What makes a story great?

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Of all the movies we’ve watched, of all the books we’ve read, why do some stand out and others are forgotten as quickly as they were picked up?  What is that thing that makes us live in the story, long for it, and embellish on the world created by another?  For centuries, people have been trying to put their finger on that spark of amazement so that others can finally understand, but so far, no one has managed.

And if you think I have the answer, you’re wrong.

I wonder about this every single time I write a book.  As I edit it, I fret that I’ve missed it, or that my best attempts will never ensnare my readers.  I honestly don’t know what makes that kind of greatness, but I try, and I’m going to keep trying until I’ve found it.  (Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to blog about it when I do!)

Now, all of this came up because I was talking about Star Wars the other night with my husband.  I don’t believe it’s the “magic” (force) in the story that has turned so many children into lifelong fans.  I don’t think that part of the fantasy is what makes that series into something so life changing.  I mean, dozens of books have better, more fleshed out, and much more interesting magic styles.  So, if not magic, then what?

Is it the blending of genres?  Star Wars is a beautiful mix of science and fantasy.  What with the overarching evil power (the dark side) and the sadly outclassed heroes, we’re walking straight down the typical fantasy genre tropes.  Add in some space ships, a few ray guns, and a lot of planet hopping, and well… it’s good.  But no, I don’t think that’s the secret, either.  I mean, why did Star Wars excel at the theater, but Jupiter Ascending pretty much flopped?  Granted, I kinda liked Jupiter Ascending, too, but I’ve never been known for my good taste.

But anyways, back to the point.  My husband, being the ever pragmatic man that he is, had a theory, and I think it’s a damned good one.  Keep in mind, this is coming from a man who is married to an author but has always hated reading.  He tells me that he’ll wait for the movies to come out so he can see how good my books are.  Ugh!  It’s a good thing he’s perfect, otherwise I might strangle him!

As for his theory?  He says Star Wars stuck with him for so long because of the characters and the universe.  The world was diverse, with its own rules – and ones that didn’t always play FOR the good guys.  In fact, all too often, the world just kept on doing its thing, and the people in it didn’t really change much at that moment.  Huh, kinda like in reality.

And the people?  You have a displaced princess with a superiority complex, an annoying farm boy, a criminal and his scary, hairy pal, and some expensive technical toys – er, droids.  But they’re all so much more than that.  Leia was strong and weak in her own way, but she wouldn’t back down.  Luke was determined and proud, but ignorant of so much.  Han Solo had the charm, the jokes, and all the makings for the leading man, but he wasn’t the hero of this story.  He was the sidekick.  Never mind the actual sidekicks!  A Wookiee who never had his language translated at the bottom of the screen?  Talk about getting sucked right into the story, lost in the fantasy of it, and feeling like you’re standing right there beside them!  Oh, and of course that annoying micromanager and his buddy who talks behind his back.  Yeah, we’ve all known people like those droids, but these were programmed to be like that… which makes you wonder why someone would have wanted them to be that way.

See?  The characters brought up questions, and each one sucked the viewer a little deeper into the abyss of imagination.  All the mismatched elements added up to something so much larger than an orphan “chosen one” with magical powers meant to save the universe.  This wasn’t a story about that.  It was a story about the people carried along in all of that and how that affected them.  This was a story about characters, from the bounty hunter who had screen time measured in seconds but is still a fan favorite to the mentor who really wasn’t that popular until much later.  Star Wars made people think about the act of being PEOPLE.

I don’t know if that’s really why some stories matter more than others, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s true.  I’m an eternal optimist, and I always want to write the happy things.  I really want to pamper my invented creatures and leave them better off than I found them, but it doesn’t work like that.  Every trial my characters face is a chance for them to grow.  It’s not torture, it’s opportunity, all wrapped up in the agony of living a real life.  The more real my characters feel, regardless of how impossible their world is, the more the reader slides deeper in the story.  The longer they face problems, the more the book pulls at me (or movie) and makes me want to keep turning the page.

And when I look at my other beloved stories, I see the same thing over and over.  Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, The Dragon Riders of Pern, The Last Unicorn, or even Harry Potter.  They aren’t stories about fantasy.  They’re stories about the human condition, set in a way that makes it easier to isolate the specific trial that most people never realize they’re facing in their daily life.  They’re stories we can all understand because we’ve been that person.

Now, the big question is, do I understand humanity well enough to convey that in my wildest imagination?  I honestly don’t know, but I’m going to try.  You’ll have to tell me if I ever succeed.

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