I generally avoid making statements like, “This is the most important aspect of a story,” or “This is the most vital ingredient to building a good blog.”
Because I understand there are so many dynamics involved in creating a good work of literature or art.
There is so much more at play than just one element, right?
And usually, one element is just as important as the other.
But when I mention that there is a single most important thing you need to tell a good story, I have thought this through.
Understanding What Makes a Good Story
I’ve been in the “story” business for at least a little while.
I’ve edited hundreds of stories, novels, and full-length nonfiction manuscripts over the past 12 years, and have averaged reading about 100 books per year (even if I don’t manage to log them all on Goodreads).
The power of a good story is something that hits me in a new way pretty much every day of my life …
And understanding what makes a good story, especially if you are a writer or creator of some sort, is really that important.
So, let me start with a brief story … an illustration of what I’m talking about.
In the fall of 2012, I took two half-semester college classes, fitting the work of two full semesters into a single one.
The two classes were American Government and Introduction to Psychology.
They were both held in the same large auditorium and both had well over 100 students, but the two classes could not have been more different.
It wasn’t just the respective professor’s approach to the classes, but more the students’ inherent interest in the subject matter.
During the first week of the American Government class, the professor mentioned that only 40% of students passed the class. Within the first two weeks, I could see evidence of that.
The class dwindled from a crowded auditorium to a few seats here and there taken … a good number of the seats empty by the end of the class.
By contrast, the psychology classroom stayed packed all eight weeks.
What is more, the students, myself included, were engaged in the subject matter.
We were interested.
And the reason why is because we wanted to understand ourselves.
The teacher would introduce a psychological concept, some idea of the way the mind works or why people respond the way they do, and frequently, one of the students would raise a hand and tell a personal story.
They would generally say something like, “I never understood why I reacted that way,” “Now I get why my father acts like he does,” or, “Now I understand why my family is so …”
The Need to Understand Our Own Story
In other words, by understanding ourselves, we began to understand our story …
And even our family’s story.
The ways that a disorder such as hypochondriasis can affect a family’s ability to go on vacations …
Or how obsessive-compulsive disorder can make it virtually impossible for a person to function on a daily basis.
The Introduction to Psychology class was full of personal “Aha” moments, resulting in a deeper understanding of what makes a person who they are.
What a person’s story is.
I recently read an interesting statistic.
One of the most vital elements to becoming a healthy and well-rounded adult is an understanding of one’s own story.
This factor is actually more important than a lot of other very important things such as a good education or being able to read and comprehend works or even the details of one’s family structure.
The most important thing for a child to grow up into a healthy, functioning adult is, perhaps surprisingly, their ability to understand and grasp their own story.
Why Stories Are So Important
Why is this focus on understanding one’s story so important?
Because this is also the single most important element to writing a good story …
Understanding why stories are so important.
Our brains are wired for story, designed for story.
It is no small thing that every child wants to hear a bedtime story and especially loves it when a parent tells stories of his or her own childhood.
Understanding stories, and our place in family stories, gives us a deeper understanding of who we are and our place in this world.
Our place, you might say, in the greater story.
While this innate compulsion to tell stories and a drive to understand one’s own story might be passed off as just an ego-driven desire, I believe there is much more at play.
At the root of this craving for story is a longing.
It is a deep yearning to understand our identity and, what is more, to find out where we belong.
Understanding this longing, this need, is the key to understanding how to write a good story.
Yes, there are formulas you can follow.
And yes, it does help to understand aspects of storytelling such as Joseph Campbell’s well-known Hero’s Journey, which so many epic stories follow.
And while following a storyline or a formula like that can help you write a good story, or at least carve a good plot, something will be missing if you don’t understand the heart of what makes a good story …
And that is understanding the heart of the reader … a heart, a soul, that longs to understand its place in the story.
Tapping into the Vein of a Good Story
Fortunately, you and I as writers have something to go on because we also understand this longing for an understanding of our identity.
We grasp that innate, deep-rooted desire to belong.
If you tap into that timeless yearning that rests deep in the heart of every pilgrim walking this broken world, you will be able to craft a truly good story.
Now, as touched on earlier, this doesn’t mean that this is the sole element of writing a good story.
You need to understand the craft.
To be familiar with things like …
- Point of view
- Character arcs and character motivations
- Dialogue tags (and how to avoid overusing them)
- Why you don’t want to be “head-hopping” throughout your novel
- And why you really don’t want to place information dumps in your story
But all these can and will come as you continue to learn more about the craft of writing and grow into a better writer.
But writing is not a science.
It is an art.
And this is why if someone tells you there is a formula you can follow to write the perfect story every time, it might have the right plot points, but it might lack the heart that you’re looking for.
Because you also need to add why the plot development and events that take place are important to the characters.
Why it matters that two characters find each other and find love.
Why it’s important for him to complete his quest.
Or for her to discover the truth about herself and her world.
Because our own hearts need a place to call home. Because our own souls seek a place to belong. Because we crave a quest that will give us meaning and purpose.
And because it is impossible to truly discover oneself in a vacuum …
We need a story.
In Closing: What Makes a Good Story
So, what is the single most important element to writing a good story?
It is understanding why stories are so important to us.
Stories are important because they tell us who we are.
They reveal things inside ourselves that might be hard to see at times.
A good story shows a boy that he really is a knight … but that a knight is not a man crowned in glory but one who serves.
A good story shows a girl that she really is a princess …
But that a princess is not someone who waits in a tower for her knight in shining armor, but who understands that no knight is going to make all her wishes come true.
A good story will not show a perfect community (or country or world) but one that is broken …
Yet in its brokenness reveals vulnerability and depth and the small steps and choices of people within that community to forgive and to reconcile and to build.
You might be disheartened with the idea that a healthy, well-rounded individual is one who knows their family’s story.
Maybe you don’t know yours, or maybe your family’s story is a traumatic and difficult one.
Maybe your story is one you’d really rather not remember and it is one that you cannot wholeheartedly embrace.
Believe me when I say I know the feeling.
But I also believe in the deep power of redemption and that one’s story, as shadowed or checkered as that past might be, can be redeemed.
By the choices we make today …
By the stories we choose to live now …
And, for writers, by the stories that we choose to write.