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What Makes a Good Story?

Perhaps there are as many answers to this question as there are storytellers. Surely many storytellers choose stories that I would never think of telling. I can only assume their goals as storytellers must be different from mine.

At four workshops that I presented recently I put this question to participants as a brainstorming exercise. Participants at one workshop were ‘gifted’ high school students, the other three comprised mostly child care professionals. Participants came up with many aspects of stories. I then had them vote on the most important.

The list included many concepts that were similar so I grouped them. On this basis three out of four of the groups voted mostly for aspects related to plot. One group chose description. Characters were considered the second most important for three groups. And plot came up again as a second for the group that liked description. Anything else was way down the list.

Let us look at each of these concepts as they relate to storytellers. Teachers sometimes compliment me on the descriptive language in my stories. But I do tell stories where the language is quite sparse. Once at a workshop I was presenting to high school English teachers the subject of description arose. One insisted that descriptive language was a prime requisite of a good story. Another argued just as strongly that there should not be one unnecessary word. I would like to think that I use enough description to start my audience visualising but leave as much as possible for them to create images for themselves.

Characters are very important and describing characters brings two of the above mentioned concepts together. I would like to think the way we describe characters is more about plot than description. If I say ‘the ugly giant’ you might get a picture in your head or perhaps you might say ‘so what?’. If however, I say ‘The ugly giant skipped happily down the road with a bunch of dandelions he had found in the paddock. He was on his way to woo the lovely Miss Emily.’ — I have told you a little more about the giant’s character and hopefully I have you wondering who Miss Emily is and will she accept the dandelions or rebuff him.

Which suggests that description and character work best when they support plot.

And what makes a good plot?

To answer this we need to ask ourselves why we are telling stories. There are many reasons. I got into storytelling as a way to encourage kids to read. But that is not what keeps me doing it. I continue to tell stories because I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to earn a living.

But what can destroy that enjoyment?

The greatest risk to that for me is a difficult audience. When discipline is an issue I cannot give 100% of my attention to the delivery of the story. And I don’t enjoy that.

I work mostly in schools. At most of my shows there is a proportion of the audience who could potentially cause me trouble. In one school it might be just 1% of the group. In another, more than 50%. If I don’t win these students I won’t be giving my best show to any in the group.

When I was a high school student I was not always well behaved. I sat with the class stirrers and if we thought the teacher was boring we mucked up. However, occasionally what the teacher was doing was more interesting than anything my friends and I could come up with. Then we paid attention.

As a storyteller I strive to be more interesting that anything the potential trouble makers can come up with.

How do I do this? When I read a story with a view to telling it, it must keep me guessing what is coming. If it doesn’t hold me in this way, then it probably won’t hold those potential trouble makers either. Descriptive language might hold the committed readers but it won’t hold the trouble makers.

By choosing a story that has as strong a plot as this, I am able to gain the attention of those potential troublemakers. Who knows, I may just turn them on to a love of characterisation and description as well.

And I can continue to enjoy my work.

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