Monday, March 18, 2013

Writing 101: What Makes a Story Great?

Everyone who wants to be an author thinks about writing a great novel, not just a massive bestseller but something that lasts through the ages. Think Pride and Prejudice, Gone With the Wind, A Christmas Carol. Then you start writing...and realize you'll settle for just getting the damn book finished. But after you write three or four, it might not be out of line to try and reach for greatness again. So I've got to ask: what makes a story great?

All the Earmarks of a Great Novel

We've all read great books...and we've all read bad books. The differences between the two can be very minute indeed -- the wrong word, the wrong ending, a missed opportunity can be the determining factor in a brilliant story and a horrible one. But truly great stories do tend to have a few things in common. Master them, and you may find your greatness.

  • Strong main character: Notice the adjective. Great main characters do not have to be good, and they do not have to be heroic. They do not have to be beautiful. They don't even have to be likable. But they have to be strong. Make that character come alive and leap off the page. You don't necessarily root for Scarlett O'Hara to get what she wants, but you can't stop reading about her. 
  • Clear narrative: You don't have to tell a linear story, and you don't have to tell it in the past tense. You do have to tell me a story that I can understand. Make sure I can follow it.
  • Plot: Stuff has to happen. Make sure you're adding love scenes, action sequences, other exciting stuff to keep readers engaged. Remember that all these plot developments should serve the story; each scene should be taking us closer to the end.
  • Flow: The way the words flow is arguably the most important aspect of any book. The writing should be smooth, and it should be easy to understand. You don't have to pull out the five-syllable adjectives or wow me with the most uncommon irregular verbs in the English language. Simple words allow the story to shine through. 

And that's about it. The setting, the genre, the theme -- all that stuff is important, but it can be changed at will and won't make your book any less great. Weak characters, confusing wording, a messy story and a boring plot are things that will kill your story. Put your focus where it matters, and write a great one.

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