Storytelling – What Makes a Story Great?

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur

What is it about a story that makes it compelling? Is it the characters? Is it the plot? Is it the element of surprise? Is it the challenges? Is it danger?

I submit, it’s all of them, skillfully put together, woven like a tapestry to make an impression on our minds and in our hearts.

Here’s what I look for:

I look for the obscure, the unusual, the opposites, the extreme.

Obscure–little-known, incomprehensible, vague, unclear, murky, opaque, ambiguous, unintelligible (synonyms)

Webster’s–covered over, not easily perceived, not clear or distinct, faint or undefined, hidden, cryptic, not well known–this is definitely what I look for. Something that’s not every day.

Unusual–different, scarce, rare, uncommon, infrequent, strange, unfamiliar

Webster’s–not usual or common, rare, exceptional–I look for this, and sometimes, the more unusual the better, but not horror, fantasy, or science fiction.

Opposite–conflicting, contradictory, differing, reverse, contrary, opposed, contrasting

Webster’s–set against, facing, or back-to-back, at the other end or side, in a contrary position or direction–I love reading or seeing something that’s not something I would think of. It gives me ideas on how to turn, twist or use it for something I might want to do.

Extreme–dangerous, life-threatening, thrilling, risky, exciting, punishing

Webster’s–outermost, farthest away, most remote, utmost

Do you see the pattern here, in what I like? This is what we writers need to do in order to make our story unique. We all have our own voice, our own style. Let’s look at a couple of stories.

Ben-Hur–although this is a century-old plus story, it has many of the elements I look for. It has the extreme, such as Judah being a galley slave, and his mother and sister becoming lepers. It’s definitely has opposites, such as the enmity between Judah and Messala, between Rome and Christianity. It’s extreme and thrilling. The chariot race in the movie was the longest scene, running at about eight minutes. It’s compelling because we love Judah and strongly dislike Messala. The book is somewhat different than the movie in that Messala does not die, but is actually redeemed. Judah’s role in the book is more zealot, until he understands the redemption of Christ. But those are some of the reasons I like Ben-Hur.

the 1982 version of Ivanhoe is actually more accurate to the book

the 1982 version of Ivanhoe is actually more accurate to the book

Ivanhoe–this classic by Sir Walter Scott has reversals, opposites, the extreme, and the unusual. One of the reversals is when the Jewess Rebecca is kidnapped by the Knight Templar, Brian deBois Gilbert. Unfortunately for Brian, he loves Rebecca, but she loves Ivanhoe. And unfortunately for Rebecca, Ivanhoe loves Rowena. It’s extreme in that the jousting is life-threatening and life-taking–in a word, dangerous. Ivanhoe, and his father are opposites, and therefore, they conflict. Eventually they reconcile, but Wilford of Ivanhoe has a lot of problems before that happens. This is an unusual story, and I’ve never read anything like it. It was published in the early 1800s, and it still stands today.

I look for the obscure because that’s unusual. Both Ben-Hur and Ivanhoe have obscure elements to them. Judah’s enmity with Messala started with deep friendship as boys. For Ivanhoe to even look upon a Jewess as someone with worth and value, was quite unusual for that time. For Jews to be ones who acted more Christian than the so-called “Christian” Knight Templar, is also compelling.

I recommend both these books, but they are a bit harder to read because the writing style is old. You have to wade through pages and pages of descriptions, scene-setting, and backstory in order to get to the juicy dialogue parts. And even some of the dialogue and action scenes are sluggish in our terms, because in our society, we just don’t write like that anymore. If you’re into video, the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” is the best. I’ve seen the silent version. It is different, but in some ways not as good. There were two movie versions of “Ivanhoe.” And though I love Robert Taylor, the 1982 version is most accurate to the book. I mean dialogue was taken straight from the book. It’s a great version. I watch it every couple of years because I love the cast. There were so many actors in the cast I knew of, including Anthony Andrews, James Mason, and Olivia Hussey, as well as Sam Neill.

I recommend going for the different, not the usual, same-old, same-old. What do you look for in a novel or story? Leave a comment and let me know.

2 Comments on “Storytelling – What Makes a Story Great?”

  1. A character I love, especially an underdog who succeeds by cleverness and determination. Make it unusual by setting it in Medieval Europe or Ancient Rome. Add some sword fights, and a betrayal or two…


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