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.
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