What makes a great writer

Have you read a book you simply couldn’t put down? Have you ever thought about how the writer did that — kept you engrossed in the story? In contrast, have you ever read a book where you’ve found yourself skipping through passages to speed up the story? The difference between these two books is that elusive quality that makes the difference between a great writer and the rest. Can it be learnt? Most self-improvement books on writing will help you become a better writer. They can help eliminate some of the obvious mistakes that newbie authors make about such matters as structure, point of view, dialogue, and character development. But these books won’t necessarily make you a great writer. Perhaps that elusive quality is something natural that cannot be learnt or comes with years of experience, perhaps not.

Let’s take a look at those two books again. What made the first book a page turner and the second not? Some of the answers might include:

  • A compelling ‘new’, ‘interesting’ and ‘plausible’ story line.
  • A ‘resolute’ and ‘likeable’ hero/heroine that grows during the story so that you want to empathise with and root for.
  • A major source of conflict and tension to frustrate the hero/heroine’s goal, and create high stakes for failure.
  • A plot line that keeps the reader guessing about what’s going to happen next.
  • An underlying theme that resonates with the reader.

In contrast what causes us to skip over some passages of the slow book? Some answers might include:

  • Too similar to other stories of the same genre.
  • Flat, uninteresting characters that cope too easily with the problems thrown at them.
  • No tension. Nothing much happens, nothing much seems to matter.
  • Too predictable.
  • Dull and boring passages that don’t move the story forward.

Of course, this only tells us what the difference is between a great story and a poor story, it doesn’t tell us how a great writer achieves this. How is a lot harder to understand.

Perhaps one of the hardest element is finding a story that is genuinely new. The great writers seem to do this extremely well. Take JK Rowling’s invention Hogwarts — a school for wizards — in the Harry Potter series. Stories about wizards were not new; neither were stories about school adventures. But putting the two ideas together created something new and unusual. Take Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series that spawned a whole new genre of romantic stories about vampires. Prior to this vampires had a bad press as the embodiment of all evil. Meyer changed all that by recasting these blood suckers as heroes. Often creating something new is about combining unrelated ideas that don’t seem to fit together, or turning a story idea on it’s head.

Great writers tend to pick extraordinary characters as their heroes/heroines and then make us root for them. By extraordinary I mean larger than life, but believable, and not without their flaws. Part of any story is the internal journey the hero/heroine makes to find what is important to them — the character arc. It is just as important as the hero’s external journey. The hero needs to deserve success if he/her is to achieve it, and he/she will only deserve it if they overcome their own weaknesses. Great writers also tend to build empathy with the hero/heroine by writing deep in the hero’s/heroine’s point of view. Only by allowing the reader to experience and feel what the hero/heroine is experiencing first hand will this empathy be built.

A hero/heroine can only show their character by what they do. Without a big task or problem to overcome there is no story. Great writers motivate their heroes/heroines towards a goal and then frustrate them with all kinds of obstacles and dilemmas to throw them off course. The bigger the obstacles and the consequences of failure, the greater will be the tension in the story. Story writing is therefore all about creating and maintaining tension. Without tension there is no desire for the reader to read on, to see what happens in the end.

Great writers have the ability to surprise the reader. A story that is too predictable in its plot line is boring. Readers want excitement, a thrill; even if they know the story will end well, they want to be teased along the way.

Lastly, great writers have an ability to play with the reader’s emotions and ultimately to deliver a satisfying ending in accord with the theme of the story. The theme might be as simple as ‘good overcoming evil’ or ‘love conquers everything’ but it should fit into the range of the reader’s expectations.

These are some of the qualities that I think distinguish great authors from the rest. You might have different ideas; or perhaps I’ve missed something. Let me know what you think.

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