Language gives us seemingly endless possibilities to create stories. However, the stories that actually resonate share a common, much more limited structure. The structure of a character, a problem, and an attempted resolution repeats over and over again when it comes to good stories.
Random streams of consciousness do not make for compelling stories. Neither do dream scenarios where everything goes well all the time. Such stories leave us feeling dissatisfied and bored, there is just something not quite right about them. Our mind craves for challenges, for problems and hardships, and for the struggle to eventually resolve them and triumph.
I don’t think this is a problem. Compare this to music, where the instrument places limitations on the music that can be created with it. The tuning system of a piano only gives you a certain set of tones, but the ones available can be combined in countless ways to produce pleasant experiences whereas an inexperienced violin player can create the most hideous combinations of tones. Practically all popular music in the past decades has used the same tuning system and new beautiful combinations keep being discovered. Innovation in a restricted space can be beautiful, sometimes even more beautiful than innovation in an unrestricted space.
Other than the plot structure, interesting stories are created by our own imaginations. Being told everything does not make for an interesting story. It is the art in what the writer chooses to tell outright, and what he hints at and how that immerses us in a story. Winston Smith in 1984, Lúthien Tinúviel in The Silmarillion, Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land – I have an image in my head of what each of them looks like, and that image far exceeds the description offered by the authors. The end result of a story is always co-created by the author and the reader. The more the story is able to pull the reader in to this co-creation process, the more interesting it is.
The narrative and the art played by the words together serve to create emotions in the reader. An interesting narrative told in an interesting fashion is guaranteed to create some kind of emotional response in the reader. Part of the skill of the writer is being able to relate to the audience in order to direct these emotions, as in this aspect as well, the final result is always co-created by the author and the reader.
Finally, there is one other, perhaps the most noble, aspect of an interesting story that is often overlooked. It is the ability of a good story to instill us with a sense of purpose. To reach so far beyond its format that it shapes the way we live our life for weeks, months, or even years to come. Strangely enough, fiction conveys purpose better than reports of real life. Never has there been a stronger argument against totalitarianism than Orwell’s 1984. I was anxious for days after first reading it. It is a more powerful tool against totalitarianism than the true stories of the regimes of Saddam Hussein or Josef Stalin. (Although not as powerful as living in them, which is something I wish no one would have had to go through.)
Interesting stories consist of a good narrative and word choices that invite the reader to co-create the story’s universe and be open to the emotional ride offered by the story. Great stories go beyond that. They instill the reader with a sense of purpose for a lasting effect.