Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On a Quest for Good Story

Over the holidays I visited Kassel, Germany, where I learned that two of my favorite storytellers had lived many years—the Grimm Brothers.  In Kassel, there is a wonderful museum dedicated to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  Their fairy tales have been translated into many languages.   

What has made these fairy tales endure over the years?  I think it’s good story.  

Here are some of the other good stories and storytellers that have been recommended to me so far for study:

Tasha Alexander
M.C. Beaton
Geraldine Brooks
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
John Connolly
Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
Dick Francis
Diana Gabaldon
John Green
Tim Hallinan
Polly Iyer
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Garrison Keillor
Stephen King
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book One
Dean Koontz
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Kate Morton
Stuart Neville
Patrick Rothfuss
J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith
Hank Phillippi Ryan
James Alexander Thom
Mark Twain
Anne Tyler
Andy Weir, The Martian
Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Secret of Roan Inish (film)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What's a Good Story?

I am starting a series of posts to explore the question of good storytelling.  

A couple weeks ago, when I was writing out my goals for the year ahead, I kept hearing a little niggling voice in the back of my head.  It kept reminding me that for the last few years I've said I want to become a better storyteller.  This won't happen without study and practice.  So I'm jumping in.  It's time to work specifically on that task.  

But what does good storytelling really mean?  And who are some good storytellers that I can study as examples?  I solicited advice and was given a wide range of suggestions, all of them very good.  First takeaway lesson:  every answer is correct.  Because there is no single definition of what makes a good story.  There is no one-size-fits-all for a good story.  "Good" is subjective, and what makes good storytelling is different for each reader.  

So I have to decide what makes storytelling good for me.  After all, those are the types of stories I want to write.  

Storytelling consists of two parts:  a good story, and a good way of telling it.  Good stories don't necessarily have to be page-turners or bestsellers or highly acclaimed (although they could be).  A good story has to entertain me above all.  It has to evoke a satisfying emotional response in me, the reader.  That's just the beginning of this study.  It's a work in process.  So far, I've reached a few general conclusions.  

A good story will have:  

  1. an interesting opening.  Interesting is not necessarily compelling nor universal (although it could be).  It speaks uniquely to individual readers.  I can't always predict what will interest me.  It will likely be different from what others find interesting.  Did I mention subjective?   
  2. an interesting setting.  Personally, I love books that take me to places I want to visit.  Not everyone cares about this.  Again, it's hard to predict where I want to go, but I know that I don't want to go to ugly, nasty places, regardless of how unique they may be.  I want to feel as if I'm there in the setting with the characters.  I need to experience the setting.  Dropping names of places that could be anywhere is not good enough.  
  3. an interesting, likable character.  Even if most of the characters are despicable, there has to be at least one of them that I care about and grow to understand.  That character should face interesting problems and deal with them in ways that ordinary, sane people would not.  This makes the story entertaining for me.  
  4. an interesting relationship.  A good story--for me--needs emotional development of some kind, preferably romantic, between at least two characters.  It's even better when there's parallel development between a different pair of characters.  This gives me, the reader, a feeling of resonance and great satisfaction.  
  5. plot twists.  Interesting things have to happen in a good story.  It doesn't have to be page-turning suspense, but the events have to interest me in ways that real life's daily routine does not.  It's even better when those interesting events surprise me.  At the same time, the twists need to make perfect sense.  
  6. no padding.  Good stories don't have boring, unnecessary filler that ends up making a story twice as long as it really needs to be.  Filler invites skimming, and a good story won't allow me to skim.  
  7. pretty words.  Writers of good stories control language.  They manipulate words in a way that evokes images and makes me gasp and say, "Wow!  I never saw that image quite like that before."  There is a fine line between just enough pretty words and too many.  
  8. an ending that ends when the story is over.  

This list is just the beginning.  I'll discover more along the way.  And now, to study…

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


In December I learned about Panto, the British traditional Christmas theatre.  What a fun family treat!  It felt like a circus, with children waving glowsticks, yet the jokes onstage were geared towards adults.  

Here are some of the common elements to Panto:  
  • good and bad fairies
  • an actor in an animal costume
  • the protagonist is a male character played by a woman in tight-fitting clothes
  • there is always a female character played by a man
  • slapstick scenes, such as the rubber ball fight in the Panto we saw
  • audience participation, such as shouting "It's behind you!" Or "Yes it is!" And "No it t'isn't!"
The show we saw was called "Dick Whittington & His Cat," and it was complete with 14th century merchant scenes, dancing rats, a mouse puppet, pirates, a shipwreck, a Beatles song (sung in cat) and lessons in Welsh.  

This Yank's head is still spinning!