What are the key ingredients for a great story?


Casablanca had all three ingredients of a great story. It became a classic.
Casablanca had all three ingredients of a great story. It became a classic.

I’M IN THE DEAD ZONE, that odd, awkward period of time and space when I’m finishing one novel and haven’t decided to write another.

I will, of course.

I just don’t know what it will be.

The Muse is in the corner watching me.

It does him good to see me suffer.

It takes his mind off his own problems.

But then again, he has only one problem.


If I quit writing, he’s out of a job.

Since the Muse is around, I decide to probe his brain.

It’s a short probe.

It’s a small brain.

I ask him a question that has been perplexing writers for ages.

“What makes a story worth reading?” I want to know.

“You getting ready to write one?”

“I am.”

“A novel?”

I nod.

The Muse walks to the window and stands for a moment, watching the sun crawl out from between the clouds.

“A great story,” he says, “has three key ingredients.”

“What’s the first one?”

“What does your hero want?”

The Muse shrugs.

He doesn’t wait for me to respond.

“When you know what your character wants,” he says, “you have your plot.”

He sees me frown.

He’s seen it before.

“Does he want to solve a mystery and track down a murderer?” the Muse asks.


“Does he want to catch the girl of his dreams?”

“Doesn’t every man?”

“Does he want to escape through a time warp?”

“Where would he go?”

The Muse leans against the door and crosses his arms.

His grin is crooked.

“Does he want to save the world?”

“Which world?”

The Muse laughs.

“Figure that out,” he says, “and you have a pretty good plot point.”

“What’s the second ingredient?” I wan to know.

“What is your character willing to fight for?” The Muse tells me.

“I’m sure he’ll fight for the love of a girl,” I answer.

“That’s a good start.”

“He’ll fight to defeat the bad guys.”

“If he doesn’t, you’d better go out and find another hero.”

“He’ll fight to save a town in trouble,” I say.


“It’s his town.”

“What makes the town worth saving?”

“The people who live there.”

“Can’t they fight their own battles?”

“They need somebody to lead them.”

“And up steps your hero.”

“He’s the only one who will.”

The Muse nods.

He’s made his point.

“What’s the third ingredient?” I ask.

“What is your hero afraid of losing?”

“His family.”

“Go on.”

“His home.”

“Most men are.”

“His reputation.”

“Without it, he has nothing left.”

“His life.”

“That’s his basic primal fear.”

The Muse grabs his cap and opens the back door.

“That’s all you have to do,” he says.

“What’s that?”

“Every novel is different,” he explains. “No two stories are the same, and neither are a hero’s motivations. Your readers must know what your hero wants more than anything else in the world, what he’s desperately afraid of losing, and what he’s willing to fight and even die for.”

The muse grins.

“Answer those three questions,” he says, “and the story writes itself.”

The Golgotha Connection wrote itself in a single night. Of course, I took a few more months to put it on paper.


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