I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?
1. Vivid and Sufficient Details
In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.
For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.
3. A Story Arc
All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.
Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.
As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.
What do you think makes a good story?