What makes a good story?

I’m not exactly an expert but I read a lot of short stories. So far this year I’d say I’m close to about 600 shorts in slush alone, not to mention all of the other ones from Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Lakeside Circus, and many many other small press ezines that I frequent. When someone recommends a story on another site, I go read. Then continue reading through much of what’s on the story menu.

There are some pieces I like a lot–others not so much. And that’s okay. No one has the same opinions of the same story. No one should like every story out there. Some have parts that will resonate with certain individuals while other parts will disgust them. It’s part of the reason editors encourage such a range of people to submit stories. It’s a simple fact that the more writers we have of different persuasions, the more variety we will have to read. The more variety we have the more chances that something will cause you to think about what is going on in the world around you.

But no matter the subject or even genre, there are some things that must be contained in the story.  Those are:

  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Scene/Time
  • Action
  • Change

Now this might seem simple, however its not as easy as you think.


In order to have a story you have to have individuals. Individuals can mean a variety of things such as people, animals, aliens or even on occasion objects. The Main Character (MC) is usually the focus of the story. Supporting characters are the next layer down and then you have your background characters. You can have more than one MC so long as the story can support it. Generally speaking flash stories have only 1 MC and very limited supporting or background characters. Novels can have several MCs and rooms full of other characters.

Your MC must be a filled out character. Here we are talking about Mary Sue’s and well rounded characters. Depending on your story, you  might have pages to fill in all of the details about your MC; however, some stories–especially short ones like flash–will only allow a certain amount of detail work. The rest must be implied.  Implied means that there are clues in the story that the reader can use to fill in details. Actions, dialog, and how the character reacts can all contain implied clues.


Plot is one of those things that seem simple until you are actually writing a story.  Plot is what happens in the story. The plot is a line from point A (beginning) to point B (usually at the end.) There can be several plots going at one time in a story. In novels and series there are often several.

Plots can often be broken into internal and external plot lines. The external is what happens outside the character. This would be what the character is working towards or against. Internal is often what happens inside the character. It is often the internal struggle within the character.

For the most part, the main plot has to start with a good hook in the first few paragraphs of the story. It then continues through the story and ebs and flows–especially in longer works. This allows the secondary plots to come to the front and pull the reader along.

Scene and Time

Scene and time are sometimes an over looked necessity. While they might seem important to the story, they often fill in a lot of gaps for the reader. Many times scene and time will establish genre and even give an indication of what kind of people the characters are and what roles they will fill. It can even be essential to the plot.

Scene is often where the story takes place. The story can take place in a single room or across several worlds and even galaxies. Establishing the scene allows both the writer and reader to ground the story in some sort of world, whether it be familiar or unfamiliar.

Time is an often overlooked requirement for a story. Sure some stories are set in a kind of nebulous time frame, but mostly you can pick out details that give at least an indication of when the story takes place. Time lets the reader know that the story takes place in the past, present or future. It allows the reader to create a mindset of what other things were going on while this story happens, even if they have nothing directly to do with it.


Action is one of those things that should be self explanatory in writing but sometimes isn’t. Some stories are action stories. The writer relies on action to carry the story to the end. This heavily skews the plot to focus on what things are going on. Most of the actions are external in these types of stories.

But action can also indicate what a character does throughout the story. Action is often movement that gives the readers more hints at to what the character is thinking and even feeling. It doesn’t always have to involve the plot, but it does support some  portion of it.


Change is–at least to me–the most ignored part of writing. Change can mean a lot of things. It can be external or internal but if nothing changes, if there are no challenges to overcome, then there is not a complete story.

Challenges are often used to create change. This can be a change in the setting, the character or even the plot (think plot twists), or even the time. A challenge is often used to create a situation where the character(s) must overcome an obstacle in order to reach the goal. Often this causes a more drastic change than the characters think at first. It can be compounded by resistance externally or internally.

If your story ends with the characters unchanged, then perhaps the story isn’t quite there yet.

All of these things, and many more are often hurdles writers have to learn to overcome. Writing isn’t a connect the dot sort of occupation. Experience is the best teacher.

Speaking of teaching, classes are now open for a few classed from Carrie Cuinn and Cat Rambo.

Carrie has a short fiction class and an editing class.

Cat Rambo has a list of classes opening soon!

I have taken classes with both of these instructors and found them highly experienced and provided great information. Get signed up soon!





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