And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

Babies Kissing

Secret Ingredient

What does it take to write a good story? The facile answer is: many things – maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on. But is there one element without which your story would be significantly weaker? When I joined Elmo de Witt Films in the early nineties as that company’s resident screenwriter, the experienced South African director gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been mulling over ever since: a story that doesn’t solicit emotion is headed for failure or, at best, obscurity.

Emotion and Story: Why should we Care?

A story filled with events and characters who leave us cold, leaves us cold, period. It may be filled with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy. But, who cares? If you want to write about any of those, publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or deliver a talk at the local philosophical society. A story is, of course, capable of transmitting deep, world-changing ideas, but only if we care enough about the events and characters in the story to delve deeper into the text and ferret such ideas out.

Caring about Fictional Characters and their Situation

So how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we foster and nourish throughout our writing careers. It doesn’t come overnight. The centuries are littered with tomes addressing the subject, and countless of modern-day blog posts, including mine, proffer aspects of the craft. Needless to say that any blog on effective character creation rests on a similar foundation – the use of emotion to draw us into our characters’ lives. Without wishing to diminish the depth and complexity of the subject, I offer one way, out of a myriad of others, which may assist you in kick-starting your thinking on how to approach the challenge of creating characters that we care about: Make your character (1) a worthy/interesting/caring person (2) who finds herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune/peril, which (3) worsens as the story progresses. This is the first step in creating empathy for your character, and therefore, in getting to know and care for her.


One of the most important requirements of a successful story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

8 thoughts on “And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

  1. Penelope

    I never forget those movies or books that make me cry. Invoking an emotional response is something that script writers and authors should always keep in mind as they are writing. Every single time I watch that little montage from Pixar’s movie “Up”, which depicts the life of Carl and Ellie, I just burst into tears and sob. That is one of the most touching scenes I have ever experienced in a movie. It may only run about 10 minutes from start to finish–but it is very effective. Great post!

  2. Shea Moir

    Thanks for the post Stavros. 🙂 Very cool incite into the realm of story telling….but
    “please sir….I want some more”

  3. Mark

    Love the pic you chose. I read your blog regularly, but I specifically clicked on this one because of the pic.

    Getting emotionally involved in a story makes up for mistakes by the author as well. Though that’s not an excuse to be lazy about quality.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment! Too true, that. A good picture make a great lead-in, and emotion in a story is indispensable that the story’s success.

  4. Chantal

    Great blog. I do agree to a point of the fact that a story should have emotion in it and should capture readers if it doesn’t what would be the point of the story? My feeling on characters in story telling seriously need to be made more realistic in a sense of real life drama instead of this predictable character that has a happy ending. Sure fair enough if your character is so described to the extent that you feel her emotion, the human empathy would be that of her having a happy ending. I just feel that most characters written about today are too predictable but yet still leave that warm fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach and may even give the reader a sense of hope, which don’t get me wrong, is great! I am yet to write a book or see a book with characters that are predictable yet turn out to be totally unpredictable 🙂 There is a topic for you Stavros the predictable story line let’s be real here as nine times out of ten a person can predict what can happen in the end of a story, right?

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comments, Chantal. Yes, I think that often Hollywood’s need for “feel-good” stories forces predictable and non-realistic narratives on its audiences, although, in the past few years more and more films have been dong well with so called “down endings” and non-conventional characters as “heroes”. I think I might take you up on your suggestion and look at this aspect in a future blog.


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