15 February 2011

a great story?

I gave myself a little homework assignment over the holidays. I tried to find out what makes a short speculative fiction story great. I probably read over a hundred stories from those "Best of" anthologies. What did I conclude? Every great story is different, there are no hard and fast rules. Okay, in hindsight, this may be obvious. :) Another obvious thing: opinions about stories are subjective.

Here's what I took away from the exercise...

  • an excellent story engages the reader's emotions. Note, too, serious emotions such as poignancy, sorrow, or joy are more effective than humor.
  • an excellent story really tortures (figuratively, not necessarily literally) the protagonist. Often the protagonist is an underdog, starting the story behind the 8-ball (or whatever metaphor you prefer).
  • many great stories have empathetic, and even sympathetic, protagonists. Interestingly, this is one of Donald Maass' instructions in Writing the Breakout Novel.
  • many very good stories have unique voices
  • most excellent spec fic stories have fully fleshed-out worlds. The reader feels like they are actually in another place and/or time
  • most excellent stories follow the standard plot arc: the protag has a problem and acts to solve it
  • most great/excellent stories are about more than one thing and these things are interrelated. Often this involves an external and internal plot arc.
  • most great stories involve some kind of originality--a new twist on an old idea, or ideally, a totally new idea

I will continue to study the issue...

Anyone out there have any insights? What do you think makes a story great?


Martin Willoughby said...

Torturing your MC works for comedy too. Think how much Terry Pratchett's characters are put through. If that happened in real life would we be laughing?

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Humor is risky in that it's very very subjective.

Of course, all taste is subjective. But I see different tastes in humor come up most often in our production meetings.

lesleylsmith said...

I agree with Editor B. Subjectivity is a problem with humor.

Often I select a humorous story for the 'zine and the other editors don't like it, so it gets voted down. :(

Another example, I took a class in which we studied one of Pratchett's books...I thought it was hilarious--but most of the class thought it was stupid. :(

Charity Bradford said...

Great Post! Do you mind if I link to this on my blog? I'm currently hosting a short story blogfest with a friend and we are trying to post encouraging and informational posts on how to write short stories.

lesleylsmith said...

Go for it, Charity!