Twelve Qualities of a Big Story

I love big books. I’m not talking about page count here, but Bibliothek_St__Florianstories that are so big in scope that the novels live on with me long after I finish reading. I’m even drawn to reread the story.

That’s the kind of book I want to write, so before I begin writing, I analyze the bones of my story to see if it has some of those big-book qualities.

Twelve Big Book Qualities

1. A Hero or Heroes: Characters who take big risks and stand up for what’s right. They may be deeply flawed, and yet, they’re saints, magnetic leaders, or they show massive courage of some kind. They’re true to life and still larger than life.

2. An Impossibly Large Role to Fill: Characters step into a role that at first seems much too large for them. It may be leading a dangerous military mission, stopping a plague from spreading, or rescuing one child who is falling through an emotional black hole. In the beginning, the characters aren’t equipped, but as the story progresses, they learn to fill that big role.

3. Injustice:  It can be a large scale injustice (the Nazis) or small scale (a tyrannical parent), but at all costs, it must have high stakes and the barriers to justice must seem huge to the characters.

4. Complex Relationships: The story provides relationships that are full of great love and yet are greatly troubled. If there are complex relationships that intersect other complex relationships, that’s even better.

5. A Larger than Life Setting: The setting should carry the reader away – a family vineyard, an estate house perched on a craggy coastline, a frenzied metropolis, a bustling medieval village, or a dangerous forest. If your story calls for an ordinary town or city, make sure to find its personality and drama.

6. Time Scope: There are big books that take place in a year, even in days. But there’s something dramatic about watching lives take shape over a lifetime. Even a small story within the story or significant backstory can make the story feel larger.

7. Sacrifices and Crushed Dreams: A character may voluntarily give up something precious for the sake of loved ones, or their dreams may be grasped from their clenched fists. The story is bigger as they struggle to redeem the loss.

8. A Goal with Long Odds: The character – actually all of the characters – need specific goals, and they should be hard to achieve, with plenty of obstacles in the way.

9. Characters with Special Talents or Gifts: Readers love to watch gifted people work – artists, geniuses, prophets, clever detectives, explorers, brilliant doctors, even farmers if they have a special way with the land. If a character has a special calling, all the better. Starting off with only rudimentary knowledge or none, and bringing the reader along as the character learns is compelling too.

10. Souls that Don’t Belong: Whether it’s because of a special gift, an unusual heritage, a greater determination, their life has set them apart somehow, and they find themselves alone in their community. Of course as the story continues, they’ll find a mentor, a lover or friend, but there will be some bumpy roads before they understand that they fit together.

11.  A Long Mystery or Unusual Twist: Nothing keeps readers turning the page like dropped clues along the pages as they try to solve the mystery. Also great is a dramatic mystery, which the reader understands perfectly but the characters don’t. Waiting for everything to be made clear makes for great tension. Of course, any mystery or twist in a big book should have lots of personality and be critical to the character’s inner life.

12. Resonating Voice: I put this last, but really it’s a first. An original voice that carries the reader into the sensory and emotional experience of the novel will lure the reader in at page one and hold them until the last sentence. Voice, more than any other quality, brings me back for a second read.

Help me out. What is missing from my list? What qualities make a “Big Story” for you?

6 Replies to “Twelve Qualities of a Big Story”

  1. Transformation – the principle characters have to change, from the beginning to the end of the story, and this change, however painful, should be in some way ennobling. A character should not believe, think, and be committed to exactly the same things at the end of a “big story” that he or she was at the beginning. This change is part of the basic requirment of chronographical space that you mention above. The story has to be temporally large enough for this change to be believable.

    A subset of this, is the big story which ismore specifically “redemptive.” What happens in the story should, in some non specific, and not necessarily religious sense, “save” the character – even if the story is a tragedy and the character him or herself cannot actually be saved. Part of the deep appeal of the “big story” is the sense that the main character or characters of the story discover something deep, meaningful, and personally redemptive along the way – something that they needed but didn’t have when the story opened.

  2. Love it. I was just pondering how many YA stories wrap around an MC who doesn’t fit one way or another…kind of the souls that don’t belong. For me, those complex character relationships (and depth of character, period) will draw me back to a book time and time again. Excellent, thoughtful post, as usual, Rachel!

  3. I loved this article, Rachel! Sylvia Steward passed this on as a “must read.” I read and I pinned to a board for the Northwest Christian Writers Association. Just when I needed inspiration, you provided it. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, everyone. Fr. Cassian, good points. I love stories where the character learns from a mentor and their story world to be something nobler than they were before.

  5. I love stories that reveal a powerful truth. Even though I’m basically a creative nonfiction writer, I LOVE to read fiction based on real-life experiences, where the light of truth shines through even the darkest pages. Btw, thanks for the wonderful writing prompts, Rachel! You’ve offered some great ideas for creative nonfiction, too!

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