Sunday, November 25, 2012

What makes a good story?

A professional colleague of mine, K. Stoddard Hayes, wondered on Facebook what my opinion was about literary vs. genre stories. Specifically she asked for my opinion on the discussion about whether a story can be good "only if it is well crafted on every level from grammar to themes" or "because people enjoy it regardless of any traditional literary standards of merit?"

It just so happens that before I launched On The Premises, my co-publisher and I worked long and hard to figure a way to rate the quality of short stories. We didn't want our winners to be chosen based solely on subjective criteria. We didn't want to hand people money and say, "I don't know why we liked that other story better, but we did so you come in second." That's one reason we rely on multiple raters: inter-rater reliability (how much judges agree) is one of our scoring criteria. It helps that I'm a professional measurement expert whose day job includes being paid to invent ways to measure non-physical aspects of life. (How do you usefully measure the "friendliness" of a customer environment? It can be done!)

Our first step was to "operationalize," as we social scientists say. In this case, that meant changing the question from "What is a good story?" to a pair of more easily answered questions: "What does a good story do?" and "What does a bad story do?"

We came up with a list. Here are some excerpts.

Good story: Makes us want to finish it. When it's over, we want to share it with friends.

Bad story: Bores us.

Good story: Either uses standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation so these elements of writing do not distract from the story, OR deliberately uses them in non-standard ways that thoughtfully enhance the story.

Bad story: Uses non-standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation thoughtlessly, and probably accidentally, and as a result these elements of storytelling interfere with our ability to enjoy the story being told.

Good story: Has characters that seem like real people to us. We'll remember them long after the story ends.

Bad story: Has characters so generic and one-dimensional, or so clichéd, that they seem like plot devices, not real people.

Up to this point, our measurements wouldn't distinguish a decent but ephermeral spy novel from great literature. This next one, though...

Good story: Uses language artistically. Surprises us with word choices, comparisons, and imagery that evokes feelings and thoughts far beyond what the surface definitions of the words normally would.

Average story: Uses language plainly but correctly, much like basic journalism is supposed to. All elements of the story being told are clearly understandable, so we are never confused about what is going on, but the language itself evokes no thoughts or feelings in us beyond what we would think and feel if we personally witnessed the events being described.

Bad story: Uses language poorly. Surprises us with confusing or inaccurate word choices that make us not believe what we're reading. ("The pillow clanked against the bed.") Evokes thoughts and feelings in us that go against the ones the story is trying to create in us. Relies on flat or clichéd descriptions that bore us because we've seen them so often. Uses esoteric or unusual language that detracts from, instead of enhances, the effect the story is trying to produce.

We had others, but I hope I've illustrated my point. I don't think asking what a good story is is as useful as asking what a good story does.

So let's return to Hayes's question: can a story be good only if well-crafted at every level, or just because people enjoy it?

For most readers, enjoyment is enough. I think that's fine. I can't see any point in forcing readers to read something they get absolutely no enjoyment from. (Even in high school English class? Yes, even then. Are schools TRYING to make tomorrow's adults hate reading fiction? They seem to be.)

Publishers who want to sell lots of copies of books probably don't have to evaluate a story much past the "will people enjoy it" question either. Oh, they need to make sure standard (and therefore non-distracting) grammar and punctuation are used, but beyond that, they just want to know if people will stand in line to buy it.

If you have learned to enjoy language itself, however, you might want more out of a story than just plot and character. Plainly written stories might bore you because there's not enough innovative and elegant writing involved.

(Some people, in fact, value the writing itself so much more than the story that they actively dislike plot, because plot frequently takes a reader's attention away from the language. Heavily plotted stories, such as nearly all genre writing, are frequently better served by ordinary language than "beautiful writing," which is one reason certain literary types disdain genre writing. These types prefer the form of language over its basic communicative function. They probably also like poetry because poetry is 100% language--no characters or plot required. Writers who disdain characters and story might be happier abandoning prose for poetry so they can concentrate exclusively on language.)

To me, the best stories excel in all the areas I've mentioned. They contain fully developed and interesting characters in a complex, interesting situation that's written about using language that enhances every effect produced by whatever it describes.

So to answer your question, K. Hayes, I think a story can be great even if it's just a fun read, and the more enjoyable it is, the better it is. But it can be even better than that if it meets all those "traditional literary standards of merit" as well.


  1. So, there is no such thing as a grammar license, is there. That's like believing in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny (and sorry to those I've offended who still believe that all three exist).
    Thanks for the post, Christine!

  2. Thank you for this post, which is a breath of fresh air if compared to the overwhelming amount of 'advice' given by people in the publishing industry, who talk about good writing without being able to define it.
    I am strongly critical (as a result of experience) of both critics and awards' people, but after reading how you come to decisions ("how much judges agree") and your descriptions of what you look for, I feel reassured - possibly, because I think my books would qualify in your eyes, while publishers turn them down because "most readers...".
    My own theory (which is psychology based and I can defend) is that different personality types naturally draw to different genres and that some people are natural-born poets and others natural-born prose writers and yet others natural-born proofreaders. This theory also explains why there is a natural tension between publishers and critics (who use market research and therefore look backward) and writers (who tend to look forward and try out novel ideas).

  3. This is the best definition of good writing I have ever read. I think I will post this next to my computer so that I may refer to it again and again.

    Thanks so much.

  4. Beautifully done! This is a keeper. :-)

  5. Second to last paragraph really hit the nail on the head. Who wouldn't want to read that story? Kudos, brotha.