Have you ever been reading a story, and you put it down because it’s terrible? It just doesn’t offer anything.
Recently, in one of my fiction classes, one of my students wrote a story that was completely lacking in appeal and content. She had no idea what to put in a story and why to put it there, never mind how to shape and successfully conclude a tale. (I’ve seen this in other students’ writing too.)
Her task got me to thinking: what do we want from fiction? What makes a story great?
There are as many answers to that question as there are readers. Here are some of them. Read over my suggestions to get a sense of the possibilities for your own story.
Some people want fiction to allow them to escape from the reality they know. This kind of fiction takes people to places they’ve never imagined before, be it foreign countries or foreign planets. In this fiction, the reader can get lost in an exotic locale, complete with exotic characters.
Positive Social Change
Some desire fiction to inspire social change. They want critical fiction that evaluates and “re-visions” the world. These works create waves in the real world. Things are changed for the better because of these works.
Laughs and Wit
Belly laughs are desired by some readers. They want a sublime humor, the kind that is critical of humanity—critical, but kind.
Some want the tales to be like puzzles they have to solve. These works don’t worry about explaining themselves. They present reality in an amazingly complicated way, on their own terms.
Some like more predictable worlds with predictable characters and predictable plots. For instance, a reader may want the girl character to find a Mr. Right character and get married in June. Every time.
Perhaps, because of a difficult life, a reader seeks a happily-ever-after ending. These kind of endings often depict a world where everyone finds love and acceptance.
Some readers want to be shown aspects of the human condition they’ve never seen before. It may be a surprising turn of phrase, an image or a scintillating piece of dialogue—if the surprise element is present, this prose is gratifying.
There are those who love suspense, crave excitement. Will the villain harm the hero? Will the hero get away? Will humanity as we know it survive?
Many readers are interested in the world of ideas. In some novels, whole passages of philosophy break up the narrative. What’s important is creative analysis of the world.
Visible" characters and settings
Some hope to see people and places they’re reading about. They want the description to be so captivating that they feel as though they are seeing the whole ensemble and locale.
Some want to be educated by their fiction. A story can teach one how to behave in a civilized fashion or how to be a friend or even how to forgive. A story can be a great teaching tool.
Connection with characters
Some readers want to empathize with the characters. They want characters so real, so well drawn that they feel like they know them intimately and care about them completely. Readers want fictional friends.
Story resolution/Change in a character
Some want there to be great contrast in the character’s makeup from beginning to end. In other words, some readers like to monitor a change in a character. This change usually occurs in the main character.
Meditative quality that reading can bring
Some people need their fiction to be like a drug, something they can get lost in. The fiction in question might be a psychedelic fairy tale or a poetic yarn.
Before you write, it’s important to know some of the things readers want from their fiction, so that you can deliver the goods in your stories. Before you write, make a list of some of the things you like fiction to give you. What makes a great story great? What great things does it deliver?
As you’re writing keep, these great “gifts” in mind.
For, ultimately, you are giving a gift with your fiction to your readership.
What do you want to give?
This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.