Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: What Makes a Good Story?

Confession time.

I was a holdout on Lost for a long time. I watched the pilot and the first few episodes and wasn't hooked. Over the past few years I've seen a handful of episodes from different seasons and, though I enjoyed speculating about what that crazy smokey dragon is or whether Richard Alpert is wearing guyliner, I still didn't get the appeal and was not drawn into the byzantine and myriad plots or the strange mythos of THE ISLAND ZOMG. I kept thinking to myself, "What, Gilligan's Island meets Myst? Surely you jest, J.J.!"


I did watch the "summary" hour before this season's premier, and now I feel I've got enough information to really enjoy the show. Some people have derided me for doing this, since I apparently lack the patience and focus to watch a show that generates ten questions for every answer it provides for five. Whole. Years.

This got me thinking, then, author-acquaintances (thanks, Le R!): would you read Lost if it were a book? (Sidebar: I really enjoyed Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, which is the closest thing to Lost-as-a-book that I can think of.) In the case of Lost, however, you'd have (in my opinion) a book with an infinitely long introduction, a well-paced (though brief) climax, and a rushed and unsatisfying denouement (my prediction, based on Alias), not to mention a cast of characters that is way too large and unwieldy. Yeah, The Simpsons can pull it off, but they've been on the air for twenty years. Baby steps.

Therefore, prithee, inform me: what, in general, makes a good story (apart from—or perhaps in spite of—the oft-heard elements of "rich characters, engaging plot," &c)? What about a book makes you read it, re-read it, love it, recommend it?


  1. I think there are reasons why certain stories are chosen for different media forms, i.e. a book vs. a movie vs. a TV show vs. a song, even. Lost could be made into a book, but it would obviously be a different experience, maybe even a different plotline, or conveying a different emotion. Would it end up being a thriller, a mystery, maybe even an epic fantasy? How could you translate that gorgeous/suspenseful soundtrack to the page?

    What makes me reread a book? I think when I was younger, rereading a book had less importance, largely because I had more time, and I wanted to devote all the time I had to reading. But now it means so much more to reread a story because I have no time, and even then a reread is usually reduced to a few paragraphs I particuarly enjoyed. So the quality of prose is a must. Also, if it really struck me (i.e. producing tears, rage, laughter) or, if I identified so perfectly with a character's quirkiness that I thought only I could identify with.

    Shameless self-promotion: I actually wrote a post about all the stories that made me feel emotional, and identifying with the character's feelings was definitely the #1 most important thing:

  2. For me a good story is one that can grab my attention in the first few pages, has a middle full of action, and has a conclusive end - most books shouldn't be cut out for sequels (but you can write another book about the main character).

    What makes me re-read a book, recommend it, etc? Almost nothing makes me re-read a book, but I recommend stuff that can either make me laugh out loud or that I can finish in a few days. So, I obviously recommend everything by Chris Moore (laughter) and Cormac McCarthy (hard to put down).

  3. I think LOST has a good story, and for me the element of intrigue it was makes it good. I'm curious to see what happens next. I'm eager to see if the story also has a good ending.

    I would read it as a comic book / graphic novel, but I don't think the storytelling mechanisms the show creators use would translate well to a solely written medium.

    Is it right to take a story that was created as a serial and put it together as a novel? Stephen King did it with The Green Mile, but I think that was six installments (and a great read, IMHO), and he intended for it to be a complete novel from the beginning.

  4. What makes LOST work so well is not only the great cast you can identify with, plus all the suspense and mystery, but how they use flashbacks (and flashforwards and now flashsideways) not just as background information, but to change your idea of what you're seeing as it unfolds.

    The story "Confidence Man," from the first season, was one of the best for just this reason, and I'd recommend watching each season through.

    There actually were a couple LOST books, but only as marketing, and not about the actual events of the show, though I've read they're considering that as a way of spin-offs after this season.

  5. I love voice. I have a pretty open mind, and I'll follow an author down the garden path if I love the narrator.

  6. I find myself saving and rereading books and stories that have really rich characters. Not necessarily ones I identify with or who are similar to me, but characters that jump off the page. Characters I want to go back to when I have to put the book down, that make me care about the story, and not the other way around.

    If LOST-the-book followed the same trajectory as LOST-the-show, I'd have put it down halfway through and probably never picked it up again. I skipped most of season 3 because I was so bored/frustrated (not qualities I look for in a book...or TV show), but with all the recaps and internet chatter it's much easier to step back into the show without having to catch up on episodes. Books don't generally offer recaps at the beginning of each chapter. :)

    I think LOST-the-book would be missable for me - but I'd be curious to see it as a graphic novel, as Rick suggested. It's definitely a show/idea that seems to rely on the visual. Translated to strictly words I think it would be overwhelming - and confusing (a polar bear, WHAT?!).

  7. You can't say the cast is too big if you haven't watched all the episodes! Ahhh! Seriously though, it does all make sense when you watch the whole thing. Do it! :)

    I would read a LOST-like novel (Faulkner comes to mind immediately) but I wouldn't read a novel based on LOST because I think it's been done to it's best in the form it is now. It's like when someone remakes a song... it's never quite as good as the original (barring Alien Ant Farm's remake of "Smooth Criminal").

  8. I actually think a Lost-like story would work well in book form. The first five years of the show haven't felt like "introduction" to me, and I don't think they would on paper either--there's always something happening in the foreground, even as mysteries and questions keep popping into the background. And I actually think that readers, absorbing a story over days and weeks, might have an easier time with this sort of plot than viewers following it over a period of years.

    One thing that drives me to re-read any book is the the feeling that there is more to its story than just the words on the page. If you reach the end of a book and feel like you know everything there is to know about it, and there's nothing more to ponder, you probably won't go back. And I think leaving viewers with that sense will one key to a successful ending for Lost.

  9. Characters. But it's not quite that simple.

    A strong voice is needed to make the characters real. A good plot will put them in situations that make my concern for them strong enough to keep reading. Sub-plots (layers) will keep me guessing about what happens next and emphasize personality traits.

    But the one thing that trumps all is pacing and structure. You could have the best concept ever and the best characters ever, but if the pacing isn't right, I'm done with it. Not worth my time. When you find yourself screaming, "Get on with it already!"... yeah, that's not entertainment anymore. It's poorly executed structure.

    And I can't comment on Lost because I didn't even make it through the first season before giving up on it.

  10. Hear, hear, Lydia!

    I lose patience with a book, show, or movie that drags the mystery out soooooo long. I like clean, well defined conflict and steady bits of information dispersed throughout. That applies to characters and plots. And I extremely dislike the "what happened?" endings.

    Twilight Zone did this really well, I think. Very out there, completely clueless at the beginning of the show but a quarter to midway through you could get oriented to the story.

    I'm just not laid back enough to hang in there past the midway point without having any idea where things are headed. The conflict is really the goal: Romance=get together, mystery=solve the crime, fantasy=triumph over soul devouring evil, etc. Pacing is how fast the MC moves toward the goal. I need some steady progress to stick with it.

  11. I recently reviewed the novels Boneshaker and The Windup Girl, and found that while both had strong premises and interesting characters, the absence of a coherent and compelling plot made both incredibly boring.

    So while concept and character are necessary, they are insufficient. A "good" story needs a "good" plot with recognizable plot points and probably a few archetypal plot arcs.

  12. Believable relationships between characters, good snappy dialogue and damn-near-perfect pacing. I hate nothing more than starting a story and going, "No one says/does that in that situation!" Make me believe, draw me in, and I am putty in your hands, almost regardless of genre.

    Never was a Lost-ie. Just couldn't get it, even from the start. But, admittedly, I'm not much on TV in general. I would way rather read, almost exclusively. I'm highly weird that way :)

  13. Hm. I don't own a TV, so I have no idea if I'd be a Lostie.

    For a story I'll enjoy and come back to, I need a writing style that doesn't distract me, characters I care about (or am intrigued by), in a situation I care to know more about, with believable dialogue, action, and behaviors. Sorry, but you can't convince me that someone who mouths off everybody and ignores the rules is supposed to be a police force's top detective, especially when that detective is often doing things that even he himself thinks are foolish.

    But more than that, I need to be impressed. Though even fascination may not be enough to get me back into a book. I've read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere once and was fascinated by the description and creepiness. I've read Madame Bovary and was impressed by how it skimmed events most stories would dwell on and vice versa. But I'm not sure if I want to read either one again. Though when I think about it, neither has a character that I really like. (Okay, there's Door, but she's weirder than I am.)

    So I guess a lot of it is characters I care about. I sometimes reread parts of stories, too, for the specific interactions and bits of dialogue that I enjoyed.

  14. Obviously, I lack the patience and focus for Lost.

    A good story pulls me out of my life and into the protagonist's world. It makes me want to return to that place and be with the characters.

  15. A good book has to have a great idea behind the writing. Good characters who seem as real as you or me. Action with depth. Personally, I don't watch Lost. I'll wait to hear the buzz over the end of the series, and rent seasons . . . maybe. Once they killed Mr. Eko, I didn't care.

  16. Ummmm, that shiz is copyrighted, kiddo. Good story indeed.

  17. I watched the first few episodes of Lost. What a riveting opening (I will never forget the crash); great action; wonderful friction and interaction between characters, hints at certain people's dark pasts with unmentionable deeds; the threat of being revealed; the ever-present dangers lurking in the strange environment; love angles and triangles ... isn't that all the makings of a captivating book? A perfect marriage of excellent storyline (OK, sometimes veering towards the implausible in Lost but so what if it's keeping you glued to the screen) and dynamic characters. So why didn't I continue watching? Because the scriptwriters (in my humble opinion) literally "Lost" the plot. I got the feeling they needed to keep the series going (money reasons?) and so began to string out the previously captivating line of sequential action with 'fluff' or fillers. That can happen in a book where the writer feels compelled to write more than is required. The beauty of a great story is that it ends naturally, with conclusions that come from within the plot, by the characters' decisions and choices.
    I recommend Fringe (if you enjoy paranormal)where the threads of past actions are contantly renewed in each edisode. The perfect story/series has to be the British tv production Life on Mars, where a 21st century cop finds himself in the '70s solving a crime related to the crime he left behind him. The series ends with no possibility of revival (it's brutal but vital) and with the viewer wanting, nay, begging for more, but knowing that it would only spoil it to keep going. If you haven't seen it, get it.

  18. I'm not a lost fan, though I probably would be if I had time to follow it regularly. What makes me reread a book is the author's voice = expressed in plot, characters, commentary, etc. I need a writer to be somebody I can learn from.


  19. I love long, complex stories with large casts. My favorites are George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books and of course Tolkien. I like Lost okay, though I'm not hooked on it.

  20. I think a good story needs to end where it started. The events need to be connected somehow so we can see that things have happened and feel that they have happened for a reason - the characters have grown and developed and experiences things that have changed them or their situation.

    I'm afraid that Lost isn't going to go back to the first episode and do these things in the finale.

    The flashsideways are sad. The characters don't seem to have grown in that timeline. I don't like watching that after having invested so much time in watching them grow over the years.

    I believe that you are correct when you said, it will have "a rushed and unsatisfying denouement (my prediction, based on Alias)," which is a shame because the show had so much potential.

  21. I, too, was a hold out on LOST until season four. I watched the summary episode of the previous seasons and have been hooked ever since. I'm now buying the seasons and watching them to get more into it. I'm a wannabe novelist of suspense stories. This is also what I enjoy in books, movies, TV. LOST works for me becase of the elements of suspense, thrills and mystery.

  22. I wouldn't read LOST as a book. No way possible. I am not that good of a reader! Plus, the fun of watching it is to catch the "Easter Eggs" within each episode...the visual clues. To me, that story is meant for TV.
    And what's up with not being hooked after the pilot?? I loved it instantly. It hooked me enough to keep me as a loyal fan once the seasons got weirder and weirder.