What Makes A Good Story?

From Kannou Sensei by Yoshida Motoi

So far, in the last two months, I’ve read over 200 short story submissions ranging between 1000-6000 words which means I’ve been inundated with the same question: what makes a good story? Answering this question involves another set of subquestions and the difficult challenge of identifying 1) what are the interesting and engaging aspects of a story, 2) what is working against the story and, 3) what can we change to improve the story.

Good storytelling and good art is something I’ve been thinking about a lot but especially in the last two years. In 2020, Leslie Hung and I ran a season-long comics mentorship with three mentees who were preparing proposals for graphic novels in a variety of genres. We provided developmental support and critique during biweekly meetings for several months. I also attended CRIT, a high impact writing workshop which required written critique of our cohorts’ stories which was both extremely challenging and rewarding. This year, I was a part of the Ancestral Futures Mentorship program and got to mentor an extremely talented Gothic speculative fiction writer. Most recently, I Kickstarted a BIPOC illustrated short fiction anthology which I’m co-editing with Cassie Hart.

In these roles, I’ve had to find a clear, constructive vocabulary to be able to communicate the answers to those questions and have constructed a sort of three-prong diagnostic tool to help with that. The three aspects of story (which can range from flash to short stories to novels) that I think about most often are style, movement, and insight. These three aspects are dials you can throttle back or crank up, not values per se. This could be a post-procedural tool for a story you feel is complete and needs refinement or a calibrator you can turn to during the writing stage.

Here’s how I define the three terms:

Style: This is the aesthetic of the sentence, your ‘voice’. This is how you write, the POV you favor, your choice of words, how you arrange and build a rhythm (or don’t!) with them in a sentence. This is also what you end up focusing on subject-wise, turns of phrase and language patterns you use. It’s your writing thumbprint and it can be static or dynamic.

When I write a story, there are a few questions I ask pertaining to style.

Why am I choosing this perspective? This point of telling? This tense? Why am I using this level of ornate (or experimental or colloquial) language? Why do I keep going back to these types of figures of speech? Does the style I’m choosing to write serve the story? Does it fit the character or tone I’m going for? If not, what does this style bring to the story? Does it hinder my intent for the story or add depth? Should I change it?

Movement: This means plot, tension, conflict, or simply narrative progression, which can be abstract and non-linear. It means the advance towards complexity around the ideas in your story, which could be event-oriented (think Crichton’s Andromeda Strain), emotionally-oriented (think romance, like Austen or Bronte), thematically-oriented (think Preston’s The Hot Zone) or aesthetically-oriented (think Danielewski’s House of Leaves), just to name some paradigms. These are all story engines. Not having movement doesn’t mean not having events, it more means, for me, that there is not a lot of development or variation around the ideas in your story; it’s one note, or obvious. A friend added another helpful art example of what movement is, which is contrast. Juxtaposition or conceptual friction can create movement just by virtue of placing several elements in relationship to each other. 

Here’s some questions I ask myself about movement. Where is the movement of this story located? Is their movement in more than one story element? Am I circling the same ideas again and again? Am I deepening them or simply repeating them? What connections can I draw to other ideas to expand on the ones already in the story? And where can I draw those connections in the story? Of the ideas I’ve explored, is there enough connective tissue between them? Or does it feel lopsided or tangential? Is there too much movement happening? Is this plot convoluted? Is it easy to follow or hard? If it’s easy, is it still engaging? If it’s hard, should it be? Why?

Insight: This could also be ‘originality’ or ‘depth’ which can be intellectual, emotional, visceral, aesthetic or conceptual. The opposite of insight is the cliche, the traditional, or trope-y. This is the most subjective of the three but the most rewarding when you can say you have a lot of it. It’s also something I don’t see a lot of authors reflecting on much because it’s usually ignored in place of whatever the story’s subject or structural conceit is, since that’s easier to control. It’s also just difficult to come up with new, original concepts or new framing around a reiteration!

Here are questions I ask myself about insight. Am I bringing something new to this concept, trope or tradition? If yes, what is this subversion or reversal doing? If no, why not? Does working within cliches or tropes work for the story? Can I dig deeper into this theme, narrative concept or character? Am I simply repeating well-known adages and cliches? What am I or others refusing to acknowledge about this subject or element? Is this insight alienating? Why? Is this insight true broadly or is this something that’s only true for me? Why have I assumed that? What’s taboo in my world about it and how does that differ from taboos outside of my world? Have I digested enough about the ideas in this story to be able to delve deeper into it? Or is my understanding still surface? Is this story insightful to me in some way? If not, why? Where is the insight located in the story? Is it in all of the narrative elements like character, setting, plot, concept or themes? Or just one? Can it be in more? Why not?

Again, this is supposed to be a diagnostic tool to see if your story is perhaps one-note, immature or cliché, a gauge for how well-rounded it is instead of a checklist as to what to include. Some stories don’t need to push the limits of a trope or to have extremely complex plots. I’ve also talked previously about how things like conflict, structure and singular protagonists are overemphasized in writing advice which makes authors pedantic when writing them (You can read some notes about that here.) Purposefully considering all three aspects is the goal but usually a focus on two is the most common. Here’s some mainstream examples off the top of my head who I feel consistently hit two of the three:

insight + movement – style: Michael Crichton, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, N.K Jemisin

style + insight – movement: James Joyce, Helen Oyeyemi, Maxine Hong Kingston

movement + style – insight: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Lee Child, Sabaa Tahir

Some books I feel hit all three points very well, in no order: Winter in the Blood by James Welch, Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente, Blu’s Hanging by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler, A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

As an anecdotal case study, after slushing horror short stories for almost two months, the most frequent weaknesses I come across reside in the insight and movement departments. Most of the stories relied heavily on cliches, tropes, and traditions in the horror genre which is a neutral choice, but they did nothing to add insight into any of the other story elements, relying on moralistic themes and obvious, predictable plots.

Some typical uninsightful devices and themes I encountered: Traditional mythic and folkloric creatures played straight. Ghosts and haunted houses were metaphors for grief and abuse. Sadness and fear as all-consuming beast. The unknowability of death and others. Outsiders pushed from society will become monsters, literally or culturally. There is humanity to be found in monsters. These are neutral themes and allegories but they are well-trodden territory which removes a lot of gravitas from them which, in turn, makes them uninsightful if there is nothing else–like style and movement–to make up for it.

As a counterpoint, here’s some ways authors added insight to their stories that I enjoyed: instead of relying on tropes or classic literary monsters, settings, or tales, they created their own. They introduced specificity to their characters by hinting at greater backstories through flashbacks, mannerisms, style of speaking and thought processes. Many did not have obvious 1:1 allegories, metaphors were woven in more organically and subtly. Many had unexpected or atypical twists, revelations and reveals. Themes were made complex by allowing movement and growth around central concepts. Typical moralistic resolutions and standard horror narrative trajectories were rare.

Another common weakness was poor movement. Stories often took too long to reach interesting insights–like twists, emotional revelations, climaxes– in an effort to build suspense. Or their movement was too erratic and the ideas engaged with seemed to pop up almost randomly in an attempt to surprise.

Style, I found, was the least problematic element of the stories I read. I think it’s because someone’s style is evidence of where they come from, their aesthetic preferences, interests and fixations; the idiosyncrasy of someone’s style, even if it’s discreet, still provides a lot of substance to me. The only time style pops out to me as a troubling element to my reading is when there seems to be either too much adherence to rules of language or there’s a particular artifice to what language is used and how. Often it’s someone mimicking another writer’s aesthetic, someone who thinks X many adjectives are needed to make a nice sentence or the overuse of uncommon synonyms to replace every common word to add a sense of sophistication. Sometimes these embellished writing styles are purposeful but a lot of the time they’re unexamined adherence to tradition or expectations the author has built up in their head.

What I’d like for authors to do when writing is to constantly interrogate their words, sentences, expectations and ideas. Creating art is about making choices, a million microscopic choices and, as storytellers, our role is to question every one of them, laying each decision side by side and asking what it does alone and what it does in the context of the whole. Instead of paying stringent attention to literary rules and mainstream expectations of what a story should be, how it should be structured, how it should be read, I want to see each story work within the paradigm of itself and its author. I want to see writers question their stories into deeper, sharper, more deliberate forms until they reach the end of their ability to do so. 

What makes a good story? An author’s rigorous devotion to curiosity, humility and risk. Curiosity to find new ways of expression and insights. Humility to continually question what you think you know and how you apply what you know. And a sense of risk, to be able to share your insights on the page, even if they go against traditions and taboos.

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