Understanding what makes a Good Story – Part One

If there is one thing people are hungry for, it’s a good story. Story gives our lives meaning. A shared story is an aspect of a culture, and helps unites people. To study the importance of story would take you into the depths of everything human. Story is in our blood.

So, what makes a good story would be important to know, wouldn’t it?

Myths, Legends and Religious Tales that have been passed down the ages have to have been good, or else no one would have retold them. For a novel to be a bestseller, it has to at least have some aspects of a good story. Same goes for movies, TV Shows and anything else with a plot and characters. These modern tales often can slip up here and there and still do okay. The best ones you remember for decades are the ones that hit all the notes of a Good Story.

So, in this article we’ll look at the basics of what makes a Good Story.

1. Characters

Characters make the story. They are who we anchor with. If the reader or viewer does not care about the protagonist, then no amount of action, drama or speculate will draw them in. So, for a story to be successful from the get go it has to have characters that the reader finds interesting. For now, we’ll focus on the main character.

Notice how we don’t have to like these characters.

In Dexter, the main character is a serial killer, so while complicated to like, he is interesting.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White changes from a pitiful but lovable science teacher into a hardened drug lord. He changes into someone who represents the evil that lurks within the everyman.  That”s why he’s such a compelling character, because we can say “I wonder what’d have to happen for me to start cooking Meth in a van.” We can empathize with his situation, we can see ourselves in him.

What’s important with main characters is that we can see ourselves in their shoes.

That they have flaws, insecurities, but also have a higher ambition. Something that they want to get. There is no blockbuster movie about a man who has everything he wants and lives a quiet peaceful life on screen for two and a half hours. Our characters have to be lacking something, and be seeking to get it.

You can see this in the myths of Ancient Greece. Hercules, who ha to complete his twelve labors before he could be given his true status. The lack and the drive to fill the lack has to be present within a character. Sometimes it may not be on the surface or spelled out, but we can intuit that the main character is lacking something.

The story serves as a moral lesson for the character.

In the real world, we relate to people who have changed and gone through a powerful story. The rags to riches is one of the most compelling. Often in this story there is a bad start,

“I was adopted after my parents abandoned me, and moved around from house to house, always getting in trouble, never fitting in,” then a lowest low,

“When I was a teenager I ended up drinking every night. I would forget whole days. I didn’t know it then, but I was dying, I was trying to passively kill myself.”

And then, a jolt to salvation, “And my sister, one day she confronted me and begged me to stop, to change. I saw how much I hurt her, how much I had hurt everyone left in my life. So, I decided that I wasn’t going to be a fuckup anymore. I was going to make something of my life. So with seven dollars in my bank account, I started X Company, in the basement of my adoptive parents house. From there…”

This story compels us because we can relate. Most people know what it’s like to be poor, to be struggling, to be self-destructive. Many people recognize those same traits in themselves right now. So, when we see someone go from a terrible low to Worlds Youngest Billionaire or Bestselling Author, then we relate that to our own lives and say “Well if they can do it, I bet I can do something good with my life too.”

The same rule applies to side-characters. Everyone has to have their motivation. Everyone has to act like they are real people. There are some exception to this, and some interesting components to the Villain, but this is largely true.

Whether  conscious or not, this is what draws us in.

A bigger vision, a wider purpose, plus highs and lows is what makes a compelling character. They need to interest us, to make us want to hear more about them. We need to be able to see ourselves in their position, and feel the warmth of aliveness, even if they are cold, hostile or evil. Characters have to feel real. They have to have some aspect of humanity in them.

2. Plot

Partly discussed above, what makes a Good Story is something happening. The story. Now that we have characters that we care about, an investment of our emotions, the plot has to put them through hell.

In screenwriting and writing in general, there is a thing called an ‘inciting incident.’ It is also known as the ‘hook’, and it’s what sparks the story.

Adam Reeve was just a normal guy, but on the way home from work a policeman pulled him over. He was readying himself for the ticket, but the man who came to the window was wearing a mask. He waved his gun for Adam to get out of the car. This was no cop, Adam was being taken hostage.

Or, Linda was on the way to the top in her Law Firm in New York City. She had a Kickass attitude and took no shit from nobody, that was, until she met Brad, a handsome ladysman who bragged about being both rich and unemployed. Linda was meant to be the professional woman, but how come she can’t stop thinking about Brad? 

For a story to start, something has to interrupt our character’s flow of motion. Everything going normally until X, or nothing was working out until X. Something has to change, to make us care, to get us leaning forward in our seats.

And Hell has to Get Hotter…

After we hooked into the story with characters we care about and a inciting incident that makes us interested in what happens next, then the heat needs to be turned up. This is the rising conflict. It continues until we have the resolution and the end of the story.

In Aliens, Ripley has been hooked into joining the marines in their investigation of the planet. Now that they are there, things get worse and worse, with the discovery of the abandoned colony and then the attacks by the aliens. Things get more and more dangerous for the characters.  People are killed, the stakes are raised, and before the end of the film, there is a moment when things seem unwinable.

“Game over man, Game Over.” 

This needs to happen in a story in one way or another, In different genres there are different sorts of rising tension. In a Romance, often it is the two people becoming distant after a fight. In a horror, it is the slow progression of the Villain “winning,” until the point it seems unbeatable, and the terror is at it’s max.

If you take the story of Jesus Christ, the rising tension is the hints that the Jewish Priests, the Caiaphas, plot against Jesus. It grows even more dire when Jesus is betrayed, then has his trial, and is sentenced to be crucified, and then, reaches it’s max during when he is raised on the cross and allowed to die.

There is a Point Where it Seems Unwinnable.

The plight of the characters gets more and more dire. Things deteriorate, and then hope is nearly lost, until the final resolution, the great turnaround, the resolution.

To Die is to Be Reborn

In Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King, there is a moment where Frodo is finally seduced by the Ring of Power. “The Ring is Mine Sam,” he says and puts on the Ring, revealing to the Dark Lord his location, in the heart of Mount Doom.

This should have ensured the Dark Lord’s victory, but the creature Gollum, fueled by his jealously and desire attacks Frodo, takes the ring, and is then forced into the fires of Mount Doom, dying alongside the Ring.

Before the final goal was achieved, there was a moment of absolute hopelessness. In the film, during the same sequence, Aragon is attacked by a Troll. It looks as if he is going to be killed, while his friends desperately try and maneuver through the battle to try and save him.

This unwinnable situation becomes winnable, and the tension is relieved, and the hearts of the audience became lighter. This leads us to our resolution.

3. The Resolution

After the beast has been conquered, the challenge completed, the princess saved, then comes our happily ever after.  With a story we need closure, but like our characters, it doesn’t need to be a positive sort, though often it is.

The hero now returns a changed person. He has undergone the trials of his story, faced challenges and done great deeds, and now retires to his world. One of the issues people have with the Return of the King is the amount of “Endings.” There are at least three scenes that imply the resolution, each one says to the audience, “This is it,” but they move onto the next one and the next one. This is more accurate to real life, and of the Lord of the Rings books themselves, but the audience can’t help but feel a little stretched along by this.

An ideal resolution ties together all lose strings, and ensures that main plight of the protagonist is resolved.

He got the girl or he saved the day.

If a story is building up for a sequel or wants to inspire intrigue, then they use the resolution to foreshadow an inciting incident or an unresolved plot that will be resolved later on.

The typical happy ending often works best with more simplistic but true spirited stories. It follows the story arch more naturally, and makes the reader or audience feel that their time was well-spent.

An ambiguous ending, like that in Inception, works best when the story itself feels ambiguous. If it was a mind bending film, or challenged a set of beliefs, then an ambiguous ending helps reinforce the themes dealt with in the film.  It can also feel or be called “bitter-sweet,” if some things are resolved but others are left purposely unresolved. The ending of Gone Girl for example, while technically quite serve, it suits the film’s style, plot and characters.

And a tragic ending works for stories that the reader has known from the beginning were tragic. Where everything is well, everything is functional, and then slowly it is torn away. The reader must find resolution in the peace of death, or the unusual peace of accepting the terrible.

So, that’s it for now, Character and Plot.

This is the bread and better of a good story, but in another post, I’ll look into the subtle aspects of a story. Make you subscribe if you don’t want to miss it.




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