I like to talk about books.


My friend Brennan asked if I would write a post on elements of a good story. A few things immediately jumped to mind because, as you well know, I like to talk about books. (Which reminds me, I need to read some more so I have some more to talk about. Ever gotten the feeling that you’ve re-hashed a few books too many times and need new material? No? It might just be me.)

But back to the topic at hand: elements of a good story.

1) Ethical questions. Is the value of life a subjective measure? Is it possible to replace a life? Is it ever right to [fill in intensely difficult ethical dilemma]? Great stories cause the reader/viewer to reflect on his beliefs, gain new perspective, or think about an issue he has never pondered. 

2) Social commentary. I crave books that make an insightful observation on society of the past or present. (I leave out “future” because futuristic books are normally intended to make a social statement on present culture.) I don’t know about the rest of my fellow readers, but I can even forgo a thrilling plot for a strong social commentary.
An example of this would be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like to say that it’s the book of Ecclesiastes in a little green novel. Because most of my reading at present consists of classic literature, I’m not really up-to-date on what current books are good examples of social commentary. Perhaps you have a suggestion?

3) The element of surprise. Have you ever read something — I see this most often in short stories — that made your jaw drop? That happened the first time I read The Oval Portrait, which I’ve linked so you can experience it for yourself. Edgar Allan Poe, I salute thee. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one who finds that story shocking. But regardless … we all like to be surprised.)

4) True friendships. Frodo and Sam are my favorite example. Sam inspires me to be an “I-can’t-carry-it-for-you-but-I-can-carry-you” kind of friend.

5) Role-model characters. One of my favorite characters from literature (and I admit I have not read the book but only watched the very long movie) is Amy Dorrit, from Dickens’ Little Dorrit. She is an inspiring figure because of her courage, fortitude, kindness, and never-ending generosity in the face of utter poverty. I appreciate all characters who offer inspiration for real life.

6) Great lines that just sum it all up.

“…She saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In an hurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:
‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.'”

7) Cleverness and wit. It runs rampant in Lewis Caroll’s work.

8 ) Admirable depictions of men, women, and family. Perhaps this is subjective to my own definitions of these things. Regardless, some of my favorite characters that demonstrate these respective qualities are Henry V, Atticus Finch (from To Kill A Mockingbird), Abbie Deal (from Bess Streeter Aldrich’s Lantern in Her Hand), the March sisters (from Little Women), and Jim and Della from The Gift of the Magi.

9) “Relatability.” I’m not sure if that’s a word. But there is something I love about a story I can relate to. Vivid imagination is an important element of literature, but I also value settings, characters, and situations that are relevant. They don’t necessarily have to be set in modern times or have normal things happen, but a story is much more meaningful if it is relatable.

10) A strong message of hope or redemption.

So, there’s my list. It’s certainly not complete, but it includes some of the most important points. I’m eager to hear from you …in your opinion, what makes a good story?


7 thoughts on “I like to talk about books.

  1. I have oft lamented that I have never found a proper English word for the concept of “relatability,” for it is something I likewise very much enjoy in a book.

    Social commentary, surprising twists, true friendship, wit… I like all the things you have listed.

    I just read The Oval Portrait… that was interesting.

    Thank you for the post! It was quite enjoyable. :)

  2. Wow, I think you just about summed it all up! Just about everything I can think of that I love in my favorite books can be broken down into one or more of the points you listed.

    I guess the trait that ties all of these points together is that they are all born of a reflection of the truth. We enjoy witty exchanges and wordplay, we love reading about surprising twists in fate, and holding fast to messages of true friendship and hope simply because these are things that happen in real life. As you said, they have “relatability.” There’s nothing worse than a book (or movie) that you throw aside with disgust and say “That has nothing to do with reality!”

    Yes… the Oval Portrait did give me a bit of a shock (maybe shiver is a better word).

    Ooh, Noelle, speaking of wordplay, have you ever heard of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth? As hard to believe as this may sound, I’d say his wit and clever wordplay rivals even that of Lewis Caroll’s! It remains one of my absolute favorites!

  3. Oh, and I agree with Meredith. Love the picture!
    (I have a friend whose apartment looks much like that, except her shelves aren’t that high, so she just has her books double layered in them)

  4. You must go to Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland and see the library. When we walked inside it’s walls lined with books which date back hundreds of years, alabaster busts of Irish poets and tables and ladders and leather…..it was as if we had stepped into a heavenly hall! My, the books, the dust and sunlight shining on old leather bindings. It was everything a book lovers library should be….well worn, well used and well lit! Hope you can get there one day.

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