Today I’m going to talk about what makes a good story. No, I’m not going to discuss the roles of the protagonist/antagonist; I’m not going to talk about a good plot, setting the stakes, introducing conflict, or what makes a compelling character arc; I’m not going to talk about how to create a truly magical fantasy world. All of these things are valuable to a story and are worth knowing, but today I’m going to talk about something called… well, I don’t actually know what it’s called.
What makes a story stick with a reader?
(Don’t get this confused with what makes a reader stick with a story. Today we’re flipping that and looking at it the other way around.)
What is it about some stories that stick with us forever, while other stories we forget about within a week, even though it was wonderfully written and kept our attention? What common element can be found in all timeless stories, stories that will never be forgotten, ever?
Like The Lord of the Rings. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I think it is definitely classified as a timeless story. In fact, this example works out perfectly, because Sam Gamgee (who is the best character in the entire saga and no you may not argue with me) actually tells us about, in his opinion, what makes the best stories:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something…. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
He said this to Frodo in The Two Towers, and he is completely right on every point he made. And he stumbled across that element that should be in all stories if you want them to stick with the reader forever.
Readers want to see characters who fight until the end, even though it looks bleak and impossible. Even though evil will win for sure. Readers want to see characters fight for what they believe anyway. They want to see characters hold on to what little good is left. And of course, good wins in the end. Because these characters fought, even though they had lots of chances to turn back and give up, even if tragedy struck or the darkness ruled, the characters fought and they won.
Readers want to see the timeless truths that are written on their hearts. Everyone, regardless of their religion or worldview, knows instinctively about the constant battle between good and evil. Everyone, whether or not they have ever heard the good news of the Gospel, has an internal longing for redemption. Redemption from anything that holds them captive. And all the best stories illustrate this.
We are a fallen race. We know we are lost. We long to be redeemed. And because of this universal need that drives us, the great stories stay in our minds. If a story depicts an epic display of selfless love, or a dramatic rescue, it will affect us. If we are Christians, the story will especially resonate with us because we know about the saving grace of God. If we are not Christians, the story will leave us thinking about greater things, things that are beyond us, wonderful things we cannot even begin to imagine. And it will still resonate with us because we know that there must be some truth in it somewhere.
And we know that achieving redemption is never easy. There is always a struggle, always a fight. Usually there is a sacrifice. The Harry Potter series is another wonderful example. Regardless of whether or not it was intended, there are countless redemptive messages within that series. The darkness keeps pressing in, evil is overtaking everything, and yet there is a glimmer of hope. There is still the promise of redemption. And the characters had lots of chances to give up. But they never did. They kept fighting until the end, despite tragedy, death, and the general feeling of hopelessness. And they won.
See, all the good stories have that element! A fall from grace and perfection, the long fight against evil, and finally one savior who redeems them all and defeats the evil. This is the Gospel. Sometimes at the end of the story we even get a little glimpse of the end of the end – where everything will be made right again. In The Return of the King, in the very last chapter, we see this. Frodo sails away to the Grey Havens, which is a place where there is no evil and no pain. That part always makes me cry because it’s just so good.
Whether we realize it or not, the Gospel is written on the hearts of humanity. We know the struggle between good and evil is real, and we know we need a savior. Sadly, many of us do not have a personal relationship with the one true Savior: Jesus Christ. And yet, these stories still resonate with us. And maybe, one of them will strike a chord within us and leave us wanting more – and maybe we’ll be led to the Savior.
If you take any great story – any story that has stuck with you from the first time you’ve read it – and you analyze it, I guarantee you will find a story of redemption.
I’ve shared my favorite stories with you, but what are some of yours? Which stories have stuck with you? What was it about them that drew you in so much? I’d love to hear from you!