Last time I talked about the warning signs of bad writing, so I thought it only fair that I also talk about the signs of good writing. It’s much more difficult to define, as ‘good’ writing is subjective and it isn’t always possible to identify why we find something enjoyable. Years of Hollywood films and creepy book fads has also taught us that what is good isn’t necessarily the same as what is popular or financially successful. Still, these are the things I’ve discovered which set great novelists apart:
- Exposition done right.
Exposition is one of the hardest things for writers to learn. It is far too easy to dump all of your worldbuilding into the novel all at once or forget about it completely. Writers who can figure out the right balance are amongst the most skilled.
- Something unique.
No novel can be 100% original, unless you want an incomprehensible avant-garde mess, but all of the best novels contain something that is different from the rest. It doesn’t matter if it’s a relationship, a setting, or a little seen perspective. If the book can beat a reader’s expectations in a good way then it is doing something right.
- Diverse cast.
Most authors and publishers are beginning to wake up to the issue of diversity in fiction (or lack thereof), but there is still a long way to go. For many writers it still means shoehorning in a black side character then not knowing what to do with them and killing them off about a third of the way through. This is why there is nothing more refreshing than an author who accurately and sympathetically portrays a diverse cast of characters fitting for the novel’s setting.
- Villains with backstory.
And by backstory, I mean more than just ‘tragic past’ or ‘they were created evil’. I often think that a story is only as good as its villain and a good villain is more than just a guy sitting on his black throne laughing about how evil he is and how much he loves suffering. If we can find out why they are bad, why they genuinely think that what they are doing is right, and how they react when everything they’ve been working for is ruined then that alone makes for a great story.
- Active characters.
I’ve talked before about characters who exist in a story only to have things happen to them and not actively take charge of their own story. One of Pixar’s rules of storytelling is ‘Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.’ Stories need characters who will use their own skills, experiences, and qualities to make something happen and cause their own happy ending, not sit around and wait for somebody to do it for them. These characters gain much more sympathy than characters who just drift from scene to scene barely doing anything.
- Actions have consequences.
Everything that your characters do or experience in the story must have some kind of reaction or consequence, be it positive or negative. The reason The Hobbit has remained a beloved story for 60 years and made a killing in the box office is that it isn’t a standard ‘Go on quest, defeat dragon, get gold’ story. Thorin Oakenshield goes across Middle Earth pissing off just about every person he meets and has to meet the consequences of this later on when he almost dooms the kingdom he’s been working so hard to retake. Almost everything that Bilbo and company encounter on their journey comes together in the climactic battle.
- The story leaves you with something.
This doesn’t have to mean a tacked on last minute lesson or moral. Whether it is an emotion, a memorable character, or just the feeling of a really good story, the novel should leave the reader with something other than just the thought ‘is that it?’
While I was putting together this list, I found out that what I have put here is actually just a small selection of what makes a good story. I wouldn’t be able to list all of them. Most bad novels use the same cut and paste formula as all the others. A great novel can be anything.