I’ve always taken seriously the matter of choice in books, movies, music, all things cultural. Choice plays a great role in motivating readers; kids (and probably adults) want to read more if they get to choose. There is another angle to the choice factor though.

Linda Holmes’ essay on NPR, The Sad Beautiful Fact that We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything, puts another spin on choice. While not her point, it reminds me of my conviction that life is just too short to read baaaad stories. And for kids, surrounding them with good stories (that they can choose from) increases the probability that they’ll want to read another. A bad story leads to an unrewarding reading experience and can just prove their point–that reading is dumb, boring, and a waste of time.

So how does one determine if a story is good? Two factors are critical. The first is: Where is a child is developmentally (check under the tag Choosing Books to read more articles about this). And the second is: What critical elements does a story contain (or not)?

Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: the Science behind the Startling Power of Story explains five key elements of good stories, whether for children or adults.

His five are:

  • character,
  • intent,
  • actions,
  • struggles, and
  • details.

Good stories are character driven. A substantive character gives the reader a chance to judge relevancy, emotions, beliefs, actions, and attitudes–and a chance to create meaning. With a flat character, the story just “goes through the motions.”

Intent is about goals and motive, the what and why for the character. Actions are what the character does, the plot, the how. Actions give the story a way to explain and illuminate the characters.

Struggles, like plot or actions, are well known as a story element. The character’s struggles, though, need to be significant. Struggles are against something–a conflict, problem, something internal or external, something real, with something at stake.

Finally, details make all the other elements work. They provide enough concreteness that the reader can fit all the pieces together and remember them through mental imagery.

That’s an incredibly short summary of Haven’s work, and I can’t recommend his book highly enough. On so many levels, it will change the way you look at and evaluate stories. I encourage you, too, though, to take some stories you consider good and check them against that list. You’ll find they have all of the elements. Take some bad stories and check them; you’ll find they are missing one or more of the elements.

Here’s to all the goodness of life!

Babette

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