3 Qualities I Look For in Any Great Story

Woman reading a few books on the floor

6 years ago today, I started this blog under the heading “The Rhapsodist,” and at the time, I knew my general interest lay in science fiction and fantasy stories, regardless of their medium. Now I find myself looking into stories beyond those genres, though of course I’ll always return to them again and again. So at this stage in my writing and reviewing career, I have to wonder what it is I’m looking for in a good story these days.

So here are 3 things that I enjoy writing and reading about in any given narrative.

1. A setting with atmosphere.

It’s one thing to talk about a story with a particular setting, like the generic alien planets seen in science fiction or the archetypal desert town found in your average Western. But what I’m talking about is a setting that comes alive to the audience, that feels like somewhere you could live and get to know the locals.

For me, this quality is what distinguishes places like the city Cloudbank in Transistor, the small town of Arcadia Bay in Life is Strange, or the hyper-urban, slightly dystopian vibes of The Sprawl in Neuromancer. The place where the story occurs stops being mere set dressing and becomes a character in its own right. It’s not just another run-of-the-mill backdrop created for an episodic show like Star Trek or your average police procedural. These are the settings that capture our imagination upon first glance and keep us coming back for me.

2. A plot about uncovering the truth.

It’s true that a lot of good stories are about concrete goals like Rescuing the Princess or Saving the World from Doomsday Scenario No. 392. For me, some of the best stories I’ve ever enjoyed have a common theme of seeking the truth. Now, this can be in a literal sense, like an intrepid reporter chasing down a story (e.g., Zoe and Lucas’s subplot in House of Cards), or a metaphorical sense, like a person trying to understand their own psyche (e.g., John Nash’s character arc in A Beautiful Mind).

I realized last year, for example, that this was why I’m a huge fan of the game Life is Strange, which I’ve reviewed and discussed many times on this blog. Not only does the game have a great small-town atmosphere in the form of Arcadia Bay, but its plot hinges on Max figuring out how to use her time powers and find the link between her best friend, the disappearance of a local beauty queen, and the strange occurrences at their school. Of course, Max also searches for a “higher” truth by reconnecting with her friend Chloe after not contacting her for 5 years, discovering more about herself in the process. That kind of blend in truth-seeking is done very well and is half the reason why I keep revisiting that game and its story.

3. An everlasting bond between characters.

Perhaps more than anything, this factor is what pulls me into a story. I used to think of this by asking myself, “Do the characters treat each other like family? And do I, the audience, feel included?”

You can see this between the Elric brothers in Fullmetal Alchemist as they fight to get their bodies back and make countless sacrifices for each other. It’s the bond between Red and her disembodied boyfriend that drives them through the game Transistor. And it’s the bond between the main heroes of the Star Wars saga that keeps their stories engaging, whether it’s Luke and his friends going to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt, or Finn and the Resistance going back for Rey at Starkiller Base.

Showing those kinds of relationships on the page or on-screen is what answers that age-old audience question: “Why should I care about these characters?” Giving them clues to chase down in search of the truth answers the question, “What’s so important about what they’re doing?” And putting those characters and that plot in a vibrant setting answers the question, “What kind of a world is this, anyway?”

So, readers, do you have favorite elements that make or break a story for you? Any recommendations for a story based on what I’ve written here? Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or reactions in the comments below.

And let me also just add, to anyone reading this: Welcome, and thanks for being here! It’s your interest that keeps this blog alive and my spirits high year after year.

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