To Be A Good Story Teller You Need To Understand What Makes A Good Piece Of Writing

Posted at 05:00am on 1st April 2009

I wrote, yesterday, about a lady who had e-mailed me from Greece to ask what the difference was between a Good Story, and A Good Piece of Writing. It's a good question!

Many years ago I was speaking to an agent who knew Jeffrey Archer well. Lord Archer was a Member of the British Parliament until he was sent to prison for perverting the course of justice. But he is also a prolific and highly successful writer: a bestselling novelist. The agent to whom I was speaking told me that he is a great story-teller but a hopeless writer. His editor, I was told, practically re-writes his books.

WHAT IS A GOOD STORY?

To answer this, you need to understand the crucial role of conflict, cause and consequence. I’ve written about much of this in a previous post What Makes A Story A Plot - so I don’t want to repeat myself, except to say that without the elements of conflict, cause and consequence, there IS NO STORY! What you have is merely an account. A Report.

Hence: I woke the patient at 8.a.m. gave her the medication at 10.a.m. and shortly before 11.a.m. she was dead.

To make a story out of that – i.e. a plot – it could read:

I woke the patient at 8.a.m. She seemed drowsy and disoriented. When I gave her the medication she looked a bit bemused but didn’t tell me the dose was several times larger than she’d had on previous occasions, so I had no idea. She fell asleep and never woke up.

Can you see how this conjures up questions in your mind to make you want to read on for answers?

  1. Why was the patient drowsy and disoriented?
  2. On whose authority had the dose been increased?
  3. Was it actually this patient’s medicine?
  4. Was this an accident?
  5. Or had it been tampered with?

A GOOD STORY TELLER IS SELECTIVE

On the Alabama Public Television website the topic of Good Writing Versus Good Reporting is discussed, with the following conclusion.

“All agree that a good story cannot be written without the reporter first providing a wealth of information based on a strong foundation of facts. Writers then make the hard decisions about selecting the best material to use to write the story.”

A GOOD PIECE OF WRITING SHOULD CREATE A THIRST FOR MORE

Returning to the ‘story’ above, can you see that there is just enough information to whet the reader’s appetite for more? But had the writer not been selective about the information to be included, that thirst for more might have been dissipated. A good story teller knows that sometimes less is more!

The following information would, perhaps, be best left until later in the story.

  • It may be that the person who administered the medicine realised her mistake and took pains to remove any incriminating evidence in the form of anything that might identify the patient.
  • Or that the patient’s hospital chart had been tampered with by a nephew expecting to inherit from his elderly aunt and wanting to hasten the event.
  • Or that the aunt, herself, has a knowledge of drugs and wants a quick and easy way out.

That information needs to be withheld at this stage to make your reader want to read on. However, you can’t simply spring it upon your reader. Clues need to have been planted early on in the narrative of the novel. And these clues will cause your reader to speculate – is it this; or is it that? – and so heighten the tension and desire to know more.

  • So, early in the story you may have the hospital nurse concealing a sight defect because she’s nervous about losing her job. Your reader will then wonder if this was the cause of an accident when administering the wrong dose.
  • In the second scenario, you might have the nephew asking, at the beginning of the story, if he could borrow a sum of money from his aunt, ostensibly as the down payment on a property, and her refusal (because she knows he’s a gambler) leading to a row between the two. This will cause your reader to suspect that the nephew might have committed a crime.
  • Or in the third premise, in which the aunt may have a debilitating illness, you would need to allude to this earlier in the story. Your reader might, then, ponder the possibility of euthanasia.

But creating a plot that has the potential to be a good story is only part of what it takes to produce a good piece of writing.

Related post: What Is A Good Story? And What A Good Piece Of Writing?

NEXT TIME: We’ll take a look at the vital role of editing.

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