This question is probably more important than you realize, because it applies to more than novels and screenplays.
It’s a question that rolls around in my mind from time to time since I have a written a novel and am writing another. Hopefully, before long I will have the courage, and the money to publish them. I have been watching quite of few movies lately as well, trying to work my way through the academy award nominees for best picture. So, I tend to evaluate stories and how they are told.
Characters. For me the characters are the most important thing. I have to care about them, identify with them, love them or hate them, understand them and/or be surprised by them. The characters draw us in more than anything.
Relationships. That takes me the next element: relationships. They make our real life enjoyable, and sometimes miserable. But they do give our life meaning. When you take all of the complex of elements that make up human personality and put people in situations where they have to interact with each other, all kinds of things happen.
The characters and their relationships are so powerful that they can keep me watching or reading a story that is rather weak. Without them, it doesn’t matter how good the story is.
Surprises. Characters and relationship are key, but the story is important too, and all good stories have unforeseen twists and turns just like life. Someone gets laid off. There is tension in her marriage. Addiction holds someone in its merciless grip. The kids rebel. Literal and figurative car wrecks happen. Nobody anticipates this stuff. Nobody wants it. But these things reveal true character. In a mystery, the principal character, may be surprised time and time again, having several pieces to the puzzle, but at a loss for how they fit together.
Passion. The protagonist must to be passionate about something. In a love story, it’s obvious. But it might be an unlikely dream of some sort that she is pursuing, or solve a mystery, or, perhaps, it is just trying to uphold her good character and values in times of stress.
Dialog. I love writing it because it can convey so many things. You can develop the relationship, lay out the story, or interject humor.
Details. Here’s where I struggle. I tend to be a simplifier and summarizer. In real life I purpose to not remember some details that I think are irrelevant. Unfortunately, I miss a lot. In a story, sights, sounds, and smells connect with us in ways that are more visceral than just the facts.
Enlightenment. Stories can be the best method of teaching. In a good story you will learn something. In one novel I include some geographical information about locations, because all of the locations are familiar to me. In another I throw in a little information about Medicare fraud. because I have encountered it through being legally responsible for my brother. In the novel I draw attention this unfortunate method of defrauding the taxpayers of billions of dollars every year. So, good stories teach us something we would be unlikely to learn otherwise.
Pacing. A good story teller knows when to zoom in and zoom out, when to move the story along and when to go into detail.
The real life application are endless.
Our most important legacy is our character, who we are, not what we did. The thing we will care most about as we near our final days on earth will be a few very important people. How we deal with surprises and pursue our passion will reveal our true character. Living life with wonder as a never ending learning opportunity keeps us engaged and full alive. It’s a gift to know what is important and what is just a blip of the radar screen of life.
Our lives are an unfolding story, and we get to edit it.