Whenever I’m writing, and especially when I’m editing, if I ever slow down and really think about what it is that I’m doing with my time, it’s pretty easy to go down a slippery philosophical rabbit hole and end up madder than a hatter.
What are stories in the first place? Why do we read and write them? What does it mean for a story to be “good?” What exactly am I doing when I’m editing one to make it “better?”
And in a world with a vast array of storytelling traditions, past and present, are there any such things as universal storytelling principles? Are there common threads that underpin “good” storytelling?
I don’t fully know the answers to these questions, and I’m no philosopher or anthropologist, but I can tell you where I landed after years of these questions rattling around in my brain. These are the ideas that underpin the work I do trying to help writers improve their writing.
Why we read
Before we get to why we have a burning desire to consume stories, we should probably start here: what is a story, exactly?
My definition: A story is a series of events that show how characters move through the world.
Simple right? Doesn’t have to be the physical world, a character can simply “move” through an interior world, obviously doesn’t have to be our world here on Earth, but stories fundamentally involve a character or group of characters interacting with the world over a period of time and emerging in a different place.
But… Why do we tell them and read them?
My theory: stories are “manuals” that a) help us simulate how we might act in situations we may encounter in the future and b) help us understand the way others experience the world.
In other words, they help us “practice” how we might act as we move through the broader world and better understand the people around us. We might learn new modes of thinking we find helpful or repellant, which gives us more confidence in the way we approach our own lives, and we might better empathize with why others might be doing what they’re doing.
This definition encompasses everything from oral storytelling traditions of past natural disasters, hero journeys, fairy tales, steamy romances, picture books for toddlers, you name it. Stories help us understand why someone different from us might act the way they do, at the same time that they ask us to imagine ourselves in a similar situation.
This experience creates a magical state of being where we are simultaneously ourselves and not ourselves, which I don’t think I could describe better than Mohsin Hamid:
Reading a novel is to experience two consciousnesses present in one body, reader and writer co-creating their novel as it is read, a novel unique to each reader-writer pairing, because it has been imagined into being jointly. The self while reading is uncanny, a plurally conscious peculiarity: transgressive, fertile, and very much at play.
The motivations for why we choose to consume any particular story may vary at any given time (desiring a diversion, seeking meaning, changing our mood, etc.), but I still believe on a fundamental level the reason stories exist is at this intersection of projecting ourselves into the unfamiliar and helping us empathize with other people.
Character vs. nature vs. society
From that more universal definition of story flows a wide array of storytelling traditions, particularly around the way an individual character intersects with the broader world. Before we get to what makes stories “good,” it’s worth pausing to consider the way culture shapes the stories we consume and our understanding of story ideals.
(Also, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to refer to single protagonists and novels for the rest of the post rather than endlessly caveating that some stories have more than one protagonist and there are many ways to tell a story beyond a novel).
At the risk of generalizing too simplistically across an utterly vast swaths of stories in human history, in non-western and older storytelling traditions, there tends to be more recognition of the way the broader world and forces beyond a character’s control impact a character, whereas in modern western literature there tends to be more emphasis on a character shaping the world.
In a fairy tale or parable, the story may hinge on how a character weathers a situation where they’re functionally powerless. In modern western capitalistic storytelling tradition that emerged in the post-industrial era in the United Kingdom and the United States, it might be how a character singlehandedly reshapes their entire world. In an eastern story, it may hinge on how a character navigates a twist of fate.
Because of these very different traditions and approaches to stories, which have shaped different groups of readers’ expectations over thousands of years, it’s extremely difficult to then sort out what exactly makes a story “good” when our benchmarks are so thoroughly shaped by culture.
What makes stories “good”
There is not a single story that has ever existed that has been truly universally beloved. The idea that there is, or will ever be, universally held standards for what makes a story “good” is a hopeless phantom.
I absolutely agree with Matthew Salesses, who argues in Craft in the Real World:
Expectations are not universal; they are standardized. It is like what we say about wine or espresso: we acquire “taste.” With each story we read, we draw on and contribute to our knowledge of what a story is or should be.”
In other words, the stories we consume, which are heavily influenced by our cultural backgrounds and individual tastes, establish our benchmarks for what a story “should” be. But because we’re different people, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Still, there are some things that stories do to us that we know are the signposts of what’s “good.”
Some stories put us in a trance. Some stories make us think. Some stories make our spines tingle or our hearts race.
We may not share the same tastes, we may argue endlessly over what’s great and what’s horrible, but we do share the experience of what it’s like to read stories we love.
But wait, are there universal storytelling principles?
Hang on, you might be thinking. If everything that’s “good” about stories is in the eye of the beholder on a macro and micro level, what in the heck are you doing writing a blog with a ton of writing advice and spending your day editing writers’ work and telling them what’s good and bad writing?
(Um, okay, I might be thinking this).
Even with everything I said in the preceding sections, I still believe there are some core storytelling principles that are as universal as we’re going to get. There are some fundamental elements that engaging stories have in common across wide swathes of genres and storytelling traditions.
Change my mind!
Let’s go back to the universal definition of story: it’s about a character trying to navigate the world. And in order to make it engaging, I believe it helps for that character to be active and emerge from the story in a different place than they started.
Now, please note that I’m saying active. I’m not saying powerful. The character can be as powerless to outside forces as Job, but even he at least tried to make sense of God’s wrath. Even just trying to figure something out or trying to make peace with circumstances beyond a character’s control is being active.
I also believe good writing is precise and not vague. Different readers will project different things onto the page and everything does not have to be spelled out, but it helps for the writing to be as sharp as possible, even if this may result in different styles and approaches to get there.
Some of the advice I give as a blogger and editor is admittedly steeped in current western storytelling vogues (particularly around things like perspective, dialogue tags, and word counts), but when editing, I try as much as possible to set aside my subjective sense of what’s “good” to help writers best achieve what they’re setting out to do.
Easier said than done, of course.
Why we write
So that’s why we read and sort through what’s good, but why do we write in the first place?
There are as many motivations for writing as there are writers and stories, and even an individual writer’s motives for telling stories may shift through their lifetime.
But there’s one thing that I have seen again and again over the course of my twenty+ years in publishing: wanting to feel seen.
There’s something profoundly gratifying about putting some part of ourselves on the page, particularly a piece that might be hidden from others’ view or feels misunderstood, and having someone in the outside world engage with that and give it positive affirmation. It makes us feel more deeply connected to humanity and life and there’s really nothing like it.
(And the converse, when people see that piece we’ve revealed and reject it, it’s deeply scary, which is why you see authors sometimes going into very extreme fight/flight/freeze modes when they see bad reviews).
What’s strange about this is that writers don’t always even identify with their protagonists! And yet there’s something that’s undeniably us when we pour hundreds of hours and so many of our waking thoughts into a single document that represents a tremendous chunk of our energy and soul. When someone else sees what we see in it, there are few things that can make us feel so alive.
But I also think we write to explore what it would be like to be other people. Much like how Mohsin Hamid described the act of reading, inhabiting fictional characters allows us to be ourselves and not ourselves at the same time, melding the self into some deeper connection to humanity.
It’s that secondary state that we achieve while reading and writing that connects us so deeply to forces beyond ourselves and the deeper truths we know are lurking beneath surface reality. When it’s done well, it’s transcendence.
What is personal, what is cultural, and what is universal about storytelling?
I wanted to expose the ideas in this post to the air because I very much want to see what others think, and my feelings around all of this are always shifting and adjusting.
Why do you think we read and write? What about it is universal vs. cultural vs. individual? Is there such a thing as “good” writing, and what do you think underpins it?
I want to hear from you!
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Art: Rastende Karawane am Lagerfeuer by Amandus Faure