This is an excellent question, and one that I can't believe I hadn't given much thought until now. I consider myself a storytelling aficionado, I'm always that guy who walks out of every movie ranting about why I loved this and that, or hated that and this, and yet I've never stopped to consider what it really is that I look for in a truly excellent story.
So, I sat down for a bit, and pondered three of my all-time favorite stories: Breaking Bad, The Last of Us, and Unforgiven.
And as I pondered, I started thinking to myself about why I love these stories so much. Before long, the answer was pretty clear.
An excellent story is one that raises questions, and leads me to think about things in a brand new way.
Unforgiven made me think about the romanticization of violence in media. Not just in westerns, but every genre. More often than not, the protagonist is some big, violent badass who saves the day by killing shit in the name of "justice."
Unforgiven takes a much more critical look at this. Taking a life is very serious business, and doing so is not in itself a heroic act. The film's characters represent a broad spectrum of old west archetypes, all chasing the bounty of a man who had far too much to drink on night and ended up taking a knife to a woman and scarring her face. Not exactly Jesse James.
The town Sheriff lets him off with a slap-on-the-wrist fine, and the man later offers the victim a pair of strong horses as a peace offering, but her friends will have none of it, and post a fictitious bounty of $1,000 that they simply don't have in return for the man's death.
Over the course of the film, the story of what happened becomes bloated and sensationalized beyond all belief, to the point that the bounty attracts "gunslingers" from far and wide, all looking to be the hero who killed an impotent drunkard. From a teenage braggart, to a cowardly old fart, they all seem to think they're the fastest gun in the west, and they all find that the cliches of the old west just don't hold up in real life.
Without spoiling too much, Unforgiven tackles the issues related to the romanticization of violence, both broad and specific, in a way that always keeps the audience guessing, and will leave them with a fresh new perspective on the issue for years to come.
Breaking Bad, similarly, made me question the role of the protagonist in fiction. It presents the case that just because a character has a ton of screen time and a tragic backstory, that doesn't make them a good guy.
Again, without spoiling too much, Walter White is an aging, overqualified, underappreciated high school teacher with a boring home life. One day, he finds out that he has cancer, and that there's no way his family could ever make due without him after he passes on. So, he decides to put his chemistry skills to good use and manufacture crystal meth to secure them a nest egg.
Early on, Walter is a dark hero, but a hero nonetheless. However, that eventually changes. Walter, though still technically the show's protagonist, shows his true colors, and we see that the underdog we were supposed to be rooting for in the beginning, is not the man we thought he was.
And that's what I took away from Breaking Bad, and why I feel that it is an excellent story. It puts all that "rebellious underdog everyman hero" bunk under the microscope, and comes up with answers that make you rethink everything you thought you knew about storytelling.
So, what could possibly top that?
I consider The Last of Us to be the greatest story ever told, because the thing it makes me rethink is the very meaning of life. To spoil absolutely nothing about this game, at the end of the game, it puts life at its core into perspective. It makes us look inwardly about what makes our lives worth living, and how those are the things we fight and strive for every day.
Bluntly put, The Last of Us makes the point that we live life simply because it's worth it. That it's always better to find something worth living for rather than simply existing day to day. It's all about exploring the intricacies in life, both big and small, that make everything worth it.
I love storytelling because I feel it contributes more to the human spirit than any other medium, and if The Last of Us is diving into the meaning of life, and coming up with an answer that puts the entirety of conscious existence into perspective, then I feel that's enough to make it an excellent story.
TL;DR, I think that an excellent story is one that makes me see things in brand new ways that I'd never thought possible. It's a story that makes me ask questions that will last all my life.