Stories that leave you cheated

Three elements that set good writing apart — and how they are all rooted in honesty.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Neil Gaiman says in his Masterclass course that a story is anything fictional that keeps you turning the pages and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. It’s a brief but surprisingly comprehensive definition.

The first part — writing that makes you turn the pages — is about what happens. About characters, conflict, resolution — all the things that bring life into the story and make it move forward. Everything that makes the reader ask what every storyteller wants to hear:

And then what happened?

But it is the second part that I’d like to focus on. What does it mean for a story not to leave you feeling cheated at the end?

As a reader and writer, my answer is this:

First, it is a story that does not promise things that it doesn’t deliver. It doesn’t promise fireworks only to leave you with burnt matchsticks. 

It does not start with engaging dialogues that do not go anywhere. It does not develop complex characters that, for the rest of the text, feel like puppets manipulated by a skillful puppeteer. It does not promise a fascinating adventure only to end up lecturing the reader and moralizing.

As a reader, I would expect a story that lives up to what it (implicitly) promised it would do, no matter how modest that promise. I would prefer an understated start that slowly builds up in strange, unexpected ways, rather than a spectacular intro that gradually grows out of breath and lifeless.

Second, it is a story that does not pray on your readers’ psychological needs just to keep them going through the text. It does not play with the characters in order to create artificial drama and conflict. It does not twist the plot unnaturally, just to satisfy the reader’s need for closure. 

Obviously, stories often develop in unexpected ways, just as life does. But they can do so convincingly, in ways that are consistent with the internal flow and logic of the story. Or they can do so in ways that are transparently doctored to elicit certain reactions and emotions. It’s not the story that leads naturally to this or that course of events. It’s the author messing with the flow of the story.

Referring to how he develops characters and dialogue, Neil Gaiman speaks about the importance of listening to your own characters and paying attention to what they would say or do. Do they sound genuine? Are they believable? Or are you constantly trying to impose yourself on them?

Isn’t this what sets great stories apart — the feeling that they take on a life of their own and carry you along with them? This is the flow of the story. Once you’ve set it in motion, it becomes larger than you.

Third, it is a story that you, the author, care about. You are personally invested in telling the story — and telling it honestly.

If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…”

Neil Gaiman

If the story does not talk about something that is important for you, as a writer and as a human being, no amount of technical skill will turn in into an interesting piece.

If the story is not written truthfully, it will show up sooner or later. Writing in honesty may be or may not be a moral principle for you as an author, but it is also a pragmatic principle. Before we can cast a spell on others and invite them into the story, we need to make that story credible and engaging for ourselves. Writing truthfully is the simplest, most direct way of doing that. It not only provides an intrinsic motivation to keep writing, but it also ensures consistency of approach.

Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, don’t twist the story to score cheap points, write truthfully about what matters to you.

At the end of the day, all three points are about honesty. Honesty towards yourself, your own writing, and the reader.

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