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

  • 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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