The Stories That Matter

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. . . . Those were the stories that stayed with you.” ~ Samwise Gamgee
on Apr 5, 2013 · No comments

“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.

Gillian_AdamsIn 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?

Gillian Bronte Adams is the sword-wielding, horse-riding, wander-loving fantasy author of The Songkeeper Chronicles. She is rarely found without coffee in hand and rumored to pack books before clothes when she hits the road. She loves to connect with fellow readers and wanderers on her website, Instagram, and Facebook page.
  1. Great article, Gillian. I know this isn’t what you intended, but as I read your article, I had this huge desire to write the kind of story you were talking about. I especially love this line:

    A story that whispers the echoes of eternity is a tale that reflects truth.

    I don’t think I’d define a great story any differently than you did. Yes, it needs all the components of a compelling story, but the thing that separates it out is the truth that resonates within the soul of readers.

    I could be wrong, but I think we don’t see more great stories for two reasons:

    1. Christian writers limit the truth about which they write to the salvation message. Yes, “limit.” While salvation is the beginning of our life in Christ, there is a lot of Christian living that is part of God’s truth. On the other side, there are a lot of lies and roadblocks that confront a person outside the family of God, and I’m not sure we plummet the depth of those.
    2. Some Christian writers are so committed to reflecting truth that they forget to work on the other elements: creating engaging characters, strong plots, realistic settings.

    In short, as I read your article, I’m thinking, great stories are the total package, and that’s a lot harder to produce than what many may realize.

    BTW, I also love the Samwise quote! 😀




    • Writing this definitely inspired me to try and portray those echoes of eternity in my stories. I’m not there yet. I certainly wouldn’t classify anything I’ve written as worthy of being called a great story, but I intend to keep working at it until the keys fall off my keyboard.

      I think your reasons for why we don’t see more great stories are spot on. Couldn’t have put it any better! Many of the great stories I’ve read don’t have a clear Gospel presentation or even clear allegorical or symbolic elements, although some do. But that doesn’t mean the truth isn’t there.

      But when the truth outweighs the story, you wind up with a sermon or a poorly written novel. That I believe is what often leads to Christian fiction being labeled preachy and sub-par, and I find that very sad.

  2. Zac Totah says:

    An excellent post. I couldn’t agree more with the conclusions you came to. The best stories ever told are the ones that reflect in some way the Greatest Story. I think even unbelievers have a sense of this, even if they don’t attribute the reason to the one “True Myth,” as Tolkien put it. How else do you explain the popularity of LoTR, for example? Readers need not be Christians to experience that type of resonance, they just don’t see the deeper truth behind it.
    The C.S. Lewis quote from Weight of Glory reminded me of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which he speaks of the same concept, that stab of unexplained longing, which he termed Joy.
    Thanks for your article. Like Becky, now I feel a burning desire to write a story that is infused with those soft echoes of eternity.

    •  I think even unbelievers have a sense of this, even if they don’t attribute the reason to the one “True Myth,” as Tolkien put it.

      Zac, I think you’re absolutely correct. And that’s what so glorious about it!

      I actually just ordered Surprised by Joy. I’ve only read snippets of it here and there, but  I’ve been wanting to read the whole thing for some time. I look forward to digging into it.

      • Zac Totah says:

        Have fun! It’s an awesome and fascinating book. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

  3. Kessie says:

    I think that’s why I enjoy speculative as much as I do–it’s easier to find little glimpses of the sublime when you’re dealing with fairies and dragons. Not to say it isn’t in other genres, too! I love books where the hero goes up against something unexpectedly wonderful, like the city magic in The Magic Thief, orwhen Frodo encounters Galadriel. It’s those bits of delight that make me read the book over and over. Or the desperately sad and wonderful ending of Dogsbody. Or the moments in the Temeraire books when the dragon and his captain interact with such tenderness. Yeah, someday I want to move readers like that.

  4. Galadriel says:

    It’s interesting you would bring that up, because I’ve been thinking about the “epic” or “mythic” element of a story. I was reading  the Doll’s House volume of the Sandman graphic novel, and it’s very dark, very despairing in places–but there’s this moment where the title character shows up–he’s not nice, not at all…but…like, there’s something in that moment that speaks to me.

What do you think?