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What makes a story ‘good’?

Michele Aaron considers what makes a story good and how this is affected by Genre, she discusses Stuart Hall's encoding and decoding.
© University of Birmingham
Good stories are ones that connect with us.
They reflect the passionate investment of their creators and employ universal strategies of storytelling to tell an engaging, satisfying and even meaningful story.
They depend upon universal values too. This dependency can enhance the appeal of your story and its ability to reach a wide audience through emphasising common or shared social mores – but it brings with it some complicated issues.
Where Frank Ash described the audience’s investment in stories that felt familiar and accessible as a ‘selfish’ side to their desires, we are going to bring in some other ideas to illuminate their tie to the familiar.
Calling a story good – or even bad – is a statement not only on the strength of its characters and charms of its narrative but can also be a statement on the values it imparts. We might call a story good because it restores order by its conclusion, reassuring us that good prevails.
A good story might tell of adversity but will also suggest how this adversity was overcome or could be. In other words, stories often confirm a shared moral outlook where all ends as it should. The baddies, for example, get their comeuppance and the good guys reap their rewards.


Genre plays a large part in this ‘confirming’ process of course. Genres confirm, and conform to, specific narrative formulas. They instill certain expectations about plot development and story resolution, as well as character types and iconography.
A good romantic comedy would be one that fulfills the promise of laughs and love as a couple finally unites and, invariably, marries. A good thriller would keep the viewer tense and guessing until the climactic discovery that solves the crime. Tied up in these formulaic narratives, is a restoration of order that values, say, marriage and the law, as is the case with these two genres.
Such a valuing might seem uncontroversial, but it is important to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of any story. The story trains and reinforces social mores or norms. It ingrains or ‘encodes’ in its content a set of universal values that may or may not be shared by all.
It is also important to see these underpinnings as working ethically: to validate the lives of only some sections of society. They also work within ourselves: they will underpin the story you choose to tell. The choices you make to reinforce or challenge universal expectations or values in your film, always work to bestow privilege onto some and limit it for others.
Runaway Bride film still, actors Julia Roberts and Richard Gere look into each other's eyes on a balcony overlooking a city at night. Runaway Bride (1999)
Stories fulfil expectations often precisely through confirming assumptions, and not only in relation to genre. This becomes problematic not least when we remember that such a replication of the status quo tends to require the viewer’s conformity to inherent inequalities in society.
For example, and in very simplistic terms, the repetition of the ‘white, straight, male, able-bodied American hero’ within Hollywood action films creates the expectation of who the ‘hero’ is when we watch a film from this genre. Indeed, this is true when we watch any film.
We are, as a consequence, least likely to identify a non-white, female, or gay character, or those with disabilities, as the hero in a film due to this repetition.
Indeed, quite the opposite is often true: such characters frequently serve to accentuate the heroism of the male lead in any genre, through contrast to their inherent weaknesses. From A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to Lethal Weapon (1987) to Forest Gump (1994) and far beyond, race, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness are employed by the filmmaker to offset the superior qualities of their white male protagonists.
Lethal Weapon film still, actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover armed with guns outside a house. Danny Glover looks nervous, Mel Gibson more confident. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
So, stories depend upon universal assumptions. This is not just to reiterate those more cynical models of film or media communication that we noted in Step 1.6, that we’re all the same and all passive in how we ‘read’ stories or cultural texts. But it is to recognise that we share or are required to share a common sense of right and wrong but, more than this, a best way to be in the world.
This best way frequently has more to do with socio-cultural factors than moral outlook. All stories can be thought of as teaching us lessons, if you like, about the most admired qualities and behaviours in society. What lesson will you teach?
Thinking again of your favourite book or film please share your thoughts on the following in the comments area:
  • What kinds of lessons, if any, did it teach?
  • Did its narrative or resolution confirm a best way to be in the world – a set of idealised and privileged qualities found only in its protagonist or common to its genre?
  • What assumptions did it make about you as a ‘reader’, or other characters in the text, especially in relation to these factors?

© University of Birmingham
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