Reading a great story can feel a little bit like falling in love. You lose track of time, you hurtle headfirst towards a new adventure, and you start seeing a whole new world ahead of you. When a story is written particularly well, you forget that you’re even reading at all.
But even though we know when a novel or short story has us by the throat, it can be challenging to understand which elements are working and how to apply them to our own writing. What makes a story “good”? Why do some stories stay with us long after the book is closed, while others leave us feeling unsatisfied?
We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about getting the most out of your own story, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.
What makes a good story?
Good stories not only explore nuanced themes and make good use of literary devices, but they also feel natural and organic to the reader, so that every plot point and character choice feels like an inevitable result of the events and choices that have come before. When the reader reaches the ending, they should feel as though the story couldn’t have ended any other way.
A bad story, by contrast, often feels forced. You can sense the author’s hand guiding the characters around like puppets, and strikes of good and bad luck appearing in order to further the plot.
One of the great unsung tricks to develop your writer’s eye is to read some bad stories and try to puzzle out what, exactly, makes them that way. Instead of simply casting them aside because you don’t like them, ask yourself: at what point did I lose interest in these characters? Was there anything that didn’t make sense to me, or that didn’t feel authentic to the story? What would I do differently if I were writing this myself?
We’ll help you answer these questions with our useful story elements below.
What makes a good short story?
A short story is all about searing honesty and compression. With less space to explore than the novel form, a short story generally covers a finite period of time and one character’s singular experience. Like any successful story, however, it should have the basic key elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and a memorable voice.
A good short story, whether “literary” or fantastical, will concisely reveal an empathetic truth about the human condition. It uses a microcosmic experience to raise big questions for the reader and convey a powerful message.
For more advice on creating a big impact in a small space, be sure to check out our lesson on writing effective flash fiction!
What makes a good novel?
Unlike a short story, the novel form is all about complex, dramatic journeys in which the main character grows, erodes, or changes their perspective over time. A great novel will have a strong, compelling opening, a fully realized world, and layers of conflict that push the protagonist to their limits.
A novel also allows for subplots, in which supporting characters face their own conflicts and dramatic arcs. Subplots give the writer a chance to enhance their novel’s overall message, or theme.
The best novels will have vibrant, lifelike settings and a protagonist whom you want to follow across their entire journey.
12 essential elements of a good story
Let’s take a closer look at each of these story elements and why they’re so important, so you can start writing a powerful novel or short story of your own.
1. A compelling hook
Your story’s “hook” is its trademark selling point that makes a reader want to pull your book off the shelves and take it home and love it forever. It makes a promise to the reader that they’re in for a very special experience.
For example, your story’s hook might be that your protagonist finds himself stranded on a struggling lifeboat with a ferocious man-eating tiger (this would be The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel). Or, maybe your protagonist decides to open a decadent, sensual chocolate shop in the middle of a conservative, religious French village (Chocolat, by Joanne Harris).
Compare these to something like “Two people meet at a party and fall in love.” It doesn’t make your story stand out from the crowd, nor does it challenge you creatively. However, “Two people meet while being held hostage during a robbery and fall in love” might give you a bit more to work with.
2. A strong voice
Often what draws us into a compelling story is the writer’s strong, confident narrative voice. Think about writers like Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Douglas Adams, or Angela Carter; they all have distinctive styles that characterize their work.
Right from the opening lines, the reader should get a sense of this narrative voice. It should make them feel like they’re in the presence of a confident, engaging storyteller, and want to read on.
3. A good beginning
While some good stories may take a while to find their rhythm, you can’t count on a reader (or a publisher, or a literary agent) to offer up their patience and attention for nothing. The most successful stories hook their readers from the very first page. This is why agents will often say that the opening pages are the most important part of any manuscript.
To hold a reader’s attention immediately, try opening your story in medias res (or in the midst of the action), rather than opening with a lot of preamblatory exposition.
4. Memorable characters
Writing a compelling story is inextricably linked to engaging character development. The main characters should feel lifelike to the reader, and they should have strengths and weaknesses that we recognize as being innately human—even if your characters aren’t human in the narrowest sense of the word.
Character development is particularly important in a longer work like a novel, especially if the novel covers a substantial amount of time. The protagonist should face unprecedented conflict, learn something new about the world along their journey, and ultimately emerge the better for it (or worse, if your story is a tragedy).
Don’t neglect your secondary or tertiary characters, either. This space is endlessly useful for creating characters that really hook readers’ attention. If you consider large ensemble storylines like the Harry Potter series or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the most interesting, memorable characters are often the ones hanging out along the sidelines and making a statement in their own ways.
5. A vivid setting
A powerful, well-developed setting is what really brings a good story to life. Even a bad story can be made palatable if the setting is awesome enough. Often what draws readers to a new book is the promise of living in a thrilling, beautiful, treacherous world.
Think ancient, magical libraries, the gritty urbanism of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the cottagecore countryside of English cozy mysteries, the dark majesty of Mirkwood Forest, the glitter and sensuality of a circus tent, or the brine and sea spray of a swashbuckling adventure.
Don’t forget that setting also informs the way your characters behave and the choices they make. In this way, your story’s world is interconnected with everything that happens along the way.
6. The right point of view
As you experiment with writing stories, you’ll find that some fall more naturally into one point-of-view style than the others. The basic points of view (or PoVs) writers use are first person, second person, third person, and fourth person. Each of these has something different to offer, with its own benefits and drawbacks.
If you find that something in your story isn’t quite working in the way it should, try changing up its PoV. When your story is told in the right way through the right voice, it will naturally settle into place.
7. A confident structure
Good writers know that stories work best when they follow an instinctive narrative structure like the three-act structure, the five-act structure, or Freytag’s pyramid. Readers won’t always know this—at least not cognitively, not by name—but they are able to recognize when the pacing of a novel is off. This usually happens because of a staggering structure.
This doesn’t mean you can’t upend or invert your story’s structure by putting the end at the beginning or intercutting two parallel narratives in a creative way. But these choices should be made from an informed, confident architectural perspective rather than from sloppiness or lack of craftsmanship.
(Reminder: Picasso painted realism for years before he painted weird cubic surrealist stuff.)
8. Multilayered conflict
Conflict is what gets a story on its feet and propels it forward. A good writer can find ways to blend external conflict —or problems that arise due to outside forces—with internal conflict —or problems that arise from within.
You can create conflict in a number of ways, from having your main characters come to loggerheads over irreconcilable ideas, to having them face a destructive natural force like a hurricane, to having your protagonist overcome a moral or ethical quandary within. You can even write a story with all three of these!
Without conflict, your characters are just shlupping around living their ordinary life—there’s no story.
9. Action and reaction
From conflict comes a shifting dynamic of action and reaction. One of the common elements of a weak story is the way a character doesn’t take on any personal agency over the course of the plot. Instead, they passively let situations wash over them, waiting for the storm to pass.
While the inciting incident of a story is usually an external event that causes your character to react, there should immediately be a countering action —your characters make a choice or put some new pivotal moment into motion. The first half of a novel will generally include more reacting (this section is called the rising action), while the second half will include more acting.
A good story has a balance of action and reaction, with the character taking actionable steps to move the story forward (for better and for worse).
10. Tension and suspense
Even though “suspense” is its own genre, any type of story can benefit from moments of seat-edge tension. In a romance, this might be something like “Is he going to be brave enough to tell her the truth about his feelings? Or will she marry the rich loser who’s secretly cheating on her?” In a fantasy, this might be “Will the heroes reach safety before the bloodthirsty beasties catch up with them?” And of course genres like mystery, thriller, and action-adventure are laden with heartstopping suspense.
These moments are essential when it comes to holding the reader’s attention and keeping them turning the page. To make your writing even more powerful, look for ways to enhance the tension in your story’s key turning points.
Atmosphere is the overall sensation a reader gets from reading your work. This is created largely through a story’s setting, mood, and tone. Victorian gothic novels are famous for their distinctive atmospheres; a lighthearted contemporary romance novel or a sci-fi eco-thriller would have very different atmospheres to offer the reader.
A well-developed atmosphere that uses all five senses is one of the best tools for keeping readers engaged with the world of your story. It elevates a story from a chain of narrative events to a true experience.
12. A powerful theme
Theme is the core message behind any narrative work. It’s the underlying idea that gives a story meaning and makes it matter to the reader. Stories will almost always have a theme regardless of whether or not the writer put it there on purpose; they emerge naturally out of the character development and conflict which the characters face. However, a writer can use a range of literary devices to enhance the theme even more.
An insightful theme can elevate a narrative into a powerful social or interpersonal idea. Some potential themes might be the strength of the community, the value of being true to oneself, or the concept of “found family” vs. blood family.
13. A dramatic question
A dramatic question is the overarching throughline that gives a story a sense of unity and completion. We’re putting it near the end of this list because your story’s dramatic question may not become clear until a bit later in your writing process. Then, you can use it to enhance the earlier section of your story through revision.
Dramatic questions can be things like, “Will the two star-crossed lovers overcome their family’s rivalry and live happily ever after?” Or, “Will the hero overcome their self-doubt to become the leader their village needs?” Everything that happens in your story should go towards answering this question one way or the other. Once the question has been answered definitively, the story has reached its ending.
Which brings us to…!
14. A satisfying ending
The right ending can make or break a narrative. If an ending is muddled, confused, or unsatisfying, readers aren’t going to remember the rich characterization or the concise worldbuilding. They’re going to remember reaching the end and thinking, “Well that wasn’t what I was hoping for.” Don’t be that writer.
Endings, whether of full-length novels or short stories, should feel like a natural culmination of every choice the characters have made. Even if you’re creating a startling twist ending (such as you’ll often find in murder mysteries and psychological thrillers), the reader should be able to look back over what they’ve read and think, “Ah of course, it all makes perfect sense now.”
Some writers like to start with the end in mind, while others discover it as they go. You can do whichever works for you as long as the ending answers your story’s dramatic question and wraps up your characters’ journeys in a satisfying way.
15. Honesty and truth
Finally, the element that separates an emotionally resonant story from a lackluster story is verisimilitude, or authenticity and truth. Your audience should see aspects of your character’s life echoed in their own lives—the feelings one goes through at milestone moments, the fears and hopes that are innate to the human condition.
This is important to all genres of literature, but especially to fantasy and science fiction. This is because when the reader is immersed in fantastical worlds filled with barely imagined beings, the honesty and humanity of the characters is what will impact them most. Not everyone will understand what it’s like to be left adrift on a distant space station by a mutineering crew, but they’ll probably be able to empathize with the feeling of being abandoned by people they thought they could trust.
To get the most out of your story, look for ways to hone in on the universality of being, even in the most unlikely places.
3 Traps that can drag down a good story
Now that we understand a bit more about what makes a good story, what are some pitfalls to avoid? Here are some common mistakes new writers struggle with that can unravel some of your rockstar storytelling efforts.
1. Stilted dialogue
Dialogue is one of the trickiest skills for a new writer to master. When dialogue feels unrealistic, overly expository, or forced, it can pull a reader out of the world of your story.
To avoid stilted dialogue, try reading your characters’ speech out loud to see if it sounds authentic. You can also practice by copying down conversations you overhear in places like cafés, parks, and other public gathering places. This will help develop your ear for natural speech rhythms. Pay attention to what people say, what they’re not saying, and where their dialogue and body language contradict.
2. Distracting grammatical errors
It can be challenging for a reader, and even more so for a literary agent or publisher, to fully immerse in a story that’s riddled with typographical errors, poor spelling, and grammatical mistakes. This might include things like head hopping (unintentionally moving from one character’s perspective to another), or accidentally fluctuating between first-person and third-person point of view.
A single spelling mistake won’t sink a promising manuscript, but a lot of careless or uninformed errors will create a distracting obstacle between you and the reader. (This is why it’s always a great idea to get constructive feedback from beta readers and writing groups!)
3. Poor narrative structure
As we saw briefly earlier in this article, successful stories follow a strong story structure. Even if we’re not aware of it on a cognitive level, readers feel when a story is beginning to drag on too much (because your first act is going on too long when you’re second act should have already begun), or when too much is happening all at once so that the pacing feels erratic. This is especially apparent in film and TV.
Using a predetermined narrative structure doesn’t mean your story will be formulaic or rote. It means that it will naturally fall into the patterns and rhythms our minds have come to expect from good storytelling. When these patterns are broken, we instinctively recognize that something in the story isn’t working the way it should.
Write your very best story possible
Writing a good story isn’t insurmountable, but it does take some practice, inspiration, and hard work. The trick is to keep your reader engaged from the very first line to the last page. Make every single character and scene in your story count, so that your words make the reader look up at the world in a new way.