Question about storytelling


Well-Known Member
Dec 13, 2015
Tennessee, USA
I have a question ~ I know that George Lucas created "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" because of his love of storytelling. But what makes a good story worth telling? I tried several times to create a character that would be memorable and exciting but it failed.
Worth telling to whom? Forget about everyone else, let's begin with yourself. What makes a story worth telling *to you*? And to move out of ad hominem land, let's change it to what makes a story worth telling to me.

That's a tough one (at least it is to me) because I don't know ahead of time what's going to be worth my while. Indeed, some of the stories I find most memorable (I guess that is an important element to "worth telling") are ones I encountered by accident, or ones where I came in not expecting much.

I know there are some stories that have changed people's lives. That's a pretty high bar. If I aimed for that, I doubt I'd ever write a story. But there have been many stories where I was struck by an idea, moved by a scene or character, or just plain loved the prose. Those are the three biggies for me as a reader. I see you included the word "exciting" and that would certainly qualify. I don't remember many characters in literature I would call exciting. Some movie characters might make the cut, but even then it's really the story that was exciting more than the characters themselves.

Anyways. As an author, I don't try for any of that. My first and most fundamental aim is to make a story that is complete. Close behind and in no particular order, come these.

Write a story that is clear and consistent. It can't have big plot holes or similar weaknesses. It must cohere.
Write prose that is the best I can manage. A whole raft full of secondary considerations enter here.
Write characters I find interesting. I don't have a formula for this. I start writing. I try to give the main characters a voice, but that can take quite a long time. I try to give them a background that adds interest and challenge. This, too, is highly malleable and takes time.
Pacing matters. This is a devil that rides my shoulders from first to last.

All of which requires something that is perhaps the hardest of all: I need faith in the story and in myself.

With every story I've written--five novels, four short stories--I have despaired. I've thought there were insoluble problems with the plot, pacing that dragged hopelessly, characters dull or inconsistent or both. I'm sort of ok with my prose, but that consistency business raises its head there, too. And with every story I've written, this has got so bad that I've come to a full stop. Unable to do more, not because I can't write more but because I've lost heart to write more.

This is where my first story comes to my rescue. It's not an especially good story. I don't even try to sell it; it's a freebie. But I finished it. It's a completed work. So when I'm in the Slough of Despond, I recall that work--and now, the other completed works--and remember not just that I can finish a story but how it *feels* to finish a story. So far, I've managed to pick myself back up and keep working.

None of which goes a whit toward your goal of memorable and exciting. Well, memorable and exciting ain't up to me, it's up to the reader to judge that. So I let that go. From my own work I don't get memorable or exciting, I get satisfaction of having told the story. That has to be enough (because it surely is not sales!).
There are lots of plot models for stories. One of the simpler ones that I like comes from Brandon Sanderson, the 3Ps: Promise, Progress, Payoff.

Promise: Provide some sort of goal to be accomplished.
Progress: Show the characters moving towards the goal. Progress will also include set backs along the way.
Payoff: The goal is either realized or is failed to be achieved.

What is interesting is that this pattern can be applied at multiple levels from the whole story to subplots to individual chapters.
Consider these sources -- Mother Goose -- Brothers Grimm.
They compiled stories and it is unclear if they invented any of the characters, but these are short, simple stories that are known far and wide.

What makes these stories memorable? Generally it is a clear plot and a flawed main character that is driving the action.
Good Luck.
Try some Character case studies on the people around you in your own personal life. From a non-fictional point of view, who are they and how do they think and feel? Write it down and do some test writing with these characters.

How you would deal with a situation is not the same as a family member or friend/neighbor/relative. Make them your own. The 'Roster Cogburn' character is a composite of several real-life US Marshals from the Kentucky-Tennessee regains. Try doing the same. It's all about how the character thinks, reacts and handles emotion. So, write it out!:)
1) Skip's point about what makes a story exciting to you is a good starting point. Do your ideas excite yourself? If not, why?

2) Compare your ideas that haven't worked with works that really excite you and that you want you stories to be like. What's the difference? What went wrong?

3) To offer a little specificity on something that might help you, here's a column on writing characters that touches a little on Indiana Jones
I agree with most if not everything said.
I do have free and paid resources I use to help write characters though; K.M. Weilands story structure books, AND there respective workbooks, and I can't stress enough that you need the workbooks if you're going to read the books at all, particularly the first book. It gives a really actionable way to tackle both the plot and develop the character, looking at them as something that works in equally in tandem (which it is) rather than showing you them one at a time. As a warning though this is very outliner-centric which may be boring or hard to some, but I'm convinced these books can "convert" anyone.
The free resource is on her website which shows a series of articles on developing the MC(s) I usually read through an article and write down the questions at the bottom of each article and MY answers, until I reach the article pertaining specifically to the Three-Act-Story Structure because at the moment I'm using Save The Cat (but I use both for different stories.)

Hope this can help as well as some of the other posts.
From my experience, for a character and story, there must be a connection between them. There is a bit why Star Wars work for me better than Indiana Jones. It is a family drama, Luke and Leila are the keys for the drama, the foil with Darth Vader, deep story that people can feel close to. Family drama is something that speaks to me, I can relate, many readers can and you want to cheer the heroes to be able to 'fix' the family. And that is where I start with ideas for a story - what kind of things I like to read, what speaks to me, and then the part I like to most, what kind of stories irritate me for not being as good as they could and how would I 'fix' those to work for me, to have that satisfaction level I would like them to have. Then deconstruct what are the building stones of the story, the conflict, and why do I like the character or the relationships. And I move from there.
It is a family drama,
Well, only after the other films came out. Star Wars was not written or produced with any familial connection between Vader, Luke and Leia. So whatever is working in that film, is working for other reasons.

One concept I will point out that Star Wars and Raiders do well is reveal Harrison Ford's characters. We often talk about character growth, and this usually is taken as the character becoming a different person than when they started. But for Han and Indiana, the characters don't really become different people, but the audience gets a certain impression of them in the beginning that changes as we see the character do things.

Jones, in particular, seems to be a villain in the beginning in Peru. By the end of the film he's heroic, caring, etc. He doesn't change - we just get to see different aspects of him. That's a function of how a plot built around a character should work.
For stories, first there was talking in public, for a very long time, then there was printed words, for around 5,000 years and finally movies. Like everything else in our modern lives, movies can be a huge shortcut towards making a memorable story. Used to be that people could like just about everything an actor did because of the image of who they appear to be on the big screen. In person, they can be totally unlike their projected image which used to not matter, but changing times could be changing that. Before movies, things that could drive people to stories was the character(s), the author's style of writing, and the subject of the story. Automatically liking just about anything an author writes is still functioning today. The automatic liking has undergone some changes, because what a writer does in real life can now impact whether people will accept their work, regardless of what it is.

Liking what an author writes can be as simple as being able to easily understand what they are saying. Fiction gives the writer the ability to tap into readers beliefs without supporting them and allows people with opposing beliefs to enjoy the same story. Science fiction has the added advantage of not having to be based on reality, which can include a much bigger audience. For most writers, editing is a very large part of writing the final story in that it makes the story and characters a lot easier to to understand. It underlines the important events and makes clues easier to pick up by removing unnecessary clutter which can confuse the reader.

The actions of a character used to be enough to determine their likability, that is the upfront actions of characters by itself was enough to keep people interested. The deeds created contentment within the mind. There always were stories that featured character development, but in this modern age it seems more like a requirement for popularity. This could be fueled by a growing cynicism in the subconscious mind where people want to know a person's motivations behind their actions to insure that they aren't going to get gypped out of something.

Live story telling had two main components, the story, and the quality of the voice which most likely had to be perfect in sound, inflections, clarity, pronunciation, and simplicity. The words had to get through the ear and into the mind without getting bogged down. There were orators who were liked simply because of the sound of their voice. They could make anything sound interesting. That has grown and morphed over the ages into the music industry where it is quite possible to not get every word and still be mesmerized by the sounds. Others told stories with a less impactful voice but used carefully chosen words so the story was easily absorbed by the mind. Anything that was too hard to understand was left in the dirt. Its the same with books and movies, anything that is difficult to understand is not going anywhere. Making the reader or the viewer work to get the meaning of the story is not going to turn out well. A few will enjoy the challenge but not many.

The act of story telling has become popular again in mainstream entertainment, made possible by a technology that requires very little preparation so that we can bring the story teller to us anytime we want, and we can pause the story and resume it anytime we want.

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