What makes a story satisfying or disappointing?

It’s difficult for a writer when an ambitious story (maybe one that aspires to do things differently) leaves readers feeling overwhelmingly disappointed.

Every writer has been here at some point. There’s something in the story that doesn’t work. The story makes a promises it doesn’t deliver. It solves a problem in the writer’s mind that the reader isn’t aware of or care about.

Disappointing stories are miscommunications. Satisfying stories are the result of a carefully balanced process that harmonises the story elements.

Here’s a few ideas, based on my own experience, of how stories can go wrong. I’m sure there are many other reasons why they don’t work that I’ve not included, but these are some of the ones I’ve come across recently.1

The reader should care about something

The reader needs to care about something in the story to give them a reason to keep reading. This usually means having a protagonist the reader can empathise with. It can also mean: the quality of the prose, the dramatic dynamic between the characters, the use of intriguing ideas, incorporating an unanswered question or puzzle that needs solving, including plenty of action sequences, or taking place in a fascinating world.

The story should pose a problem

The story should present a problem that needs solving. Something has to be broken that needs fixing. Without it is a challenge to engage the reader.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the problem is, it only has to feel important to the protagonist and to the reader.

The protagonist should solve the problem

It’s satisfying when the protagonist solves the problem that’s been presented by the story. Finding out how the protagonist solves the problem is part of the reason for completing the story. It’s disappointing when someone else comes in and solves the problem for the protagonist, when the problem isn’t really a problem, or when the problem goes away on it’s own accord. It’s especially satisfying when the protagonist solves the story problem in an inventive and audacious way.

The audience should respect the protagonist

The reader has to believe in and hopefully admire the protagonist. If that isn’t possible they should respect his or her journey (or find him or her terrifying or comical). If the protagonist doesn’t solve the story problem the reader is less likely to respect the character.

The protagonist should learn something new

The protagonist should learn something new and important. Through the protagonist, the reader also learns something. The protagonist discovers something new about the world or about him/herself.

If the protagonist doesn’t learn something new, the reader should learn something important about the protagonist’s inability to learn. A story that fails to provide a learning experience (either lofty or banal) for the protagonist or reader, feels pointless.

The story should feel important

The audience is giving up their valuable time for the story. The story has to be important enough for them to give that time. All stories should be important, even ones that aren’t. They should be doing something that seems important to validate their existence.

The story should fall within audience expectation

Readers know what they want. And they know what they don’t like. Even if they know nothing about storytelling technique, they know exactly what they’re looking for in a story. They come to the story loaded with preconceptions and expectations.

If readers expect something, give it to them. If the writer doesn’t give them what they want, give them something beyond their expectations. But maybe don’t trick them or force feed them into an experience they aren’t looking for.

The story should feel new

Readers like to be pleasantly surprised. They like stories that feel fresh and new, even if they aren’t. Even if a reader wants the same old story again and again, it has to seem slightly new and different each time.

The story should make sense

It’s annoying when stories don’t make sense. Confusing stories are likely to take the reader out of the story and lead to disappointment. I think that literary fiction readers are more tolerant than genre readers.

1 Of course, should doesn’t mean must. But it’s probably going to be a lot easier if you want to write a satisfying story.