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What Makes a Good Story: Part 1

Some stories are important to a specific time and place, but some last for millennia. What do really good, lasting stories have in common? What makes them a “classic”? What is it about The Odyssey or Oedipus the King, or Romeo and Juliet, or Cinderella that makes them last? What is it about them that clicks in the human psyche in such a way that they continue to make a lasting impression, generation after generation?
lord of the rings
As writers we can always hope we’ll hit the jackpot, like a  J. R. R. Tolkien, but will Bilbo Baggins still be there to read about in another two or three centuries? Will someone in 2318 write yet another version of Cinderella?

That’s anybody’s guess, I suppose, but there are things we can do to help our own stories along, because The Lord of the Rings is not just about hobbits, and Cinderella isn’t just about going to the ball to meet a prince.

So what do the great stories have in common?

The Characters

One thing the classics all have is strong, or well-developed, characters. There is just something about the hero or heroine that grabs the reader. The best are flawed in some way, which makes them more interesting and allows the reader to relate to them on a personal level but also leaves room for character development throughout the story, which is what keeps the reader turning pages.

“Strong” and “well-developed” are not always synonymous. For example, we don’t know a lot about the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, though we can infer quite a bit from his actions. For example, we know he must have been a successful merchant, because (1) he had enough money to put the battered man up in an inn, and (2) he—or his reputation—was well enough known by the innkeeper that he trusted the Samaritan to return and reimburse him for his care of this Jew.

Likewise, Bilbo Baggins is the first hobbit we meet, and we don’t know a lot about him, hobbits, or Middle Earth, but through Bilbo’s adventures, we learn a whole lot about this unpretentious little creature who shows extraordinary courage in the face of dangers that would defeat most of us. Is he flawed? Certainly. But he comes through in the end, because he has that special “something” inside him that overcomes his fears. And it is that special “something” that keeps us reading.

The same applies to current, contemporary characters. There are hundreds of contemporary thrillers out there, but I tend to read best-selling authors like Catherine Coulter, Nora Roberts, and Jayne Ann Krentz, because their characters usually grab me from page one. Their female leads are inevitably strong, independent women who have doubts and fears just like the rest of us. They win in the end, because they can depend upon themselves, but also because they can allow themselves to lean on someone else, when the climax to the story comes, which shows a different kind of courage.

I, for one, look at character first, when I read any book. If I get to Chapter 2 and still don’t like the main characters, it doesn’t matter to me how promising the story is. I will put it aside to donate to the next book sale at the library. “Character counts”—in life and in fiction.

Next week we’ll look at how settings can make—or break—a good story.

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Great Storytellers in History: Part 3

The “standards” become standards and linger on through time for a reason. There’s just something about these stories that click with the human psyche, something that allows them to remain relevant, no matter how much time has passed.

William Shakespeare (16th Century)
William_Shakespeare_1609Much like Aesop, there is in some circles much controversy over whether a single individual named William Shakespeare actually penned every play attributed to him, but the important thing here is that these plays were all about the human condition, nestled in comedy or in tragedy. The characters were standard and would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks—the miserly merchant, the clever servant, the not-so-clever master, the beautiful damsel, the handsome hero, etc.—and they were so well-written, their universal themes and character types have been performed and rewritten over and over again, until they have become the essence of Western dramatic literature.

Even Shakespeare’s work was often based on what came before, of course. For example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1594), Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in his Metamorphoses (AD 1st Century) or Tony and Maria in Laurents, Berstein, and Sondheim’s West Side Story (1957) were all basically the same powerful story of the young star-crossed lovers who, kept apart by warring families, die tragically in the end.

The story of Romeo and Juliet is a particularly good example of a story that transcends cultural lines beyond the West, too, as even the Japanese have a similar story (Imoseyama, 1806) in their lexicon.

Mother Goose (17th–18th Century)
There are literally hundreds of nursery rhymes attributed to Mother Goose, and I includeMotherGoosestorytime them here, because they are very much a part of our literary lexicon. Each of these rhymes tells a story—and most of them more than one, if you look at the history of the rhyme itself.

For example, did you know that “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is about paying taxes? One for the master (the feudal landowner), one for the dame (the Church), and one for the little boy who lives down the lane (the shepherd can keep a third of his earnings for his own family). And “Ring Around the Rosy” is about death and the plague—a cheerful thought as children jump rope to it.

Most of them originate at a time in Europe when life was very hard for the common man. The funny thing is though we all here in the 21st century—or at least those of us who grew up in the States—seem to know a lot of these, I would guess most of us, like me, don’t remember where or when we first heard them. They are certainly long-lived stories, however, which is why I include them, here.

The Brothers Grimm (19th Century)
Grimms' Fairy Tales 200th Anniversary NearsJacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not actually write the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Rather this collection is the result of the brothers travelling throughout Europe in an attempt to collect and codify the traditional stories of the region, which were so much a part of the oral tradition. We can thank the brothers Grimm for their efforts, because without them, these stories might have been lost to us with the arrival of common literacy in Europe, which seemed to mark the end of many of the oral traditions.

If you read the complete, unabridged Fairy Tales you will often find a number of versions of the same story, which just goes to show that in an “oral tradition,” stories change from storyteller to storyteller, from language to language.

The best example of the influence of the fairy tale on our culture in the last century is probably the story of Cinderella. I have seen Cinderella performed in every form from Rogers and Hammerstein to Disney to The Love Boat. Sometimes these have been straight plays, sometimes musicals, sometime drama and sometimes unabashed comedy. All have at their core the basic rags to riches story about a young girl who suffers had the hands of an evil stepmother but is rewarded in the end for her goodness.

And what do we almost always have, somewhere in the NCAA basketball tournament or the NFL playoffs? A “Cinderella team,” of course, which shows the concept of Cinderella lives far beyond the fairy tale from whence she came.

Next week, we’ll begin to look at what it takes to make a good story.


Great Storytellers in History: Part 2

Good stories that last have come down to us throughout the ages from all corners of the world, but one man in particular really knew the power of story . . .

Jesus (1st Century)

Probably one of the most influential storytellers in history, Jesus did most of his teaching in what we today call parables. Knowing how the minds of men work, he knew better than anyone how to use story so effectively in his teaching that even today’s secular world would be influenced by it. Jesus knew that by framing his teachings within a story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, he could help his audiences to grasp his previously unimaginable concepts, and while Jesus often had to explain the parables to his disciples, they were still enlightened by the stories he told.

the Good SamaritanOne of the best examples of this is found in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a story Jesus tells when a young man asks him, “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s the basic story: Guy gets mugged. Two men pass by on the other side of the street. A third man stops to help.

Now, the easy answer to the young man’s question is, “The man who stops to help is his neighbor.” But Jesus doesn’t stop at this simple plot. No, he really makes his point in the details. You see, it wasn’t just any man who was mugged; it was a Jew. And the two guys who passed on the other side of the street? They were a priest and a Levite—both of whom either used the Law that forbade them to touch the unclean as an excuse to avoid the unpleasant task or were simply too afraid to help—who refused to stop. And who did stop? A much-despised-by-the-Jews, heretical Samaritan, who not only personally helped a Jew, but paid for his care at the next inn.

This is a huge plot twist to the story, because it means that for Jesus, the definition of “neighbor” is “whomever you encounter under any circumstances,” and Christians now have to notice and stop to help everyone in need, no matter who they are or what they look like.

But the influence of this story doesn’t stop with Jesus’ first-century followers or even with modern Christians. Today in the United States, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have what are known as “Good Samaritan Laws,” statutes that protect those willing to stop and help a stranger. That was one powerful story!

Everyman Theatre (15th Century)

In the Middle Ages, the Church had a problem in that most people could neither read nor understand Latin. As church leaders scrambled to figure out how they could bring Scripture to an illiterate people, they settled on taking a page out of Jesus’ book: storytelling. Thus began the Everyman Theatre, which consisted of repertory acting troops that traveled from town square to village green, performing a selection of Bible-based morality plays. These Everyman plays were allegories, stories in which the characters don’t represent human beings but rather abstract qualities—such as Beauty, Knowledge, Greed, Jealousy and other virtues or faults—and at the center of each there was the “Everyman” character, to whom the entire audience could relate.

At that’s the key to reaching your audience, isn’t it? Getting total strangers to relate to the central characters you’ve created so completely they can put themselves into the story. And when that happens? You become a storyteller.

Next week in Great Storytellers in History, Part 3, we’ll look at some of the great “standards” that linger on long after the original storyteller is gone . . .

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Great Storytellers in History: Part 1

What makes some stories so powerful that they actually become part of our Western culture? I’m not talking about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (first published just over thirty years ago and still popular today) or even J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth series (beginning with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1954 and 1955). Though these stories have certainly taken on a life of their own, especially since Hollywood got hold of them, they are still late-comers, relatively speaking, and mostly appeal only to those who like fantasy as a genre. What I’m talking about now are the stories that go back millennia, stories that most of us today haven’t even ever read but yet still have influence on Western culture.

Homer (8th Century BC)

2018-5-25_lauraFew people in America actually read Homer anymore, but that doesn’t mean something of his stories isn’t in our collective psyche. Born sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC somewhere on the coast of Asia Minor, his most famous epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are important in the way they have influenced Western culture and ideals, especially those of heroism, nobility, and “the good life.”

Originally presented orally, these poems also provide much of what we know today about Greek mythology. The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War and gave us the Trojan horse and the “Achilles heel.” The latter comes from the character Achilles, who was covered with armor from head to toe except over his heels, which is—of course—the place where he was struck down. Hence, today we have injuries that sometimes involve our Achilles tendon. Likewise, today’s hackers are now using “Trojan horses” to sneak their malware and viruses into our computers! From The Odyssey we get our ideas of Poseidon, the god of the sea; the Cyclopes (uncivilized one-eyed giants); and we all know what it means when someone calls a beautiful, unscrupulous woman a Siren.

Aesop (c. 620–560 BC)

Aesop’s fables have been enormously influential in Western literature for millennia. Though today we tend to think of them as children’s stories, alone, they are at their heart a series of morality tales, which can prove effective for people of all ages.

Whether the Aesop of “Aesop’s fables” was actually a single writer, several writers, or simply one who collected the fables or oral traditions of the era (like the Brothers Grimm) we don’t know, but we do know the power of these stories. For example, we all know what it means to “cry wolf,” whether or not we’ve ever read The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and a contemporary, illustrated children’s book, The Lion and the Mouse (Jerry Pinkney, Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2009) was the much-deserved winner of the  2010 Caldecott Medal.

Sophocles (5th Century BC)

Sophocles, another of the Greek writers, is known for seven surviving plays, which include several characters and events from Homer’s poems, but the one I think is most known today—at least by its influence—is Oedipus the King.

As the story goes, a seer tells the then king of Thebes that his newborn son would grow up to kill him, but rather than killing the baby, he sends the child away with a nurse to a far corner of his kingdom.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and young Oedipus decides to visit the city of Thebes. Along the way, he encounters a party of men on the road, there’s a skirmish, and Oedipus kills the opposing leader before moving on to the city. It turns out that the city and its queen are mourning the death of their king, Oedipus falls in love with and marries the queen, then sets out to find the king’s killer—only to learn in the end that it is he, himself, and he is the king’s son. From this story we get the “eww” factor of a young man’s abnormal sexual attraction to his own mother, and hence we have the Oedipus complex in our modern-day psychology texts.

Next week, we’ll look at the greatest storyteller of all time . . .
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The Story

We do, as a species, like our stories. It’s in our DNA, I am convinced, to always give more than Joe Friday’s “just the facts, ma’am.” We not only want to hear and tell what happened, but we also want to know the complete who, when, where, why, and how that more details concept 3d illustration isolatedgoes along with the what. If you need proof, just look at the evening news. Learning there was a traffic pile-up on I-10 isn’t enough. We want to know every little detail, from who was involved, to the injuries incurred, to whose fault it was, to how long it took to clean it up. And the final score of a football or basketball game isn’t enough, either. We want to know exactly why and how one team won and the other team lost—and what all the players and coaches have to say about it. As Paul Harvey put it, we want to know “the rest of the story.”

From the days of living in caves, we’ve presented a whole lot more than “just the facts” when talking about anything going on in our world. Even in those pictures painted in the dark, deep inside the caves of Europe, man was telling a story, for the artists did not only illustrate the hunt, they created a pictorial narration of what went on. It’s fascinating, really.

The storyteller has been revered since long before we could read and write for just this reason. It was the storyteller, the bard, who kept traditions going from one generation to the next. Their stories not only entertained; they educated. They gave us, as a people, a center and an identity. It was the storytellers, travelling from town square to village green, from stage to campfire, who told the stories that kept us connected—to one another, to our past, and to our future. And if you think the importance of story has been lost over the centuries, then you haven’t attended a John Grisham book-signing event or waited in line at an opening of a new Star Wars movie. We really do still love our stories!

So what is a story?

Let’s look at the basic definitions by the masters. Merriam-Webster defines story as “a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; specifically: short story” or “the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work.” The Oxford English Dictionary uses fancier language to say much the same thing: “A Narrative of real or, more usually, fictitious events, designed for the entertainment of the hearer or reader; a series of traditional or imaginary incidents forming the matter of such a narrative; a tale.”

So whether we’re talking about prehistoric pictures painted on a cave wall, a Dime Novel, or the latest and greatest from the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list, a story is a narrative concerning the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a character or event, real or fictitious. And we, human as we are, want to know the details. That’s why U.S. retail bookstores alone sold 10.73 billion dollars worth of books in 2017, which doesn’t include e-books and other online sales from sources like Amazon. This is really good news for both readers and writers!

I think C. S. Lewis said it best:

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity”. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. (On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. Harper Collins 1966, 1982.)

Storytelling really is in our DNA. We still read, we watch T.V., we go to the movies—however we access this thing called “story”—and we want all the details. Fiction or nonfiction, we want the whole story. Now the question becomes: what makes a good story that lasts?