What Makes A Story Satisfying To You? The 3 Things I Look For

Events being what they are, I've been thinking about story and structure and the hows and whys of writing a lot lately.
Publish date:
November 1, 2014
writing, craft, weekend, creative writing, #amtrakresidency, Story Structure

Today is November 1st -- and yesterday Megan (same last name but no known relation) posted 6 tips to help you survive National Novel Writing Month with your sanity intact. Did you kick off the month as soon as Halloween hit midnight?

The first year I did NaNoWriMo (apparently I've been a site member over there for about 12 years), I was super on track from day one. I finished on time and on pace.

Each successful effort year by year got a little more hit or miss -- some of that was life events and some of that was mental health. Some of it, I think, was because I had already proven to myself that I could do the writing and I got distracted by the social aspect.

(The social aspect is a balance, y'all.)

And eventually I totally failed. I was pretty OK with that -- I am still OK with that failure because I am experimenting with not expecting myself to do absolutely everything. (I'll let you know how that works out.)

I wasn't going to sign up this year but because I am taking my #AmtrakResidency ride in November, I've been thinking about NaNoWriMo a lot. Maybe I should back up -- I'll be taking my #AmtrakResidency ride from November 12th to November 21st and I'll be traveling from New Orleans to Seattle and back. This trip is coming up very quickly and I have begun the ritual obsessive list making when it comes to packing, so you know it's going to be great.

(You can read Bill Willingham's account of his journey here. Jennifer Boylan begins here journey today and has already started blogging it here.)

Events being what they are, I've been thinking about story and structure and the hows and whys of writing a lot lately. Now that I'm not spending as much time fighting my own brain, I'm digging back into narrative craft and considering aspects of story that I want to play with. I've found more of my fictional worlds -- it's almost distracting when I'm trying to do other things. (Thanks, medication!)

(Reading is more of a pleasure again, too. Come back Sunday for xoBookClub stuff.)

So, that's the long way of saying that I have been thinking about what it takes for me to find a story satisfying. That goes for stories I try to write and definitely for stories I am reading.

A Character I Can Empathize With

Empathy is distinct from sympathy; while the two are related, empathy goes beyond the "feeling sorry for" surface feeling of sympathy and involves the capability to put yourself in another person's shoes, to imagine feeling what that other person is feeling.

I may not always like a character, but I have to empathize with them or there's no joy in spending time with them. In fiction reviews, this sometimes gets described as "a character I can identify with" -- but I actually want to see more kinds of characters and sometimes thinking about empathizing is easier than asking people to identify with characters who are very different from them.

A Strong Sense Of Place

As I read, environment is more than a consideration, not quite a character. I want a strong and clear sense of setting; I don't want to imagine characters and events going on in a void.

That's not to say I want endless description of the lay of the land. There are books that do this and there are people who love them, but I am not one of those people so I do not read those books. A couple of significant details can carry me a long way and transform a story for me as a reader. Which is why I try to include them when writing.

A Thematic Clarity That Builds With Rereading

I don't know that writers build theme in from the very beginning. When I write, theme often reveals itself and then gets refined during the revision process (which is part of why revision can be exciting). That's one reason I appreciate theme so much when it's done well.

And theme can really carry a book through repeated revisits as well, if you're the type to read a book again. I totally am. I love dwelling on familiar passages and coming back to old sentences that have a different nuance depending on where I am in my own life.

That's my list -- though, of course, there's way more narrative writing craft to revel in. Reading involves so many different kinds of pleasure (easy old favorites and new difficult texts and entirely new stories and comfortable tropes you've read a million times) it was super hard to narrow down the characteristics that I love the most.

NaNoWriMo almost seems like too easy a fit. And I'm still not sure I'm signing up for it this year. Maybe I'll make that decision on a train -- or on the bus that I'm planning to take to the train in the first place. Or maybe I'll sit down this weekend with an idea and join those of you who are riding that amazing first NaNoWriMo week wave of energy.

What draws you into a story and makes you want to stay there? What do you keep coming back to when it comes to stories and the way people tell them? And how's your NaNoWriMo going?