It’s true that stories are like jokes, it all comes down to the way you tell ‘em, but there has to be more to it than that.
These last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time online, reading blogs and interviews with successful authors and editors, looking for guidelines about how best to tell a story (like Elmore Leonard’s list of rules, quoted by L.J.Sellers, over at the excellent Blood-Red Pencil ). I found a lot of advice about things to avoid, what not to do, and what to leave out, but so far, I haven’t come across a comprehensive list of things to put in.
Here’s my idea of what’s required in a great story:
1. A great opening line (not to mention a compelling reason within those first few paragraphs to get the editor to turn to page 2 ) .
2. Interesting characters
5. Conflict (and lots of it)
7. Believable dialogue
8. Change (applies to both character(s) AND the reader)
9. Satisfactory Resolution (from the reader’s point of view)
10. A memorable ending
Of course, not all of these are essential, or exclusive eg; a satisfactory resolution and a memorable ending are often the same thing. Also, I’m sure you can quote examples of great stories that lack one or more of the above, but despite that, I hope you’ll agree that each one of them adds a little something extra.
Most of these elements are easy to define, and easier to spot, though theme and change might need a little more explanation.
Others may have a different opinion, but when I think of theme, I imagine putting a story into a fable-like truth that, even if it isn't absolute, we wish it were eg; blood is thicker than water, love is blind, cheaters never prosper etc. It’s what connects you with the readers, who probably never give your theme a conscious thought, but when it’s there, it gives them that satisfied feeling we all get when from reading a great story, and when it isn't, leaves them unfulfilled.
As for change - and again this is just my opinion – aside from changing your character(s), the events in the story should alter the reader's opinions in some way, whether it’s how they view the character(s), or how they see the world.
Have I missed anything out? If so, please let me know.