A long time ago, I wrote a general description of my criteria for a good story, but framed it in a negative light (that is, stories that don’t meet these criteria are failures). Of course, it is much more fun (and generally entertaining) to criticize the heck out of some piece of media. But I feel I should elaborate further on what makes for a really good story. The main elements are the same in any story, but how those elements are handled is the difference between success and failure.
1) Characters – I personally think in most cases the characterization is far more important to the success of a story than the plot. There aren’t a lot of plots to go around, after all. I said before that characters need to be more than just a collection of tropes or stereotypes. Tropes in and of themselves are not bad, but when a character’s actions can be predicted well in advance due to the particular tropes the character has thus far exhibited, that’s not a good character. A good character doesn’t have to be likable or even necessarily relatable but a good character does have to behave believably. This is a very hard standard to describe, unfortunately, because it’s somewhat objective. As an example, at the end of Iron Man, when Tony Stark declared to all the world he was indeed Iron Man, I believed that was something Tony Stark would do. In the middle of Ant-man, when Scott Lang suggests calling the Avengers, I believed that was something Scott Lang would do. Now, if I were in that situation, I would relate better to Scott Lang, but the actions of both characters was believable.
2) Plot – Even the most interesting and well-written characters need something to do otherwise you don’t have a story, you an exercise in post-modernism. So what makes for a good plot? A lot of details depend on the genre, but I think there are some elements that are common across genres. The emotional stakes need to be proportional to the genre. For example, the stakes in a spy novel may be as high as saving the world. But the stakes in a romance novel should be much more low-key such as will the characters actually get together. I sort of touched on this when I discussed “high drama” and “quiet drama.” The plot should make sense for the characters, or, depending on your perspective, the characters should make sense for the plot. Unless the plot depends on that “fish out of water” element or you’re deliberating trying to subvert the conventions of the plot, you wouldn’t have, for example, Deadpool as the lead character in a straight-laced romance (think Deadpool playing Mr. Darcy).
3) Setting – Again, if the story is written, the reader shouldn’t be bored with details of every rock and tree. There should be enough detail so the reader knows where the story is taking place. In a good story, the setting serves as more than just set-dressing or a backdrop. The setting informs the characters and the plot. For example, a detective in a small, Midwestern town should behave differently than a detective in NYC. Likewise, the mystery in the small Midwestern town should be different then one set in NYC if in scale if nothing else. A good story takes advantage of the setting. That is, if the setting is a small, Midwestern town, then the plot should utilize traits such as everyone knowing everyone, a lack of resources, a sprawling geographic area for events to unfold, etc. If the setting is NYC, then the plot should utilize traits such as crime, crowding, traffic, tourism, etc.
4) Narrative structure – For visual media, aspects such as direction, costuming, art style, special effects, music, etc., also fall broadly under narrative structure. A good story is well-paced and one event leads to another and no scene is wasted. I know that seems self-evident, but consider the example of Writer G’s story – the characters seemed dragged along by the plot and the events that occurred had no affect on the ultimate conclusion or, and this is important, the characters either. Events don’t necessarily have to push the plot if events serve part of the character arc. I know in some kinds of stories, like mysteries, there tend to be a lot of false leads. That’s fine, actually, because that’s part and parcel of the genre. Red herrings are fine for mysteries or spy novels. False leads and twists just for the sake of surprise do not serve a good plot. To me, that just ends up filler.
Overall – the key (to me) of a storytelling success is how well the four criteria above are integrated. Actions and reactions should be within character. Those actions and reactions (at least some of them) should have bearing on the plot. Events should make sense within the setting. If a non-linear narrative structure is being utilized, does it serve the plot or characters? Do all scenes serve either the plot or the character arc? Do the characters have an arc, or at least change as would be expected during the course of events? Are the emotional stakes appropriate? No story is perfect, of course, but the better these four criteria are integrated, the better the story will be.