Summer Guest Blogger — A.C. Flory

I’d like to welcome the first of my summer blog guests! A.C. Flory is a science fiction author with a wonderful ability to create a sense of time and place for her truly monstrous creatures. She’s contributed today’s post about the elements that make a story great. Genre categories aside, ‘what makes a story catch fire?’


What makes a great story?

I have been reading voraciously since I was kid – over half a century now – and the one thing I know for certain is that great stories have nothing to do with genre.  Great stories transcend genre, including the genre of contemporary ‘literature’.

At the risk of being forever excluded from whatever club writers frequent, I have read a few examples of contemporary literary writing that were beautiful, and many more that were either boring, or self-indulgent, or both.

By contrast, I have read genre fiction that could stand shoulder to shoulder with classics from the past. Three novels that immediately spring to mind are The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Blindman of Seville, by Robert Wilson, and Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky.  All three are beautifully written, although in very different styles, confront controversial subjects, explore what it means to be human, and strike a delicate balance between a number of conflicting needs.

To me, those needs are universal to all great stories. At the most fundamental level, a great story  must be innovative whilst still, somehow, allowing me to relate to both the situations in the plot, and the characters who are affected by those situations.

Most of the time, relating to the characters is synonymous with caring about them. At the very least, I have to be able to empathize with the dilemmas facing the characters.  Ideally, I will be able to understand their motivation, and care what happens to them.

Beyond characters, however, the plot itself must be interesting. And it must move along at a reasonable pace.

Now anyone who has read Crime and Punishment will know the novel does not exactly steam along from one crisis to the next. It was written at a time when writing styles, pace and the expectations of readers were very different to what they are now. Writing was meant to be savoured, not just for its content, but for the beauty of its execution.

In the modern world, the pace of life is frantic, and even pleasure must be gobbled down like an ice-cream cone melting in the sun.  Yet even so, I found the story of Crime and Punishment so compelling it seduced me into a slower, more contemplative reading style. So when I say a good story must have a reasonable pace, my definition of ‘reasonable’ is relative.  I am happy to follow an author down a rabbit hole… but only if I find something of value to the story at the end of it.

Last but not least, a great story must have something ‘more’. For me, that something is the ability to make me think.

All three of the novels I mentioned kept me thinking for weeks afterwards, and they changed the way I looked at the world. But those three are not unique. Well written, thought provoking fiction exists in all genres, and when it transcends those genres it becomes great. It becomes literature.


Be sure to check out VOKHTAH on Amazon.

Andrea self protrait1


  1. Greaet post Meeks, and a very good argument made for what makes a story. I have not read the Birdman of Seville, but plan to do so (at some point). Story cannot be defined or categorized to but one simple thing. It is a multitude of events that can change in relation to one another.

    Bring on the rabbit hole, and let’s see where it leads.

    • Candy

      Yes, let’s bring on the rabbit hole and not worry so much about the genre. A great story is a great read.

      • I honestly believe the title of ‘literature’ is something bestowed after the fact by future generations of readers. Only they can say whether a story is universal enough to touch readers in the future!

        • Candy

          In the larger picture you are no doubt correct, but in the short term — and the short term is where we live, write and attempt to sell our books — the distinction between literature and genre fiction is about marketing first and foremost. I think the snobbery is part of the literature marketing.

          I’m not saying that I never read books deemed literature, but I am saying… I read a lot of high quality fiction that will never make it to the snobby shelves and I know I’m not alone in that book club.

  2. Like you I’ve been bored to death and even unable to complete some books that compete in the current contemporary literary fiction market. On the other hand I’ve been enthralled by some books that most people would consider modern crowd pleasers. Reading is always a matter of individual taste and while I love the books of Ursula K. leGuin, I found Dostoyevsky hard going. For me a good book transports me to the place and time so that I can see the story in much the same way that a good actor can convince me they are the part they’re playing. Some books are readable but don’t transport me, some actors are given the role because it’s what they always play and can’t stretch themselves.
    A great series I read was ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ by Stephen R Donaldson which transported me so much I completed a book a night for 3 nights and forgot to sleep.

    • Candy

      The ideal is to be transported. The literary location is secondary to the experience of going somewhere, anywhere, in a book.

      For many years I forced myself to read a few of the BIG literary books each year. I thought it was my obligation to keep up. I’ve shed that obligation and it’s allowed me extra time to discover books and writers outside the charmed circle. Much more fun…

  3. The “rabbit holes” I tend to jump down are rarely within the “writer’s club.” I seek characters I want to be and places I want to go. Most of the time they only exist in the mind of the story teller.

    The best stories are he ones that keep the attention of the movie in my mind. They make me see what the story teller saw when the words were put to the page.

    Isn’t it interesting that something so unglamorous, so mundane as writing can evoke romantic notions from those who taste the finished product. Yes, I said taste. Writing is akin to cooking. The process of creation is dirty, smelly, the act of taking raw materials and making them into something that is beautiful. Readers view the life of a writer through romantic eyes, but they don’t see the time with hands covered with chicken blood. They don’t see the side of beef that needs to be broken down for tonight’s steaks. (Was that too much?)

    • Candy

      I chuckled when I read your food descriptions. I often use cooking metaphors when talking about writing. Everything from cutting the fat out of a story to adding enough spice, but not too much. LOL…

    • Candy

      I agree. When you invite fellow bloggers to take over you don’t know what they will write about, but A.C. Flory has done an excellent job. I’m happy to host her!

  4. “Literary fiction,” “genre fiction,” whatever, it’s an artificial distinction without meaning, an excuse for snobbery. It’s all just *fiction*. It’s all *story*. Good stories are the ones that suck you in. You open the book or turn on your ereader, and suddenly it’s 3 hours later and the roast is burned.

    If we could determine exactly how to achieve that, we could all write bestsellers, but I think a lot has to do with the characters, the writing style, the way the story keeps us turning the pages.

    My $0.02.

    (*waves at Meeks* Lovely picture of you, girlfriend!)

    • Candy

      My $.02 cents agrees with you!
      A great story is a great story whatever the category — paranormal romance, literary fiction and everything in-between.

    • -waves back- And another food story. 😀 I’ve burned dinner too!

      I’ve often wondered whether Austen and Dickens were considered literature in their day? Or Mary Shelley for that matter? One thing is for sure, most readers want what we all seem to want – a story that takes us out of our own lives and into the lives of others. All else is icing on the cake. 🙂

      • Candy

        I don’t know if they were considered literature, but they were all very popular in their time. Frankenstein was adapted into a play — like selling the movie rights to VOHKTAH.

  5. The stories that I deem good ones are always the ones that make me think. If they don’t get under my skin and inside my brain that way, I quickly grow disinterested. I’m also a glutton for beautiful sentences and careful character development. Plot matters of course, but I read for other elements first. If a piece is all story, it’s just fluff. I like it when genre fiction can surprise me and contain multiple layers of meaning. The writing group I’ve been in while living in NC showed a good amount of disdain for literary fiction, but such is life! I’ll read just about anything, but tend to gravitate toward stories of a psychological nature or memoirs and creative nonfiction. Go figure, that’s also what I most like to write. Though I’m convinced there may be some rip-roaring erotica just screaming to be told some day 😉

    • Candy

      For me the big difference is does the story, character, setting or message linger. If it’s gone a minute after I’ve read the last sentence it’s one thing. If I’m still thinking about it days, weeks or even years later, that’s another.

      I went to see play last week with a friend. It was the new Christopher Durang comedy inspired by Chekov. It had fabulous cast including David Hyde Pierce — an actor who can make a phone book compelling. I enjoyed it more than my friend. As we left he said, “This is popcorn. It’ll be gone by the morning.” I disagreed, but it was only a bit more than popcorn. Some of it resonated the next day, but I will remember the performances long after I remember the play.

      It’s the same way with short stories and novels. When I read “THE END” does the story stick around or does it have staying power? Great characters, complex psychology, lessons learned, beautiful writing, enchanting settings and plot twists that resonate and surprise, continue to have echoes.

      But sometimes “The End” is just the end.

      • Good points. I’m reading a lot now, but I’m finding that when I go through my Kindle, I can’t remember what half the books are about. Some immediately conjure images in my head but others just have this marker that says ‘read’, without any other qualifying memories.

        • Candy

          Of course we should periodically remind ourselves that during the time our “classic favorites” wrote there were other books lost in the mists of library times. Those books might have been amusing and even inspiring. They weren’t popcorn, but maybe not enduring. And that’s OK too.

          It’s sometimes hard to predict which story will linger.

          I’ve also found that sometimes the circumstances of reading it enhance its chances of being remembered. I don’t know if the historical romance I read a couple of years ago on the flight and right after I arrived in Berlin was as good as I remember it or if it was just the perfect airplane book. It was set in the Borgia household and the protagonist was a professional poisoner. She protected her employers from poison, etc. It was like a mini trip while I was on the plane. My Kindle was my new toy and that made it special, too.

      • That’s very true. Another way to think about it is if you want to just stay in the book. There are those beautiful books that you just don’t want to read ‘The End’.

        • Candy

          Do I want to stay in the book? Do I want to hang out with the characters? Or go where they live?

          Whether it’s ancient Rome, a dystopian future or anywhere else that is still intriguing AFTER “The End.”

  6. Great post 🙂 In the interests of efficiency I’m going to offer Stephen King’s words because I can’t sum it up any better “There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”
    I count reading Vohktah as a treasured experience 🙂


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