Q:i may have asked a simliar question earlier, but what's the key ingredient to a good story in your opinion? it makes me wonder how stories from "Lord of the Flies" to "Twilight" are so popular. there are also great comedians like George Carlin who doesn't necessarily have to write a book to tell a good story too (although, i'm aware he's written three).
Sure, right. Okay.
I’m sure any number of writers would give you different answers, but I guess if you were asking me (which it seems you are) I’d probably say “surprise.”
Surprise: Something you didn’t know or couldn’t predict would happen…happens anyway.
It all comes down to the reason stories are told in the first place - and jokes, for that matter, which I feel comfortable including since you mentioned Carlin. People tell stories because they have a payoff they think is worth setting up well. And the most satisfying way for an audience to receive a payoff is with surprise.
This could be a very specific example, like the end of Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery,” or cases in which the premise of the tale is what is most surprising, like Lord of the Flies, or we could just be speaking of the way in which stories, or books or jokes, are boxes of an unknown quantity to a reader or listener. These boxes promise surprise by just existing.
People always wanted to read the next Harry Potter, not because Harry himself was such a great figure but because anything might happen to him this time - what could it be?
The great thrill of reading stories or listening to jokes is just that - finding out what happens. The joy of Carlin is he’s going to say something you didn’t expect, and you know you’re probably going to agree with it, even though you might never have thought of that particular thing that particular way yourself.
There are other telltale signs of a good story, but I don’t care how well your relationships are rendered or how three-dimensional your characters are if I’m not in a constant state of wanting to find that next thing out. There’s timing to think about, there’s beats, and pacing. Look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and tell me if you think it’s good writing. It’s not, for the most part, but the man knows how to keep you turning the page. Stephanie Meyer must know the same trick, and more power to her.
Another element here that I think is important and easy to miss when considering the “surprise” is that it has to make sense. You can’t just surprise me by having all the characters die (LOST) or changing the rules midstream (LOST) because that’s lazy and I’m more likely to burn your book than finish it. The setup has to be justified by the payoff.
So my goal as a writer is to surprise you. If I can do that, just enough, by flipping a premise or presenting you with a situation with no predictable outcome, and that gets you to turn the page or skim to the next paragraph and keep going, I’m happy.
You make cool art, by the way.
Remember Letterloom, that thing I built last year, for publishing chunks of text in about 5 seconds on the web?
Don’t remember? That’s okay. You can read about how it works, or what it does, or whatever, here: http://letterloom.com/#!/9pmzhx
You can register and login (bottom right link), there’s no beta, I’m just leaving it open for writers to use. Once it’s starting to get more use I’ll release the writer feedback modules I’ve got in the works, which will allow fellow writers of your choosing to read and respond to certain things you’re writing - think about it as your own private writing group inside your writing software - all you have to do is get your writing group to join Letterloom.
Also I’ll be pushing a “publications” module, that basically lets you publish any piece of writing you’re working on, and shows a nice author badge (where you can choose to read different authors - reading = subscribing to any future published works by that person).
Very soon you’ll be able to read authors, bookmark looms you want to read later or just liked a lot, and write new pieces without even being logged in. Everything gets associated with your account when you login.
This picture shows the author widget I’m working on that will appear on all published looms. It’s got some social media links (Twitter, G+ for me), a thing you click to subscribe to the rest of the things I’ve published or am going to to, and links to 3 (or 2, or 1) of the other things I’ve written that I think are representative of me as a writer. You get to know me in about 3 clicks.
Of course, if you don’t register, you won’t get to see any of that.
Oh, also, when you login you’ll have the option to look at all of the things you’ve written in one place, see how many reads each piece you’ve shared has gotten, and password-protect certain looms you’d like to stay private.
I know I’m leaving a buttload out, like how you can email your looms to yourself or whoever you want without copying and pasting anything to your email thing, or how you can easily keep track of your word counts.
Please, if you’re reading this, register for Letterloom. I’ve been living in the app for a year by myself and I’m lonely.
Possible end-of-year book design. Taking pre-orders (!) What’s in the book? Every finished piece of writing from this year. Will include the entirety of Clayton’s Secret Notebook plus about twenty more stories. Should be from 250-400 pages. Will be hardcover.
Not necessarily a commercial venture - I just want something to track my progress as a writer. Every year I’ll be making (at least) one of these books. Whether I make more is probably up to you.