Notes on Craft: Essentials of a Good Story
by Olakunle Ologunro
I’m here again, just like I promised the last time. I hope you are here with me?
This week’s letter is focused on the essentials of a good story: what they are and how you can deploy them in your own stories. Before anything, I should remind you that our perception of stories (written work, generally) is often subjective. For example, if the choice was between The Joys of Motherhood and Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, I might go for Second Class Citizen while you’d prefer The Joys of Motherhood as the better book. And it’s fine. We will not always like the same work; our taste and preferences differ. But despite these differences, there will be certain qualities shared by the stories we consider excellent and well-written.
Recently, I shared a story with a friend and told him I liked the writing. He said he liked it too, but the story didn’t do for him what he wants good literature to do.
“What would that be?” I asked.
“Reveal character, teach me about humanity.”
I think we can start from here: A good story should reveal character, teach about [or shed new light on] humanity.
In one of my creative writing classes at the university, I learnt about defamiliarisation. Here’s a simple definition: making the familiar appear new. This is a truth we all know — every story we want to write has been written before. There is no new story. It might seem far fetched, but it’s the truth. Are you planning to write something about religion? Done. Domestic abuse? Done too. Infidelity? Done. Queerness? Done too. There really is nothing new. Everything is familiar, known.
How does one then beat this? By making the familiar appear fresh. This leads to what might as well be my next point: A good story makes the familiar appear new, fresh.
To do this, you have to find a fresh approach to the story, an angle that seems unconventional. Chimamanda Adichie’s advice is apt here: “Avoid writing stories that feel too much like Nollywood.” A fresh approach can be through the characterization, the plot, the setting, and the style of language. I have read stories about people grieving lost ones, but I will always remember an excerpt from one of Ayobami Adebayo’s short stories where the walls of the building are the ones narrating the story. That is the kind of story that stays with you. So, before writing, it might be helpful to think of all the ways to tell your story in a way that makes it appear new, that strives to shrug off the overly familiar. I’m not exactly making this a rule; I sometimes just pour stories down onto the page before thinking about it too.
I love Victor Shklovsky’s thought on defamiliarization: “Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived. To do this it presents its material in unexpected, even outlandish ways: the shock of the new.” Again, bear in mind that the ‘shock’ factor is subjective, depends on you or what you have chosen to write.
Whatever you do, never sacrifice substance for style.
Have you ever read a story where the style is tight and what not but feel afterwards that something is lacking? Yes, style is good. Play with language and structure and characters; it is something I love to do a lot. But make sure you do not do it at the expense of the actual story you are telling. Always put the story first. Because at the end of the day, it is the story, the substance, that matters. That is another important point: Always put the story first.
In a good story, empathy for your characters is important. This is quite simple: if you don’t feel anything for your characters, how do you expect your readers to feel something for them? In other words, write characters that are human, humane, flawed like the rest of us. How you see your characters determine what you put on the page, and what you put on the page — the character you write — is what the reader will meet and interact with as they read the short story. Even if the character is outrightly bad, be honest in writing them. You owe the character that much.
One piece of writing advice that has remained with me over the years is this: You can do anything; just do it well. What this means is that there are no cut and dried rules per se. And even if there were, if your story is good enough, it can break the rules. What matters is that you tell a story that is honest and true, a story that leaves the reader with something. Or a story that, when it ends, makes them sit quietly for minutes, awed by the experience they just had.
I’ll stop here now.
Here’s a short story I really like and I think you should read: The Ache Of Longing.
I will be back in two weeks’ time, and we will talk about writer-ly habits. Promise me you’ll be here.
See you soon,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.