If you ask people what makes a good story, you'll get as many answers as there are stories. Everyone's definition of "good" varies: there is no one standard.
Case in point: Many classics are poorly written, according to today's standards for good writing. Have you ever tried to read The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper? It's awful. There's a fabulous story buried among the social and racist commentary, terrible dialogue, and information dumps; however, the book itself is awful. Much classical literature never saw an editor before it went to press; however, some that did still makes the reader's eyes glaze over. Charles Dickens wrote in serialized fashion, chapters being published in magazines of his day. He was paid by the word and his work reads like he subscribed to the concept of never using one word when five would do--just the opposite of today's standard.
Let's use more modern examples from the fantasy genre: David Eddings and Terry Brooks. Eddings, with his wife, wrote The Belgariad and The Mallorean series and The Blue Sapphire series in the 1980s and 1990s. They were popular. They're criticized now for the lack of variety among the characters: "Is there an echo in here?" In the 1980s, Brooks wrote The Shannara Chronicles, criticized for being campy and lacking in real diversity.
If we can't agree upon the necessity of good writing to make a story great, then where does that leave us?
Let's head over to genre fiction, where at least authors have guidelines. Conventions. Formulae. If the reader considers genre fiction formulaic, there's good reason. Romance and romantic fiction existed long before the Romance Writers of America convened; however, it's the RWA's definition of "romance" that defines the genre.
What happens if your story doesn't adhere to the conventions? If you deviate from the formula and go your own way, prepare for the consequences. Readers not getting what they expect can be vicious in the reviews they leave behind.
For the purpose of commercial success, authors must relinquish some of their autonomy and creativity. They must fulfill reader expectations, flying in the face of those who advise authors to write first for themselves, to be unique and original, to push the envelope. People who read genre fiction don't like their boundaries expanded. That's why they read genre fiction: it's comfortable and familiar.
However, genre fiction offers no guarantee of good writing either. What about traditional publishers? Do they guarantee good writing, regardless of genre, fiction or nonfiction?
Traditional publishers are in the business of selling books. E. L. James self-published her now-cliched Fifty Shades of Grey before it was picked up by a traditional publisher and Hollywood. It was badly written then and the quality of prose remains lackluster. But it's wildly popular and it made James a ton of money. Traditional publishers do their best to improve the content they publish and sell as good as it can be. That doesn't mean the story's great or that it won't bore readers. Publishers misjudge the public's taste sometimes.
Some authors hit all the key points and still produce dross. Some authors miss key points and produce great stories. Storytelling is hit or miss, but it never happens without the author drawing upon the influence of what he or she enjoys reading and has read before. The public is fickle. Preferences and standards shift and evolve (or devolve). What may not be popular now might strike gold in a few decades. Or it might never go further than the handful of readers who read it and disliked it.
Don't take my word for it. Read for yourself. Compare what was popular a few decades ago to what's trending now and see the difference. Then, look at the similarities and see from where an author's influence comes.
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