We all have preferences and opinions on our favorite films, TV shows, anime, books and more. However, oftentimes, we will come across a divide. There are times when we will love a story that others despise, while other times, we may wonder why people seem to love a show that just doesn’t seem that good.
The question I seek to answer today, is what makes a story good, really? And how can we determine that for ourselves?
For the sake of clarity, I’ll break my thoughts into four sections. Surely, there is far more to making a story good than what I will say; but especially considering that there are SO many stories that we consume in the age of the internet, SO many new things to keep up with, I want to ask what makes a story, not only good, but worth consuming?
And before we get started; be warned, this will be an article that asks and prompts us, as readers and consumers, to be thoughtful about what we read and consume. So…I’ll be asking some questions; questions that I personally use in considering the quality of many of the stories I engage with. And if you agree or disagree with what I say, that’s fine! This is, after all, just one man’s opinion.
Let’s get started. What makes a story worth engaging with?
1. A Consistent Message
Perhaps contentious; but I believe that the second-most important element of what makes a story good is its consistency in accomplishing a particular goal.
Now, what do I mean by this? After all, not all good pieces of media have a “message,” right?
With this, I ask you, dear reader and fellow media-consumer, what is the point of telling a story? Really, think about it. Is there a point? Does the story have purpose?
EVERY story, EVERY piece of media, is created with a goal, to reach out to people in different ways. You can see this very, very, very explicitly with many Disney-Pixar works, to be equal parts entertaining, marketable, and kid-friendly. However, even the cream of the crop, the best stories, have reasons to be told. From works like The Odyssey, to classic literature like To Kill A Mockingbird, and more nerdy, or modern stories told, like Breaking Bad, Death Note, whatever you can think of, they ALL had a reason to be told. To entertain. To teach. To engage people.
Hell, even comedic works have a purpose; to make people laugh! And aren’t they judged by the ability to do this?
So first and foremost, in considering the different stories that we’ve consumed, in considering the different opinions of others, we can then think; what was the point of the story I consumed? How well was the point communicated? And for stories which I don’t particularly enjoy, was there a discernable reason for that story to even be told?
Because, let’s be honest, there are absolutely stories with little purpose for being told; for pandering nostalgia, temporary trends, and with little individual spark that makes a good story…good.
So, we can understand that stories ought to have a consistent message, first and foremost. But that said, the messages and purposes that stories have are communicated through particular methods. For comedy, there is the set-up and punchline. For more traditional stories, we have the Three Act Structure. For others, there is the Hero’s Journey.
In one word; stories require structure.
And no, I’m not just talking about such rigid formulas as these, because certainly, it is possible to tell a good story apart from the exact formulas. However, what these structures hint at is that, to tell a proper story, there has to be a certain set of principles to guide the reader, listener, or watcher. After all, you can’t properly enjoy the punchline without hearing the set-up for said punchline.
To demonstrate this, I simply have a story to tell.
When I was a young kid of 15, I was shown a clip of a particular anime by my friend, who was off-the-walls excited to share something she loved with another fellow nerd. The scene was a clip with fantastic action; of two robots, red and white, battling and kicking and punching each other, all while their pilots were having an intense argument. She loved it, and couldn’t stop talking about it while she was showing me.
I, however, understood nothing of it. I couldn’t tell what she was talking about, I could barely perceive the action, and I couldn’t understand the emotions of the characters on screen.
It was only about three years later that I learned that the scene I watched was from the anime Code Geass, which ended up being one of the most enjoyable anime-watching experiences I’ve ever had–and whaddya know, I enjoyed every second of the fight, when I got to it.
The main point is this; a good story sets up its climaxes. A good stand-up routine sets up its punchlines. And for many bad stories, the set-up, the structure simply does not lend itself to a good climax. And, although there is a lot more I can say, about how stories need their tropes, how foreshadowing and particular literary techniques matter, I can sum it up like this:
Story structure matters. So ask yourself; does the story in question have a good structure? Does it set up its points well? Do the plot points, jokes, or events make sense? So on, and so forth.
The consistency of a story and its ability, through its structure, to keep such consistency is undoubtedly important. So now, we must consider some technicalities. How good was the structure? How well was the story presented according to the conventions of its medium? And what sort of quality, overall, is the story presented with?
Now, quality is absolutely not the end-all be-all of a story’s worth. I can personally attest to inspired, powerful, and memorable stories that have had grammar errors, animation flubs, terrible subtitles, and more. However, generally, for a story to be worth consuming, there ABSOLUTELY must be a sense of quality somewhere.
Perhaps the acting stands out, and is powerful in execution. Maybe the artistic vision is undeniably beautiful, or maybe the prose stands out for being easy to read, or for its eloquence. Quality can be measured in numerous ways, and to be sure, there ARE ways to objectively acknowledge them.
Into the Spiderverse received remarkable attention, for example, for its jaw-dropping animation, used marvelously to tell a story of different worlds coming together. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a pretty standard formula put together, which has been criticized – but the quality of the musical score, the fights, the general storytelling, is still held to some level of quality. And of course, Squid Games, in recent memory, had notoriously odd English subtitles, but it was forgiven for its level of engaging storytelling.
Stories that are worth following always have something worth praising – even if, to us, the quality of one aspect of the story does not engage us for the rest of it. And finally, that leads me to…
4. Personal Enjoyment/Relatability
If you enjoy a story or series, don’t let anyone stop you.
This is the most important factor. We as people will naturally have preferences that cause us to love different stories. We will naturally love different premises, and certain themes that hit us in particular ways. We will appreciate different aspects of a story – whether it is the message it shares, the technical structures that bind it together, or the quality of an individual part of the story.
Or maybe, we just want some mindless action. Some mindless romance to enjoy. We don’t have to take stories so seriously, if we don’t want to, and I want to reaffirm that. For instance, some people enjoy Michael Bay’s Transformers; and if you do, all the more power to you.
I know personally, I love stories that touch at existential, self-reflective issues, and flaws in such stories can easily be forgiven by myself; for example, Oyasumi Punpun, or The Boxer. However, I am just as touched by stories that feature sincere love – a power that somehow, inexplicably, affects real life (even to the point of nonsense), like with the movie Interstellar, or the anime Clannad. Sometimes, even some mindless, plot-hole heavy, ridiculous action can win me over, if other parts of the story show promise. Such preferences even stretch to stories that aren’t as objectively good–but hey, that’s okay. I LIKE them.
So, if YOU like a story, it just scratches that itch and you don’t want to think about it too much; then that’s fine too.
That’s what I personally look for in a story; but I’m curious, did I miss anything? Do you have anything you look out for?
And actually, what kind of stories do you like? Please, feel free to comment your preferences and thoughts, I’m curious! :)