David E. Sumner

Professor Emeritus of Journalism

Ball State University,
Muncie, Indiana

Reviews of
The Magazine Century





These characteristics help you recognize a good story. First, a good story has a one or two admirable main characters. Good stories are about people. Second, it has a plot. That means the main character confronts and overcomes an obstacle to achieve a desired goal. Third, it has a resolution, which means the main character solves the problem. And fourth, it begins and ends at a specific time in a specific place.

1.     A main character

The best stories tell about something that happened to one or two people, not to a group. Stories about a group, such as a team, should be told from the viewpoint of one main character. The best stories also focus on sympathetic characters—someone the reader can root for.

2.  A Plot.

The deepest, oldest conflicts are few and simple: We struggle against nature, against ourselves and against each other. The tension between the way things are and the way things ought to be creates the most compelling and powerful stories.

“Rising to the Challenge”

"Failure to Achievement"

"Victim to Survivor"

"Chaos to Meaning"

“Saving the World”

“Love Conquers All”


 3.  A Resolution
The problem must have a resolution, or it won’t fly with readers. A “resolution” doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect or happy solution. It simply means the central character figures out a way to deal with it. Sometimes the resolution means the central character simply accepts an unhappy situation in life and decides to move on to other things.

4.     4.  Chronology—a beginning, middle and ending
A good story has anchors in real time and a real city or town. It begins with a specific person at a specific time and place and ends with a specific person at a specific time and place. For example the story tells what the main character did as he or she grew up in Atlanta during the 1980s, went to college in Hawaii in 1995 and started her career in San Francisco in 2005.  A time-span means the story begins at a particular time and ends at a particular time.



From chapter 13, “Writing Nonfiction Narratives” in Feature and Magazine Writing: Action, Angle and Anecdotes, 3rd. edition by David E. Sumner and Holly G. Miller


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