Elements of a Great Story

I often find it easy to explain why I don’t like a story. Predictable plot. Annoying characters. Premise as interesting as sticky paint. You would think I would also find it easy to identify why I do like a story, but I don’t. My recommendations usually sound something like, “Oh, it’s really good. It’s about X and there’s this thing, and the middle was so surprising.” Yeah, helpful. And people wonder why I don’t write reviews on Goodreads!

Of course, as someone who tries to write great stories, I thought it was important that I learn to identify what makes me like a story. And so, in the Holly Bodger tradition, I bring you a list:

1. A premise that interests me.
The important part about this line is the “me”. I do not like snakes. I do not like flying or daredevil things that involve heights. So, if your story is about a girl who para-glides to the top of a cliff so she can find a new breed of snake, someone might love it but that someone will not be me. It does not matter how great the character is or how twisty the plot is. I cannot enjoy this story.

2. A flawed main character I can relate to
I do not aspire to be the main character in a story. Yes, there are many people who read for this reason, but I read because I want to relate to the main character and I cannot relate to someone who is perfect or who has the perfect life except for one tiny thing. I want flaws. Flaws make me feel like I could be the main character.

3. A goal with no clear path to it
I’m a plotter but this isn’t just a plot thing. I really need to feel, right from the first act, that the main character wants something. I cannot stand stories about characters just wandering through life, waiting to see what happens. Just as important as the goal is the fact that there can’t be an obvious path leading to it. Everyone knows that there is a 95% likelihood that the main character is going to reach his/her goal. The beauty of the story is in the how. I think this may be one of the reasons I like romantic sub-plots. Realistic romance is not predictable.

4. Stakes that are greater than “I”
I don’t mind stories where the main character’s goal is self-serving, but I prefer ones where it’s not. These kinds of goals make it harder for the main character to just walk away. They also show that they’re not just thinking about their own wants constantly. Characters who think about their own wants get on my nerves a little and I don’t like to devote 8 hours of my life to someone who is getting on my nerves.

5. An antagonist I sympathize with
Anyone can create a big bad wolf but what’s the point? The real evils in life don’t come in black and white. Antagonists need as many shades of grey as protagonists. I love an antagonist who is doing a bad thing for a good reason. You know you can’t support these characters but there is a small part of you that wants to put them in a time machine and take them back to when they used to be good. That means there’s a small part of you that wants them to win and that is tension.

6. Accuracy in detail
This is a big one for me. I can be totally loving a story but if the author makes factual mistakes, it feels like they’re saying that they didn’t bother to do research because their readers are too stupid to know the difference. And guess what? Most people don’t like being called stupid.

What about you? What makes you think a story is great?