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Four Characteristics of Any Successful Story

This begins a three-part series, written in reverse: this installment is the conclusion; over the next two months (on fourth Fridays), I’ll trace that conclusion back to its roots. It all swirls around an ongoing exploration that’s at the core of my writing (and teaching) practice: what is story – and how can we continue to make story new while honoring what it has always been?

As I start to pull together my next book-length manuscript – a collection of stories – I’m aware there are two distinct modalities at work. There are the reasonably conventional stories: recognizable narratives with events driving toward some moment of insight or awareness. And then there are the others: fictions where I’ve worked the form to see what I can do with it – to see how malleable it is. A couple of those have been published as poems by magazines that wanted to define them that way. To me, they’re still stories.

So what makes something a story? More on that in January and February. For now, a (provisional) conclusion: four characteristics that any successful story (regardless of definition) will have.

Motion

Movement is almost self-evident: without it, you have stagnation. A story has to go somewhere – to take readers on a journey. The question becomes what is the nature of that journey. And how invested are we as readers. Historically, the journey has either been one of events (plot) or emotion (character). But it doesn’t have to be one of these.

Tension

Traditionally viewed as conflict, but for a more expansive story playground, tension is more useful. Because it’s not necessarily character or event-based. Could be tension in language, tension between what we know and what we want to know, etc. But there has to be some, because it helps carry readers from sentence to sentence.

Grounding

Most readers will stay with a story even when it goes beyond their comfort zone if they feel grounded in some aspect of the narrative. Something they recognize; something that tells them they’re in on the game, they’re included on the journey. In what’s generally called realistic fiction, it’s characters in situations we recognize. In unruly fictions, we have to find other ways to ground readers. We can ground them in a setting; an emotion; a desire. But we have to ground them somewhere, or they won’t have a toehold, and will turn away.

Resonance

Make the reader feel something. Think something. Question something. Know something. If the story matters to the reader, she will stay with you –and your story will stay with her.

Some useful questions to ask yourself as you revise:

  • What drives this story?
  • What gives the story (character, setting) shape?
  • What is the recognizable ground of the story?
  • What gives it coherence (and what is that coherence)?
  • What makes it satisfying?

Thoughts? Reactions? Conversation? Please.

Next month: What Is Story? A Journey of Understanding (part 2).

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About the Author

Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.

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