Category Archives: story

What Makes a Good Story?

Eric asked this question recently on his excellent blog, Pimp My Novel.

What makes a good story?

It’s a question that readers and writers have struggled with over the years. Everyone seems to have a different opinion. Yet, there often seems to be consensus when a good story does come along. It’s almost as if the answer is “I know it when I see it.”

That’s not a good enough answer though. I’ve been thinking of how to answer this question a little more eloquently than I did in the comment section of Eric’s post. I think that if we can come to a definite answer to this question our writing will invariably improve. However, I don’t think there is a magic formula that you can use to create a good story.

Good stories are more like recipes. They need certain ingredients. These ingredients can be tossed around and put in any order, certain ones can be left out entirely, and new combinations can be thought of on the spot.

I think a good story needs to end where it started. The events need to be connected somehow so we can see and feel that things have happened for a reason – the characters have grown and developed and experienced things that have changed them or their situation.

So here are the key ingredients as I see them

– good characters (story should always be driven by the characters not by the plot)
– the ending needs to tie into the beginning
– things need to happen for a reason
– the characters should show some progression or growth
– you need to say something (like an essay, there should be a theme or an argument you are making)
– we need to hear your voice (your story needs to have yourself in it somehow so that we can hear your voice)
– it needs to flow (things should seem natural and connected to encourage us to keep reading)

I’m sure that seems simpler than it actually is. I might be missing some of the ingredients. I think writers might not even be aware of all of the elements they put into their work. I’ll probably look at this later and see things that I have missed.

How about you?

What do you think makes a good story?

Would you add anything or take anything away from my list?

Let me know what you think!

How Many Elements?

How many elements are there in this world?

Modern scientists would probably argue that there are hundreds. They would be able to prove and show how each of the elements differ and how they all deserve to have their own classification.

I often think that science looks at too many things. I think that scientists have fragmented the study of reality and have gotten no closer to discovering the truth about it.

Studying the world around us is all well and good. I have no problem with that. I have a problem with what we get out of it. We don’t seem to have any more answers today than we did hundreds of years ago.

We used to believe that there were only four elements and that everything was comprised of either; earth, air, water, or fire. With our modern thinking and technology we now know that this is not the case. It almost seems laughable when we look back at this theory. We know that it is not true.

So now we have hundreds of elements but we don’t really know where they came from or why they are here. Does this help us in anyway understand the nature of reality?

I don’t think it does. We are constantly striving to put all of our known scientific knowledge together. Einstein tried it to no avail, and since we all have been on the search for a unifying theory.

One theory that could explain everything known about the universe and explain it all.

So what if there is only one element?

What if everything on this world was Story? That’s my unifying theory.

And what is a theory but a story to explain something that we don’t understand? We have used Story like this since the beginning of time. It’s time we started to look more carefully at this thing we call Story for the answers to which we seek. The answer is there. I’m sure of it.

One element – Story.

Story is the Nature of Reality

I have this great theory that Story is the nature of reality. I have been posting up quotations that seem to help prove this theory on my commonplace book blog, Thoughtful Cacophony. I have been writing entries on this theory here every week as well. I call this feature, Storied Thursdays.

I have chapters listed on the side bar of both of my blogs. I hope to keep this series up for a while longer. There is just so many ways to tackle this concept and thousands of examples to use. It’s a bit overwhelming actually.

I want to thank everyone who has commented on this series so far. You have definitely helped me to explore this topic even further.

It’s a strange theory to have. How can everything be Story? It seems to be nonsense at first glance. But the more I look into it, the more I am convinced. It just makes so much sense on so many different levels.

The moment I came to the realization that everything is Story, it was like an epiphany. I knew deep down in my heart that it was true. I couldn’t explain why. I tried to explain it to a few people and while they often entertained my ramblings, they went away unconvinced. I couldn’t blame them, it was something that I felt and truly believed but explaining it was a completely different beast.

I’m still not sure that I have explained it well enough here but I am trying. And I will continue to try. I think this theory needs a lot of exploration. It could be a full-time dissertation. If I had the time to go back to school and earn my Masters of English, that is exactly what I would do. For now though, this is just a hobby of mine and it’s great to have you along for the ride.

Governed by Laws

On Marshall McLuhan…

Take Today underscores his view that all life – mental, material, spiritual, physical – is governed by laws, laws that no one else has even noticed, let alone considered worthy of discussion between the covers of a book. …

The laws are infallible – as precise as mathematics, as ubiquitous as weather – and, after wrestling with them for almost five decades, he has finally grasped them in all their glory.”
– Fitzgerald, Judith. Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy. XYZ Publishing: Montreal, 2001. pg 152
Take Today was authored by McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt in 1972

This metaphor sounds like Story and it also uses a storybook to help frame the metaphor. What more can be said about this quote? It’s brilliant.

It immediately reminded me of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek Bible. It was a book that he composed to contain all the rules within the Star Trek Mythology. He created a beautiful world based on science and wanted it to be believable. This book was available to every writer of the show so that they would know what could and couldn’t happen in the stories they created.

The fictional world of Star Trek has precise laws. And maybe that is one of the reasons the franchise is timeless. It relates to the real world. It makes sense in so many ways. And it never tried to make us believe in something different every week. It had a beautiful consistency.

Life is like this as well. I believe that there is a Life Bible that contains all the rules of the universe. And like McLuhan says, no one seems to be searching for it. We know some of the precise rules but nothing that ties everything together, except for Story. And brilliantly enough that is even mentioned in this quote. Perhaps McLuhan knew something about the important role story has in the nature of reality. It seems to be like he was one of the best thinkers of our time. I think I need to explore his works more closely.

Things Work Out

Do you remember how we met each other?

“Yeah, I do. It was at a conference. We sat beside each other and got to talking.”

And why did you choose that specific seat?

“I don’t know. I just did, I guess.”

Do you think things happen for a reason?

“I’m not sure. I think that there are so many things to consider, so many things that don’t make sense. What is your view on it?”

I think things really do happen for a reason. I like to think of life as a story. We are characters in the story and things are written for us. We need to make good choices but everything that happens to us furthers our story. Some things might seem irrelevant but they aren’t.

There are so many little things that shaped where I am right now and how I got here. I also learned that worrying doesn’t do any good. So I don’t worry. I go with the flow for the most part and have faith that it will take me where I need to go. Maybe it’s like the law of attraction, I don’t know. All I know is that things just seem to work out.

We are characters that come to life and can affect the course of the story. Nothing is written in stone. We make decisions, and try to make the best ones. In this sense, we write our own story and have complete control.

I had no idea you’d pop into my story at all. But here you are. And we spend a lot of time together. And you are now one of my closest friends. Was this meant to be then?

All I know is that I try to make the best story that I can. I think this theory of mine goes well beyond the metaphor. How’s that for an answer?

“Pretty good, I guess. Thanks.”

See you next week.

“Sure thing!”

Different Roles We Play

I read May Not Appear Exactly as Shown by Gordon J.H. Leenders and was intrigued by this passage.

“Hey, like Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage and all the people actors.’”

“Life is not a play, Ryan. And Brad and Nicole are not actors.”

“The play’s the thing Katelin.”

“Ryan, stop it, life is not a play.”

“No, you’re right. Sometimes it’s a TV show, sometimes it’s a movie, sometimes it’s a documentary, sometimes a docudrama, sometimes it’s a commercial or a billboard in Times Square or –” I stop, noticing she looks like she’s about to leave and, changing my tone, making it sound warmer, less condescending, say, “Okay, look at yourself, Katelin, you act differently when you’re at work than when you’re with me, right?”

“So?”

“So, which one is the act and which is the real you?”

“That’s totally different. I know you.”

“Sure, but they’re still different roles, right? I mean, when you go into work you switch into your ‘waitress’ role, when you go out with your friends you switch to your ‘friend’ role, when you’re having sex maybe you switch into your ‘dominatrix’ role –who knows? The point is, sometimes, everyday roles are either too much or not enough for some people so they need to take on other roles, assume other identities and…and I mean, haven’t you ever wanted to be someone else? Haven’t you ever pretended to be someone you’re not?”

That passage really got me thinking. We do play different roles. Perhaps people that know us in totally different ways wouldn’t even recognize us if we were described in those different ways. Maybe we wouldn’t either. This quote reminds me of this next one from the brilliant television show My So-Called Life.

Angela Chase is a teenager and we hear her thoughts through voice over narration. “What I, like, dread is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area. You have to develop this, like, combination you on the spot.”

Now I know that I play many different roles in life. And there have even been times where different parts of my life have intercepted. I understand what Angela was saying there in that quote.

It’s a pretty interesting take on the classic speech in Shakespeare that I highlighted in a previous chapter of this series. And it is one that fits into my theory of Story being the nature of reality. Not only do we play different roles at different times in our lives, but we also play different roles for pretty much everyone we interact with. And now that I am on this train of thought, I see so many connections to it that I am not sure I can just tie up my blog post and leave it at that.

For instance, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven shows how people can shape the lives of other people without ever having realized it. It goes to show that we play roles in this life that we aren’t even aware of.

I think that most people can admit to the truth behind this metaphor. It is brilliant and reveals a lot in its sheer simplicity. We do play different roles in this life and perhaps, as such, we are all characters in several different but interlocking stories. Something to think about, isn’t it?

Our Perception is Flawed

“Hey I found this interview in a magazine that seems to work against your theory of reality being story.”

Let me see that. Wired Magazine, eh? An Errol Morris interview. (He starts reading)

Q: But don’t you think that we manage to keep up a coherent narrative of who we are and where we’ve been?

A: No! We remember things selectively. We experience things selectively. We live in a kind of incomplete, patchwork-quilt universe. A bric-a-brac. Assembled in some higgledy-piggledy way.

This quotation doesn’t work against my thesis. It actually backs up my theory that we actually edit our lives through our use of what we choose and choose not to remember. We also edit our lives by experiencing things selectively too.

“But he admits that we don’t keep up a narrative. He more or less says that it’s not story.”

That’s not what he says at all. He actually admits that we don’t have the whole picture. We can’t possibly know the entire story. We live in a limited point of view story but our stories can connect to other stories and create a quilt.

I don’t think the universe is incomplete or put together is a haphazardly way. I don’t think Morris believes this either. He is merely talking about our experience of the world.

I think that Story can explain why we don’t know everything and cannot come to the ultimate truth of the universe. Of course, characters in a story never know everything. They seldom ever realize that they are a character in a story. I can’t really think of an example where a character realized this but I am sure there are stories that can be interpreted as such out there.

“That character in Stranger than Fiction did.”

Great movie. Yeah, you’re right but this is the rare exception. I think Morris is right too and our perception of reality is flawed. But that is only because we don’t perceive the nature of reality to be Story. If we did, we would have a new perception in which to see the world. And upon seeing it with these new eyes, perhaps we can come to some important truths. It makes sense to me.

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

Hey, keep trying to trip me up. But you must admit that you are starting to come around to my theory aren’t you?

“I don’t have to admit anything.”

No I guess you don’t. See you next week then?

“I’ll be here. And maybe I’ll scare up some more damaging info then this.”

What About Editing?

Stories are edited. Things make sense in a story. Everything is there for a reason. Any writers’ course will tell you that. In a good story, there should be no extraneous details. We don’t need to hear characters having the usually pleasantries like, “Hey’ how’s it going?” or “What are you doing? – Nothing.” We edit that out of the story and get right to the point.

“The big difference between fiction and real life is that fiction is edited.”

I beg to differ. Real life is edited as well.

“What? Real life is messy, disorganized. Things are there that don’t make sense.”

That might be true, or rather it may seem true, but that is because we basically don’t know the whole story. It’s like we are all in a third-person limited narrative. We make sense of our story from what we know of it. But even in doing that, we are editing our story.

“How do we do that?”

In our memories. Our brains organize things into story for us. Things never seem to make sense until we can spin it into a story. And we don’t need all the details. Certain things are always left out in our memories. Our brain chooses which information it wishes to keep and whatever it doesn’t find useful gets thrown out.

“That’s why witness accounts are often so different. They’ve spun a slightly different story in their brain.”

Yes, exactly. They’ve remembered different parts of the scene and put it together in way that made sense to them. That’s why investigators pay so much attention to them. One person might have built a narrative that will include one significant detail that will tie in to all the others. Police have quite a job getting at the actual truth of a situation because of all the editing that our brains naturally do.

“But isn’t this just a story you’ve created to account for people having different memories of the same event.”

Perhaps that is the point.

“What?”

Listen, it’s not just me; a lot of scientific research has been done about this topic. You could go to the library and look some of it up.

“Perhaps, I will. Perhaps I will.”

All right then, see you next week?

“Wouldn’t miss it. See you then!”

The Ultimate Question

People have struggled with the ultimate question since the beginning of time. We seem to be constantly striving for a reason or purpose to our existence. It’s a mystery and everyone loves to explore a good mystery.

I think one author had a great take on this topic. Once again, I am holding up a work of fiction and interpreting it in ways that might seem improbable to men of science or religion. Yet, I think that we can find a lot of truth in the humanities. As such, we owe it to ourselves to explore all the great writing of our time.

That being said, I think it is worth looking into The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (Spoiler Alert) It is a widely popular phenomenon that has spanned several years and mediums. The story has been presented in novels, radio shows, a television series, movies, and even in comic books. The series is a brilliantly written satire that seems to capture attention of millions.

I was first introduced to this series from the old BBC television series that is now available on DVD. I borrowed it from the library a few years ago and really enjoyed it. But the strange thing is that I actually think the story reveals some truths about the nature of reality.

In the story, a man finds out that a super-computer called Deep Thought was constructed to find the ultimate answer to the universe and everything. The computer came up with the answer “42.”

Of course, this answer didn’t mean anything. They tried to figure out what the answer signified and asked the computer for more information. The computer replied that it needed to find the ultimate question to go with it, so the Earth was constructed as a super-planet-computer. The Earth was destroyed just before the computer was able to complete its very long calculation. But the answer survived in the last living human to escape from the planet before it was obliterated.

The television series ended up with the ultimate question finally being revealed. “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” So the ultimate question and answer to the universe was 6 x 9 = 42. The main character shrugged his shoulders and said, “I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.”

I know that this story is a satire and is supposed to be light-hearted and funny. But maybe just maybe, by trying to make fun of our natural quest of discovery Douglas Adams actually found a truth here.

“What truth is there?”

Mainly this, we can’t possible understand everything. And things that we think we understand, such as mathematics, we might not have a complete grasp of either. But my favourite part of this storyline is that everything on earth is connected and working towards one purpose. It fits perfectly with my theory that there is only one story and that story is in fact the nature of reality.

“Wow, you certainly bent my ear today.”

Sorry about that. I still have more to add.

“Don’t apologize. If I didn’t like our discussions I wouldn’t keep coming back.”

See you next week then.

“For sure! I do love these Storied Thursdays.”

We Can’t Be

“We can’t be characters in a story.”

Why Not?

“Because it would be a really boring story.”

That’s a good argument. And the only thing I have to say to that is that perhaps your story hasn’t been told yet. The exciting parts are yet to come. You see, every character in every story has what is called a back-story. The characters have a history that predates the story that they are in. They bring attitudes, habits, and traits based on this back-story. If characters didn’t have a back-story, we wouldn’t be able to explain why they act in certain ways in certain situations. In fact, a character can’t exist without some kind of back-story.

“Okay that’s all well and good, but what about free will?”

What do you mean?

“If we are characters in a story, then everything is spelled out for us and we therefore wouldn’t have free will. We couldn’t make any personal choices.”

If you believe in free will this sounds like a conundrum. If you don’t believe in free will, it’s an easy answer. Let’s just assume that free will does exist, which I wholeheartedly believe it does. I think we have to make choices in our lives everyday and that we do have the power to make any choice we feel fit to.

“But how could we do this if we are just a character?”

Easy. Ask any writer about the characters in their stories and they will speak of them as if they are actually living and breathing people. I know that I have had some amazing points in my writing where the characters have actually made some decisions that I wasn’t expecting. At some point in the writing of fiction, the characters seem to come alive and make their own choices. Sometimes the story goes a completely different direction that what the author originally intended.

Writers grope their way through a work and discover the story as they go along. Even writers who do extensive planning will have these moments of inspiration where the characters do exercise their own free will. It is something that we may never be able to explain or scientifically prove but it exists and millions of people can attest to this fact.

“Who writes the stories then?”

That’s a good question.

“Ah, I caught you, didn’t I?”

Actually no, you didn’t. I think that it’s possible that we write our own stories. We all have free will and therefore we create our stories based on our decisions.

“Okay, but someone had to write our back-story?”

Ah, good to see you’re following along. I have three theories on this one. First, there is one supreme writer who creates all the characters. The Earth is the setting for his story and all the characters on this planet contribute to the story in some way.

Second Theory. The writers exist in another space and time. Everything that exists in our world was written by an author in another plane of existence.

Third Theory. Our stories were created be someone on this earth. Not all stories need to be written down and published. Perhaps some of the stories never really leave the author’s mind. Imagination is a powerful tool that everyone can, and does tap into.

“Now that sounds ridiculous.”

This is where faith needs to come in. Anything that we study can never truly be fully realized. There will always be a mystery. But there is enough evidence and writing to suggest that story is the nature of reality.

“I don’t believe you.”

You of course are free to believe whatever you want. But I do have a few more eamples and arguments to present.

“Bring them on.”

I will. Shall we meet here again next week?

“Sounds good. I so look forward to our debates.”

Me too. Thanks.