When I ventured into the world of story writing, I first thought I should find out what the experts said and take their advice. I read many books and articles on how to write a good story and what all stories needed to be called a good story. The problem was that all the experts didn’t agree on what makes a good story so how could they agree on how to write a good story? I also found out that it was easier for an expert to tell you what makes a good story then to tell you how to write one. So, I had to decide what made a good story for me.
First, a good story must have a character I can see, understand, and important to me “feel.” I must be able to feel what the character wants, what he/she lacks and have a feeling for how that character will get what he or she wants. This is not the same feeling of “like” or “dislike” for a character. I find I don’t have to have those feeling for the main character. In this sense “feeling” for me replaces “seeing.” I find that as I read a novel or short story, I see the character in the beginning of the story, but as the story moves along, I no longer see the “overweight, balding, detective in a gray suit and tie,” that picture becomes replaced with what I read about how the detective is going about solving his crime. So, to me, if I can’t “feel” the character after the story gets started then the character is lacking.
The next thing for me that makes a good story is setting. Where the story takes place determines the dialogue, the character’s behavior – what he/she says and doesn’t say. My first novel, The Richelli Secret, was first set in Italy in 1935 where my main character grew up. Later, the character moved to America. He had to learn English and the culture in America and since he settled in New York, he had to learn the culture of New York. My main character became three different people – from a confident Italian teen ready to marry his high school sweetheart, to someone who had to learn to take care of himself, look out for himself , realize his shortcomings, become someone who was more confident, independent. Weaving in the setting changed what I started out for the character and changed him into someone I (as the writer) could feel. My own character, I could feel my very own character!!
Another thing a good story has to have for me is a good plot. I want to go for a ride and I always allow the author to take me on that ride. When I’m reading, I prefer not to have something stop me. I want to be taken into the writer’s world, no matter what it is. I want to feel lost in that world, a world that makes me forget that I have something to do. So the plot has to be believable for me, but since I turn myself over to the writer, if the plot is not all believable, it’s okay with me. One summer at Antioch Writers’ Workshop, Elizabeth Strout was my teacher in the afternoon intensive. She said that as a writer you should do the unexpected. I held on to that idea and try to use it as often as I can. My second novel, A Change in Terms, I think does that. The reader thinks one think is happening, but finds out later on, it actually is something else – something much more serious. This is a story about a woman out of her element and is trying to find out what happened to her husband. In this story I want the reader to see how this woman has moved from a place of comfort to a place that is outside that comfort zone and though she stumbles, through her determination, she will get what she wants. In this story, I need the reader to really “feel” this character as well as feel for her. I love the plot switch in this story and it makes the story interesting by testing the limits of my main character. In my third novel, That Ever Died so Young, I also had a plot switch that I think adds so much to the story.
The next thing I think a good story needs is good dialogue. When I say good dialogue, I don’t mean good interchange between two people as much as I mean that the interchange progresses the plot. There must be something in the dialogue that make you “feel” (there’s that word again) movement. As I read published stories, I often feel that movement in the dialogue and I have to go back and read those sections again and again. I like it, so I try to imitate that or remember that as I write. In each one of my novels and my books of short stories, I have tried to create dialogue that provides movement. Dialogue also has to be true to the character for the most part. When it’s not, then the writer has shown another side of that character, but the other characters must attend to that change.
Another thing I think makes a good story is good language and good narration. In a novel, the writer can’t always turn everything into a scene. Scenes are usually used at plot points, significant parts of the story that the reader needs to have before moving ahead. Since scenes tend to take up a lot of space, most of the story must progress through the process of narration. When a story is narrated well, the reader can continue to “see” the story as it progresses. It’s the same thing that happens when I want to tell you something that happened to me. I don’t stop to give you the dialogue (though some people do that as we stare at them wondering why), I just tell you what happened and if what either party said was significant, then I just tell it. The main thing in narration is to move the story along to the next plot point, or crisis, or significant piece of information.
The last thing I need in a good story is a story that make me feel something and stays with me for the next day or the day after. I like to think about the stories that I read and talk about them as if they’re real people. If I can do that, then that was a really good story.