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.

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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?

Published by casblomberg

Cas Blomberg is a speculative fiction author who lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

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

    1. 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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