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’
- A little madness / eccentricity
- Dark or strange detailed settings
- Great dialogue
- Emotion / love
- Rich relationships between characters
- Character growth
- Objects of significance
- Variety in chapter openings
- Red threads / common themes
- 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?
- 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?