What makes a story good? I see this question asked by many people, of many people.
An author is perhaps the worst person to ask for an answer. If they are any good, they aren’t working to a formula. They just know how to tell a great story and it comes bubbling out and then they have to edit the thing, a job all writers love.
And a reader is possibly even worse. They pick up a book, and sometimes they don’t come up for air again until the final page is turned. Harry Potter was like that for me when I was younger. By book four, I was hooked. I was doing some babysitting for a family friend, and I said that I had to hurry home to read the latest in the series. The mother looked at me – into my mid-teens – and said, “Aren’t you a little old for Harry Potter?”
“Not really,” I replied. “I have to battle both my parents for reading time!”
But if you ask me to analyse what made those stories so awesome, I’d be hard-pressed to reduce it to a formula. And to be honest, some books were better than others. There were a couple of books that could have been trimmed a bit, I think, but perhaps J K Rowling was at that stage where she could write anything and it would be a massive best-seller, and what editor is going to be bold enough to say that her manuscript could lose a few chapters?
I waver in my own mind. Plot is important. Load the plot up with disasters and problems, and any reader will want to know how they are going to be solved.
Characters are important. If you care about a character, and you want them to survive, to triumph, to live happily ever after, you keep on reading.
But even then, if the writing is poor, the grammar is erratic, and the spelling variable, I’ll throw a book across the room rather than waste my time on something that grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Humour, language, names, description, dialogue, pacing. All the components add up and sometimes a book just clicks into perfection.
I wish I knew the recipe. What I do know is that there’s a new Gabriel Allon book out soon, and I’ll download it as fast as it pops into view on Amazon. I have a friend in New York who locks her Kindle in the mailbox down five flights of stairs so she can get some sleep the night she downloads the latest in the series.
This gig is the first time I’ve tried writing commercially, apart from a few travel pieces here and there. I’m still feeling my way, but it’s gratifying to get some useful feedback. A beta-reader of one of my stories – and a fabulous storyteller in her own right – said a few nice things about my soon to be published story, but what I loved was this:
Britni Pepper is a master (mistress?) of dialogue.Vickie Vaughan
Dialogue is something I like writing. If I could tell the story entirely in the words and thoughts of the characters, I would. Dialogue is like a dance, like music, like poetry, if done well. Mine kind of clunks along and rarely sparkles, which is why I treasure the slightest hint of encouragement.
But Mistress of Dialogue is a title to work towards. I am sure I’ll get better with practice.
If you want a true Master of Dialogue, Aaron Sorkin is your man. He wrote the first four seasons of The West Wing, and the dialogue – as well as the multitude of diverse characters who speak the words – is what makes the show.
Now there’s a show to binge-watch! The show was screened intermittently in Australia, and I missed a lot of episodes on the first run, but when the DVDs began coming out, I snapped them up with the same fervour I had for Harry Potter. And watched them with subtitles on, so I didn’t miss a word.
What books, what TV shows, what authors inspire the same devotion?