If following the “rules” of writing doesn’t guarantee that you will write a good story, then what does? What makes a good story?
We could say that a good story is when interesting characters are put into challenging situations. We care about them, we want to know how they will cope, we try to imagine how we would cope if we were them.
That is a part of the answer, but I think there is something deeper.
At the risk of sounding like a bad guru from the 1960s, I think that has something to do with the meaning of life. Or one of the meanings of life. When it isn’t 42.
You see, there is a fundamental unfairness about life. We are giving this amazing gift. We can think, dream, plan, build, love. We have five senses. Well, I have five but my wife (and others of her species) have several more, including things like intuition, common sense and the ability to multitask.
Admittedly not everyone’s life is rosy, but the alternatives are probably worse. We could have been born as an ant, destined for a life of drudgery, hard work and being incinerated by nasty human children bearing magnifying glasses. We could have been born as trees. The view isn’t bad but the prospects for travel are poor.
Life, existence, sentience. However you think we got to this point, we have to admit that it’s a pretty amazing thing to have.
But there’s a problem. We only get one life.
Now at this point I ought to qualify myself. If you believe in reincarnation, then you might think that we get several lives. If you are of a religious disposition, you might have a place booked in an afterlife. Believers in the supernatural might be expecting a new career as a ghost.
Egyptian pharaohs – any pharaohs in tonight? – might be anticipating rising from their sarcophagi and ascending to the heavens. Which might come as a bit of a shock if your body is in Egypt, your family are in the Louvre, but all your luggage is in the British Museum. Sorry about that.
So let’s say that we only get one life here on Earth. Apart from reincarnation, but then as we don’t have many memories of past lives that’s probably approximately equivalent to only one life. Only one life that you can remember at a time.
Only one life. How ironic is that? We get this fabulous existence but we only get one shot at it. It is like a genie giving you only one wish – and, no, you can’t be a smartarse and wish for a dozen more wishes.
Except that is what mankind does. Just about every civilization that has ever banged stones together has tried to do something about the “one life” problem. We want to have our one wish – our one shot at existence – and then have another one. Good Vikings go to Valhalla when they die. The Greeks and Romans had the underworld. Ghosts, reincarnation, pyramids, immortality, revitalising skin cream … we are continually coming up with a reason to carry on living. Somehow.
Before you get upset with me, I ought to say that I am sure that your beliefs in the afterlife are 100% correct and all the others were wrong. Unless you are an Egyptian pharaoh…
In many ways, this “one life” thing defines us as a species. When we worry about the meaning of life we are really worrying about what we should do with our one and only chance to exist in a sentient form. Probably.
Human civilization has been built around having a better life. If we have only got one life, we might as well make it as comfortable and fulfilling as we can.
That is why we are so obsessed with death. We are all going to die at some point, yet we are intensely surprised and saddened when someone dies. Even if they die at a ripe old age. If life only happens once, it is intensely precious and must be protected.
This affects how we live. Most of us don’t take too many risks that might jeopardise our own lives or the lives of the people around us. We (mostly) gravitate towards safer choices.
And that is where stories come in.
Our lives are dominated by the world that we live in and the choices that we make. It’s hard to experience other worlds and other choices.
Stories do two main things. They help us to live this one life well, and they show us other lives. It is a way of cheating the “one life” speed limit imposed by the Universe.
The best books give you a glimpse of another life, another set of choices, another world. You may be a plumber living in Penzance, but in a book you can live the life of a pirate or a prince or a polar explorer.
An attractive new workmate arrives in your office. A hunky man or hot woman – delete according to taste. In your real life, you might notice the fact but do nothing about it. Admire the chiselled abs and/or softly heaving bosom from afar. But in a novel you can go all fifty shades of steaminess amongst the staplers.
In real life, you might look both ways when crossing a road. In a good book you can heft a broadsword and take on a horde of orcs.
Characters in books do the dangerous things that we wouldn’t dare do. They have affairs, they work as spies, they climb mountains.
Picture the scene. You are alone in a creepy old house. Everyone says that the house is haunted. No-one has lived there for thirty years since …. since … no, we had better not talk about that.
You hear a sound upstairs. A scrabbling insistent sound, like fingernails ripping against wood. It is coming from the locked room at the top of the house. The room that no-one was allowed to go into, not even when the family were still alive.
So what are you going to do? In real life, you would probably be out of that house and halfway down the street before you could say “ancient native American burial grounds”.
But in a book … you have to investigate, don’t you? You have to walk up those creaking stairs at midnight and open the door. Even though you are probably not going to live out the night, you simply have to do it.
Book characters do the interesting and brave things that we would be afraid of. They get around the limitations of “one life”. They do things that we might be afraid of doing, or might not get a chance to do.
When I started out on this writing adventure, I honestly thought that writing was about being clever with words. I’ve come to realise that it’s more about creating a world that people want to exist in, and characters that they can associate with.
It’s about giving your readers another life.
One of my reviewers said this about “Love, death and tea” – “I found the characters a lovable bunch and I really felt as if I was living their lives with them.”
This comment took me by surprise. I hadn’t set out to do this, but this was what a reader had taken from the reading experience. A chance to live another life. A more interesting life, a life less ordinary. “A lovable bunch”.
A piece of breaking news (and a shameless plug) – I am going to make “Love, Death and Tea” free between the 17th and 21st of September 2014.
Hoping to give you another life, if only for a short while.
Read more about it here: