|(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Pond Bridge)|
(This is post number eight in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)
It's been a while since our last stop on the quest -- time pressures forced me off schedule last week, and I took part in Alex's 'Genre' blogfest yesterday.
So to catch up, let's review the quest so far: In the first parts, I defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice. I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character), and last time, talked about maintaining the middle (the center-point of the plot, where the character faces a increasingly difficult series of mini-crises in their climb towards the finish).
We only have three more stops on this quest, and I think after seeing 'The Beginning' and 'The Middle', you can probably guess what one of them is going to be.
But let's save that one for its appropriate spot....
Instead, today I want to hit an element that grows out of a simple question: What is the story about?
Because a good story has this:
A story's meaning is often not just a single thing, and in a "good story" there are usually several layers. There's the story's subject, probably some recurring motifs, one or more underlying themes, and perhaps even -- if the author wants to drive home a practical point for the reader to learn from -- a moral.
A compelling plot can hold us riveted, complex and engaging characters can be wonderfully entertaining, and an author's voice can be so silky smooth that we simply lose ourselves in it, but for a truly 'good story,' these elements have to do a little more. They need to work together to give us something deeper; something that resonates within us and makes us think of that story long after we've finished reading the words.
But here's the tricky part -- often it's out of the author's hands.
Yes, a writer can be concrete as hell about the subject ("War! Uhhnn! What is it good for?"); intentionally plant some recurring motifs which relate to the subject (death; destroyed buildings; recurring losses of loved ones; repeated bravery in the face of certain death); sculpt the plot to enhance a specific theme ("there are no real winners in war"); and maybe even go so far as to try and give a clear moral ("make peace, not war!").
But then a given reader -- who may or may not see all of the elements the author consciously inserted -- can read the story and end up taking their OWN meaning away from it ("Love conquers all!").
Like effective visual arts, compelling creative writing impacts each person differently. A good story requires that each reader brings a little of themselves to it, and in return, each reader gets a little something unique out of it. The story resonates within them in a special way based on each reader's individual emotions and life experiences.
This is OK, and even desirable, I think.
A story may begin with the elements of meaning that a skilled author inserted (subject, motif, theme, and moral), but within the reader the story grows to be more than what the writer intended. A synergistic ignition of emotion happens within the heart and mind of the reader, and they pull a deeper meaning out of it.
And this magical bridging of the gap between what the author intended and what the reader takes away can elevate a piece of fiction into a 'good story'.