What Makes A Good Story


“All story is manipulation,” remarked renowned film-maker Ken Burns. While he uses a different medium to tell a story, the message to his audience is universal. Storytellers try to capture the attention of an audience and the best way storytellers can move an audience is by being honest and genuine with themselves. If it doesn’t move us or excite us personally, how can we expect an audience to feel anything? So how does this apply to our students and children in terms of crafting a piece of writing in general, and writing a two to three hundred word composition for the examination in particular? In short, what makes a good story?   The Theme Looking at the trends of past year examinations, common theme-based scenarios come to mind. It would not be far wrong to determine that common themes will arise time and again – a happy moment, a sad occasion, something exciting, a terrifying experience or an embarrassing incident. While I do not advocate “spotting” questions, students would probably have experienced these situations in their lives, albeit at different levels and intensity. As storytellers, it would also be wise to combine these themes. A terrifying roller-coaster ride could lead to either a tragedy or triumph of overcoming a phobia or fear. A fight or an encounter with a bully could turn into the victim and perpetrator becoming good friends in the end. Let the theme grow out of the story, so readers feel they have learned it for themselves. You should not have to say what the moral is, lest it becomes too “preachy”.   The Plot As the adage goes, “If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.” What has this to do with plot? Well, oftentimes, students overlook the need to plan and are bogged down with either the constraints of time (“Oh I have only an hour to write”, or “I still have another component to attempt”) or the challenge to include anything and everything they have learnt into a story without taking a step, or a few steps back in order to think, ponder and reflect on the actual content needed for a creative and original piece of writing.   What makes a good plot? A real conflict, significant enough yet believable, that is resolved by the end of the story. Conflict is a vital part of every story. Without it, there would be no actions, suspense, or urgency. Stories would be boring. Just think of the fairy-tales we were taught and the bedside stories which our parents read to us as we were growing up or the latest blockbusters we have viewed on the big screen. How did the Brothers Grimm create believable storylines that are still applicable today? Or how does Steven Spielberg manage to turn historical events like wars into a quest for justice and truth? The operative word here is “believable”. Hence, students should avoid writing about the supernatural, or where the rules of the universe is inconsistent with reality where aliens and superheroes battle one another for supremacy.   There are generally five main types of conflict: • person versus person • person versus society • person versus nature • person versus self • person versus fate   The last type should usually be avoided in the examination as it involves a problem that seems uncontrollable and is best left to extensive or novel writing. A novel can have several conflicts, but a short story should have only one.   Therefore, plot is most often about a conflict or struggle that the main character goes through. The conflict can be with another character, or with the way things are, or with something inside the character, like needs or feelings.   Click here for Part 2 of "What Makes a Good Story"