Ask a hundred different people what makes a great story, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. That’s because no two people read alike. For that matter, no two authors write exactly alike. And many of us don’t exactly see eye to eye. But odds are, if you ask enough of the right “Why?” questions, the answer to what makes a great story boils down to the balance between three things: Plot, Characters, and Delivery. Now, I’m not saying this as a writer. I’m saying it as a reader. And as a reader, I have a few opinions on this matter.
Have you ever picked up an eBook and found forty errors and typos in the first chapter? I have. Did you keep reading? I didn’t. The delivery was so bad I couldn’t see past it to the actual story. Delivery is the difference between a college essay and a children’s fairy tale. It’s everything from format, to word choice, point of view, grammar (or lack thereof), and the author’s own personal voice. Most importantly, it’s all of these things working together. The most passionate love story can fall flat if it’s written without passion. The most beautiful description of a sunset can be spoiled by typos and repetitive phrases (which, by the way, is why we hire editors to make sure none of that happens).
The best, most uncommon delivery I’ve ever read was in Moira Young’s Dustland Series. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s like a completely different dialect with its own rules of spelling and grammar. The woman doesn’t even use quotation marks for dialogue! You start reading the book and think, This is a mess! but the more you read, the more you realize the genius of what she has created. It’s in-your-face wrong, but somewhere in the language there is a subtle, subliminal message telling you it’s just right, anyway. She’s broken every rule of delivery ever written–to the point where you wonder how this managed to get into a publisher’s queue, let alone past the editing gauntlet–and somehow it’s so completely captivating you not only accept it, you start talking the way she writes. She infects you with language. She pulls you into her madness (or is it genius?) and you like it. That is the magic of delivery. That’s what makes for a fantastic storyteller.
Plot and Characters get tricky as story elements, because they are interconnected. Either the characters drive the plot, or the plot dictates the characters’ actions, and both approaches work, but they make for very different types of stories, which means they will polarize readers. Can’t make a racehorse do ballet, if you know what I mean. Take The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, for example. If you’re not a history buff, the plot would probably put you to sleep (and the huge number of 1-star reviews prove it takes a certain type of reader to enjoy a certain type of book). For most of the novel, everything that happens is subtle, and internal. You get deep into the characters’ heads, and the mystery they’re trying to unravel, slowly, so very slowly, inching forward by tiny little steps you don’t even register until all the hints click into place and you are hurled straight into an epic explosion of a resolution at the end. No warning, just boom, and then an epilogue to calm your heart rate.
But, see, if you don’t read that far, you’ll never know the full impact of what these two gentlemen have wrought. They make you feel so strongly for the main characters it’s as if you’re there with them and know them personally, but they don’t beat you over the head with it. It’s a natural progression, the same way you meet someone and it takes you a while to warm up to them, but when you do you wonder how you never saw the connection before.
I got heart palpitations and bawled my eyes out during the grand conflict at the end of the book–something that’s only happened twice in all my years of reading, this being one of them. You don’t make that kind of impact on a reader if you focus on keeping them at the edge of their seats with an exciting plot. People don’t have time to think or feel when they’re constantly reacting to life-or-death situations. Not that there is anything wrong with those. As far as entertainment value goes, you could do far worse than instant gratification. It’s simply a different approach to storytelling; a question of style and taste.
Given all that, does what happens really matter, then? It does when it’s the foundation on which you build your novel. Readers can forgive a lot of flaws in character development if the plot keeps moving forward at a steady pace and, as mentioned above, keeps them at the edge of their seats. We like to be shocked and entertained. Modern movie making has trained us to expect non-stop action, cliffhangers, impossible odds, and over-the-top characters who overcome them. It’s reduced our attention span so much the vast majority of our movie-watching population is losing the ability to enjoy slower-paced entertainment. We get bored. We lose interest. We think the author is being a literary snob by throwing too many big words at us. This is where plot comes in.
For comparison purposes, let’s take Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example, once again underscoring how intertwined plot and characters are. The book is based on a similar concept as The Rule of Four: a quest to unravel the mysteries of a piece of history, but it employs a very different approach. Have you read it? What do you remember about the characters? Personally, I don’t remember much. The movie was more memorable in that regard by putting faces to names. In the book, they were a little bland for my taste, but suitable for the purpose of having bodies there to move the plot. I didn’t mind the lack, because my focus throughout the book was the plot itself.
The story was action-packed, starting strong right out of the gate with a murder mystery, and an unlikely character getting dragged into the investigation as a suspect. The entire time Robert Langdon works out the ancient clues, and follows along their path to the ultimate discovery, he is on the run from the law. He is being chased by factions who need the mystery to remain unsolved, and are willing to use any means necessary. He is in fear of his life, with very little experience. He’s also not the main character. The mystery is. What makes this book so engaging is the chase, the clock ticking down to zero, and the nail-biting tension of Will they make it?
If you’ve read this far, you might have reached the conclusion that the “sweet spot” of story telling is a perfect meld of all three elements. However, I’d argue that is not the case. For one thing, it would take incredible talent and attention to detail to achieve a perfect balance between the three, which even history’s most famous authors don’t often possess. Ya wanna talk delivery? How ’bout Homer’s rambling in Illiad? Plot? I submit to you Shakespeare’s sonnets. But if they’re so unbalanced, why are we still talking about them centuries later?
For the second reason why I don’t think balance works: If everything is in balance, there is no struggle, and it’s the struggle that keeps us engaged. The true master storytellers are not Jacks of all trade, they are masters of a single one. Their delivery on those chosen elements is what makes them memorable. Sure, Homer rambled, but consider the audience at the time. His endless lists of ships and their origins would have touched every single one of his listeners. That’s why he did it. Characters were his way of connecting with his audience–he wanted them to feel engaged by giving them a representative in battle. When they heard their home town mentioned, they cheered, and they were willing to sit through an hour’s recitation just to hear it. Shakespeare enchanted us with his poetry, the feeling behind every word delivered just so, in just the right rhythm. Poetry doesn’t need plot, because it delivers directly into our hearts.
As a reader, I don’t want to waste time on a cookie cutter book. I want to indulge in something unique to the writer. This is the gift they share with the world: just a little bit of something that no one else has. Yes, as writers, it is a huge risk to be true to ourselves and not cave to popular trends. No, there is absolutely no guarantee that our efforts will be well met–or met at all. But the good ones keep doing it, regardless of how many people “get it” because maybe, just maybe, it all ends up being worth the effort in the end.
Until next time! =)