My 2nd grade daughter has been learning about the elements of a good story. These include setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. Sound familiar? Pretty basic stuff. We all have heard about these aspects of storytelling since at least the 2nd grade, but hopefully that doesn’t make them seem worn out. They are in fact just as essential to making a good story as our elementary school teachers taught us. It is really difficult to feel interested and satisfied by a story that is missing any one of these elements or that incorporates them badly. Consider early reader books – “See Jane run. See Dick run. Dick and Jane run.” This may certainly be helpful in a child learning to decode the word “run” but it doesn’t give any drive to keep reading to find out what happens. That’s because nothing happens. The book is missing a plot and a conflict and therefore is also missing people who want to read it.
The most important story element for me is probably characters. I need to connect with the people in a book so that I actually care what happens to them. Otherwise I just have no interest in reading even the most exciting of plots. Stardust by Neil Gaiman was such an interesting story idea and yet the characters were so one dimensional that I didn’t really care to find out what happened to them. On the flipside great characters can make even those most normal of plot events inspiring. Anne of Green Gables is a perfect example of this. Anne Shirley is a dynamic and relatable character so reading about even a simple walk past “the lake of shining waters” is engaging.
Characters must also be consistent. We need to know what motivates them to act the way they do and then their decisions and actions throughout the book must align with those motivations. And if the character undergoes a change of heart then the catalyt(s) for such a change must be explained well enough that we can believe they would truly spur that change in the character. Without that consistency the characters will be difficult to understand, to relate to, to believe in, and therefore to care about.
Theme is a necessary story element, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be provided by the author. The best book themes are those that the reader gets to discover, and that means there can be as many themes in a book as there are people who read it. I find that books where the author preaches the theme in no uncertain terms, those in which we are told bluntly what it is we are supposed to learn are generally bland and sometimes annoying. Even if the message is a positive one, one that we completely agree with it can be unsatisfying to have it spoon fed to us. It takes away some of the power and meaning if I don’t get to use my own capacities for observation and perception to unearth how a book is applicable to my life. The best stories present the events and happenings and leave the analysis and judgment to us.
Miracles on Maple Hill is a book that I found to preach too much. The theme of the healing and restorative powers of nature is a truth I wholeheartedly embrace. My own life experience shows me it is true, but in Miracles on Maple Hill that theme is presented so directly that it feels trite and maybe even cheesy rather than inspiring. (You can read my full review of that book here.) Contrast that with the way the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett presents the same theme. In that story nature almost becomes one of the characters and its interactions with the rest of the cast show us its power to transform, but we are given the opportunity to unearth that conclusion for ourselves. The book and its message become a journey and a memory rather than a sermon.
The way an author presents the rest of the story is just as important as the presentation of the theme. Checkout my next post, Part 3 of The “how” of reviewing, for more.