Lest my readers conclude, as a result of yesterday’s article, that I’m down on stories, let me say again: I love stories, and find them useful for learning and imagining, and also very entertaining. So today I’d like to summarize the qualities that I think the great stories I’ve read all have.
This will probably be an unorthodox list: I’m not talking about ‘elements’ of a story here, and in fact I don’t believe there are any essential ‘elements’ of a great story. I’ve read great stories that have no well-developed characters, let alone sympathetic protagonists (some mystery stories come to mind). I’ve read great stories that have no discernible plot, at least in the traditional sense of a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a conclusion. I’ve read great stories that have no drama or struggle or tension (such as comedies, unless you really bend the meaning of the word ‘tension’). Some of my favourite stories defy traditional narrative structures, which I find tedious, constraining and unimaginative (thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for this intriguing link).
So what do I think are the qualities of a great story?
I’d start with TS Eliot’s two qualities of great poetry, which I think apply equally to stories. In his essay The Social Function of Poetry he wrote:
Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.
So (1) it gives pleasure and (2) it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example). My favourite story writer Frederick Barthelme also writes, in his 39 Steps for Writers, about the importance of imagery: “Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many”. This sensory information roots the story, gives it a sense of place, whether familiar or strange.
While I think all Frederick’s “steps” are useful, steps 21-22 are the ones I would nominate as the third essential quality of a great story:
If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.
Quality (3) then is every sentence must pay.
Quality (4) is that it takes a camera or “theatre” view. That is, it relates what the camera “sees” and “hears” through action and dialogue, not a bunch of back-and-forth “he thought… she felt”. It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. I’m ambivalent about first-person narratives — stories that relate what happens or happened to one person from behind her/his eyes or inside her/his head. Even Shakespeare used “asides” and monologues to convey important thoughts or feelings of characters that could not be brought out naturally in action or dialogue. But great stories, IMO, use these devices sparingly.
Quality (5) is that it respects the audience’s intelligence. That means no manipulation of the audience’s feelings or thoughts by painting a simplistic, black-and-white picture of a situation or character. That means no deus ex machina. That means no helpless creatures injured or killed for no reason just to stir up audience emotions. That means the story has to be coherent. That means it requires the audience to think, to pay attention to what’s happening, to read between the lines.
Quality (6) is that it leaves space for the audience. It omits enough detail (without omitting anything essential) that the listener or reader (or even viewer) can fill in some of the details from their own experience or imagination and become part of the story, make it their own.
Quality (7) is that it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”. I don’t understand the appeal of many series, sequels and trilogies (though there are exceptions). I appreciate that we can come to love characters and settings and that their familiarity is heart-warming, but unless every ‘episode’ includes something totally new, something that astonishes, really shines, I think it’s lazy, mediocre writing. And there is so much of that, in this age of imaginative poverty.
That’s it. Just seven qualities. Fewer than one in a thousand stories, in my view, has them. There are other nice-to-have qualities, but those are the essential ones.
Of course, all of this is just my opinion. Many, even most of the very popular stories I’ve read do not have these qualities and I can’t even finish them, and many of the most beloved stories in the English language are, I think, dreadful, absolute dreck. These are the seven qualities I aspire to when I write stories now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of them this year.
Image from Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin