What Makes a Good Story?

The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure coverMy grandmother introduced me to the Hardy Boys books when I was about 11 years old. My favorite literature at the time consisted of comic books, the DC and Marvel superhero brands that were beginning to tell complex, multi-issue arcs. Characterization was taking on increasing importance for the comic writers, and they were striving to tell stories relevant to the times. The Hardy Boys books had no relevance to my generation. They were just clean, fun adventure stories about teenage boys solving mysteries.

I remember trying to read one of those books again when I was about 16 or 17. I had outgrown them by that age and they no longer seemed appealing to me. I was well into my developing fondness for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Andre Norton, who wrote for larger audiences. But while I was still into the Hardy Boys I was able to travel around New England or across the country, visit mysterious caves, follow spies and criminals through their futile attempts to avoid justice, and wonder if Chet Morton would ever get a girlfriend (Frank and Joe both had their girlfriends — why didn’t Chet get one?).

Well, mystery writing has influenced modern fantasy in many ways. Andre Norton’s books often bring young characters into contact with new cultures, where they have to unravel ancient curses, stop evil-doers from completing nefarious plots, and maybe pick up a boyfriend or girlfriend along the way.

Actually, you rarely read about “dating” relationships in fantasy stories. Men and women (or boys and girls) share adventures and dangers together and then realize by the end of the story that they are soul-mates and just sort of get married (or settle down together). Mystery stories often involve dating scenes, encounters in bars, at museums, etc. Mystery stories are rooted in mundane, everyday non-magical life and their magic consists of the shrewd approaches people take to resolving their various conflicts.

Nonetheless, a good fantasy story draws the reader into its world with elements of mystery and discovery. Just as the mystery story gradually unveils clues that help you put together a larger picture, good fantasy stories gradually assemble all the parts of their milieus so the reader can understand the framework of the characrers’ universe.

Science fiction stories can also follow the classic mystery model. C.J. Cherry is a master (mistress?) of enveloping a science fiction universe with intrigue and elements of the thriller. Her thugs carry blasters, lasers, and rayguns; her criminal masterminds speak inhuman languages and have inhuman motivations; her crises and stakes are a bit more weighty than who inherits the family fortune.

It’s no accident, though, that many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers have written mystery stories, pulp adventure tales, westerns, and police dramas. They transfer the elements of those genres to the SF and F genres to make their stories, worlds, and characters more interesting. A good fantasy story doesn’t focus on witches and wizards, dragons and elves — it focuses on the conflicts and struggles between titanic forces, whether those forces are greed and ambition, personal esteem, or good and evil.

Struggle and conflict are key to every successful story. You can write a novel about a man struggling to make his keyboard work a certain way. You can write a short story about a kid trying to figure out who drank the last of the orange juice. You can write a series of stories about teenagers plotting to take the state football championship away from a rival school. As long as you have a starting point where conflict disrupts the equilibrium of someone’s world, and move that character through the struggle to establish a new equilibrium, you can put together an engaging, entertaining story.

And that’s what the Hardy Boys books do. They disrupt equilibrium and move characters through a struggle to establish a new equilibrium. But for some reason, they stopped appealing to me as I grew older. On some level, the stories are too simply written, maybe too formulaic and predictable. But there are many fantasy and science fiction stories that are also simply written and predictable. And yet, they can hold the attention of an aging audience.

What is the difference?

I think that J.K. Rowling may have shown us what fails with the Hardy Boys through her Harry Potter novels: Frank and Joe never grow up. They move from adventure to adventure and are always the same. Harry Potter changes with each new book. He gets a little older, a little wiser, and he remembers the successes and failures of his previous adventures. He is accumulating baggage and taking his frustrations and ambitions into the future with him.

A timeless story follows the growth of one or more characters. In The Lord of the Rings, by the time we get to the final page, Sam Gamgee has grown from the little gardener who crawls around Mr. Bilbo’s Bag End to the Master of Bag End, and there is a satisfying, if saddening, feeling of finality and completion when he takes his daughter into his lap and says, “Well, I’m back.”