Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

What Makes a Good Story?

with 9 comments

Recently, I wrote about Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher John Axford, and I said that the way his story ended was not the way his story was supposed to go.

This begs the question: What makes for a good story, anyway?

By contemporary standards, what would’ve made Axford’s story much better would’ve been him coming into the game, striking out the side (or at least getting three outs), getting the save, and having the stadium rain cheers upon his head. (The crowd did cheer him when he came in — I think he may have even received a standing ovation — and cheered him on the way out, too, which is not usual when a pitcher is unable to get out of the inning. This last happened because we Brewers fans knew Axford well from his previous service with us, and knew he was deserving of such approbation due to how well he’d done before.)

In previous eras, though, they had stories such as MADAME BOVARY that sold a ton. Those stories would have characters put through the wringer and they’d never be able to come up for air; instead, even their children would be put through the wringer for no purpose, and would never be able to get ahead.

Why audiences appreciated such stories is beyond me, but that was the fashion at that time. The would-be heroine (or hero) had a tragic flaw (or two, or five), and because of that flaw would taint herself and everyone around her beyond any hope of redemption.

The fashion now tends more to happy endings, but well-deserved happy endings. Characters still get put through the wringer (see Lois McMaster Bujold’s MIRROR DANCE, or Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS, or any of Robert Jordan’s novels in the Wheel of Time series, among others), but they live to fight another day. They learn from their mistakes, too. And they continue on, having learned much more about themselves in the process.

Of course, the Harry Potter novels also exemplify this sort of story. Harry grows up to be a powerful magician, but he’s put through the wringer and must fight the big, bad, nasty, evil, and disgusting Lord Voldemort (and yes, I meant all those descriptions, as Voldemort is just that bad) in order to become the magician he needs to be. He and his friends Hermione and Ron are put through all sorts of awful things, but they eventually prevail.

My friend Chris Nuttall’s novels about Emily, starting with SCHOOLED IN MAGIC and continuing through to FACE OF THE ENEMY (with CHILD OF DESTINY coming soon), also have a plot that shows Emily being thrown into awful situation after awful situation, but she finds a way to prevail every time through hard work, effort, and a talent to get along with people even if they’ve crossed her (or she’s crossed them). Emily scans as a real person, and we care about her because she faces things most of us face even though we’re not magicians.

What are those things, you ask? Well, she has to learn from her own mistakes. She has to realize that she can’t fix everything and everyone. She has to find out that her snap judgments are not always correct. And she has to reevaluate people and situations, even when she doesn’t want to.

Of course, my own stories about Bruno and Sarah (AN ELFY ON THE LOOSE and A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE) have many of the same lessons. There are things Bruno can do, and does, once he realizes he’s been lied to about nearly everything. Sarah is in much the same boat, except she has different talents — complementary ones, in most cases — and the two of them have to find that they’re stronger together than they could ever be alone. But there are still things they can’t do, and they must make their peace with that (as every adult does), while continuing to work on the things they can.

In other words, they can control what is in their power to control. But they can’t control other people. (It would be wrong to do so, anyway. They have to make their own lives meaningful in whatever way they can, too. And make their own mistakes, as we all do…but I digress.)

Anyway, the stories I love best are those with happy endings. People sometimes start out with situations they don’t deserve (such as my friend Kayelle Allen’s character Izzorah, who went through a childhood illness that damaged his heart and nearly blinded him), but they get into better positions and find the people who can help them — maybe even love them the way they deserve. (Izzorah, for example, finds a treatment for his heart — it’s not a standard one, by any means, but it works in the context of the story — and finds love along the way in SURRENDER LOVE.)

So, to go back to the beginning of this blog, as we love happy endings and we want to see deserving people find good luck and happiness, the true ending we wanted for John Axford was to get the outs, get the cheers, bask in the glow of achieving his dreams once again at the baseball-advanced age of thirty-eight, and stay with the Brewers the rest of the season as they continue to make their run at postseason play.

That Axford was unable to achieve this happy ending was distressing. But all the hard work and effort he put into his return to the big leagues should still be celebrated. And my hope, overall, is that he will still be with the Brewers in one way or another after this season ends.

What makes for a good story? Do you agree or disagree with me, and if so, why? Tell me about it in the comments!

9 Responses

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  1. I get the idea that “Happy Ending Stories” which include “characters that you can like for who they are” (ie not like them because of what group they belong to) aren’t Hugo Winners any more. 😉

    For me, the chief factor is “do I like or care about the characters” with a side note of “non-stereotype villains”.

    If I see that the “Bad Guys” are just card-board characters who are the Bad Guys because they’re a representation of a “group” that the writer thinks “everybody should hate”, then the book is thrown across the room (actually or metaphorically).

    One example was that “rewrite” of Little Fuzzy (titled Fuzzy Nation), where the Bad Guy was a representation of several stereotypes of the Evil Businessman.

    Of course, “Happy Endings” for me can include the main characters being killed but their deaths accomplished something good and/or that they may have died but their deaths will inspire others to defeat the Evil Ones.

    Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    August 16, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    • Yes, there are all sorts of happy endings.

      I think stories as a whole need to be told organically. As in, you shouldn’t just throw in stereotypes to love and hate. You need to make the reader care. And what better way is there to care than to make the character relatable?

      Barb Caffrey

      August 17, 2021 at 12:40 am

  2. I appreciate finding my book listed here. 🙂 Thank you. Story is vital to me. I want to tell a great tale and take readers where they don’t expect to go, while still following true to the structure of a good story. And I agree with Paul about the two books. Little Fuzzy was a unique approach, and one of my favorite books.

    Kayelle Allen

    August 16, 2021 at 8:45 pm

    • I know what you mean, Kayelle, and that’s why I wanted to make absolutely sure you were represented here. (Folks, if you haven’t read Kayelle’s books yet and you love romance — or even if you don’t — you should. My goodness, there are so many great characters there, from Pietas to Six to Joss to Izzorah/Izzy to Luc Saint-Cyr…and that’s just getting started.) Your characters always have reached out and grabbed me by the throat (metaphorically speaking, though Pietas probably would try if he thought he could get away with it ;)), and they strike me as real, flawed, interesting, complex human beings with the same wants and dreams and desires as any other human being. (Being immortal, as Luc Saint-Cyr is, and as Pietas is, doesn’t change their essential nature at all.)

      Barb Caffrey

      August 17, 2021 at 12:43 am

  3. Much reading of History shows in the ‘Good’ Guys don’t ‘win’ through to a land of happy ever after, and some of the true stinkers get away with it. I also have an intense dislike of villains who have an easy ride until maybe the last chapter and even then are seen lurking in the epilogue, no matter how good the writing, it’s a personal thing; I never subscribed to Hannibal Lecter. for instance. Flesh out a character over a period of time (ie Volumes or series) and that’s different.
    My own efforts are Happy Endings, and yes there’s an agenda there, I can’t change this world with all its injustices and bad folk walking free, but sure as heck in the worlds I write in those absolute villains have a very bad time. Not that there are that many, there are a lot incompetent folk heading for hubris and those of flexible morality who prey on them, but then that’s Reality.
    In the meantime my heroes plod, struggle or persevere along, getting the best of everyone.
    So sue me.


    September 8, 2021 at 4:30 am

    • LOL. No suing of you allowed for writing heroes as you think best. 🙂

      I think Chris Nuttall may be able to turn around Nanette, who was a long-running villain (until it was shown to her, via something akin to a mind-meld, that Emily — Chris’s heroine — had absolutely nothing to do with killing off Nanette’s mentor as Nanette had thought all these years). Nanette did a lot of stuff to provoke people, and yet somehow in the last book or two it’s shown that she has an excellent sense of humor and can be a true friend to Emily (Emily hasn’t figured this out yet, but the reader should). Nanette has similar magical gifts, similar training, went bad all because she didn’t know the truth…but once she did, she changed her ways. (She and Emily can talk to each other as equals, and that’s difficult for Emily as she has prodigious natural gifts.)

      Of course, Xena: Warrior Princess started off that way, too. She did wrong, Hercules set her straight, and then she went about changing her ways. (I ignore that last episode, that says it was all in Gabrielle’s head. I think Gabrielle was dying then and was completely out of it.)

      So a villain can be turned around, but they have to want to accept additional evidence. Not everyone does. (In Chris’s last two or three books, there was this one Master who just did not like Emily no matter what she did and no matter how much she helped. He wasn’t about to believe anything but his settled and dim worldview, and he quite rightly gets killed. Not by Emily so much as his own ignorance, but still.)

      Barb Caffrey

      September 9, 2021 at 1:16 am

      • I was supposed to start picking up on Chris’ books through audio in the next month or so, but then Audible changed the rules and if you subscribed a a member you could get lots of books free (you only keep them if you stay a member) so I indulged a bit (like 12 books to listen to now)…So to Kindle I shall away and that will be another book to get me back into the habit of reading.
        That’s the good thing about series, you can develop and expand, which spares the reader dire ‘Almost unstoppable villain trope’ who insists on monologuing, grinning and for some reason being one step ahead of everyone; even more annoying than the indestructible Action Hero.
        Back to Chris’ books, I like those developing arc, using the Xena theme; remember Callisto and how she ended up the way she was? (Hudon Leick did such a good job with that role)


        September 9, 2021 at 2:48 am

      • Yes, I do remember Callisto quite well. (Hudson Leick did do a great job. She also had to portray Xena herself for a few episodes because of that accident with a horse that Lucy Lawless had when she was going to promote the show on one of the night-time talkshows in the US. I thought Leick’s portrayal of Xena was spot-on, too.

        If you start Chris’s series, you’ll meet Nanette (a woman with many names) in book two (under a different name). When you get to SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS, that’s really the first time we see that Nanette has a good side.

        I hope that Nanette’s adventures will be both interesting and heart-rending. (I know that sounds like an odd combo, doesn’t it?)

        Barb Caffrey

        September 10, 2021 at 6:27 pm

      • Ah that was the back story behind the role/body switching tales. The DVDs beckon.
        The Schooled in Magic series does sound very interesting, I will have to start on them in the near future.


        September 11, 2021 at 2:42 am

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