What Exactly Makes A Damn Good Story?

A fine human being (or a very savvy robot) emailed me to ask a really important — and head-bonkingly difficult — question.

This human-slash-robot said:

I’m good at idea part. I have lots of notes for several novels on characters, who they are, how they know each other, what they want, their backstories. On settings, where and when everything takes place. I’m also good at the “sit down and shit out words” part. I can knock out 10k words in a week if I’m really in a groove.

But what I’m bad at is the STORY part. I’m horrible at getting from “I know the basic setup” to “I have an outline for where this is going”. Lately, most of my abandoned projects are abandoned because I just don’t have an idea what these people do or what happens to them once I’ve created a situation. I write 4k or 10k words and realize, “I don’t have a real story here.” Any pointers you have along those lines are greatly appreciated. It’s the one thing I haven’t found so far in your book or on your blog: how do you create enough story-stuff to build a novel around? And if I can’t seem to do it, should I just give up on novels?

So, to clarify –

The ideas are easy. (And they are. Ideas are baubles — cheap, chintzy, shiny, and freely available.) The writing is easy in the sense that, okay, you can sit down and dig the word ditches in Unicorn Land till your fingers go black and rot at the knuckles.

But story.

Story.

That’s the hard part, this humanbot is right. Story is an unruly beast.

Plot? Plot is easy. Plot is simple. Plot is just: the order of operations and events within the story as revealed to the audience. It’s a sequence of happenings — ideally, those happenings are driven by characters rather than by a COLD AND UNFEELING UNIVERSE, and in a perfect world the plot is a road built by the wherewithal of those characters, but either way, the plot is just the program. They do this, they do that, this happens, this happens, then that happens, he does a thing, she does a thing, the end, go home.

But plot is not story.

Plot is the arrow, and story is the apple that it punctures. Story is all the stuff. All the fibrous material and intangible air surrounding the fiddly bits. The story is the whole beast. It’s the whole animal. And you have to use the whole animal.

But here, I’m saying a lot of words, and I’m not helping you understand story very much at all. And that’s because story is a hard thing to understand. Writers put words to paper, but storytellers take those words — or images, in the case of film and TV and comics — and spin that dross into candy floss. Writers make horses. Storytellers fucking make unicorns, man.

So, what is story?

At the simplest level, story is a mechanism of desire and denial, of conflict and escalation and complication before resolution. I, the character, have a problem. I seek to solve my problem, but between me and the solution wait an obstacle course of other problems and other people and those people have competing desires. And I, the character, navigate that Scylla and Charybdis to either answer my desire or fail to manifest my desire. I solve my problem or I jolly well fucking don’t. That’s the story. There will be some shape to it — a rise to a mountainous peak, a slithering heavenward curve, a jagged line of fanged peaks, a rollercoaster going left and right. (See an earlier post of mine about story shapes and narrative architecture.)

I said once (“In Which I Critique Your Story That I Haven’t Read“) that story can look like:

1. HEY LOOK A PROBLEM

2. HEY LOOK A SOLUTION

3. THE END YAY

But, really, it probably ends up looking like:

1. HEY LOOK A PROBLEM

2. I’M GONNA JUST GO AHEAD AND FIX THAT PROBLEM AND –

3. OH GOD I MADE IT WORSE

4. OH FUCK SOMEBODY ELSE IS MAKING IT WORSE TOO

5. WAIT I THINK I GOT THIS –

6A. SHIT SHIT SHIT

6B. FUCK FUCK FUCK

7. IT’S NOT JUST WORSE NOW BUT DIFFERENT

8. EVERYTHING IS COMPLICATED 

9. ALL IS LOST

10. WAIT, IS THAT A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?

11. IT IS BUT IT’S A VELOCIRAPTOR WITH A FLASHLIGHT IN ITS MOUTH

12. WAIT AN IDEA

13. I HAVE BEATEN THE VELOCIRAPTOR AND NOW I HAVE A FLASHLIGHT AND MY PROBLEMS ARE SOLVED IN PART BUT NOT TOO NEATLY BECAUSE TIDY, PAT ENDINGS MAKE STORY JESUS ANGRY, SO ANGRY THAT STORY JESUS GIVES EVERYONE MOUTH HERPES

Still, that’s a program. It’s not quite plot, but it’s plotty — because it suggests a series of events. Or, at the very least, it suggests a mechanism. And a mechanism is a cold, implacable motherfucker. Story, on the other hand, isn’t cold. Story is a warm whiskey burn.

On the one hand, any character-conflict-escalation-resolution narrative probably ends up being “a story.” A man catches a fish isn’t much of a story, because his problem isn’t a problem. His desire isn’t denied. (A fish catches a man — now, that’s a story.)

Story is a sum greater than the parts of the plot. It is more than the mechanism.

I’m still not helping, I know.

Story is all those things, but it connects to us. A story is interesting. A story lets us see ourselves in it — and it is in that way both a unique snowflake and a universal precept. Or, more to the point, the story is the unique delivery system by which we get to talk about universal concepts and problems. We can talk about a THING WE ALL UNDERSTAND by framing it around a narrative unique to the author — every character and setting and conflict is a potential lens through which we can look upon this universal problem. Story takes this lens and it helps us to see old problems in new ways. Stories make us feel and think. Stories have power. Stories move us, shape us, and do the same to the world. It does this in the way that a song can do it. It has rhythm, like a song — slow to fast, up and down and then up again. Pause, leap, wait, then run. Stories are not a manicured garden. They’re an unruly forest –

A tangle of thorns in which we find ourselves happily ensnared.

My father was a storyteller, and he used to tell stories about his day at work or this time he got into a knife fight or that other time he and my mother jumped a ravine on his snowmobile, and often enough, his stories had the feel of a joke or a magic trick. There was the sense of a turn in there, a pivot, a punchline. A snake twisting in the margins. A sudden turn left when you thought you were going right. And you waited for that. You weren’t just interested to see what was going to happen — because, obviously, he survived — you waited to see the complications. You wanted more than just what was tied to the end of the rope, you wanted the kinks and knots in the rope itself. You want an interesting journey, not just a desirable destination.

It’s why if you want to be more than just a writer, you need to look at good storytellers. Comedians are a good place to start: Tig Notaro, Aziz Ansari, George Carlin, Louis CK. Listen to songs that tell stories — not just pop songs, but songs with tales to tell. Watch documentaries: note that documentaries are a good example of taking the mechanism of plot (by which I mean, a sequence of events) and translating that in a bigger way, finding messages, finding a throughline that hangs it all together and allows the material to transcend just THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED. (Actually, that calls to mind a book which is not a documentary: The Things They Carried, which is as much about war as it is about story. In fact, I’d argue it’s more about story than it is about war.) Best of all, find those people in your life who are natural storytellers. That guy at work. Your cousin. Your grandmother. Get them to tell a story. Listen to how they do it. How do they frame it? How do they ease you into it? What’s the hook? Why is it interesting?

None of this answers the question, of course.

None of this really explains story.

To do that, I’d probably need a lot more room. But maybe it helps. And maybe it gets you thinking about some of this stuff, even though it fails to properly finish the job or give hard answers to the tough question of how to make story work.

As such, I figure this is a good place for an announcement:

I’ve got a book coming out next year with Writer’s Digest that will tackle exactly this. The book is called Damn Good Story and I’m not sure of a release date yet, but I suspect latter half of 2017. It tackles all this unruly stuff — and it will be less about providing concrete answers to the question of what makes a good story and will instead just attempt to crack open the geode that is your head so we can all get access to the shiny bits inside. And in the meantime, if you’d like to check out some of my other writing books, you can nab the Gonzo Writing Book Bundle (that’ll get you eight books for $20), or you can go grab The Kickass Writer, also from Writer’s Digest. So, coming soon: DAMN GOOD STORY. Until then, we’ll keep talking here at the blog, see what we can figure out together.

A quick homework assignment if you’re so inclined:

Drop into the comments and recommend what you consider a real good story (or who you consider a damn good storyteller) — bonus points for something that isn’t just a book or a movie. Songs. Documentaries. Comedy routines. Whatever.

129 comments

  • If anyone here is into metal, check out Oh, Sleeper. They make stories out of their albums.

    For books, I recommend the Series of Unfortunate Events, which I loved growing up. Great storytelling, unique style, got better with every volume.

  • Thought of another one: the band Savatage (later Trans-Siberian Orchestra) tells some great stories in their albums “Dead Winter Dead,” “The Wake of Magellan,” and TSO’s “Beethoven’s Last Night.”

  • Really good pop science books that break down scientific discoveries into something non-scientists can understand and enjoy. A big part of those books is often the journey from idea to discovery, similar to documentaries. My all-time is Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey. Follows the journey from bored geology hobbyist Victorians up to modern understanding of a really weird creature. Fortey is so intensely passionate about trilobites that you could practically use the book as a study on how to write love letters, too.

  • These all have great stories at, and as, their hearts–

    Novel: ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ by Walter Miller Jr;
    Short story: ‘Konig Feurio’ by Cody Goodfellow;
    Song: ‘Pancho and Lefty’ by Townes Van Zandt;
    Comedian: Fluffy’s routines on Bad Boys song/Krispy Kreme donuts, and police pullovers;
    Movie: ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ directed by Stanley Kramer;
    Documentaries: ‘Connections’ by James Burke and ‘In Search of the Trojan War’ by Michael Wood (‘Blackfish’ goes without saying);
    Manga and Light novels: ‘Spice and Wolf’ by Isuna Hasekura.

    I go back to these deliberately, or they pull me in again when I chance upon them, because they tell stories. And damn good ones.

  • June 7, 2016 at 4:46 PM // Reply

    For me, recently – definitely the Hamilton soundtrack. Never thought I could be so interested in the life and times of a founding father of a country I’ve never been to, but here we are.

  • June 7, 2016 at 4:50 PM // Reply

    I was glad to see Gordon Petry mention the late Jim Croce – one of the great musical storytellers. Croce had far too short a career, but his work will hold up well alongside any of the balladeer so we’ve mentioned. Everyone knows “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, but his “Roller Derby Queen” is incredibly descriptive, too. “The roller derby program said that she looked like a refrigerator with a head.”

    I’d also like to point to Warren Zevon, whose storysongs never fail to hold your attention, no matter how many times you hear them. “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, “Buccaneer”, “The Envoy” and – of course — “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” are great stories. I’d nominate Roland as one of the truly greatest spooky stories of all time, in fact. One witty little twist always makes me envious that I didn’t write it, when Zevon tells us “Roland aimed his Thompson gun — he didn’t say a word…” Somehow, that particular non sequitur makes the climax so much more twisted.

  • If someone asked me “what is story” and I had to come up with a fast answer I could only do it like this: if plot is what happens, story is *why* it happens, and how it happens, and what goes wrong or just goes sideways while it’s happening, and who gets involved that you didn’t see coming.

    I had an unfinished novel that was abandoned at about the 30% mark because of Life. When I went back to it 20 years later, it went in a completely different direction than I’d originally intended. I had to heavily rewrite the whole first 30%. It wasn’t that the original direction was “wrong” or anything, it was simply that my outlook on life had changed, and the characters coming to life through me (if you will pardon that pretentious phrase) wanted to do different things. The original intention was plot; what actually ended up on the page was story.

    Here is one of my favorite song-stories: “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen.

  • I know you offered bonus points for not-books, but I recently listened to the audiobook of “God is Disappointed in You,” which is basically a humorous, condensed retelling of the Bible. I bring it up here because it takes this huge text – really, this huge collection of smaller texts – and creates a true narrative of it, a seamless history of Judaism/Christianity, and tells it as a story rather than a choppy reference book. Highly recommended in this “storytelling” context, as it is a great example of taking disjointed “plot(s)” and turning them into a compelling story.

    Another, wonderful, not-book example is Beyoncé’s Lemonade… However you choose to interpret it, this album tells a big story in a big way – even more so if you watch the entire visual album that includes the poetry – and I have to throw in the recommendation to consider her a legit storyteller in this context.

  • My favorite song-stories are the lion’s share of things SJ Tucker has written. If you like (or even are neutral toward) folk/filk-ish music, I’d highly recommend her work. “Were-Owl,” “Carousel,” and the Wendy Trilogy are all excellent story-songs.

  • Belle and Sebastian are really good story tellers. Once I realized how good they were (particularly Stuart) at telling stories in their songs, I listened to every thing I had by them for a few weeks solid. String Bean Jean, Dress up in you, Lazy Line Painter Jane, to name a few, are just great stories.

  • Chuck, another delight to read. Story is the not-so-docile creature all writers seek to tame (myself included). I’m not sure I’d say that the master storytellers know exactly how to do it, but they’ve had so much practice on how not to do it that they’ve worked their way into the rub, so to speak.
    Some of my favorite storytellers are:
    Stephen King: really writes some stuff we all relate to and tweaks it to freak us out. We think, “Shit, that could totally happen.”
    Patrick Rothfuss: His book, The Name of the Wind is terrific and is a nice story that really brings out detail and puts the reader into the world (one aspect of good storytelling).
    David Mitchell: Good writer and storyteller.
    Haruki Murakami: Creates a reality that somehow swims in surreal waters.

    Short story: “All Summer in a Day.” It’s a short Bradbury tale, but he seems to pull at our emotions. We get angry, sad, and we want justice. In the end, we learn something about how we think.

  • “Writers make horses. Storytellers make fucking unicorns, man.” Absolutely wonderful. I especially enjoyed this post and how you described seeking out storytellers in all facets, not just written word.

    Harry Chapin, Cat’s in the cradle is a classic in my books.

    Awesome read my good man.

  • Talk of storytelling always makes me think of the last bit of the documentary film, “The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera,” about the life of tough-guy filmmaker Samuel Fuller. The aged Fuller, living in Paris, tells this little tale (my memory ensures this is a paraphrase):

    “Alexander Dumas and Honore de Balzac happen to meet one night at the Paris Opera House. They greet each other politely and then part ways. Balzac walks off saying to himself, ‘If only I could make the money he makes!’ Dumas walks off saying, ‘If only I could write the stories he writes!’. And there,” says Fuller, “is the -story!-“

  • Chris Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay is about a ragtag group of sky pirates (in a dieselpunk setting) led by a charming, handsome idiot swindler. The characters are some of the most interesting I’ve seen in ages. The story is one of the most fun I’ve read ever. And there’s surprising psychological depth. It’s the kind of book you wouldn’t have realized one was allowed to write any more – just plain, good old fashioned FUN.

    Greenday’s American Idiot album is a story. One of my favourite albums of all time.

  • Philosophy/Religion/College/Language Steve Martin from the album A Wild and Crazy Guy 1978. I discovered it in 89 when I was 13, don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder. It draws you in pulls you along and just is amazing.

    While the man has been tarnished Bill Cosby’s comedy routines (Fat Albert for example, the routine not the cartoon) are nothing but storytelling.

    All of Harry Chapin’s songs but especially Taxi, A Better Place to Be, and There Only Was One Choice.

  • Okay, I have two. One’s a novel I just finished re-reading: Wizard and Glass, part of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Now, I love Stephen King as much as the next person, but when he writes horror, lots of times I can see the strings being pulled on the marionettes and it jars me out of the story a bit. But the last half of Wizard and Glass is a tragic love story and it’s fucking genius. It’s all the classic Stephen King ordinary people sliding into a horrible situation through a series of bad decisions, without (much of) a horror or fantastical crutch to use as a shortcut to yank on reader emotions.

    Second recommendation is a songwriter, as requested: Lori McKenna, touted to me as a songwriter’s songwriter, and you’ll see why. Try “The Time I’ve Wasted” for starters.

  • June 8, 2016 at 6:53 AM // Reply

    I read all the comments to make sure someone hadn’t already mentioned this and didn’t find a reference to it. If you’re looking for storytellers, you’ll find great ones on The Moth Radio hour. One great storyteller after another telling great stories. Link: https://themoth.org/radio-hour

    They have a podcast, too if your local public radio station doesn’t carry the show.

  • I’ve been hung up lately on the Critical Role podcast. It’s Matthew Mercer and a bunch of voice actors playing D&D. Mercer, however, is a hell of a story teller – as well as a DM – and it’s easy to get sucked in to the story he is telling, and how the players (and their characters) interact, fall in line, and try to punch their own direction out.

    You can find it on youtube or geek and sundry’s website for free. Each episode is about 3 hours and if you put it on then do something else it very much plays out like a radio drama (everyone is a voice actor, so every character has a distinct voice) with the occasional sounds of dice rolling and random arbitration of acts.

  • There’s an EP by This Good Robot, called Human That I Am.
    It’s five songs and it took me a few listens to understand that they weave a continuous story of betrayed trust and vengeance.
    It’s also really catchy, in a circus-theme kind of way. I don’t know. Go check it out.

  • David Gilmour’s guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb has a clear beginning, middle and an end as it takes an already fucked-up rock star and squeezes what remains of his sanity through a Big Muff Fuzzbox and a Leslie Rotary speaker… It does not have a happy ending.

  • One of my favorite song stories of all time is the compelling “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. Gives me chills every time I hear it. Especially after seeing the deep, powerful, black waters of Lake Superior for myself.

    My all time favorite story as a child was “The Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling from “Just So Stories”. I loved the way he brought the strange, yet familiar characters to life, his colorful descriptions of their surroundings, and the Elephant’s Child’s quest to satisfy his satiable curiosity. Maybe writing the “story” is as simple and difficult as expressing what it is about the idea that you loved or were passionate about in the first place. Maybe if plot is the mechanical structure of a work, story is its soul.

    As a certain great storyteller once said (okay, it’s Stephen King), “The most important things are the hardest to say.”

  • A great story told through music is the song Became by Atmosphere. They are a hip hop group out of Minnesota, and the song is…. well, just listen to it. You’ll understand.

  • Two cookbooks:

    1. The Farm by Ian Knaurer. Not my favorite cookbook to use for its traditional application, but I have sat at my kitchen table crying over it. Knauer weaves a complicated picture through his recipes of an inherited farm, deeply bound together by friends and family. Recipes flip back between locavore chic (say Venison Loin with Apple-Shallot Hash to Pennsylvania German traditional (Pickled Beets). The introductions to each chapter sparkle with fond memories and family history, the recipe introductions paint an image of a complicated cook, well-traveled, cosmopolitan, yet longing to keep his heart close to his family home.

    3. Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Ottolenghi IS my favorite chef and I also once cried reading his description of yogurt in his self-titled cookbook. Tamimi and Ottolenghi are cooks who met in London, one Palestinian, one Israeli, both gay. Their shared experiences growing up in the same region, same sexuality, yet very different cultures, wind through all their books. Jerusalem is the culmination of all their previous works, a love letter in food to a city they shared. Through recipes, the complex cultural history of Jerusalem is laid bare, not as a city of two enemies, but a complex region, home to people from many regions. Sometimes, the recipes zoom in to specific friends or family members, other times they zoom out to view a food tradition through the lens of immigration. It’s such a beautiful book.

    Both these cookbooks are about so much more than food. They tell deep stories, human stories, family stories.

  • The song “Cold Missouri Waters” is a nice example of a frame story. I think there are several versions floating around, but the one on my hard drive is, appropriately, by Cry Cry Cry.

    There’s an extra horror factor for me — I’ve been a wildland firefighter. The first time I heard it, a porch full of happy, drunk co-workers went very, very silent.

  • I really enjoy listening to Sage Francis’s stories. He’s a rap artist, a spoken word poet and story teller. I love the way he describes things. I love the emotion in his voice when he spits words. Example “Best of Times”, go and check it out, even if you’re not into hiphop.

  • Good story-songs:
    “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle
    “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger
    “Stan” by Eminem

    And John Williams is great at telling a story via instrumental music only. Listen to “Rey’s Theme” and “The Scavenger” from TFA and they both somehow manage to tell Rey’s story without any lyrics, and are super effective even without the movie!

  • Pink Floyd’s song ‘Time’ sank into my soul when I was about twelve years old. It set the foundation for my philosophy in life and, ha, it just hit me, my first novel, that I’m writing now is all about time.
    Janet

  • I spent YEARS with that same problem. I had great ideas for STARTING stories, but couldn’t get any of them past five chapters. They petered out or hit a freaking big brick wall.
    It’s only now I’m working on my first finished draft of a novel, and I read back over it, that I realise there are little bits of all my previous, abandoned attempts at novels in this one – like a patchwork quilt of all. It’s as if I had to find all the pieces of the story I wanted to tell first, and only then could I see how they fit together to say what I’d been trying to say for so long.For the person looking for ‘the answer’ to your question, Chuck, mine probably sucks. Sorry. But to your emailer I would say: don’t throw away any of these abandoned, not-working attempts at stories. Keep them safe, and then every now and then look through them again for any repeated themes, questions and ideas. Chances are, that’s the story your subconscious mind is trying to tell. You may have enough pieces already, or you may have to write more for a little while longer – but you’ll get there in the end. And once you’ve completed one story, the pattern for future stories will unlock.

  • Anything written by Joe R. Lansdale, which usually has the characters saying the exact same things as your critique points.

    I also agree a story is often more than the sums of its own parts. Some endings work for certain stories that would never have a snowball’s chance in hell in other stories, but certain conditions – characters, nuances, etc – make them work in that particular instance.

  • This was a great post. I think that you did a confusingly awesome job of explaining it! I also love a commenter’s description “If plot is what happens, story is WHY it happens…”
    In the music world, I think that Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Stevie Nicks & The Cruxshadows are excellent storytellers, as well as ThouShaltNot, Rasputina, and Tori Amos.

  • One of the best comedy hours ive seen as far as storytelling is John Mulaney’s New in Town (the hour not the tv show)

  • For me, story is mostly about providing the “who” to the reader/listener/viewer. Sometimes, it can be as simple as:

    Plot: Joe picked Sue’s pocket.
    Story: Joey chipped into the Fifth Grade Social Fund with money he picked from Susie’s pocket.

    The second version tells us who Joey is (10-year-old fifth grader who steals and gets away with it) and therewith provides flavor for the story. The first version may grab the reader/listener/viewer’s attention because, okay, A picked B’s pocket. Interesting, a tad. And we do see that Joe is a thief. But beyond that, we don’t really know who he is or know for sure he’s the focus (and not Sue). In the second version, we can tell that Joey’s slick, crafty beyond his years, a good parent-dodger (“Why ask them for the money when I can just pick Susie’s pocket?” Or maybe he spent their money and picked the replacement?), and steals from children (“Susie”) but somehow has a sense of obligation because he did actually contribute to the Fund. Or maybe he just wanted to keep the heat off, which makes him even craftier. Or maybe he was desperate and feels horrible and plans to pay it back. With just one sentence we don’t know, but we’re more inclined to be interested in whatever the author weaves around this one sentence because we know enough about *who* Joey is to want to know more.

    Story can also be character’s plight embedded in the depiction:

    Plot: He slept.
    Story: He overslept.

    Sometimes, depending upon story-rich context (which is circular on my part because I’m presuming story while trying to explain story), the same sentence can be plot or story.

    Plot: They crossed the state line. (Fact/plot/so what?)
    Plot: They crossed the state line. (And now they’re federal fugitives wanted in multiple states.)

    My humble input. Great topic, Chuck, one we all grapple with. Even our favorite writers can sometimes hit a patch of “Wha???” on page 183. It seems to me the person who asked the question is ahead of the game, recognizing that story matters and wanting to get it right.

  • As always, loved this post :)

    For me the difference between plot and story is the EMOTION evoked in the reader. If the emotion doesn’t get on the page, if it doesn’t make me feel anything, it’s just an accounting of the plot. If it makes me feel(you know, something besides anger/frustration that I’m getting nothing out of what I’m reading), then it’s a story.

    Probably not at all helpful either, since emotion is hard.

  • Maybe human/robot shares a problem I once had. When I first started writing (seriously), I thought I needed to be serious. So I thought I would (could) write some literary fiction. I had interesting characters, a setting, and basic premise and then… nothing would happen. No story. Because, in the end, I may read some literary fiction and enjoy it, but my true passion is genre. All these horror stories and thrillers and fantasy novels. So in the midst of vampire madness I sat down and wrote a vampire story (that will never see the light of day). First novel I finished. Now I know who I am as a writer and write genre stories and, while it may not be easy, the stories are there and I write them because I want to read them.

  • I’m always a fan of ‘Character Driven’ stories. For me to WRITE them, sometimes it requires really digging deep into how another person FEELS, who they ARE, what they consciously do, and those flaws in their psyche that they may not even be aware of.
    Globally, in outlines, this is hard to do.
    So beyond what goes INTO the story I wind up writing lots of little pieces that I file away, never to be published, because they aren’t about the STORY but their the rambling internal dialogue that helps ME understand who this character IS.
    WHY does bob recoil in horror at gutting a fish, when he’s perfectly fine stabbing a worm on the end of a hook? Is it because he’s blocked out the memory of the time he watched his friend gut a fish, then the knife slipped, cut his vein, and everything was blood in the water?
    IMO the writer needs to know their characters FAR more intimately than the reader ever will. Know who they’ve loved and lost, where they grew up, that they hate cilantro and their favorite shirt is blue. Most of these things are completely extraneous to plot, they don’t come up, but knowing them in advance helps the story flow organically. If the plot changes, or an editor says “this scene should go another way” you can adjust easily because you KNOW that character.
    PLOT is what happens to people. STORY is how the character deals with the events, and what DRIVES them into the next action.
    But as with all writing advice, this is IMO YMMMV. :)

  • One of my favorite music-story groups is The Decemberists. Try “The Rake’s Song” followed by “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)” from their album The Hazards of Love.

  • Storytellers who come to mind immediately are all Minnesotans (currently): Kevin Kling, Ward Rubrecht, and Loren Niemi. Take your heart and mind on journeys to remember–in a short, sweet space.

  • I realize that I am late to the party, but I just have to mention a song called “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars. The story got stuck in my head and actually became a jumping off point for a short story I wrote.
    “Ain’t goin back to Barton Hollow. Devil’s gonna follow me wherever I go. Won’t do me no good washing in the river. Can’t no preacher man save my soul.” (Chorus)
    Trust me. Give it a listen.

  • I’m listening to “Good Omens” on Audible and I really think Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett did a great job telling that story. The audio book gets a boost from the narrator Martin Jarvis acting it out. There is an author name Morgan Rice, who I assume, due to the atrocious rate of errors in his books, must be self published, but I really like the way he tells stories. Of note, is that I quit reading his books on book number 8 of the series he’s writing, because in spite of the story and the way he tells it, bad punctuation and other things that an editor would catch drove me mad and I finally said FUCK IT and stopped reading them.

  • Can’t believe nobody’s mentioned it yet, but for my money, a perfect little story is “A Glutton for Punishment” by Richard Yates. It just doesn’t get better than that.

    You want stories in music? Bruce Springsteen will deliver: Thunder Road, You’re Missing, One Step Up,
    And then there’s Aimee Mann.

    • Bruce Springsteen’s “You’re Missing” made me sit up and take notice. Very good example. I went home and made the rest of my family listen to it. It demanded to be shared, that’s what makes a good story.

  • July 8, 2016 at 12:00 PM // Reply

    Meatloaf. All of his songs are short stories put to music and I’ll listen over and over because they’re just that damn good.

  • July 20, 2016 at 2:54 PM // Reply

    Lovely post and thanks: to play along with the story prompt, I’ll add that it’s its own world it creates, and use the example of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which isn’t a traditional story arc like some of his songs, but I think a great example of creating some intricate, strange, new reality we’re drawn into: ‘Maggie comes fleet-foot face full of black soot, talking that the heat put plants in the bed but the phone’s tapped anyway Maggie says they must bust in early May, orders from the DA’….it’s a celebration of what can be done with words, melodies, the magic of its own queer world, well beyond what most of us might dream up, for fear or whatever reason we think we can’t (which of course, we can).

  • Well, first, I loved this (even though I only say the f word on special occasions). Anyway, for me, my father and grandmother (my mom’s mom) are/were our family storytellers (sorry, no links to either of them). And what their storytelling did for me as a person was help me understand who I am. As a writer, I learned that a great story told well can be told over and over and never get old. More important, it can teach us something new each time.

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