How to Tell a Good Story from a Bad One

Good stories tell about the intersection of desire (“subjective expectation”) and tragedy (“cruel reality”). A story begins when our desires collide head-on with reality. Sometimes reality is impersonal, like a storm that sets into motion a flash flood that kills nine kids on a bus going to camp. But other times the cruelty is volitional. Good stories demand tragedy, an “inciting incident.” And inciting incidents will always intensify our desire to listen to what the story is telling us – unless the inciting incident happens in our own story. Often, when it occurs in our life, we want the story to be resolved and the problem solved – and quickly!

We love stories as long as they happen to someone else.

Dan Allender in To Be Told

Last week I met with a friend who wanted some advice on a writing project she was undertaking. As we talked about her reasons for writing, her goals, and her intent, the whole conversation wove around the simple theme…telling one’s own story.

Since that meeting, I’ve been revisiting our talk and wondering how often my writing meets the necessary qualifications of a “good story“?

Do I, as Allender suggests, create a word picture that includes an intersection of desire and tragedy?

Do I provide the appropriate “inciting incidents“? (Believe me, there’s been enough of them to choose from of late.)

I hope so.

Because I believe every day every person faces these intersections of desire and tragedy. And surely, everyone’s days are overflowing with inciting incidents…those nagging problems we can’t seem to shake or those ER type horrific events that leave us shaken.

When I read a good story, I know it.

I also know that some of the finest stories don’t include answers, they simply pose the best questions.

They give me a fresh perspective (or at least a new reason to look for one.)

I like how Allender describes it —

Stories don’t give answers, but they do offer perspective. They provide a window through which we can look for patterns of life.

And patterns are telling. They tell us where we’ve been, where we are at right now, and will predict our future.


We have to learn from our own stories (inciting incidences and all) and complete with our intersections of desires and tragedies.

Or else.

We are doomed to recycle again and again through a past we’d rather not revisit a second time. And no one wants to read a recycled story.


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