Writing Good Stories
By Dr. Bonnie Libby
First of all, know the fundamentals of good narrative practice. That is, know what goes in to telling a good story, one that will capture the interest of readers with unexpected plot turns, full and interesting character development, enough vivid description to set the tone of the story and lend it a note of reality, and dialogue that fits the characters and advances both the plot and “feel” of the story.
Modern author George Saunders proposes a theory about novel writers, and I think we can apply this to writers of short stories, too. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Saunders proposes a narrative theory about Mark Twain’s novel that uses the metaphor of a PeopleMover (you know, those moving beltways at the airport that make you feel like you are walking really fast). Saunders writes:
Imagine the novelist as a person standing at one end of a PeopleMover, with a shovel, in front of a big pile of dirt. The Pile of dirt represents The Thing This Writer Loves to Do, and Does Naturally. The writer started writing so that he or she could endlessly and effortlessly do this thing and nothing else—be funny, say, or verbally brilliant, or write lush nature vignettes, or detailed descriptions of the interiors of rich people’s houses—and then be declared Wonderful, and buy a nicer car. But all writers soon find that their Dirt is not enough. Yes, their readership stands at the far end of the PeopleMover, eagerly awaiting this Dirt, but if the writer simply dumps shovelful after shovelful of Dirt onto the PeopleMover, the PeopleMover grinds to a halt, and the readership walks away to see a movie.
You can tell that Saunders is a humorist himself, and that he admires Twain’s humor (his “Dirt”) and appreciates as much of it as he can get. However, Saunders knows that Twain’s readers need something more—they need a story, a narrative with causes and effects, events that are surprising but not random. A good story is what moves things along and allows the writer to “shovel out” that which he most likes to write, be it humor, description, or even, as some of you may want to write, Big Important Ideas.
You may be tempted to start with a theme based on the prompts for A Call to Pens, which is all well and good, but remember to keep your story first. Human beings like stories because that form reflects life itself, the reality in which we live. Certainly we each experience our share of “twists and turns” for which we may not see an immediate reason, but nevertheless the human story—history—is one of causes and effects, with a beginning and an ending, both for individuals and for humanity on earth. There is purpose in our existence, plain and simple. Much modern literature denies this purpose, denying the causality of life, and therefore killing good narrative. We as Christians have a chance to redeem narrative, to restore stories to their honored place as truth-bearers: “The narratives we encounter in epic poems, in plays, and in novels are anything but fanciful alternatives to real life. The fact is that we never get away from stories. In and out of literature, stories tell us who we are and what we might become.”
We may categorize life into abstractions like Love, Hate, War, Peace, and even Faith and Redemption, but until we relate stories that demonstrate those abstractions, that show them being lived out, we do not access the reality behind them. The Bible itself is a narrative—a true one—that shows us God’s ways and character. We may consider God’s patient lovingkindness, but until we read of His care for the complaining Israelites wandering forty years in the desert, we don’t understand it fully. We may think we know about His grace, but until we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross, we cannot grasp it.
These are all true stories. What about fictional stories? Well, they must have the same elements:
--Realistic characters with human flaws but also potential for nobility or love or kindness. Think of stories you like and the kinds of characters they contain: Elizabeth Bennett with her good sense but her tendency to misread people, or Huckleberry Finn with his funny disdain of civilization but his well-meaning heart and growing moral consciousness. This is not to say that all characters must be human; readers love Bilbo Baggins with his initial timidity but increasing response to the call of adventure.
--A plot that moves along and involves some kind of important conflict, either interpersonal or with an external force or, most likely, within an individual. The best stories contain more than one kind of conflict. Think of Sydney Carton embroiled in the bloody French Revolution, but also waging a war within himself against drunken apathy but that ultimately results in sacrifice.
--Causes and effects. The Count of Monte Cristo becomes a wealthy man not through randomness, but rather a combination of determination, hard work, and, yes, a bit of luck in happening upon the old priest in prison, but why was Edmond Dantes in prison? Because some bad men frame him out of jealousy. And why were they jealous? Because Edmond has the love of a beautiful woman and a promising naval career. You get the idea--events in the plot don’t just happen. Authors have a world full of human actions and reactions to draw from; in real life, one person’s success very often does elicit both adulation and jealousy from others, and wicked deeds naturally cause the desire for revenge, unless something else intervenes, something like love or grace in the form of human relationships. There is room for coincidence in a fictional narrative, just as there is in life, but most major events must be related causally.
--Story structure. Most stories follow the usual pattern of beginning, middle, and end or, more technically, rising action, climax, and falling action. But consider playing with the order of events using flashbacks or flashforwards. Create suspense by jumping to another scene right when the first scene is building up to a climax. Tell a story within a story, where the narrator listens to another character narrate a story, then return to the “present.” This could take up the whole story or just be an episode. Play around with narrative point of view: tell the same episode from the perspective of two different characters, alternate narrators throughout the story . . . you get the idea!
--All the rest. Of course, don’t forget vivid and fresh description, realistic yet interesting dialogue, scenes made memorable by facial gestures, body language, and all the other ways that humans communicate with one another. It’s the little touches, sometimes, that make a good story great. Stories are meant to be concrete, alive with detail. But if your plot is weak, uninteresting, or untrue, no amount of embellishment will save the story.
And the truth we want to relate as writers is so important that working hard on the form it takes is worth all the effort. C. S. Lewis began his immensely popular series The Chronicles of Narnia not with a moral that he worked to relate to his readers, but with a picture. He says:
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.
So take Lewis’s advice: don’t begin with a moral and try to build your story around it. Tell a good story, and the moral will come out. Write characters and events that interest you, that capture your imagination; chances are you will find some readers who share your preferences. Keep that PeopleMover of plot moving along, while you merrily dish out striking images or humor or dramatic dialogue or whatever you like. Avoid the clichés of “Christianese” by using realistic language and events. Tell a story you would like to hear, not one that you think your audience should hear. Pay attention to details, but remember to have fun!
 George Saunders, introduction to the Modern Library edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Random House, 2001), x.
 Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith (New York: HarperCollins for Christian College Coalition, 1989), 30.
 C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, 1982), 46.