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August 8, 2012

Four (Kinda-Sorta) Important Elements for a Good Story

I would like to consider myself lucky.  I’ve barely had Persona 4 Arena for a full 24 hours, yet it’s notably and easily exceeded my expectations.  The look of the game is fantastic.  It’s overflowing with style.  The combat, while intimidating at first, is easy enough to understand once you dive a bit deeper into the game.  There are plenty of little flourishes, from one of the game’s characters thanking Atlus and ArcSys for “sponsoring the program” to a slick main menu…and just in case you haven’t nerdgasmed at the sight of your favorite mystery-solving teens in glorious HD sprites, classic music plays in the background (along with plenty of new tracks, of course…accented by a bonus CD full of remixes guaranteed to get your toe tapping).

It’s been a while since I’ve played a game that made me want to stay up all night.  But lo and behold, P4A is just the game to make me want to do it.  And not just because of the fighting game arms race my brother and I ALWAYS have (though a fair portion of my time went towards trying to learn some Yosuke combos); it’s the story that made me want to swear off the sandman.  Even with just an hour or so of playtime, I can sense that my trust in Persona 4 -- which I consider to be a pillar of fine writing, video game or otherwise, as well as one of my Top 5 Favorite Games -- wasn’t misplaced.  In fact, I’d argue that even with a cursory glance, P4A’s story is even better.  I’ll likely discuss the game in more detail in the coming days, but for now I’ll just leave you with this image:

 I’ll acknowledge that there’s still a lot of time for P4A to go awry (and that I need to take of the fanboy goggles to view things objectively), but I’m pleased with the product so far.  But that aside, I want to focus on something a bit more to my speed.

I like to remember the days when I first started this blog, and I thought to myself, “Hey!  You know what?  I can discuss video games AND writing in equal parts!  There’s no way one of them could ever absorb the other like an amoral, uncaring, always-eats-the-last-slice-of-pizza blob creature!”  Flash forward to this month, and suddenly, there’s…well, a certain imbalance.  Yeah, I’ve discussed writing in the context of video games and movies and…video games…but I feel like I’ve rarely touched upon writing conventions in the buff.  Part of that’s because outside of doing my fair share of writing, I’m not exactly an authority in the field (as evidenced by my general lack of being a world-renowned, country-renowned, state-renowned, city-renowned, and likely even neighborhood-renowned author).  But even so, I have opinions and ideas that might help me BECOME a renowned author, and I imagine that there’s no harm in giving my thoughts on a certain subject.

And that subject?  “What makes a good story?”

The answer to that is as varied as it is unanswerable…which makes you wonder why I’d even bother bringing up, but hear me out.  The ultimate answer to that question is only evasive because there are so many possible answers.  Everyone who writes (or even enjoys) a story, regardless of medium, has a different set of qualifiers that make up that answer.  Neil Gaiman likely has a different set of qualifiers than, say, Neal Stephenson -- and they probably have differing opinions from Shaquille O’ Neal.  Probably.

This movie was worth it just to get the special toys from Taco Bell.

The point is that as long as there’s more than one person in the world, we’re never going to come to an ironclad conclusion about the ultimate elements of a story.  All we can do is offer our ideas and hope they’re enough to provide a solid argument.  Proving a case, as Judge Mathis would say. 

And I intend to prove mine.  Hold on to your butts.

4) Balance
In a Nutshell: A good story gives the right amount of time to each of its elements.

Exposition.  Flashbacks.  Backstory.  Character development.  Fight Scenes.  Words.

Those are words.  And these are words.  Consider your mind blown

This is the jpeg that keeps on giving.

But of course, how you string those words together -- order-wise and number-wise -- determines what shape your story takes.  Obviously the exact number of words you have to put in for your ideal product will vary depending on the particulars of your story; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an entirely different beast compared to Shakespeare’s Richard III.  There are elements that make a story, and deserve to be given added emphasis to give it that flair.  Or those elements can be a key, yet unique method to convey information.  But put too much of that element into a story, and you make the scales of your story crash.  The biggest contemporary (i.e. nerdy) example would be the Naruto anime, whose preponderance of flashbacks, while sometimes important and effective, more commonly drag the pace to a half-millimeter an hour.  Which is a shame, because it’s a show about ninjas wizards duking it out.  A well-balanced story can make a story.

But of course, it goes beyond just narrative elements.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, I like stories with levity.  And as I’ve mentioned well before that, I like stories that balance action, comedy, and drama.  It takes effort to work multiple tones and types of events into a story; it’s very easy to misuse those tones as well.  But those who can successfully pull off the balance -- those who can capture the essence of life, which in itself is a mixture of highs and lows -- can put out a product worthy of a fair amount of praise.

Let me be quick to say that you can have a story that focuses heavily on one element -- like a crime drama or an action movie --and still have it succeed, assuming that it’s well-crafted.  Even so, I’d argue that to some, a story that’s too far-aligned in one direction can be alienating (which is just another reason why I think dark and gritty stories need to back off for a while).  As lovers of fiction, and as people, we’ve seen a broad spectrum of events in our lives.  A good story can offer the same with ease.

Pictured: reality.

3) Frames
In a Nutshell: A good story maintains consistency and solidarity; whatever it does, it must do it reasonably well.

This one should be obvious.  A story that’s full of plot holes can hardly be called a story at all…or to put it in a different light, a good story is to a mansion as a bad story is to termite-addled toothpicks glued together.  And then set on fire.

Termites sure are thorough these days...

As I’ve ranted about before, you would think that ironing out the plot holes and issues would be the first thing that movie-makers and game developers would get down first…but in regards to the latter, I recently learned something interesting.  Thanks to the Extra Credits series (which you should be watching if you love video games), I found out that in many cases, the story is actually one of the later elements added into the game -- and writers are brought in solely to provide a reason to string, say, a sinking cruise liner level to a desert level.  Or why fuel that was mostly harmless for two games suddenly causes people to turn into exploding zombies in the third.  Not exactly the best way to do things, obviously, as it can lead to a lot of questioning and head-scratching.  And that’s what’s most important here: internal logic.

Logic forms a story’s frame.  It’s the foundation for a story, and lets the rest of the tale build from there.  But there’s more to it than just being able to be virtually plot-hole free.  Each story’s universe functions under a series of rules and conventions -- internal logic that dictates what can and can’t be done.  And, using that frame helps create tools that a writer can use for his or her story.  Let’s think about this in the context of the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.  Essentially, there are three major things that it does.

One: It can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.  Two: It bestows immense power, but because of that it immensely corrupts people, even with its presence alone.  Three: It draws danger to the heroes by virtue of dark forces out to retrieve Sauron’s bling. 

There is no greater priority in life than maintaining that dark lord swag.

What do all those do for the story?  One: It necessitates a journey across the world, making the story possible in the first place.  Two: Its corruptive appeal tempts a number of characters -- the heroes included -- and makes you wonder who’s going to fall prey to its dark allure.  Three: It draws baddies toward the heroes, applying pressure by way of conflict and compounding until the odds are somewhere between impossible and “hell no, I’m outta here.”  It’s not just a way to have your facts stack up; it’s as powerful a weapon as your keyboard and your mind.

But the reason I say “frames” instead of “frame” is that there’s more to it than just logic, be it the rules of your universe or smart plotting.  It’s important to have…well, let’s call it an “emotional frame.”  A lot of people put their characters in the spotlight, which is fine -- but it’s vital to have said characters acting under a frame of their own, ensuring that their actions are logical, consistent, and fitting with their personalities (unless they’re being forced to act outside their normal mindset by way of things like blackmail, corruption, or misdirection -- basically, interference from a third party).  If this frame falters -- if you have a hero who suddenly changes course on a whim, or a loyal dog that suddenly abandons its master -- people are going to notice, and your story will suffer tremendously.

Again, good frames should be an obvious part of any story -- so much so that I feel silly for even mentioning it here and trying to pass it off as some kind of writing commandment.  But then again, it’s not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.  That honor goes to the time I tried to make my “famous BBQ sandwiches.”

None were spared.

2) Spirit
In a Nutshell: A good story exists for a reason -- it conveys its essence with every creative measure taken.

You could also get away with calling this one the “feel” of a story, but let’s go with “spirit” for now, because it sounds cooler.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “spirit of _______” in one form or another.  A spirit of adventure!  A spirit of wonder!  The spirit of Massachusetts*!  Each one brings with it colorful connotations -- qualities that make a story unique and affecting.  If you can sum up a story’s essence in one word -- one adjective or noun that brings with it a plethora of feelings -- then chances are that the story’s not only pretty good, but also worthy of being remembered by virtue of its character.

An obvious example would be Harry Potter and its “magical” spirit.  J.K. Rowling’s story succeeded, I think, because of the magic.  Magic in the obvious, spellcasting sense, but also because of the potential therein; remember, Harry started out as a neophyte in the wizard world just like us; his discoveries are our own, and with them (and his childish sensibilities at the time) comes discoveries that help build a rich, imaginative, and unpredictable world.  Flying cars!  Trees that smash you!  Cerberus!  The Patronus!  Neville M.F. Longbottom!

You can likely guess what the M.F. stands for.

In many cases -- not all, but many -- it’s a story’s job to provide something we don’t see every day.  The imagination required to craft the Potterverse shows that it’s got its spirit down…and as you may have heard, it’s seen a tiny bit of success.  But a story’s spirit is largely a matter of conveyance.  Writers (or creators in general) have plenty of tools available to them to show their story’s spirit, be it the characters, the world, the events, the themes, and of course their minds.  With the limitless canvases that fiction provides, there’s no reason why any creator should go without giving their product some much-appreciated flair.

1) Voltage
In a Nutshell: A good story gets its audience to have an emotional reaction -- and a powerful one -- of any sort.

The most important question a writer has to face is a simple one: “Why should I read this?”  And while he/she works toward asking that question, somebody else brings the question’s annoying little brother to the party.  “Why should I keep reading this?”

The precise answers, of course, will always vary from story to story, depending on the points the writer needs to convey.  But even so, there’s one thing we can all agree on: people need to have their needs fulfilled.  They may read a book or watch a movie or play a game to pass the time, but they do so with the products geared toward giving them a tasty offering.  It’s why I go all googly-eyed when I see this:

And hold up my arms in rejection when I see this:

There’s something that a good story gives us that a bad story doesn't -- a sort of energy that touches one’s heart in one way or another.  Maybe it’s the ability to instill a wave of sheer excitement and joy, like The Avengers.  Maybe it’s the cathartic power of tears brought about by a playthrough of Katawa Shoujo.  Maybe it’s the none-too-serious misadventures of Captain Underpants.  Or maybe it’s the feeling of satisfaction made by watching the journey of marching penguins, and learning something that changes your perspective.  What’s important is that there’s something to latch onto.  Basically, emotional torque.

Or you could think of it as hype.  People need stories that have something “happening” going on -- something to anticipate for the sake of their satisfaction.  Something powerful that’ll satisfy, or even exceed, their expectations.  If they’re out for a comedy, then give them something that’ll have them rolling down the aisles.  If they need some action, give them showdowns that’ll make them whoop and holler.  And a tear-jerking moment?  Give them something that will not only make them cry, but take the entire week off while they cry alone and refuse to get out of bed.

Be energetic.  Be exciting.  Be like lightning -- make a story that can, and will, shock them to their cores.

Like that, only with more explosions.

And that’s about it.  A lot of these “rules” are pretty self-evident, and like I said, I feel a little silly for even mentioning them.  But I like to think of it this way: these are the four virtues that I intend to take to heart in my quest to become a writing hero.  Maybe they’ll serve me well.  Maybe they won’t.  Maybe I’ll end up adding something later…though I sure hope I don’t, because I like the number four.  But for now, these four elements should be enough to serve me well. 

Even so, they’re still my elements.  I don’t mean that in the “ORIGINAL CONCEPTS -- DO NOT STEAL” sense.  I mean it in the sense that what works for me might not work for other creators.  So take all this as you will -- and more importantly, fair reader, use this as a basis for your own work.  Whether you’re a reader, a writer, a movie-goer, a gamer, comic fan, otaku, or otherwise, you have your own particulars that decides what makes a good story.  Seek them out.  Realize them.  And then, you can tell me off with an even better list of qualifying elements.

Well, that’ll do for now.  If you’ll excuse me, I have more Persona 4 Arena to play.  Poor Yosuke and his nurses…

*Ugh, I just made a Family Guy reference.  I feel so unclean.


  1. I find that your element do work, except for 2 and 1 which are...undefined. I mean I get what you're trying to say but I also get that the points you were trying to say aren't that easily definable anyway.

    But I completely agree that a storymust have a purpose and move toward that purpose with a certainty and a reasnable pace. And I like how you EXPLODE all over the page then shrug and try to play humble Rhamy too at the end of every article.


  2. I agree completely!
    Spirit is a must!
    But I think voltage is the most important to me! If you can creation some emotional connection for the reader, than you can create an epic explosion of emotional response!

  3. What can I say? Humility is my greatest virtue; in my eyes, retaining one's modesty is what being a man is all about.

    Or...something like that. I'd wager you could substitute "punching a tsunami" into that statement, but that seems a wee bit impractical.

  4. Please never make your "famous BBQ sandwiches"

    Seriously, though, I really enjoy reading your articles. Even though I'm not a writer myself, your analyses like this one are really helping me to
    understand WHY certain stories are as good a they are, rather than just a vague
    "it's just good".

    Particularly with that last point, I find that stories that have this
    "voltage" you speak of leave far more of an impact on me than those
    that don't. Like with the aforementioned Katawa Shoujo, so many times I was
    left an emotional wreck at what was happening, as all I could do was bawl my eyes out. Very tear-jerking stuff indeed. (Btw, glad you brought that back up, I remember you talking about it a few months back but no word on it afterward.)

    to use another example, the sense of focus I feel when I play Skyward Sword, never before have I felt such a dire need to go after and save a childhood friend (and it also has some very tear-jerking parts, to boot).

  5. Yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on Katawa Shoujo, mostly for two reasons: 1) I finished Lilly's route (cementing my love for the game), but the thought of resetting and trying to -- shall we say -- "conquer" a new girl made it feel like I was cheating on her. A testament to the developers' skill, to be sure, but I think they might have done TOO good a job. And 2) KS isn't exactly the type of game I want to be caught playing; can you imagine trying to explain the concept to someone? Not very pleasant, I'd wager.

    Though I DID start up Emi's route not too long ago. I'm ready to love again, I think. Be still, my heart. And Hisao's heart, by extension; every time it starts beating rapidly in the game, I feel like I'm about to have a heart attack -- again, a testament of skill.

    Also, Skyward Sword. I seriously need to write a blog post detailing why that game, in my opinion, is PHENOMENAL. It could easily be my favorite Zelda game...and considering that my favorite game ever right now is a Zelda game, that certainly speaks in volumes about its awesome power.

    At any rate, thanks for dropping by my blog every now and then. I'm just doing what I can to try and prove my case (even if said case is why I hate Final Fantasy 13, more often than not). By the sound of things, I'm doing something right -- and I hope you keep coming by so I can keep entertaining yo-

    Wait, what's that? Oh, right, my famous BBQ sandwiches are almost done. Let me just go warm up a bun and -- OH SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

  6. Oh dear God why?! What have you done?!?!? The bodies, they're everywhere!!!!

    Back to KS, I haven't met too many people, even online, who've played it, but from those who HAVE played it this is the general sentiment. It's really interesting to see a case of a game where people don't want to replay it, because they have gotten so attached to certain characters that they actually feel like real people and to go with someone else feels like cheating on them, not because it sucked or it was boring or what have you. I've gone on to all 5 routes myself, because 1) the writing is just so good and the presentation so spot-on I wanted to get to know and understand the other girls as well, and 2) I'm a completionist whore, so unless I see that 100% I can't stop.

    And yes, it's extremely difficult to get across the main point of KS to those who aren't already familiar with it. I don't ever play it around other people for fear of them saying "Oh, you're playing a hentai dating sim, aren't you?!" and I'll never hear the end of it. Also, people really seem to be adverse to the idea of exploring disabilities in their characters for some reason. Everyone nowadays wants the people in their games to be like perfect models or something, and to see someone, say, without arms or legs or with half of their body severely burned really bothers them. At least that's the impression I'm getting.

    Also, really looking forward to that Skyward Sword post, if you do it. It's my favorite game now as well, and I really like to hear what other people though of it.

  7. "
    Also, people really seem to be adverse to the idea of exploring disabilities in their characters for some reason."

    Is that right? Huh...I hadn't really thought of that. I guess disabilities in characters take people out of the experience, given that player characters are supposed to be (or eventually become) supreme badass demigods -- and of course, a stand-in power fantasy for the player. And disabilities ARE a touchy subject, so it's likely something not everyone wants to discuss -- which, again, goes to show the masterful skill of KS by being able to handle the subject(s) so well.

    If you'll let me go off on a tangent, a part of me wonders if visual novels could "work" in a mainstream setting. Mass Effect and LA Noire have elements of a visual novel (and did fairly well in their own right), so it's not as if they're a completely alien concept to most gamers. I'd even argue that the gunplay in Mass Effect takes a backseat to the talky-talky bits.

    Maybe someday...and who knows? Maybe a wave of well-crafted visual novels could give the industry a shot of legitimacy -- or at the very least, act as a counterbalance to the deluge of Knifin' and Shootin' Jamboree clones.

  8. I sure do hope visual novels become more mainstream, now that I'm more familiar with them. I've seen friends go on and on about how great Mass Effect is, and while I'll say the conversation parts are interesting, the blasty-shooty bits seem bland to me. Perhaps if they stuck with the conversation choices more I'd be more inclined to get into it.

    But first the industry would have to get over this whole "good-vs-evil" choice system they've got, having us choose between saving the orphans or harvesting their organs and suck. These blatant black-and-white choices take the fun out of the experience for me, and really there's no thought to it. Just a matter of if you want to end up a good guy or a bad guy.

    That's what I love about the way KS goes about their choices, you actually have to pay attention to what's happening in the story and how people react. I myself had to sit there and ponder the implications and possible consequences for each action, since you really have to understand the characters themselves to make the right decision. And there's no right-or-wrong choices either, just different paths to take that affect how characters interact with you.

    I totally get that there's a place for shooter games, I mean I enjoy an occasional Halo match with friends myself. But they have been suffocating the industry these past few years. I'd like for other genres to become more prominent, and visual novels seem like the perfect one for the industry to expand into.