Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.
I’ve been reflecting lately on what makes a story great. There are good, well-written stories that connect with many readers, and then there are great stories that sell wildly and go down in history as cultural landmarks. While one can analyze the elements of popular fiction and talk about formulas for marketable plots, I think that at the end of the day, a great story is, quite simply, magic. It’s a matter of luck, even for the most talented writers: talent and hard work are certainly a huge part of the process, but hitting upon a truly magical mix of characters, plot, setting, and narrative style is akin to hitting the jackpot in a casino. It’s not calculable or predictable; all we can do as writers is to show up consistently to the casino and play the game with all we’ve got.
Jane Austen wrote six excellent novels and I love them all, but only one had the universal magic that is Pride and Prejudice. Charles Dickens wrote many fabulous and popular works, but not all of them have the same level of timeless power as A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. Same goes for Shakespeare with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. I always loved Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel Jane Eyre and figured I would try her so-called masterpiece Villette, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way, and I’m not alone in that reaction. To move into the contemporary era, as I recently mentioned in my “Mind Cleanup” post, I love Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy so much that I thought I would try another series of hers, the Gregor the Overlander series, but it didn’t move me (more like slay me!) like The Hunger Games did. Some stories are just magical, and the writers whose brains they fall into are lucky–although they have to also be skilled and committed to hard work, or we’d never hear their stories. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter idea was especially magical–literally! You know the other examples. We all do.
Sure, we have individual tastes and preferences. But the really great stories, like all really great works of art, captivate the attention, affection, and imagination of so many people, on a level so far above that of other stories–even stories by the same authors–that it can only be called magic.
I’m probably not the first person to make this observation, but I’m glad to have made it all the same, because it comforts me. It relieves some of the pressure that builds up when I sigh, “Wow, what a great story…but oh, to be able to write like that!” Knowing that great stories are magic encourages me to write more, because I’ve accepted that not every good story is magic and that that’s okay. All I can do is try to write a good story and to keep writing, developing my skill and keeping my heart open for story ideas that seem magical to me.