“What do your favorite stories have in common?”
This was the question that fellow writer Elizabeth Rawls posed at her blog last year. I loved the topic so much that I wanted to respond right away, but I couldn’t. Figuring out what your favorite stories have in common is like playing a writer’s or reader’s version of a strategy game. But once you put some conscious thought into it, the answers can be rather enlightening.
Today, I’d like to share Elizabeth’s activity along with my own thoughts on developing a stronger grasp on the shared elements in our favorite stories. As you’ll find out, those commonalities may have a greater influence on our work that we might think.
How Can You Find the Common Elements In Your Favorite Stories?
Since I found Elizabeth’s original instructions easy to follow, I’ll quote them below:
Take a moment and think through which stories are your favorite. Make a list if you like.
Now that you’ve decided what books/movies/shows you enjoy most, it’s time to analyze this list. The goal is to figure out what in a story attracts you, draws you in, and what keeps you reading until the end. What do your listed favorites have in common with each other? On your list think about and write down answers for each favorite story:
- What in this story attracts or appeals to you?
- Which characters draw you in and why?
- What about the characters and scenario keeps you engaged?
- What keeps you interested and reading/viewing this story until its end?
As Elizabeth goes on to say, you’ll likely think of other questions as you scan your list. The key, however, is not the questions, but the answers. What kinds of reasons do you give for loving each story? Do certain elements recur? See what kinds of patterns emerge, then draw conclusions based on the interwoven common threads. Even if your story choices range in genre or plot style, the ingredients they share might be so subtle that you won’t notice until you do an exercise like this.
What Do Some of My Favorite Stories Have In Common?
Of course I had to try the activity for myself! And lo and behold, I found several common threads woven through several of my favorite novels. Here’s a list of those shared elements:
Character Growth & Arcs: If you’ve been following the Character Evolution Files, then this element won’t surprise you. There’s something truly rewarding about watching characters grow and evolve as a result of their experiences. The type of plot (quest, survival, hardship, etc.) doesn’t matter. I simply love seeing a protagonist start at an emotional or psychological Point A, then have their world turned upside-down and learn or adapt in order to achieve their story goal and arrive at Point B.
Beloved Masterplots: Many of my favorite stories use Adventure, Quest, Escape, or Rescue masterplots. Anything that involves traveling, survival, or getting oneself or another character out of a precarious situation is sure to grab my attention and stick with me. (NOTE: If you’re not sure what a masterplot is, check out WriteOnSister’s 2016 A To Z Challenge posts on the topic.)
Exceptional Writing: I fall hard for a story if the author’s writing style floors me. Fluid sentences, precise word choice, vivid yet concise descriptions – though not necessarily flowery. Even simply worded sentences can border on poetry. The point is, all of my favorite stories are wonderful examples of writers at the top of their craft.
The “Transportive” Factor: “World-building” might be a more recognizable term, since fantasy and science fiction are the genres I read most. But I’ve also read some amazing historical fiction; and if you think about it, that genre requires its own kind of world-building, one that’s rooted in real-world facts and history. So, for the sake of being inclusive, I’ll say that my favorite stories fully immersed me in their respective worlds regardless of the setting, time period, and presence of magic or other supernatural forces.
Realistic Characters (Especially a Protagonist) Whom I Can Care About: This will super-generic, but I don’t have a favorite type of character or character “trope.” However, many of my all-time favorite characters share some common fundamentals. They’re working towards a goal that matters to them. They’re dealing with an internal conflict that threatens to tear them apart. And, they give me unique reasons to connect with, relate to, or admire them. If a character – especially the protagonist – can accomplish this, I’ll love and remember them forever. Bonus points if they make me laugh or cry, too. (Want some examples? Check out my Eleven Favorite Literary Heroes and Eleven Favorite Literary Heroines posts.)
A Wide Range of “Focal” Relationships: Very few of my favorite stories could be categorized as “romances.” Instead, they offer all kinds of relationships that enlighten both the protagonist and the reader. Families, friendship, rivalries, animal-and-human bonds – I have no preference. It’s more important that a story allows me to see the relationship in action and feel the feelings or tensions between the characters involved.
Slow-Burn Romances & Couples Who See One Another as Equals: Despite what I said in the “Focal” Relationships bullet above, I do enjoy a well-portrayed romance. It’s just that my all-time favorite stories have made me very picky about those romances. 😉 I enjoy watching two people meet for the first time, get to know one another, and slowly fall for each other in the process. That, to me, is a believable literary romance. Plus, if those couples work well together and acknowledge why they love one another or how their “other half” makes them a better person, then… well… ❤ ❤ ❤
Do the Common Elements You Discovered Appear in Stories You’ve Written?
Want to take the above activity a step further? Take your list of your shared elements, and see if any of them appear in your WIP or other stories you’ve written. You might find that those commonalities have left a greater impression on you that you first thought.
For example, I compared my WIP The Keeper’s Curse with the list I shared in the previous section. Here’s what I found:
- Character Growth & Arcs: During TKC, the protagonist is forced to confront a vow of vengeance and a long-held prejudice against another race. Depending on the choices she makes, she could jeopardize the mission she’s tasked to complete – and lose everything she holds dear.
- Beloved Masterplot: It’s a Quest story, through and through!
- The “Transportive” Factor: TKC is a YA fantasy set in a fictional / secondary world with a wide range of peoples, cultures, religious beliefs, and so on. The story also gives readers the opportunity to see different regions of this world, from the Fei forest to the open plains of the Hartlands, to a network of caverns and tunnels in the Raziur Mountains.
- A Wide Range of Relationships: Siblings, cousins, friends, colleagues, mentors and students – you’ll find these and other relationships during TKC. Family, friendship, and belonging are also some of the story’s themes.
- A Slow-Burn Romance & A Couple Who Sees One Another as Equals: Without spoiling things too much – yes, you’ll see this in TKC. 😉
I purposely left out Exceptional Writing and Realistic Characters Whom Readers Can Care About from this list. Despite the expectations I’ve set for myself, how do I know if my writing style is any good or my characters are realistic until people have had a chance to read the story? I guess, for now, it’s more appropriate to say that writing style and characterization are extremely important to me, and I hope this will come across in the final product.
Why Is It Important That We Understand What Our Favorite Stories Have In Common?
In other words, why should we consider doing this exercise in the first place? Let’s look at it in two ways.
From a writer’s perspective, understanding what our favorite stories have in common can help us realize why we write the kinds of stories we write. It’s almost like looking at a subconscious set of literary values we’ve developed over the years. If our personal values shape our life choices, then our literary values will no doubt inform the stories we write. Consider the flipside, too: Why would we want to include story-telling elements that we don’t like in our work? It makes no sense, right?
So, if we write stories that are influenced by these literary values, we’re more likely to write stories that we care about and feel invested in. And the more we follow our storyteller’s heart, the more likely our writing will seem genuine and engaging to readers, and the stronger our stories will be.
And from a reader’s perspective, having this understanding can help us find more of the kinds of books we most enjoy reading. This goes beyond knowing one likes adult novels more than YA, or whether one’s favorite genre is dystopian, mysteries, or fantasy. (Though age-group and genre preferences often plays a role in one’s choices.) Rather, it goes back to the fundamental aspects of storytelling – those literary values – that resonate most strongly with us. For example, if we like reading about kick-ass heroines, we’ll most likely seek more books featuring that type of character. The same thing applies to whether we enjoy stories about exotic cultures, humorous or witty narratives, heist plots, and so on.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t read or write stories that don’t contain our favorite story elements, or are outside our comfort zone? Not at all. In fact, it’s great to spread our literary wings once in a while and try something new. Because who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new book you’ll love, or excel at the writing challenge you give yourself. Plus, if you look closely enough, you might still find some of those fundamentals that help you bond with stories to begin with.
One of my all-time favorite stories that was outside my comfort zone is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, because of its genre (post-apocalyptic fiction) and the fact that I tend to avoid novels that might scare the wits out of me. (The Road features cannibalism, suicide, and implied sex slavery, along with a grim, elegiac tone.) Yet when I read it, I couldn’t put it down. The father-son relationship, the empathy I felt for both characters, the survival / escape angle, McCarthy’s spare yet lyrical writing – do any of these fundamentals sound familiar? So, even though The Road doesn’t seem like the kind of book that would appeal to me, I ended up loving it anyway. And now, years after reading it, I finally understand why thanks to this post topic.
So, Which Stories Do I Consider Some of My All-Time Favorites?
It only makes sense to share what those stories are after talking about them in general terms, right? 😉 Here’s a “handful” of them.
What do some of your favorite stories have in common? What kinds of elements tend to draw you to new reading choices? And, if you’re a writer, have you incorporated any of those elements (either intentionally or subconsciously) into your own work?