all I have to say is, that’s like trying to get excited about a three hour visit at the dentist office. No thank you. (I like to tease my husband...who happens to be a dentist! Love you, Robby!)

This leads me to point number 3…

3. “Cut! That was great. But do it again and this time, give me some emotion! Action!”

I’ve been called a drama queen a time or two, and no, I’m not ashamed of that. I like the emotions in the stories I read piled on thick—but not too thick, of course, because then we’ve got melodrama and that’s when we start rolling our eyes and skimming pages.

If this character that I love so much is being driven to do something, then I want to experience it with him! I want to know what is happening in his head, his heart and in his body—because when we experience something, isn’t that how it happens? We are thinking about it, we feel something inside and then somehow our body reacts to what we are thinking and feeling. And a lot of times all of that happens completely subconsciously—we don’t even know its happening! But, you’ve been there—you know what I’m talking about.

For example, the hero sees his old flame after a year of being a part. He might first wonder how he’d forgotten how lovely she was, his heart will flutter and then his hands will start to sweat from sheer nerves. “Hi Megan,” he gulps and stands straighter, hoping she didn’t notice the catch in his voice.

Get my drift?

Then…what would happen if suddenly the heroine moves aside and says with a jaw-dropping smile, “Hey, James, its great to see you again. I’d like you to meet my boyfriend Mark.”

That’s where we get conflict! Love it!

And that bring me to number 4…

4. C-O-N-F-L-I-C-T, baby!

OK, so we have this hero that is fabulous—we love him—and he’s motivated to save the world from a terrible alien invasion. (I know I’m venturing away from the “romance theme” of my blog here, but I’ve been watching a lot of sci-fi recently, please forgive me…) We’re rooting for him all the way when he pulls out his super-high-powered-mega-awesome-death-ray blaster gun and destroys every alien without a bit of resistance. Aliens obliterated. The end.

You mean that’s it?!

Where’s the excitement and entertainment in that? There is none. If there is no great conflict in a story, believe me, its no fun to read. Are ya with me?

Going back to romance here, if a heroine and hero fall in love with nothing to keep them apart during the book, what’s the point in reading? Conflict (or tension, which ever you choose to call it) puts you on the edge of your seat and keeps you turning pages. The more conflict and tension the better—for the most part. We like to see our hero/heroine struggle over and over before they reach their goal, so that when they finally accomplish what they are working toward we can cheer and/or cry tears of joy with them at the end.

Again, a talented writer like Lessman, or Tyndall, or Witemeyer, or Gist do all of these things and they do them brilliantly.

What do you think? Do you agree with me? Do the authors you love do these things in the stories you cherish? I’m bettin’ they do!

Tell me what you think!!

Happy Reading!

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