When I entered college in 2011 (a scrawny North Dakota boy with glasses, a sniffing tic, and a haircut from my dad’s electric clippers), I became obsessed with answering a question.
What makes a story worth telling?
In the coming years, I’d find many answers.
First, my fiction professor taught me the power of “change.”
Vinny was his name. He gave a great baseline criterion for what makes a story worth telling, saying good stories often depict a change in a character. After all, if the events of a story don’t inspire some kind of change or growth, how can they be extraordinary enough to be worth our attention?
I found this guideline helpful. But it wasn’t all-encompassing (as I’m sure he knew). There were many stories, after all, that resonated with me that didn’t depict a clear change in the main character. I loved those stories. Weren’t they also worthwhile?
Poetry & nonfiction stretched my understanding of meaningful experiences.
Poetry was the first workshop I joined outside my specialty. I wanted to see how other genres created meaningful experiences.
In fiction, character growth was my guide, but in poetry, we were taught to sharpen our focus around a moment in time, to capture a feeling, experience, or insight. Our writing became less about depicting change (though it could do that), and more about preserving meaningful moments in literary amber.
After that, I joined a creative nonfiction workshop. Here the paradigm shifted yet again, away from creating meaning through implication, and toward actively guiding readers through the experience — shaping the meaning like a potter at the wheel.
These experiences opened my eyes to different ways of creating meaning, even if the tactics arose from different genres.
My MFA gave me the clearest direction yet.
In 2015, I moved to New Hampshire for an MFA in fiction (where I got metal-rimmed glasses, grew out a beard, and started paying a barber).
One of our professors, Tom, gave us a particularly clear fiction model to work off of. Simply put, we used this character-driven plot structure to drive characters through this 4-step character journey — in which they change and grow.
This model gave me the clearest sense of direction I’d ever had for writing “good” stories, and I threw myself into it. (It still forms the bedrock of my current writing style.) But after a year, this approach to writing and critiquing became nearly second nature — and I started to feel its limitations.
The model was effective, to be sure; but there were still so many stories that resonated with me that didn’t fit nicely into this box, or any of the other boxes I’d discovered over the years.
That’s when I had a realization.
What makes a story worth telling? What I came to realize was that we have many answers — but not all the answers. And we never will.
The different rules, tips, and tricks we follow to write “good” stories are merely the tried and true paradigms for success — the reliable pathways that have worked for our teachers and predecessors, which makes them useful for learning and developing a feel for what works on average.
But they’re not the limits of what can make a story worth telling.
They’re the beginning.
Storytelling is a wide, open sea, with many familiar paths — but just as many uncharted waters. That’s the scary (but exciting) thing: no set of tips, models, or guidelines could ever fully predict the subjective spark of a good story.
All we can do is follow the charted paths when they suit us.
And embark upon unfamiliar waters when they don’t.
Did you enjoy this post? Subscribe below to get an email notification whenever I post new writing tips on how to hone your craft and nurture meaningful stories.