What Makes a Good Story? Reader Empathy.

I’ve read several articles over the years discussing plot development, world building, character building, finding your voice, outlining, POV, etc.  There are so many elements to writing good fiction that it’s easy to get confused.  If you try to follow all the advice available it could tie you in knots of anxiety and your writing can suffer.       

What is the most important element of fiction writing?  Actually, the answer is none of the above.  There is not one element that is more important than the rest.  Writing is an art that takes all these various elements and blends them into, hopefully, an enjoyable story.

With that being said, I do have an opinion on what makes a good fiction story.  Unfortunately, it is hard to describe.  I used to call it emotional content, but I’m not sure that adequately describes this key element of a good story.  I’ve been thinking of a proper description and have settled with Reader Empathy.

The best definition of empathy I found was in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  It defined empathy as:  “The ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.”  And if you think about what you are trying to accomplish as an author, this is it. 

Basically, people read fiction as an escape from their everyday life.  The best fiction takes you away to another place, maybe even as another person.  If this escape is real enough you can feel it emotionally.  If a story makes me laugh, or even better makes me cry, then it has succeeded.  The characters are what elicit this emotional response in the reader – specifically, empathy for the characters.

So if you build your characters well, your world well, have a good plot that moves the characters and story forward . . . well basically use all the elements of a good story, hopefully you create reader empathy.  For me, that’s the goal of every story and the mark of a good one.