In my quest for studying good storytelling, I started by soliciting recommendations from a wide range of people. Then I picked some of the authors from that list, authors who are very different from each other. I want to see what their stories might have in common, aside from great storytelling.
Kate Morton writes what I like to call “lush” novels, that is the storyline is complicated, rich and deep. Her stories often uncover family secrets, and they span generations and multiple characters. I get sucked into stories like this and don’t want to leave the world the author has created.
Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, on the other hand, is a disturbing book, with none of the pleasing connotations of the word “lush.” It’s an excellent book, mostly about one complex character, whose problem is peeled back, layer by layer. I have a push-pull relationship with books like this and can’t escape this type of fictional world fast enough. This could be the dark secret behind someone close to me, and I don’t want to delve into the darkness. At the same time it draws me in.
Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast is also disturbing. It’s not only about complex characters but also about the complex political/historical situation that tears them even further apart. It’s too real, and I react the same to this as to Flynn’s: push-pull, can’t get out of the story fast enough, can’t turn the pages fast enough.
Andy Weir’s The Martian is a laugh-out-loud romp. And oh, yeah, by the way, there’s a super serious problem, too. It feels very real, but we know it’s not (which is comforting, because the problem is very, very serious). But the book isn’t really about the problem. It’s about the character, the Martian, who is so lovable and becomes like the reader’s brother. We root for him, and it’s sad to leave him when the romp is all over, never mind the setting. It’s not a place that either the Martian or the reader wants to stay.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is another romp with dark moments. It’s a fascinating, complex world, and the reader is treated to the details of its wonders. Readers immerse themselves into this world. It’s so very different from the reality of our world, and yet there are just enough glimpses of reality to fire our imaginations and make us wonder…could it…possibly be…real?
- Hmm, the word “escape” keeps popping up. These great stories either allow me the reader to escape reality or else make me race through their stories, trying to escape their darkness. And I can’t escape, because…
- Great stories suck me into their fictional worlds. I want to know what’s going to happen, because I’m invested in the characters, their world, and the situation. The story pulls me through to the end, whether or not I want to go along for the ride.
- “Complex” is another word these great stories have in common. They all have complex characters and/or complex subplots and situations. There is not only one story going on, but multiple stories.
- “Real Setting” is another element in common. These stories have settings that are either very real (sometimes overly real) or else seem very real. Seeming so, they make this reader wish they were real. Whether real or not, the setting feels real enough to make me feel as if I’m there, inside the story.
So…even though these stories are quite different, they still have certain qualities in common.