So, lately I have seen and participated in a lot of discussion about what makes a “good” story, narrative theory, story structure, audience appeal all those sorts of things. I’ve developed some theories and thoughts of my own along the way.
My personal belief is that all art is entirely subjective, or so much so as to make no never mind. The “good” and “bad” of art are measurable only within the context of the minds and hearts of each person that experiences them. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure and all that. That can be hard to take for a lot of writers because of course we all want people-as many people as possible in fact-to enjoy our work. And most of us want editors to buy it. So, some folks embark on an alchemical quest for the Philosopher’s Stone of audience appeal and effective narrative, trying to determine the elements and structures that will give a piece of fiction maximum appeal.
This is not without merit. There are commonalities among many stories, especially from within a given culture. There are what I think of as “story types”, plot structures or themes or genre elements or combinations thereof that have been used, separated and admixed time and time again to great results. There are things that a pretty fair chunk of people find compelling or conversely repulsive and these can certainly be used to a storyteller’s advantage. I enjoy a bit of analysis as much as the next person and it can be informative, but I don’t think there is any secret formula to be found.
For myself, as far as my writing goes, I tend instead, since I feel it’s all a matter of opinion anyway, to be guided mostly by my own opinions and tastes-to write, essentially, the stories I myself would like to read, for a couple of reasons. One is quite practical: I enjoy stories that are well loved by many others, so using my own taste as a guide will, it would seem, produce stories that others will enjoy as well. The other reason is quite simply that, when I try to write things other than what I want to write, or in ways I don’t wish to write them, my progress slows to a crawl and I am uniformly unhappy with-even unsettled by-what I produce. Even if ones goal is to be a professional writer, in the sense of making a living at it…to me, given that there are easier to achieve and nearly as profitable ways to make a living involving producing a certain particular product (or providing a certain service) for a certain market, it seems the desire to make ones living via a creative endeavor would be based at least somewhat on wanting to do so through ones own creativity and by making what you want to make rather than what you are simply handed blueprints for.
For me, I think the closest I can come to some sort of definition of the secret to a successful story is simply a story that its maker loves and believes in. Or alternatively, at the least, one into which it’s creator has poured thought, effort and consideration. Likewise related to what I was saying above about products, for me the closest I can come to a definition of “bad” art is art that seems to me to have been made merely as a product, without it’s making caring about it or putting effort or thought (beyond the minimum needed to put it together) into it. The example that always springs to my mind on this is many of the original movies from the “SyFy” channel. Particularly the giant this-that-or-the-other ones. They are highly formulaic…which in and of itself is okay; I’ve written formulaic stories, for a variety of reasons. But they feel, to me, as if that’s all anyone involved with them was doing: following the formula in order to produce a product to be sold. They don’t feel like works of art that someone created out of a desire to do so, they feel like they came out of a factory.
As to what I like, what is in my subjective view a “good” or “successful” story, well I could go on for pages listing all the things I love or find intriguing or enlightening. My tastes are quite broad; almost any type of story in any media that has a speculative, magical, supernatural or philosophic aspect is generally one I’m going to enjoy or feel enriched by to at least some extent. I don’t have requirements for what a piece of art must have or do in order for me to enjoy it, although most literature/movies/whatever with no speculative element whatsoever are of less interest to me. Usually the non-fantastical artworks I enjoy are quirky or unusual independent movies that touch on concepts of interest to me, such as growing up/coming of age, gay culture, spirituality or overall cultural issues, especially when they are critical of aspects of the culture I have issues with, such as forced schooling or some aspects of organized religion. I don’t have a lot of taste for most comedy works, especially more recent ones. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story whose primary purpose was to be humorous and most of the comedy movies and television shows of the last couple of decades are neither funny nor interesting to me; I do like older comedic works and a lot of non-American ones, like Monty Python and the humorous elements in many anime series.I enjoy everything from extreme horror to family dramas and back again and most love things which inspire a sense of wonder or show me a new perspective on spiritual and philosophic issues and I’m a sucker for heavy atmosphere…I love being shown a glimpse into other worlds and frames of existence, or parts or sub parts of this one that are rarely seen or paid attention too. I like possibilities, and variety and that is why I have no specific criteria for a “good” story.
In the end, while learning about literary theory (or the theory behind whatever art we pursue) is a good thing, there is no magic bullet for success and at the end of the day I believe our best guide for our work is ourselves, the works we love, and the people around us.
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