January 25, 2011

When Is a Story Worth Writing? – Part Three

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If we don’t want to waste time writing a story that will never get anywhere, we have to make sure we’ll be able to complete it.  And guess what?  It’s not completed when we, as writers, think it is.  Going from seed idea to completion happens over two stages.

So far, in Parts One and Two, we’ve focused on what it would take to get us through the first stage, finishing the writing and editing.  But these same guidelines apply to the second stage, sharing the story.

Unless we’re writing only for ourselves, we want to do something with our story: make a sale, make an impression, make someone happy/sad/think, etc.  So all these aspects we’ve been talking about are really intended to get us to look at our story idea from the perspective of our audience, the reader.

A story is worth writing when it’s worth reading.

Go ahead and ponder that thought for a second.  Makes it seem so clear, doesn’t it?  Okay, now let’s review the guidelines we talked about in Parts One and Two, but this time, I’ll talk about them from a reader’s perspective:

  • Does our story have an emotional heart?  Would a reader perk up or shiver when they heard the premise?  Will readers connect to the characters and their plight?  Will readers care enough to read the whole story?
  • Is our story unique enough to hold the reader’s interest?  Or is it rehashing tired tropes they’ve seen umpteen times before?  Would a reader be able to predict every plot turning point?  Or will it keep them guessing until the very end?  Will readers feel compelled to finish the story to find out what happens?
  • Does our story have a point?  Would a reader feel enlightened or challenged (in even the slightest way) by it?  Will they learn to see things from a different perspective?  Will a reader forget about the book after closing it for bedtime?  Or will it be memorable enough to make them want to finish it the next day?

Many books have high concept hooks, strong characters, tension, and page-turning stories.  All those things work together to make a story good.  But if we offer more to our readers, our work can be great.

Author Carrie Vaughn talked about the difference between pretty good and great yesterday on the Genreality blog:

What separates competent stories from great, sellable stories?  This may be the hardest hurdle to overcome on the road to getting published and establishing a career.  Because once you’ve internalized the concrete skills, what’s left is intangible.  Things like voice, theme, meaning.  The “so what?” factor.  Why did you write this story and how do you get that across in a meaningful way?

Things like voice and theme create a unique, emotional experience for the reader.  Add in a “why” to give it a point and the reader will feel like reading our story was time well spent.

We can get readers to love our stories by making them worth reading.   And if it’s not a waste of their time to read it, then it’s not a waste of our time to write it.

As a reader, what makes you connect to a story?  What types of voice do you like or dislike the most?  Do you consciously notice themes as you read?  What makes your favorite stories stick in your head?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Laura Pauling

great post. I agree. You have to have the writing and structure but beyond that to make a story great, the heart and emotion has to be there! I love a book that not only has the fictional elements I like, but great heart too!


I think if we find the heart of our story consciously – writing it in a meaningful way – will follow. I tend to gravitate to certain themes. Probably because I live them on some level. I’m thinking: looking out for the underdog and succeeding against the odds – that type of thing, because I believe, when there’s an emotional attachment to the subject – heart and voice will shine through.

Great post, Jami!


Lisa Gail Green

As always, great post! I tend to believe that if the MC learns/grows, the reader learns and grows with him. BTW I LOVE the JK quote on your sidebar!

J.A. Paul
J.A. Paul

I think this is your best post since I’ve been reading! If you answer these questions before you start to write your story then the writing will be the easy part.
This one line says it all: A story is worth writing when it’s worth reading.
I think a story teller’s job is to make sure there is a big payoff for the customer (reader/listener).

Great job, Jami.


The stories that are “great” to me have to have something big and new that I can take away. They have to teach or show me something that I’ve never heard of before. E.g. —-a new kind of Character A new kind of person, new kind of quirk, personality, etc I love Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights because I’ve never seen anyone so intensely passionate, so filled with hate and thirsty for revenge, so monstrous, yet so fascinating at the same time! Likewise Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch captivated me because she yearns so intensely for the good, is hyper-religious (in a very impressive way), yet is so affectionate, tender, and innocent all at once. ———-A new kind of Relationship I like stories that show me a special, idiosyncratic kind of relationship. Not something like simple romantic love, or simple friendship, or simple filial love. This relationship may be one that I’ve never heard of before, or have rarely heard of, like a girl and her imaginary friend who becomes her lover. It can be a complex relationship, e.g. the pair could be mother/ son, older sister/ younger brother, and best friends simultaneously. Or it can be an ambiguous relationship, where you’re not exactly sure what to call the two characters. The classic one is the: they don’t look like best friends, but they don’t look like lovers either. There are probably more examples of special/ complex relationships, but I can’t think of any more for now. ———a New Theme/ Philosophy /…  — Read More »


Oh I also want to add that: (Sorry for double posting! I wish I could edit my post instead…)

A novel is “Great” if there’s a deep psychological, emotional, moral, or spiritual COMPLEXITY in it—especially if I feel this complexity in the prose itself. Yup. Not just in the characters and story, but in the actual text as well.

So Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, White Fang, The Mill on the Floss, and The Blue Castle (L. M. Montgomery) are some of my favorites.

White Fang shows its psychological complexity mostly in the character and story, but the other 4 examples demonstrate a lot of this “complexity force” through their (sometimes thick) prose passages.

Hope my suggestions are helpful!


I have spent several days now reading over your blog. and have found it informative and entertaining. this three part “when is a story worth writing” was well worth my time to read, thank you.


[…] we’re faced with several story ideas, part of our decision on which story seed or premise to develop should be which one we feel most passionately about. Which one speaks to us. Which one has […]


[…] what we want to say can make all the difference. If we know what makes our story worth reading (the “so what?” factor), we’re more likely to be able to include those themes […]

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