What Makes a Story Great?

It’s been a discussion on several different platforms lately. What is it that makes a reader ignore the obvious problems and gush about a story?

What is it that takes a story from good to great?

If I knew for sure, I’d be writing like that all the time. Well, I am, but it’s about as easy as knowing the answer and putting it into practice without any understanding of language.

What is the answer? It’s simple. I’m going to tell you (as so many other people have said before me).

It’s about writing with a sense of joy and passion for that germ that needs to become a story. It’s about being so involved with the way it comes about and breathes that it takes the writer out of space and time to exist in only the story.

Remember Treasure Island? I do. I can almost relive it at will because it was exciting enough to live in, to be completely involved in the story. Every time I read the story, it’s a breathless read from start to finish. I love that sense of wonder and joy in the adventure.

Lawrence Block has mentioned it (he may have spoken about Stephen King as a lover of the effect of being scared); Ray Bradbury is another one with the same effect – the joy of being in the story. Not that these examples weren’t good at the craft, but they were better at the sense within the story.

Joy, passion, compulsion. That’s what it takes.

There are many times I hear (and say) that ‘Good grammar does not a good story make’. It’s a silly thing to say because good grammar can make a good story many times better. An understanding of craft (and grammar is just that, along with spelling and lots of other stuff) is important, but not as critical as that spark of joy that ignites the writer with passion and drive to partake of the moment within that ember of story.

That’s what makes a good story great.

A writer who puts so much of their own emotional being into the context and shape of the story – whether a dream or a wish or a fear.

Simple, isn’t it? *wanders off down the street cackling wildly, nodding the head like a mad galah*

My best stories (in my opinion) are the ones that fly from mind to page without too much thought (they may come from experience of things, memories, dreams, wishes …). There may be a lot of work undertaken after this, but even in the rough they get good responses. Passion in all things creates moments that live in the memory forever.

10 thoughts on “What Makes a Story Great?

  1. That last paragraph describes the typical process in the majority of my poems and micro-fiction, as also my longer (mega, epic) stories. It’s also how one of my characters in my wip describes the music that fills her life. She never is lonely or wanting for love, for she has the love of the musician who is making the music.

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  2. If you’re suggesting that Robert Louis Stevenson, or Dickens, or Twain, or any number of other great writers didn’t put a lot of thought into their writing, I doubt that was the case. It’s not so much that I think your opinion is wrong as that you seem to apply it too sweepingly. In my opinion, the amount of “thinking” that goes into a story depends on, and varies with, the individual writer and the nature of the writing (for want of a better term).

    That said, I’m probably putting too much thought into this comment, so I’ll stop before I put you to sleep!

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  3. I wasn’t saying that, and I know the generalisations are a wide sweep, but the one thing that keeps a reader moving through [even a badly written piece] is the germ of passion and the sense of enthusiasm from the writer (and into the character/story). So I’m not stating the case for no thought put into it, but to put the thought to a germ/idea the writer is passionate about, finds the underlying joy and enthusiasm for the story and all it entails. The last para was the starting point of my best stories, not the end-point. I spend more time in editing than in the writing, and sometimes it changes completely – except the initial germ of passion.
    Readers feel the passion behind the story (well, I think they do), and this is why they forgive some not-quite-great writing.


  4. A great post, Cage. For me it is all about the idea and the concept. All the famous writers make technical writing mistakes in their books. Showing and not telling is a more modern concept. If you read H.G. Wells he does a lot of telling. But think of the ideas, The Time Machine, what a marvelous idea and its still valid and enjoyable now. The Shining, such a different way of telling a traditional ghost story and The Dead Zone is so clever. I sometimes think that Mr King foresaw the current political situation in the US with that story.

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    • It is about the idea/concept, but without the execution being enough to make the most of the way to play it out, it becomes nothing more than words on a page. A lot of the memorable writers from 1900-ish were considered hacks by their contemporaries, but those contemporaries are invisible now.
      Maybe it’s passion combined with a great concept, and a character we can identify with (in some way).

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