Saturday, August 8, 2009

What makes a "good" story?

Dear Dallas,
For a long time, I've thought a story has to have a bunch of conflict to be interesting, but in the past couple days I've been reading in this old book of my mom's, and a lot of the stories in it are really interesting and fun even though they're hardly at all tense or full of conflict. So, now I've sort of been trying to figure out what it is that makes someone want to keep reading a story. Do you think, as long as you have good characters with interesting things happening to them, even if their adventures aren't full of all sorts of problems popping up, it can be a good story?

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You ask a very good question, and something that I think every writer thinks about. When I first started writing, I thought that in order to have a good story, I had to come up with a wholly original, action-packed plot. But as I read more and grew more as a writer, I realized that most of the books I enjoyed reading didn't have crazy action-filled plotlines. It was more the characters that drew me into the story. For example, one of my all-time favorite books is Catcher in the Rye, and not much happens plot-wise -- the main character wanders around New York, running into people he knows, musing about his life and the world around him. But I found it utterly compelling. That book also made me realize that it is okay that I sometimes feel like I don't have as much life experience to draw upon as older writers. I can write vividly and compellingly and honestly about the things I have experienced -- childhood, high school, college, first relationships, new friendships, traveling abroad for the first time, etc -- and I can make very interesting characters and stories out of these raw materials. And the same goes for you and the things you've experienced in your life!

In short, I think a "good" story is subjective -- every reader will be different! To me, a good story is simply a story that moves the reader in some way. Maybe that movement is literal and plot-driven -- as you put it, problems that keep popping up -- or the movement could be more internal and character-based. Personally, the quieter, character-driven stories are the ones I find most lasting.

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