What makes a good story?
Usually the answers to these questions are doorways to conversation, and this one is no different. However, there is a short answer, and I’ll give it to you right here. Know your audience. This is one of those, “sure it sounds easy” answers. How hard could it be? You simply have to draw a couple of Venn diagrams and find the sweet spot, right?
I haven’t mastered this trick yet. My first book was a space-faring tale about rescued juvenile slaves being ferried to a planet where slavery was abolished. Was it a YA? I didn’t write it with a YA audience in mind, and there’s some strong language in the book that suggests it. However, some of my favorite fans are the teenaged sons and daughters of my best friends. I didn’t write it with them in mind, but it tickles me how many of these kids have read and liked my book.
My second novel was even more convoluted, filled with body jumping and chase scenes and con artists and vigilantes. I didn’t write this story for a specific audience. I put the story out and hoped the audience would find it.
I think that’s definitely a way to do things, but I’m not convinced that it’s the best way. There are so many books available all the time on Amazon, and you have to have something to stand out from the crowd. The obvious answer is, “Well, I want everyone to read this book!” Sure you do. And we all want to be J.K. Rowling. But the truth is that your book is going to appeal to a segment of the population. Hopefully there are a lot of nerds that like kayaking, or a lot of belligerent vegans with attitude. (No, really, Thug Kitchen is genius.) And sometimes, things that are meant for one segment of the population (kayaking nerds) goes viral, and appeals to audiences you didn’t anticipate.
That is the magic point. Hugh Howey probably thought there were certain kinds of people would like Wool, and got more than he bargained for. This is why there is no magic formula. The magic formula can’t be quantified.
So, why are we quantifying our audience? To reach them. At this point (at least, the point I’m at) visibility is the key. Getting out there, making a name, putting in hours are the thing.
If we know who our audience is, we can tell a good story.
A good story has obvious components – character, setting, plot to name a few. Every story is a dash of characters against a backdrop of setting, with just enough plot to set things in motion. Every story from Homer to Lovecraft includes these basic building blocks. How you assemble them, how you present the setting and craft the characters and twist the plot, is how you are going to be known as a storyteller.
Knowing your audience is how you are going to determine the course your story takes.
Don’t worry, we’re all still working on this one.