What makes a story worth telling?
It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, and on the surface, I think it’s easy to answer:
If there’s a story you want to write, you should write it.
But in asking what makes a story worth telling, I think we’re looking for more than just permission. I think we’re looking for what makes a story important, impactful — meaningful.
When I was a kid, for example, what made the Harry Potter series so important to me and to so many others, and why, after all these years, does it still resonate so deeply?
And what about other stories? From the pulpy and fun, to the serious and literary, we’ve all loved and been influenced by a variety of stories. But what made them meaningful to us?
My clearest conclusion to date is…
The role of the reader in making stories meaningful.
As writers, we often see ourselves as the sole curator of our story’s meaning — using craft elements like theme, characterization, imagery, and plot to shape our stories into art.
But craft alone isn’t enough to make a story meaningful to readers. Our craft may help us ignite a reader’s experience of our work, but if craft alone were the answer, it would be hard to explain how a poorly written story could ever become meaningful to someone.
And poorly written stories do become meaningful to people. We try to brush these experiences off as flukes of poor taste, but does that really make the experience any less valid?
The reason bad stories sometimes resonate (and good ones sometimes don’t) is because of something outside the story: the reader. Their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and fears. The things they love, hate, or consider important, or the things they’re seeking in life, like love, inspiration, escape, or hope. The reader’s unique perspective is what ultimately determines whether a story is meaningful to them.
A writer’s craft and technique, again, can make a reader far more receptive to a story and guide them toward certain truths, emotions, and themes. But the story itself is just the flint; the reader is the one who has to pick up the story and strike it against their experiences — to see if it sparks.
But where does that leave us as writers? And how does knowing this help us write stories worth telling?
Well, first, it helps us come to terms with the fact there is no clear, singular answer to what makes a story meaningful. It can be any number of things and will vary from person to person. So all you can do is write what you love, what you believe to be important, and see if the world agrees.
Second, it reaffirms the importance of continually honing our craft. Bad stories may sometimes become meaningful, but more often than not, the reason a story resonates with readers is because the author has done something right.
And third, when we accept that readers are part of what make our stories meaningful, we stop seeing them as passive, and start seeing them as collaborators. We understand that while we craft our stories with certain messages in mind, our readers will inevitably add their unique perspective to the reading — taking our stories beyond the constraints of our own intentions.
“Meaning,” in this sense, stops being something that exists within a story, and becomes something that exists between a story and its reader. And to know that, as a writer, is an advantage.
In the posts to come, I plan to dig deeper into these ideas and to explore how we as writers (with the reader as collaborator) can craft stories with meaning and impact — including my first post on the hotly debated definition of theme.
If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll check back in!
If not, no worries. But I feel like this is worth exploring, so I plan to keep writing.