|(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Cowboy Photographer)|
(This is post #1 in a new series: The quest to define what creates "a good story.")
Creative writing is an art form, and there is a subjective nature to the appreciation of art -- what one person finds incredibly beautiful might seem dull and unimaginative to another. I don't think anyone can make absolute, universal proclamations about exactly what defines art, or what makes it "good," and unfortunately this is true for fictional writing also. So I know going in that this quest to define 'a good story' is a bit of a fool's errand.
But just like the elements of form, composition, color, and others can be used to assess the quality of visual art, there are concrete elements of creative writing that can still be discovered, detailed, and discussed as being key in turning a piece of fiction into 'a story.' There are specific things that can be done with these elements to make the story be the best it can be -- to give it artistic life and maximize its emotional impact, so that it resonates as deeply as possible within the hearts and minds of readers.
That's what this quest is all about. To find those writing elements and to point out a few ways to use them to their fullest potential within our stories.
Luckily, this isn't entirely uncharted territory. People have been writing stories as long as there has been writing, and the art of story-telling goes much farther back than that -- to the earliest humans, gathered around their fires, sharing tales of love and loss, supernatural beings, and heroic deeds. We've had a long time to figure out some of the things that work best in our stories. I'm not going to have to make all this stuff up.
But this is still a noble and worthwhile quest, I think. Shall we venture forth?
* * *
Our quest begins with what I consider to be the most important element of all creative stories:
I think any successful story must be about someone. There has to be a central character or group of characters to anchor the story. They 're the ones who we follow through the events of the story.
Our main characters don't necessarily have to be human. They can be animals or aliens, supernatural creatures or sentient machines. But regardless of their form, they still need aspects that the reader can relate to and identify with, and the more deeply the better -- even when the main characters are not human, we need to see the humanity within them.
They can be heroic or heinous, but they need to be someone we can bond with and care about.
They should be identifiable and easy to pick out -- story works best when we can clearly follow the characters who serve as our guides.
They must be interesting -- our main character should be unique, or at least find themselves in a unique situation. Just like the gentleman in the picture I took at the top of this post, a main character is most effective when they capture our eye, attract our attention, and raise our curiosity: Who is he? Why is he there? What is he doing?
Our main characters also come to life when they're complex and multifaceted. The hero should have a few flaws; the heinous anti-hero should absolutely have some redeeming qualities. We are all imperfect beings, and it is usually easier to connect with characters who are also imperfect. A story may call for our heroes to be truly heroic, or to maybe have an obvious central trait that is noble and ideal -- bravery, strength, or intelligence, for example. But there should still be a few cracks in the hero's polished armor, if only for us to better relate to them, and to allow us to cheer as the hero manages to overcome their flaws.
We should be able to see our main character's inner self, either explicitly through their thoughts or words, or implicitly through their actions. If they're struggling with inner turmoil, weighing heavy choices, and fighting personal demons -- and most definitely, they should be -- we need to know about it.
The goal is to rouse curiosity and encourage empathy within the reader, to incite and strengthen a bond between them and our main character. To reach the point where the reader recognizes, understands, and cares deeply about our fictional protagonist.
If that happens, the foundation of a 'good story' is surely laid.
* * *
Next Monday, we will continue on with part two of our quest! Until then, here's an epic scene from another famous quest to tide you over:
"What Is Your Quest?"