Story guru Robert McKee asserts that the writer’s goal should always be to create a “good story well told” (italics by McKee).
A simple statement, but hard to achieve.
Some people are naturally gifted storytellers. They turn a trip to the grocery store into an epic battle of good and evil. Another not-so-talented storyteller will give an eyewitness account of a multi-car pile-up and put everyone to sleep. It’s a talent, and I’m sure the stories that survived via the oral tradition did so, in part, because a great storyteller gave them life.
A Good Story
A good story grabs our attention, steals our interest, and holds us hostage until its inevitable conclusion. It also usually has a unique setting (or made to feel that way through the writer’s depiction) and fascinating characters.
A good story rewards close reading, hinting that if we stick it out, we will learn some great truth about life or ourselves. And then it delivers.
Chuck Wendig wrote an excellent book on the subject titled ‘Damn Fine Story’ in which he writes about how his dad (sidenote: I knew his dad in real life, Wendig’s farm was my school bus stop) never read a book but was an excellent storyteller. His son inherited his talent and he learned the craft of writing.
Wendig’s book does an excellent job of breaking down what makes a story interesting, what keeps us reading. He also offers cool models for story structure beyond the standard climb the mountain to climax model that made every eighth-grader giggle. He suggests a rollercoaster, with its three-dimensional peaks, dizzying drops, and sharp turns.
A good story is usually good because the storyteller innately knows what makes a story compelling: a character in conflict with opposing forces taking place within an exciting setting. A problem that needs solving.
In a recent BookTube video, I address my frustration with reading Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat. Before fans come after me, please know that I love Anne Rice. The Mayfair Witches series is one of my favorites. Still, the novel frustrated the heck out of me because beyond the interesting characters and stunning settings, there were five-hundred pages of gorgeous prose and no story. I struggled to finish it, which was a bummer because I wanted to love it.
I followed up that disappointment with a masterpiece of plotting and good prose with A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. Why hasn’t this man written more books?
Even knowing the basic plot of A Simple Plan (I’ve seen the excellent film adaptation), I was glued to the pages, reading them at breakneck speed until I forced myself to put it down to get some sleep. That it precisely the reading experience I crave.
A Simple Plan has a great hook: three men find four million dollars at the site of a plane crash. That they decide to keep the money sets a Shakespearean tragedy in motion. I’m a fan of Scott’s second novel, The Ruins, but A Simple Plan packs an emotional punch that left me reeling (and a scene with a dog I wish I could forget).The book is a masterclass in great storytelling, and I’ve even considered breaking down its plot points, studying its meticulously crafted atmosphere of all-encompassing doom.
Anne Rice writes beautiful prose, but Scott Smith is the type of writer I try to emulate.
“Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task…But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.” Robert McKee