What Makes a Good Story?

Successful storytellers have a variety of opinions about what makes a good story. Keep in mind that not everyone will love, or even like, our story. Not everyone will love, or even like, us as storytellers. I will attempt, however, to discuss what I feel creates a good story that is strong and that most listeners do enjoy and remember — the true test.

A good story is one that touches people in some way. As storytellers, our mission is to involve the audience, make them interact with us and the story, even if it is just in their thoughts or core. A really good story has a sense of truth and resonates with some basic universal aspects of being human. It doesn’t have to be profound, but a good story should move the listener, make him/her laugh, think, and ponder it afterward.

A good story has to have substance. Storytellers often talk about the “bones” of a story. This is the basic outline or its skeleton. If the skeletal structure is strong and it fits snugly, chances are you have a good story. Sometimes the story has lots of pieces, but no deep truth running through it — no backbone or substance. Even young listeners want to hear a story with direction and purpose. (We, as storytellers, should never talk down to our listeners, no matter how old or young they are.)

A good story needs conflict and resolution. Stories are made up of people, places, and happenings. Strong stories usually have a well-defined main character — a he, a she, an animal, a machine, or whatever — that encounters some kind of trouble (conflict). There is something blocking our protagonist, whether it is nature, another person, or even the main character him or herself. The action taken signifies personal growth and change — possibly an “ah ha!” — and finally, some sort of redemption. It is the believable action moving the story from beginning to middle to end that keeps the audience entranced. They want to know what’s going to happen.

A good story creates vivid images. Through our knowing, as the storyteller, what vivid images the story creates for us, we will create images for our listeners. They may not see the same images we see and imagine, and that is the exciting part of storytelling. We want them to imagine their own images that relate to them and their experiences as the story unfolds. This is the part that makes interaction so important. If our stories help the listener to think of his/her own stories, we have succeeded in igniting a storytelling spark.

A good story is not “wimpy.” In the excellent book The Storyteller’s Guide by Bill Mooney and David Holt (one of our book picks), many well known storytellers give their views on what makes a “wimpy story.” Michael Parent says, “The difference between a good story and a wimpy story for me is the wimpy story gives too easy a solution.” Laura Simms says, “A wimpy story is one that points toward something very obvious, that doesn’t have resonance inside, that doesn’t provide an experience.” Jon Spelman says, “To me, the strongest mark of a good story well-told is its sincerity. I think there is something about a wimpy story that is insincere; it’s unauthentic. It’s not true to the person who is telling it.” Kathryn Windham adds, “When you find interesting people, you are going to find interesting stories. I think, if you open your senses and maybe even your heart to people, you will find an unending source of un-wimpy stories, good strong stories.”

A good story is the story that is perfect for your audience. I already touched on this briefly, and we will have many more articles in the future about listeners. One of our most important tasks as a storyteller is to prepare properly for our audience, but then read them as we tell. We must keep in tune with the listeners and change direction if we aren’t connecting. Storyteller Ed Stivender is a master of this when he asks for audience members to call out a name of a character, a name of a time and place, and a popular story. On the spot he pulls them all together and creates an improvisational story that the audience definitely feels is the “perfect” story for them.

A good story is a story that you love and love to tell. Never, never, never, tell a story you don’t like, even if a client has requested it. As a storyteller, we are never on the outside looking in as we tell the story. We are a part of the story. We have internalized that story and we truly care about it. We can’t do that, if we don’t like the story.

Keep on telling your good stories, and they will become better and stronger with each telling! No wimpy stories for us!

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