What makes a good story? We’ve tried to answer this question a few times before. Let’s look at things from a different angle: what makes up a not-so-great narrative?
These are the things that make up a mediocre novel … and how to turn around and write an excellent book instead.
Tell a safe, comfortable story
If a story doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable – reading or writing – you haven’t gone deep enough. Stories have to make the reader feel emotions they don’t particularly enjoy feeling; that’s just part of how this all works. If you can’t get an emotional reaction out of at least the majority of your readers, you’re falling short. Tell a story you think goes too far. Speaks too loudly. Hits too close to home, for yourself or for someone else. Those are the kinds of steps you need to be willing to take in order to write a book that tells a really good story.
Resolve conflicts as quickly as possible
Think you’re drawing a conflict out too long? Keep going. Probably one of the biggest mistakes you can make in telling a story is thinking people are going to get bored of a conflict too quickly. Real conflicts start off shallow and burrow deeper and deeper, which lead characters into making decisions that lead to even more conflicts branching off the original. Real life is full of conflicts: we just don’t always know they’re happening. Imagine the worst, and put your characters through all of it. With conflict comes growth. A character must grow, or you haven’t done your job as a storyteller. If things seem too over-dramatic, it’s because you’re telling a story, not recounting everyday nonfiction.
Create likable, simple characters
Who wants to read a book in which you like every single character and none of them harbor any complexities that spark curiosity and emotional reaction? Think of your favorite book. Now think of a character in that book you absolutely despise. I immediately thought of Alaska’s father in LFA (my favorite book). Every book has at least one. It brings up a sort of moral conflict within your reader. Either they hate a character but want to like them or they hate to love them. People encounter people they don’t like all the time in real life. Tell a story that reflects and exaggerates that reality.
Always give as much detail as possible
While details are important, writing a good story is all about inserting small, seemingly insignificant details into a much larger narrative. From my experience as a reader and storyteller, too much detail can distract from the most important elements of a story. I suppose if you wanted to write a piece of literary fiction, you could carry on with your descriptions and metaphors all you wanted. In some books, this works. But aside from painting a picture that will set a scene, keep the story moving forward. Use details only to drive the plot. Like desserts, too many adjectives won’t do a story much good in the end.
Writing a good story takes a lot of practice. It’s all about going deeper than you think you should. Drawing things out and moving the plot along at the same time. Creating characters your readers don’t know how to react to. If you’re going to write a great novel, it’s probably going to be uncomfortable – and that’s how you know you’re doing it right.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.