All writers and storytellers want their work to matter. The best stories resonate because they speak to something universal in the human experience. Here’s a field guide to understanding what makes a story worth telling.
How Understanding the Nature of a Story Helps Judge Its Value
A story is a real or imagined account intended to entertain, educate, or inform.
Therefore, the ultimate consideration in evaluating the value of a story must be whether it is entertaining, educational, or informative! In other words: What do we really want to achieve with our stories?
The way in which a powerful story has value is related to the elements of the story and the skill of the storyteller. It is the skillful combination of these elements that elevate one story above another – giving it special value.
This is true both for fiction, a novel for example, or for an account that can be a true story, that can be set in everyday life. For example, a documentary film.
It could be a personal story, a memoir, or real-life stories of people’s lives at a time of hardship or struggle.
Ultimately, however, it is important to remember the purpose of the story. The questions are:
- What did I take away from this story?
- What did it leave with me?
- How has it changed me or the way I see the world?
An amazing story becomes part of our life experience.
The Qualities of a Good Story
Quality is hard to determine, especially when it comes to art.
Is it the author’s ability to create a world that looks like it’s real? Is it the way the characters behave and interact like real people? Is it the story itself, with a meaningful and satisfying story arc and some kind of reward at the end? Is it the words used, their beauty, their sheer quantity, the syntax and rhythm of their arrangement? Or is it something else entirely?
Good writing, good literature, good stories captivate and hold the interest of their listeners for more than a moment and live on in the minds of their listeners beyond the moment of delivery.
Ultimately, it’s about the same thing for all of us: how much does a story touch us personally?
The most important characteristic of a good story is that it resonates with the human experience. If it does not, it’s simply not a good story. If a story is not told well or its elements do not fit together well, it’s not a compelling story.
Stories Must Have Meaning
A story without meaning is like an engine without fuel. It does not run. Meaning is what the story ultimately boils down to, its meaning. It is not the same as the message of the story (assuming there is such a thing in a given story).
The meaning of a story is closely connected to its story idea and theme. Which in turn will connect to the inspiration of the author when first he or she sat down to write the story.
The meaning of a story need not be explicitly stated. In fact, it is often better if the narrator does not because it robs the story of the mystery that makes it relevant and meaningful.
A unique story unlocks a layer of understanding of the world that previously was closed to us.
A story must have meaning for the reader, but that meaning is not necessarily the same for all readers. And that’s the secret: there has to be enough mystery in the story for the reader or viewer to engage with it, for that story to have a special meaning for them personally.
An Emotional Journey
All good stories are psychological and have emotional arcs. Otherwise, they become informational creatures that lack any vitality. Information alone is incomplete. They reach, but they do not touch.
A good storyteller creates a desire in the listener for his or her story. He or she piques the audience’s interest, creates empathy through the characters, and keeps them engaged by periodically revealing little tidbits of information that build the mystery until the final resolution is reached and the audience is satisfied.
The emotional journey takes us from one emotional state to another during the telling of a human story.
A story must touch the audience in some way or it is not a good story. Without an emotional reward, there is no reason to ever tell or repeat the story.
The Conviction of the Storyteller Is Palpable
A successful story comes across as absolutely convincing. As if there was only one way the story could have gone, and what you experienced was this.
That’s because the narrator – writer, director, actor, etc. – is so immersed in the story that it only becomes real to him or her.
That is why it is then possible to tell the story with conviction.
Conviction is a subtle thing: when we, the viewers, listeners, or readers of a story, feel that something is wrong with the gears of the story or narrative, our faith in the story and our willingness to suspend disbelief begins to crumble and can quickly break down.
This is why conviction is so important: it is the foundation of a good story. The storyteller who stands before the audience must convince them, no matter how outlandish the story’s premise.
Elements That Make a Story Worthwhile
Every good story has a number of interlocking elements that must be present for the story to work:
Premise and Stakes
The premise of a story is what the story is about. The stakes are the problems that are introduced in the story. These two elements must be present for a story to work.
For the audience to care about the characters in the story and what happens to them, they must be able to identify with the characters. They have to empathize.
But their interest must go beyond just wanting to know what’s happening to the characters because that’s not enough to sustain the story. You have to engage with the characters on a deeper level in some way.
For example: Why should we care about the characters in The Lord of the Rings? They are not human (though they feel human emotions), they are not even alive. But they are very human-like, they have goals and agency, they have purpose and drive. They have wishes and desires.
If we can see a part of ourselves in these characters, then we can empathize.
It’s important that the premise is believable enough to engage the audience, within the parameters of the genre the story falls into.
Likewise, the stakes for the main character must be high enough to keep us interested and captivated. Failure must have consequences that interest us because we care about the fate of the main character.
Conflict and Suspense
I put these two terms together because conflict represents the lines of opposition between the main character (the hero) and what or who opposes him.
Suspense is the way this conflict ebbs and flows – usually through suspense when the hero’s fears and preparations are revealed to the audience.
Suspense is what builds the dramatic arc of the story; it’s what captivates the audience and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It is like a rubber band that is pulled tighter and tighter, then loosened a little, then pulled even tighter.
Conflict comes in many different forms. It can be an internal conflict, a psychological war in the hero’s mind. It can be an external conflict, where the hero is being pressured by an outside force that is trying to keep him from achieving a certain goal. It could be a moral issue, where the choices and actions in the story are questioned.
The resolution of a conflict is essential to a good story because it provides a sense of release and relief. Without a real resolution, the audience feels disappointed and unsatisfied. But this resolution cannot come immediately. In fact, the hero usually has to fail at least a few times before he or she finds a way to solve the problem.
Transformation and Characterization
Strong characters make a good story. If characters are not sharply drawn (which means the author is deeply involved with them and their weaknesses as a person), they will never feel real to the audience or readers.
Transformation is what happens when the character goes through the mill of experiences, the life story, that the story entails.
Characterization without change is not enough. If a character does not develop or change over the course of the story, we can not care about them or what happens to them.
When a character develops, the reader becomes interested in them and begins to watch them closely, looking for subtle clues to the character’s psychological state.
The reader wants to know the character, wants to be able to anticipate her reactions, and understands why she makes the choices she does. That character has to possess an authentic life on the page, and off.
A Satisfying Denouement
Nothing undermines the value of a story faster than the lack of a satisfying denouement.
The denouement is what happens at the end when all the loose ends are tied up. It is the resolution of the whole, the tying up of all the subplots, and the final transformation that the hero undergoes as a result of the journey and the experiences he or she has had during the story.
The reader must feel that the story is a whole, that everything is resolved, that everything is accounted for.
If the ending is rushed or seems clumsy, it will not have the same effect.
If a story ends too abruptly, it feels incomplete. This is a very bad thing that can happen to a story.
Storytelling is about creating a world that we can relate to and that feels very real and alive. The highlight of a story is that we take that world back home with us when we leave it.
Stories that do not have satisfying endings get crucified by viewers: check out the Game of Thrones fan community’s reactions to the ending to see what I mean!
How to Test the Value of a Story
Perhaps the most useful way to test whether a story is worth telling is to ask it a series of simple questions:
- Does it engage me emotionally?
- What emotions does it evoke?
- Does the story tell me something about myself, about the world, that I have never seen before?
- Does the story have a strong protagonist who makes an emotional journey that is fascinating and compelling?
- Does the story have a premise worth exploring?
- Does the story have a great villain or evil force that puts a series of obstacles in the hero’s path that he must overcome?
- Does the story have a satisfying ending?
- Does the story leave me with the feeling that the journey was worth taking?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then you have probably found a story worth telling or consuming. If the answer to these questions is “no,” then you probably need to dive deeper into the story you are telling or reading.
The Key to a Story Worth Telling
The key to a story worth telling may be its ability to evoke a sense of wonder.
When we read a great story, watch a movie, or experience a play, we are taken out of our own world and transported into the world that the storyteller has created.
It is an act of magic. A lasting legacy.
As children, we loved this experience. It was like being a kid in a candy store and experiencing the wonderful, the strange, and the miraculous. As adults, we still love magic. We just tend to be numb to it.
Because magic is about wonder, about being taken into a world we have never seen before, about being immersed in experiences we have never had before.
Movies like Jurassic Park and books like The Lord of the Rings effortlessly manage to create a vision of a world that is in some ways larger than our own.
The sense of wonder that these stories inspire in us is one of the elements that keep us consuming them over and over again. These stories make us want more and more.
The clue to whether a story has this magical element of wonder is often in its pacing: a story worth telling often slows down to put the viewer or reader into the experiences of the main character to be with them as they experience the challenges and joys of the story.
A world without wonder is a world without art, without creativity, without the potential to inspire.
The key to a story worth telling is its ability to open a door to wonder. A door that opens a world of lasting significance.