What makes a good story? Understanding the key elements of a great story and what satisfies readers regardless of finer details (such as genre) will help you write a more successful book. We’re satisfied when stories achieve certain effects, such as moving us, inspiring us to wonder. With the advent of self-publishing there are now more books than ever on the market. So how do you make a story good so it is more successful?
10 ways to make a good story successful and compelling:
1. Make the dramatic content of your story strong
‘Man has bacon and eggs for breakfast’ is not a story idea that is going to have readers clawing for a copy of your book. It also is highly unlikely this would sustain an entire novel.
‘Man has bacon and eggs for breakfast, but the bacon is made from human flesh’ is a story scenario with much more dramatic potential (this could be a scene from one of Thomas Harris’ popular novels about the serial killer Hannibal Lector). Once you’ve found the resulting actions and the eventual outcome that develops out of your primary story scenario, you have a story idea.
What are the key elements of a good, dramatic story?
Dramatic storytelling is a matter of including key elements of a good story such as:
- Extraordinary characters or character behaviour
The second story idea above contains most of these elements. It’s surprising because cannibalism is a taboo most people find disturbing. The character’s behaviour is extraordinary because cannibalism is not an everyday, common behaviour. The subject matter is controversial. There is implicit tension because of the possibility the character is a murderer, given his actions. There’s mystery – who is this character and why does he engage in this activity?
‘Dramatic content’ isn’t necessarily shocking or controversial. It could be something as innocuous as the reader not knowing whether romantic leads will end up in each other’s arms. Brainstorm characters, plot points or settings that give some of the above elements using our step-by-step prompts. Making a story good starts with finding and developing multi-faceted ideas.
2. Vary your prose’s rhythm and structure
Writing instructors often advise creative writing classes to write shorter, punchier sentences. Short sentences are great for increasing pace and help to make scenes that have tense subject matter tenser in mood. Yet be wary of monotonous writing. Vary sentence length. Tap out the rhythm of your sentences’ syllables every now and then, or read your prose aloud. This will help you hear its cadence, its music.
Use rhythmic structure from poetry for inspiration. For example, the japanese haiku is a short three-line poem in which the first line has 5 syllables, the second 7 and the third 5 again. Try write a few prose sentences with this syllabic structure, e.g.
‘He waited all day. It was cold and darkening. Would anyone come?’
Exploring the rhythm of your writing consciously will help you to write better sentences. A book contains many sentences, so make yours easier and lovelier to read. Consciously crafted, creative prose makes a book better in any genre.
3. Create believable, memorable characters
Why do we find some characters more memorable than others? Because they have one or more of the following:
- Unique voices, personas and expressions
- Intriguing (or baffling) goals and motivations
- Flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths
- Distinctive appearances (including body language, gait and mannerisms)
Note that appearance comes last: If you simply describe your characters’ eye colour, your character won’t stand out. Key to making a story good is creating characters you’d remember if you stood next to them in line. Even if only for 15 minutes.
Part of a memorable voice is created by your character’s origins. Do they use regional dialects or sayings that mark them as being from a particular place? Are their voices soft or loud? What sorts of expressions do they use? And slang?
Read authors such as Charles Dickens, who is famous for creating larger-than-life, memorable characters. According to The Guardian, ‘hearing voices allowed Charles Dickens to create extraordinary fictional worlds’.
Like their voices, characters’ goals and motivations should be wholly their own and should help us understand their behaviour.
What does each character in your book (even the secondary, ‘walk on, walk off’ ones) crave? Why do they desire the things they do? Get How to Write Real Characters for practical exercises and examples in how to make characters ring true.
4. Make the important parts of your story effective
- Introduce new characters who help or hinder your primary character(s)
- Add subplots that supplement your main story arc (more on this in number 5 below)
- Reveal why your characters have the goals you establish at the start of your book
- Increase narrative tension by increasing what’s at stake for your characters
Chuck Wendig has a great post here on how to fight the mushy middle and make your own story lean and mean throughout. This is Wendig’s advice when writing the middle gets tough:
‘Find your next steps. Discover your narrative landmarks. That’ll get you out of the woods and back onto the road.’
5. Deepen your plot with subplots
What is the definition of a subplot?
A subplot is ‘a secondary plot, or a strand of the main plot that runs parallel to it and supports it’. An example of a subplot would be the departure of the character Quoyle’s wife in the early chapters of E. Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News. This becomes part of the subplot of Quoyle grieving for (and looking for substitute) love. The subplot sets the tragic tone for the novel and the pathos of it, Quoyle’s heartbreak, drives the reader to invest emotionally in his outcome.
To deepen your story with subplots:
- Use subplots to make readers care about your characters – this grows reader investment
- Add subplots that reveal characters’ personalities and complicate their progress towards their goals
- Find subplots that expand key themes of your novel
Deepening your plot with subplots will improve your novel because readers will feel more connected to your characters. Connection arises out of understanding and empathy. A good, relevant subplot can help you create these two things.
6. Make every line of dialogue count
Make every line of dialogue count. In great dialogue:
- We gain a sense of characters’ different personalities, views, quirks (everyone has their own voice)
- Dialogue serves the story (characters don’t just sit around telling each other what they had for breakfast)
- Dialogue deepens or develops connections between characters such as conflict and other emotional elements
In a good story, characters do not sound like real people all the time (even if they create the illusion of being real). This is because in a good story:
- Characters mostly speak to the point. There are fewer pleasantries, for example, such as ‘Fine thanks and you?’
- They don’t use filler words such as ‘like’ or ‘um’ excessively (unless this is emphasized for a justifiable reason)
- Characters’ dialogue serves the plot. It helps us understand what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
See advice for writing better dialogue in our separate post on the subject.
7. Add what makes a good story: Immersive setting
What makes a story great? Besides unforgettable characters, a crafted plot, engaging action and dialogue? Immersive settings. A great story puts us right in the heart of its scenes, its world. How do you write a great setting?
- Make place a character. Don’t just give a house a shape and colour. Give it personality. Is it old and dank, shutting out the light of the world, or is it light, charming and elegant? Besides giving place personality, give it something out of the ordinary to make it truly fascinating.
- Make place in your story change with the times. The street your characters grow up on should have changed when they return in later life, not only because places do change over time but because change is interesting. Old neighbours may have moved or passed away. Characters might feel differently about a place with passing years, too. Find the emotional connections we have to places.
- Enrich your setting with detail. If you write about a real, historical or contemporary place in particular, know the landmarks. Know the demographics, the underprivileged areas and the rich ones. Know what the place is celebrated or nefarious for. Details, contrasts and contradictions give cities their vibrance and their complex social life.
8. Create conflict and tension
When we read the word ‘conflict’ we often think immediately of violence. War, for example, or physical fights between adversaries. But there are many kinds of conflict you can use to improve your story. Characters’ internal conflicts create tension by making readers wonder whether they will overcome their hurdles. Characters might also grapple with their environments. For example, in a character vs society conflict (such as in The Scarlet Letter). Or when characters struggle with natural phenomena (the typical disaster story).
To write great conflict:
- Create and bring together characters whose personalities clash. The reality TV series Come Dine With Me does this expertly by combining dinner guests who are guaranteed to irritate each other. The bubbly go-getter is paired with the morose man-of-few-words.
- Combine different kinds of story conflicts within a single narrative. It’s interesting when tension arises from varied sources
- Watch movies or series that are renowned for their mastery of tense conflict and note down the plot, dialogue or scene setting devices that help scriptwriters achieve their effects.
James Duncan offers some excellent advice on creating conflict and tension. Says Duncan:
‘Maybe the goal a character wants to accomplish is reached, but it turns out to be nothing the character expected … But the genie is hard to get back in the bottle, isn’t it?’
Even when our wildest dreams come true, we may find there are more rivers to cross. Relationships, for example, take work.
9. Craft beguiling beginnings
The beginning is part of what elevates a good story to become a great one.
What makes a good story beginning?
A good beginning:
- Creates questions the reader is determined to have answered (e.g. ‘Who is this mysterious killer who loves Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’?’)
- Hooks readers on your writing style
- Introduces the key conflicts and/or characters of your novel (and what makes them interesting).
- Promises a meaningful reading experience (promises being moved, going on an adventure, being terrified).
How to create good opening questions
For the first element of a good story beginning, you can:
- Describe a character doing something unexpected
- Introduce a perplexing scenario that must be explained (murder is the mainstay of thriller and suspense novels when it comes to creating questions)
- Tease the reader with unknowns (whether these relate to a character, an unfamiliar setting or object)
How to hook readers in
For the second story beginning element, hooking your reader on your writing:
- Make sure your language is polished
- Cut out extraneous information – it isn’t relevant what your character ate for breakfast, unless this somehow is developed to become a crucial detail
- Use original (but clear) language and the occasional fresh metaphor or simile
Ways to introduce characters
To improve your beginning:
- Describe characters in concrete terms: Instead of ‘she had always been a happy child’, show a happy scene from childhood
- Show your character at a pivotal moment: hook the reader right away
- Either hint at a coming conflict or launch right into it
How to create the promise of a good story
To show readers your story is worth reading early on:
- Set the core action of the story in motion (For example: your character receives an unmarked letter)
- Give your reader a taste of the excitement, emotional power or laughs in store
10. Deliver knockout endings
The ending will either entice a reader to seek out other novels you’ve written or donate the book they’ve just finished. Don’t let your book be clutter. End on a lingering impression:
What makes a good story ending?
A good story ending:
- Resolves the primary conflict of your story (the killer is caught or the adventurer reaches his destination)
- Rises in tension before giving the reader release
- Isn’t so tidy that it’s predictable or a cop-out
- Uses words that convey the sense of an ending
Resolving primary story conflicts
We’re satisfied when primary conflicts resolve, as there’s follow-through on preceding events. Solve conflicts by
- Making wrongdoers or antagonists face the music (even if they emerge victorious in an unhappy ending for your protagonist)
- Make the outcome of your primary conflict feel explicable but not predictable. For example, make a killer’s escape or conviction equally possible – keep the reader guessing
How to build rising action to your climax
To make a story good throughout its final chapters:
- Build tension by adding story complications. (In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must not only destroy the ring but do so with a greatly diminished party as he journeys towards the villain’s heartland)
- As Jessica Page Morrel says here, make sure that the stakes are high and the consequences for failure are dire. What does your character stand to lose if they don’t get what they want?
Ways to avoid a predictable ending
To avoid a lame or cop-out ending and make your story go out with intrigue:
- Make sure that you keep up dramatic tension until the end. Meaningful wins seldom come easy
- Keep readers guessing how things will pan out with a plot twist. If you use a surprise plot twist, remember to keep the surprise believable
- Avoid the deus ex machina, a practically miraculous event that lets you tie things up quickly with little exlanation. Characters developing amnesia as a plot device in soap operas is a classic example (watch a great parody of this here: https://youtu.be/5qLzF6mZrCw)
How to create the sense of an ending
To give your final paragraphs a closing, rounding off feeling:
- Read the final paragraphs of your favourite novels. What kind of language does the author use? Is it poignant, nostalgic, dramatic or epic in tone?
- Make sure the ending ties back to the preceding story. One example of this is having an ending that echoes, in imagery or themes, the opening lines of your novel
Learn what makes a story good with constructive feedback from our writing community. Or get one-on-one feedback from a writing coach to make real progress.