What Makes A Story Great?

Several years ago, I stumbled across the book Holes, by Louis Sachar.  Back then my three sons and I had a routine.  Every afternoon after I picked up my sons from school, I immediately took them to our small town’s library.  We would stay there until my sons had finished their homework, then we would stop by a fast food drive-by window before beginning our hour-long drive back to our home in the sticks.  I got into the habit of picking up an audio book at the library to listen to on our long commutes to and from school.

This day, I noticed that Holes was a recent release as an unabridged audio book. It was advertised as a book for adolescent boys. The cover was unimpressive and I thought that we would most likely listen for the first hour and then go back to our usual listening after being bored out of our minds. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had no expectations that this book would be anything more than mediocre. Like I said, I didn’t think we would even finish listening to it. Mostly, because I don’t like modern or contemporary stories. As we got into the story, I noticed that my sons were really enjoying it. After we got home, they would sit in the car until we finished listening to the current chapter. They began discussing it once they were inside the house trying to predict what would happen. I was glad for them, but I was just thinking it was an alright kids book. When we finished the book, however, I was stunned. I remember saying out loud, “I think we just listened to the greatest story that I have ever heard.”  As an avid reader, I was struck by the force of my own statement.

Looking back, I realize that it was not the greatest “story” that I had ever heard.  It was, however, the best-written story I had ever heard.  Over the years, I have heard, read or seen in movies, many really great stories. I still stand by my statement. In my opinion, Holes is the best-written story that I have ever encountered. I am not talking about prose. I am not even talking about the story itself. It is not a literary genius in the strictest sense. It is simply the best-written story. As amazing as that sounds, I have never been tempted to read anything else written by the same author. I think most likely it is a fluke, a one-off, something that cannot be duplicated. Like I said, there are better stories out there, they are simply not as well written.

So, what makes a story great? A story can be great and yet be totally mangled in the author’s attempt to put it down on paper. A few months ago, I came across a wonderful story that was nicely written, it even had great characters, but what ruined it was simply the order in which the events were told. Interestingly, the order in which the events were presented was the way they would have the least possible impact on the reader. Why? It could have been a great story.

I believe that a great story grips you as a reader in such a way that it never lets you go, no matter how long ago you read the last sentence. In my lifetime, I have encountered a few of those. It doesn’t even have to be an original idea for that to happen.

Let me give you an example, not because it is the best example, it is just the most recent one making it the one most fresh in my mind. The day before yesterday, I received an email from Amazon trying to introduce me to their Instant Video service.  They had several movie options in order to entice me to try their service. I noticed one movie that I didn’t know existed, but the poster was good and it was with an actress that I have liked in the past, so I clicked on the link.  I read the blurb and it sounded so familiar, but I knew that I had never watched this movie. I watched the trailer and it didn’t look bad. As always, I read the negative reviews first and someone said the two leads had no chemistry. Well, that didn’t sound right to me, they appeared to have great chemistry in the trailer. Granted the story was one of adultery, so I was turned off by that, but it said that the R rating was given not for graphic sex, as supposedly there was none, but instead was given for the depressing subject matter. What? Against my better judgement I made the mistake of deciding to watch it. I was no further than five minutes into it before I realized that it was not my kind of movie and again it was not because of the adultery angle. Let me just stop right here and say that I am not condoning adultery.

The problem with this movie was a classic example of a good story ruined by the order in which it was presented. I know this because the trailer was much better than the movie. It was due to the story being told out of order that made people think that the two leads did not have chemistry, which they did, but it ruined the whole thing. Notice I didn’t mention it was a wholesome story, but it might have been a good story.  Let me explain.

This movie is a remake of a remake of a remake. Here is the basic story-line: Set in London during either one of the world wars, English girl falls in love with a soldier going off to war, usually he is a Yank, but sometimes he is an English lord. This story has been done numerous times before and thus began my research into other movies with the same story-line. In less than an hour I could count no less than ten movies with the same basic plot. The oldest one I found was filmed in 1931, but that doesn’t mean it was the first, just that I didn’t find any older than that one in my quick search. Since some of them looked quite interesting, and included legendary actors, I decided to watch some of the older ones.

After watching a few of them, I couldn’t shake the sensation that many years ago I had watched one of these and it had greatly impacted me. Indeed it must have been a great story because some twenty to thirty years later I was still thinking about that one story and how not one of these other movies was as good. The problem was that I couldn’t find the one I remembered. I went to bed still thinking about it and remembered that it was with one of my favorite actors of all time. So, who was that actor? Was it Cary Grant? No, I couldn’t find it in his credits. Was it Dana Andrews? No. Was it in color or black and white? I couldn’t quite remember, but in my mind I could still see the guy standing on a street corner waiting for his love to arrive. I didn’t even remember why it had impacted me so much, but now I was desperate to find it.

Well, I finally found it after looking for it for two whole days. After all of that build up, I hesitate to tell you the name of the movie and especially who the actors are. I wonder how many people can guess. Suffice it to say that the movie was not well received when it came out, which is strange given that it is the same exact story-line as all of these other critically acclaimed movies. Plot: Married English lady falls in love with Yankee pilot. I watched it again and was again struck by the story. I feel that I must repeat that I do not condone adultery or sexual immorality in any form in real life; however when it is presented in fiction, well it just depends on how it is presented and for what reason and how it is dealt with. Sometimes it can make the story stronger, especially if the character repents and turns from it and the reader can learn from it and decide to not let it into their real life. In this case, the pilot does not know she is married when he falls in love with her and contrary to all of the other movies with the same plot, the guy shows that he is an honorable guy. I think that in itself is the main reason that this movie stayed with me all of these years. All of these movies, well most of the ten that I researched, have a very tragic ending. The one that impacted me, does not have your traditional happily ever after, but it does not end in complete tragedy.

Just as an aside, most of the haters of this movie supposedly dislike it because of the adultery. In reality, the two leads were in a relationship at the time they filmed the movie. I call it hypocrisy on the part of movie goers to disapprove of adultery if the characters are the ones committing it and not the actors. Just saying.

So what does make a story great?  In my opinion, there has to be at least one character that is larger than life, I think that is key. This is why superheroes are so popular. We all want to believe that even if we ourselves are not extra-ordinary, the possibility exists that there could be someone better than us out there, one who supersedes or overcomes our current limitations, even if we can’t see him in our reality. We can dream about him or read about him.