“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were . . . But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.”
~ Samwise Gamgee
I daresay we’ve all read some of those great stories. Stories keen enough to reach into our very souls. Deep enough to plumb the depths of our hearts. True enough to lift our spirits from the ashes. Stories that haunt us for days, weeks, months after turning the last page.
The great stories. The ones that really matter.
But how do you define a great story?
This means something different for each reader. Books that touch my heart may seem trivial to another. While the novel that brings them to tears may leave me crying tears of boredom.
If we all had the same literary taste, there would be no need for half of the books published each year. And the world would be a much duller place.
From an early age, I was raised on a steady diet of Tolkien, Lewis, and fairy tales. Eventually, I broadened my literary ventures and explored the classics and then modern literature. Although I now feast upon a smorgasbord of genres, speculative fiction always has been and, no doubt, always will be my favorite.
Yet while the majority of my favorite books—those I consider great stories like Sam was talking about—also belong to the speculative fiction genre, not all of them do. You are just as likely to find a historical as a fantasy on my shelf.
So my definition of a great story is not limited by genre.
Within my list of great stories, there is tremendous variety in style. Some books are simple and beautifully so. Others are fascinatingly complex. Some stories are woven in beautiful prose, while others are sharp and piercing as a knife.
So my definition of a great story transcends mere writing style.
What about characters, then? Perhaps they are the common thread. All the great stories on my list boast memorable characters. Characters who come alive and step off the page to take up residence in the reader’s heart. Characters who are both relatable and worthy of emulation. Who live through the best and worst of times and are stronger because of it. Who endure the darkest hours of the night to rejoice when the new day comes.
But can a great character alone elevate a novel to a position among the great stories? Perhaps, and yet it seems there must be something more.
My definition of a great story probes deeper than genre, style, prose, life-like characters, and a plot so full of twists and turns that it makes your head spin, to a story that whispers the echoes of eternity.
The echoes of eternity? An odd turn of phrase, I must admit. What does it mean?
A story that whispers the echoes of eternity is a tale of great depth. Not just the characters or the plot, but the overall story itself points to something greater. It leaves you with a sense of longing and the knowledge that this visible world is not all there is.
I love the way C.S. Lewis writes of this longing in The Weight of Glory.
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness . . . We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience . . . The book or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.
A story that whispers the echoes of eternity is a tale that reflects truth. In my view, this is the beauty of speculative fiction. More so than any other genre, speculative fiction possesses the ability to present truth in a different fashion. To reflect the glory of God and His character in new and unique ways. To ask deep questions. To explore profound thoughts and uncompromising truth.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, while flipping through the Magician’s Book, Lucy stumbles upon a story “for the refreshment of the spirit.” Though she cannot remember the story afterwards, “ever since that day, what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”
To me, a great story will always point to the Greatest Story of all in some way, shape, or form. That doesn’t mean that every story I read or write must have an overtly Christian message. Nor does it mean that I will not read a book that is not written from a Christian worldview.
But in my opinion, the truly great stories are those that, transparently or subtly, reflect the Greatest Story. Stories that encourage, strengthen, and inspire longing. Stories that echo eternity. Those are the stories that stay with you. The stories that really matter.
What is your definition of a great story?