What makes a good story?

My daughter informed me the other day that if I wrote a book that began with, “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out and a maid screamed,” she would most definitely read it. Shortly after she said those words, my favorite TV show, Murder She Wrote, came on. You may recall the popular series about Jessica Fletcher, a feisty middle-aged mystery writer-turned sleuth that ran for 12 years, with three TV movies following its cancellation. Well, all rules of fiction were broken in that episode. It began with a dark and story night in Cabot Cove. Within minutes, a shot rang out and someone screamed.

By George, I believe my daughter’s on to something. But you see, she’s a reader, not an editor.

Ever since I began to study writing seriously, I’ve learned that the dark and stormy night gambit is anathema to editors. Cries of, death to the writer of such clichéd, hackneyed pulp go out across the land.

We were told in school never to use contractions or clichés in creative writing. But you can’t swing a cat without hitting them all over the place in popular fiction of all genres. So, what is a writer to think?

Do we sacrifice readability for literary perfection? Do we litter our stories with clichés, mixed metaphors, overdone similes, and contrived plot points? Is there a happy medium?
Frankly, I believe that although an opening such as my daughter prefers might grab a reader, he or she will only continue if likable characters come alongside. We will only care about the stormy night, the shots, and the scream if they are affecting a character we like.

Someone once said that there are no new stories, just different angles. I don’t know if a real person ever said it, but a character from a TV show did, and I remember it, because I liked the character. See?

The harshest criticism an editor ever gave me was that she found my main character cold and unlikeable. Not that my opening was a cliché. Not that my plot was thin. Not that I used too many contractions. No, the main character just didn’t appeal to her. Right there, my chance for manuscript acceptance ended. The editor stopped reading. No matter how good my writing might have been, my story failed for lack of sympathetic characters in the first ten pages.

With a heavy heart I admit that this, ahem, character flaw in moi may be insurmountable. What with my hermit tendencies and my solitary life, I’m challenged. The thing is, writers keep writing. Even as we live in fear we have no more books in us, we slave over a story we hope and pray will knock your socks off and make your hair stand on end. (Which I’m doing right now).

So, please stay tuned…

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