What do you like in a story?

What do you like in a story? Have you ever thought about it? And by that, I mean more than for a few seconds. Have you ever sat down and made a list of the things you enjoy about the stories you read?

I read Chris Baty’s book, No Plot, No Problem last week. For those of you who didn’t know, Chris is the guy who started NaNoWriMo and I was curious to see what he said about writing a novel in 30 days. If you’ve never written a novel before, you would benefit most from the book, which gives you tips to keep track of word count, how to tell your family you’re writing a book, along with advice on how to stay sane during the month-long challenge.

One thing stood out for me and that was his encouragement to make a list of things I like in a story. The idea is this list can help me remember what to strive for when I write stories. And the sister list of things I dislike in a story will help remind me of what NOT to do when I’m writing.

I was curious, so I took a stab at my own lists. Even if I wasn’t a writer, these are the things I like and dislike about stories.

What I like in a story:

  • Strong female protagonist / characters
  • Characters I can empathize with
  • Something impossible
  • Complex humanized antagonists – more than just a ‘bad guy’
  • Symbolism
  • Humor
  • A little madness / eccentricity
  • Challenges
  • Dark or strange detailed settings
  • Great dialogue
  • Secrets
  • Emotion / love
  • Rich relationships between characters
  • Failure
  • Success
  • Character growth
  • Objects of significance
  • Variety in chapter openings
  • Red threads / common themes
  • Surprises
  • Happy or ambiguous endings – as long as I can project hope into the ending, I’m good.

What I don’t like:

  • Preaching – not the religious act, but the propaganda tool. I don’t mind a character who is a preacher. I don’t even mind characters who have strong views. I dislike having a specific philosophy shoved down my throat for the entire book.
  • Protagonists who think they know everything
  • Protagonists who don’t have a saving grace — if the guy or girl is a jerk, or does know everything, I’d still like some reason to root for them. Is she nice to her grandmother?
  • Instalove
  • Characters who succeed at everything they do. On the first try.
  • Snark – not to be confused with wit, or sarcasm.
  • Domestic / sexual abusers disguised as ‘alpha males’ or kinky sex fiends – I don’t care if he is a werewolf, if he needs to throw a woman against a wall to prove his strength and she likes it, something’s wrong there.
  • Dense technical prose
  • Bad dialogue
  • Choreographed action as opposed to natural actions – most women do not pull off their shirt within 24 hours of meeting the protagonist. Just saying.
  • Unhappy endings
  • Female trophy characters – if all the girls / women in your book exist only to have sex with the hot protagonist, that’s a problem.
  • An all-male cast
  • Shock-value language / gore – I once read a story where every fourth word was a curse word. The story didn’t even make sense.
  • Killing off ALL the likable characters – not naming any names . . .
  • Characters without any history
  • Difficult language — Victorian, Venusian, the Tyk’gkt’der language, etc.
  • Internal Thought Parrot syndrome – We see the character’s internal thoughts, and then she says the exact same thing. So it looks like this:

    I wonder when he’ll stop asking me out, she thought.

   “When are you going to stop asking me out?” she asked him.


I think I need to point out that while I try very hard not to do the things I dislike when reading a story, I am guilty of violating other writing taboos, which may be on your lists. It stands to reason not all lists are alike. Chris’s list included things like ‘stories set on a farm’ and ‘stories with ghosts.’ Those points aren’t that important to me. Bring on the farm ghosts! But since we’re speaking of different lists, what would you put on your list?

3 thoughts on “What do you like in a story?

    1. casblomberg says:

      Haha! If only it were so easy. Everyone’s list is different. When I ask my husband what he thought of a book, the things that appeal to him are often very different than what appeals to me. I think that’s why it’s important to write for ourselves, because if I tried to please everyone I’d go bonkers 😁.

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