Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: story

What Makes a Good Story?

I have had a very busy year.

A rough estimate would suggest that I have seen over 110 plays in the past 12 months. In a way, it has been fantastic: I have been exposed to so many differing types of stories through the medium of the theatre. In another way, it has been a chore. Most of the shows have been perfectly acceptable pieces of theatre, with a few true “stand-out” pieces. And the elements of those stand-out pieces vary. In some instance, it was the direction, and in others it was design that made it stand above the rest. In yet others, it was the performance – the skill and craft of the actors involved. And in precious few, it was the story – the elegance and execution of a perfectly crafted script.

That definitely gets me thinking: What is it that makes a “good” story so hard to tell?

We can and do spend countless hours trying to understand and master structure. We struggle to perfect the rhythm and the pacing of the piece, and we try to create compelling characters. We throw them into interesting worlds with challenging, believable conflicts, and we hope and pray that we will succeed, that someone will be moved by our work.

So why is it that we so often come short?

I do not have the answers.

I am still learning this myself, and while I have theories, I cannot claim to have true knowledge as to what makes a good story. Indeed, when I read, watch, or experience what I would describe as a “good” story, I often find it challenging to explain why. I find myself saying that it touched me, moved me, excited me, or surprised me. In other instances, it inspired me, sparked something in my imagination that took me to another place, that caused my own ideas to multiply and grow. All good things, but definitely not tangible – and certainly not universal.

The elements of a good story are something I am exceptionally curious about. I do my best to read other people’s take on the subject in an effort to understand what it is, what that magical trick might be, that allows a storyteller to weave a tale that will have an impact.

So I wonder: Can we ever truly master the elements of a good story? Do good stories exist that defy the logic, the “formula,” as it were? And when that happens, why does it happen?

Is it voice? Artistry? A certain je ne sais quoi?

The curiosity lingers.

But we are curious beings, so I can only conclude that this is a good thing.

Have you read any articles that have given you an “ah-ha!” moment when it comes to what makes a good story? What resources have played important roles in the development of your craft? What are some examples of good stories that defy the logic, as it were? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!

A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

When I read fantasy books, there’s nothing I love more than the maps.

Well, maybe the story. But the maps are definitely right up there. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because my first exposure to fantasy was at the age of 10 when I jumped with full abandon into The Lord of the Rings series, followed by The Hobbit. (I still remember my parents being astounded seeing me walking around with the massive 1100-page ‘complete trilogy’ at the cottage. How does a boy go from reading nothing but Calvin & Hobbes to something of that size?)

Maps complete the world for me. Even though our imaginations are incredibly powerful, there’s something wonderful about having a piece of the author’s vision at our disposal. It’s like a sacred secret. They’re sharing with us how they see the world, and it transcends – and completes – the story.

I’m guilty of flipping back to the map every time the characters travel to a new locale, or talks about a distant territory. I love seeing the topography, the rivers they might have had to cross, whether it’s plains or forests or mountainous terrain. It’s a little bit of magic, and a fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it. Some favorite maps include Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

A map of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

When I was 15 and started world building for my fantasy realm, I started with the maps. Well, to be honest, I started with the titles. Titles have always come first to me, whether I’m writing blog posts, books, short stories, or plays. But the map was a close second.

That summer, I sat at the picnic table that served as our dining room in our tiny little cottage and started to doodle. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted the world to be at this point, but I knew I needed a map. I knew the map needed nations, and those nations needed cities. And there had to be conflict. And isolated areas complete with secrets of their own. And cool names. You can’t forget that.

I suppose it should come as no surprize that I value maps so much. I’m a professional actor and writer, and one of the fundamentals of storytelling in both art forms is setting. In my opinion, there is no clearer setting than the world as described by a map. I am amazed, however, at how many stories were born out of this seemingly haphazard – or perhaps careless – doodle of a 15-year old mind.

But perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.

There’s a wonderful saying – and, to be honest, I don’t remember who said it, or which nationality it is attributed to (I believe it is the Native Americans, but I may be wrong) – about the nature of story and storytellers. It goes a little something like this:

“The stories exist; this much is true. They exist always, constantly searching for the right storyteller to introduce them to the world. When – and only when – the right storyteller is found will we finally be given the gift of the tale.”

And perhaps the innocent vessel of my 15-year-old self was tapping into a story that chose me as it’s teller, thus giving birth to the map that would shape and define the stories I would inevitably write. I’ve already written one book (the first of a trilogy), and I guarantee you there are at least 30 other tales for me to share.

And in case you’re wondering, an exceptionally talented friend is currently creating a digital version of my hand-drawn map. I hope to share it with you one day soon.

How important are maps to you? Have there been books where the map has added nothing to the stories, and others where the map nearly completes the story for you? Who has succeeded, and who has perhaps failed to deliver? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.