Monday, February 21, 2011

What Makes A Story A - You Know - Story

 So why do some stories get accepted and some rejected? Frankly, for the same reasons we're warned about over and over for any piece of fiction. You'll get no surprises here, just pointed reminders of what to look for in your stories before submitting.
Even if you skip reading the rest of this, please do read the last bullet under "Reasons for Acceptance" below, because if you don't start writing with this premise in mind, you might as well not even start at all.

Disclaimer: The examples used here are actual examples except they're not. They're representative of things that were submitted but none of the details are from the actual stories. I've changed up characters, professions, situations, and any other identifiers, and made sure none of the pertinent identifiers pointed toward any of the stories submitted. For example, I use Bigfoot in one of my examples -- no story submitted featured a Bigfoot. And remember, these issues made the list not because they were things I saw in one story, but because I saw them multiple times.

Rushing It

Spinning out the story, then sending it on without really thinking about what you've just written. Dare I conjecture that deep down the writer believes 1) it's just a short story - who cares if the internal logic holds together, or 2) it's just some non-pro publication - they'll take anything.

The competition out there is fierce. Every effort simply must be your best. No exceptions.

The "As you know, Bob" and How It All Works Syndromes

Most of the stories submitted were speculative fiction and while Bob can show up anywhere, he tends to show up more in spec fiction "helping" to explain how this world works. The main culprits: Characters needlessly explaining stuff to other characters, infodump paragraphs, and sentences where characters adjust their binocular-vision plexiglas vid-specs before taking a look at the fission-powered timepiece surgically embedded in their wrist and then hopping onto the robo-driven solarbus that's hovering at the curb.

I get it. You've built a cool world and want your readers to experience the full awesomeness of it. But there are smooth ways to impart this information. A pro will take the extra time needed to more subtly work such info in. That doesn't mean there won't be the occasional lapse. Sometimes there just isn't any other way to work it in smoothly. But please, no more than one or two lapses per story.

Dialogue Tags

More often than not, there were simply too many of them. They got in the way of the story. Substitute some stage business in place of them. Skip them altogether when it's clear who's speaking or thinking. If there's only one animate object around in a locked room, the reader will figure out who or what is talking/thinking without repeating that's who's doing it.

And think about it. How often do you really use a person's name in conversation?


There are people out there who can write really good narrative, but when it comes to dialogue they can't seem to get the right words out of their characters' mouths.

Just-doesn't-ring-true (aka Stilted): The word choices and rhythms aren't natural. Usually this applied to all the characters in the story, but sometimes it would be just one or two characters in a profession it was obvious the author didn't have a good handle on. There are certain protocols and expectations in language when, say, military folk are addressing one another or a journalist is giving a rundown on a situation.

Repetitive: Having a character either tell someone step-by-step what's going to happen right before the narrative takes the reader step-by-step through the event or having a character recap blow-by-blow what just happened. This one's not so much unrealistic as simply unneeded.

Over-dramatic-in-that-cliche-way: Who doesn't love a good scenery-chewing villain or a tearful good-bye scene? Well, most readers won't if it's the same speech we've heard a million times. Cliches are lazy shorthand for characterization. Invest the time to elevate the cliche from "Good-bye cruel world; you'll be sorry when I'm gone" to "Screw it; I'm outta here. And while you're weeping in your hanky, remember you're the one pulled the trigger here, not me."

There's nothing new in writing except the execution.


A lot of characters just seemed to do things spurriously. Sure, we all make spur-of-the-moment decisions to take a walk, have chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, or go out with friends when we'd planned a quite evening at home. But when a character whose life revolves around attention to duty decides to play hooky from work, there needs to be a reason for such uncharacteristic behavior. If not, the reader's obviously going to have a hard time believing the character would do that, but, just as importantly, the author is neglecting an opportunity to build tension, challenge a belief, overcome an obstacle, or otherwise flesh out a character.

With the possible exception of stories based on really bad science, stories where characters were simply placed into a situation and then manipulated into actions whether they made sense or not were the easiest passes. If your anthropologist has spent the past 30 years hunting Bigfoot and then traps one, they aren't going to just turn around and let it go because they've just now realized others will probably try to exploit it. While they ultimately may indeed let it go, the reader needs to be given clear reasons why someone would abandon training and principles and 30 years of dreams and work.

Motivation is a huge part of story development.

Is It Really A Story

Action by itself doesn't make a story. Observational pieces without conflict don't make stories. No matter how good the writing, there must ultimately be a story in your short story. If I go fishing in a lake, catch an 'extinct' fish, ooh and aah over it, throw it back because it should be left to its own devices and hope no one else will catch it, then row to shore when the sun goes down, that's not a story. If two buddies are on a road trip and they're attacked by a herd of wooly rhinos that comes out of nowhere and both buddies are killed after a long but valiant fight, that's not a story either.

As ever, there will be brilliant exceptions, but in general, a short story needs to follow the same rising and falling actions that a novel does, there needs to be conflict along the way, and the characters must change in some way for good or ill.

Other Reasons for Rejection
  • Internal Inconsistencies
  • Bad Science / Vague Science
  • Stories That Just Didn't Make Sense To Me (this could be my failing, but really, probably not)

Reasons for Acceptance
There's no surprise why a story got accepted. A handful of stories got EVERYTHING right. The majority did not commit any egregious sins that couldn't be covered over in editing, and while they might have been a little weak in an area or two, they were so strong in the other areas it compensated.
A difference between what might be accepted in short story form vs. novel form is that in the novel form weaknesses are compounded over a longer period. What might be an annoying gnat in a short story (a lapse in pacing, some weak dialog) would become an elephant in the room in a novel. This, I think, is especially true for humorous stories. The reader is willing to endure a bit of a trade-off in quality if they get a pay-off smile or laugh in the end. In this case, the short length works in the author's favor.
Stories were accepted because they demonstrated strength in a majority of these categories: 
  • Killer voice
  • Strong storytelling skills (meaning pacing, structure, word choices, etc.)
  • Well-developed ideas and characters
  • Plausible science
  • Believable story line made so through proper motivation
  • Natural-sounding dialogue
  • Internally consistent
  • Satisfying ending (doesn't feel rushed or wrong)
  • A feeling that ultimately there was a reason the author wrote this story, that it has a purpose, that it isn't just being told to the reader but is asking -- and sometimes demanding -- a response from the reader. In essence, that it has the reader at its heart.

I finally understand that when I talked about stories being too "on theme" last week, what I was getting at in a not-well-communicated way, was that those stories felt like they were written for this anthology. They were stories that felt like they had no life outside of existing to serve this venue. And they fell flat because the authors seemed to forget that even in themed anthologies, the star of the show isn't the theme -- it's always, always the reader.  


chelsea said...

I think infodumps can tell so much about the stage a writer is in. I can certainly remember the days of passionately insisting (to myself, to others, to whoever) that some clump of information *needed* to be right where it was and it Just Wasn't Moving.

Nowadays, one of the most exciting things is finding the sly little places to insert information, feeding it to the reader slowly, rather than all at once. It can be a challenge, but it's the good kind. Great post!

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Wonderful post, thanks. I got the Bigfoot connection. Appreciate your help.
Hey guys, if you put in a story, congrats, if you were not in the accepted, I guess WE have to huddle and fix our problems.
If you did make the cut, like wow. How great is that. Thanks Divine Miss Phoenix for the chance. Not too many bloggers would do this for us.

Orlando said...

@Phoenix, I missed the contest and by the time I saw it I didn't have sufficient time to write a short. Hopefully you'll bring another contest on. Looking forward to the next one.

Matt said...

Overuse of dialogue tags is one of my biggest pet peeves. They should be used sparingly.

Kay Elam said...

Great post Phoenix. Thanks for the time and energy you spend helping others develop our craft.