What Is the Most Important Part of a Story?

Book Play Pic

That Depends

For someone who will definitely be reading the story, the most important part is likely to be something like:

  • the storyline
  • the characterization
  • the writing style
  • the way the words flow

But unless you’re an established author who already has a large fan base, you don’t have many people who will definitely be reading your story.

The problem is that nobody can read your story until the story is found.

And people who discover your story judge the story by many other factors besides the story itself.

Therefore, the most important part of the story could actually be something like:

  • a cover that attracts the target audience and visually indicates the genre
  • a very well-written blurb that captures the interest of the target audience
  • a professional-looking Look Inside and a really great beginning
  • an assortment of balanced, genuine reviews

It almost seems like today’s marketplace is saying that the story itself doesn’t matter at all.

But that’s not true:

  • A fantastic cover, amazing blurb, and stellar Look Inside will backfire if the story isn’t good. So the story will be critical.
  • Word-of-mouth recommendations are invaluable. It’s hard to find a good book. it’s not easy to gauge how good a book will be from the product page. But when someone you trust recommends a book, suddenly a good book is easy to find. But it takes more than just a “good” book to really thrive on recommendations.

Yet, an incredible story with a so-so cover, so-so blurb, and so-so Look Inside has major hurdles to overcome:

  • It doesn’t matter how wonderful the story is if people don’t discover it and decide to read it.
  • Sales rank counts against a book with a great story when it takes a long time for people to discover the book and start spreading the word. For a book with a history of slow sales, the growth to a stronger sales rank is harder to achieve than to maintain strong sales out of the box.

Therefore, the most important part of a story may very well be marketing.

Effective marketing (which is often free or very low-cost) can help a book get discovered, and can help to generate word-of-mouth referrals.

Marketing isn’t the answer for a lousy story. But effective marketing can help a great story get off to a good start and grow.

It’s kind of unfair, perhaps, but it is what it is:

  • Those few sentences you write in the blurb are in some ways more important than a hundred thousand words carefully strung together to craft a story.
  • The thumbnail image of the cover can impact sales more than the story itself.
  • Today’s marketplace in many ways favors traits that many gifted writers lack:
    • Social interactions to help spread the news about your book.
    • Publicity skills to help build a positive image as an author.
    • Marketing skills to build your book and author brands.
    • Business orientation (and more social skills) to put together and benefit from a focus group.
    • Financial investment to prevent editing and formatting from deterring sales.

There are some exceptionally gifted authors who are highly introverted, passionate but not business-minded, great at writing novels but not at writing blurbs, and focused on the story but not the cover, who could really write books very much worth reading.

The current market makes it tough for their books to get discovered and rise to the top. Even if you hire someone to help with marketing, much of the most effective marketing involves your personal interactions.

The current market rewards a book with a pretty good story that has a fantastic cover, killer blurb, and stellar Look Inside. The bestselling books should all have killer stories, right? The market should be structured in such a way as to promote the best stories.

There are some incredible stories at the top. But there are also many okay stories where the books thrive in other ways (including the author’s reputation or the publisher’s name). And there are some gems of stories hiding in the haystack.

(One way that writing multiple similar books helps is by generating your own fan base and reputation. Provided that your books get discovered and sell.)

Customer reviews could help with this, and many do, but in reality there is nothing in place to prevent a review from making a book seem much worse than it actually is. And there is nothing in place to guarantee that a favorable review is accurate.

Again, the story does matter. If it’s not good, it will ultimately become a sales deterrent. An exceptional story can generate valuable word-of-mouth sales… once it finally gets discovered.

But there is much more to success than crafting an excellent story.

Between the story, cover, blurb, Look Inside, editing, formatting, and marketing, if you could have one of these be good and all the rest outstanding, your best option might be to have the story itself to be the one that is merely good. That’s insane, isn’t it?

It’s easy to criticize the system, but not so easy to suggest an efficient, economical solution. The real problem is that you can’t properly judge the story without first reading it, so we’re trying to buy books based on other criteria.

Any gatekeeping system seems to introduce its own set of problems, and so doesn’t seem to be a practical solution. The current system works on free enterprise, and the worst tend to drop to the bottom (i.e. the lousiest books aren’t getting in the way of the best books, except for those rare excellent books that just aren’t getting discovered at all).

It’s not really about what it should be. We’re not in charge to make such decisions. (And whatever we would do might be worse. It’s easy to criticize, not as easy to solve the problem.)

It’s about understanding how the system works and making the most effective use of this knowledge.

Chris McMullen

Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.


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9 comments on “What Is the Most Important Part of a Story?

  1. I’d add ‘Be very careful about which book bloggers you ask to review your book.’

    It helps if you’re a regular commenter on the blogger’s site – but be very sure one of their reviews, if applied similarly to your book, would be a good idea.

    Some people won’t do a good job – read their other reviews to see their style – and never ever be negative about a reviewer anywhere; just quietly find different reviewers.

    All relationships don’t have to result in something useful – sometimes you must make a friend.

  2. I agree with this post Chris and thanks for writing it. I think that all of the elements are equally important though because as you say, if one falls down then that affects everything else. Personally it is the cover that catches my eye and then it is the blurb and then the sample chapters. But, if the story is no good then I either won’t purchase it or if I do, then I will not bother to read any more of that author’s books or recommend them.

  3. Yet another good one! 😀 The cover draws me in, and then I pick up the book and/or read the excerpt.. if it sounds, “up my alley” then I buy it, if not… I either just put in down and move on or add it to my list of “Books in Waiting”.

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