I just finished reading well over 100 entries to Irreantum’s fiction and creative nonfiction contests, narrowing them down to a set of semifinalists over which our contest committee can wrangle. Reading all those stories and essays can be a bit of a slog, it’s true. But it’s also one of my favorite things to do as Irreantum’s editor. (In fact, I like to do it so much that I’m staying on as Irreantum’s contest coordinator after stepping down as editor at the end of this year.)
One of the reasons I enjoy it is because I’m a great lover of stories—stories of both the true and made up variety—and it thrills me to see story after story after story, each one original in its own way, being made about Mormon experience. Some of these stories are better told than others, it’s true, but even the most amateur entry contains a kernel of a tale. And the best stories? (And there are some really good ones this year, I’m pleased to say.) The best ones kept me glued to my computer screen, had me wiping away tears, helped me yearn or thrill or discover right along with the protagonist.
In between the obviously amateur stories and the knockouts were the most difficult pieces to judge: the stories that showed a considerable amount of writerly skill but wound up somehow lacking. Usually, this lack showed up in the last couple of pages. Many times I found myself jazzed by a story, all excited about being carried away to new heights of insight or punched in the gut with surprise, only to find myself at the bottom of the Microsoft Word document, repeatedly pressing “page down” and saying to myself, “This can’t be it. Is this it? Please tell me this isn’t it!”
You know that feeling when you have four strips of Kit Kat and you swear you’ve only eaten three, but you look down and the fourth strip is nowhere to be found, so you’re left with the uncomfortable emptiness of things-not-quite-finished? That’s the feeling I’m getting at.
So I’ve been thinking about what’s wrong with some of these not-quite-there stories. Some of them lack a clearly focused conflict, but most of them lack a satisfying resolution. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to end a short story in a satisfying way: resolutions in short fiction are often (but not always) small and quiet, and small and quiet can be much tricker to pull off than grand and sweeping. You’re George Lucas writing Star Wars and you have your protagonist blow up the Death Star. You’re Andre Dubus writing “The Fat Girl,” and you have your protagonist unwrap a candy bar. But done well? Unwrapping that candy bar can be just as explosive as Luke in his X-wing, firing away.
Structuring a story in such a way that it allows for the build up and payoff we all crave as readers is a skill, and a skill that I believe can be learned. I, for one, know a lot more about it now than I did when I first started writing short fiction. One of my biggest “a ha” moments came when I realized that agency is at the core of all good stories. As readers, we’re looking for characters who choose and then reap consequences as a result of those choices. We want our characters to “act for themselves and not be acted upon,”a notion I find particularly compelling as a Mormon writer and reader. So now, whenever I sit down to work on one of my own stories, or function as a teacher or writer or editor trying to help others revise their work, I try to keep the following agency-related rules of writing good stories in mind:
1. Your character must have a DESIRE. He or she has got to want something, and want that something intensely. The thing itself can be big (“Save the World!”) or it can be small (“Get a new hair cut!”), but if you character really desires something then your readers will want to see how she goes about getting it, and voila. We’ll turn the page.
2. Your character must make a CHOICE in the pursuit of that desire. This is one area where new writers often go off the rails. They think that if something bad happens to a character (she gets a dreadful disease, her husband leaves her, her purse gets stolen) then they’ve created a conflict. But no. They’ve created an incident. The conflict isn’t in place until the incident compels the main character to choose what do do about it.
3. This choice must be made manifest in ACTION. Your character can choose to harbor feelings of revenge against the husband who left her, but unless she does something about those feelings (slashes his tires, has a rebound revenge relationship, etc.) then your readers are left wandering around inside your main character’s head, suffering through her litany of complaints without anything actually happening as a result. We have enough friends and relatives to regale us with complaints unattached to any motivation to do anything about them. We don’t need it in our fiction.
4. There must be OBSTACLES that get in the way of the attainment of your main character’s desire. If your main character has an intense crush on the most beautiful girl in his biology class and wants to ask her on a date, well, he’s gotta have some failures before he achieves his success. I know that in real life, sometimes people seem to get what they want as soon as they burst out of the gate, but in fiction? It’s annoying and limp. And just as Mormons are firm believers in agency, we’re also big fans of opposition. (Perhaps all beginning fiction writers should just read 2 Nephi 2?)
5. Your characters must experience CONSEQUENCES directly linked to their actions in pursuit of the original desire. The way things turn out at the end should be a function of whatever it is your main character has been doing all story long. Endings that seem “too easy” are often a product a writer failing on this point. If your character wakes up and finds it was “all a dream” (please no!!!!), or if somebody sweeps in and fixes everything for your character at the last minute, or if it turns out that your character didn’t need to worry because things were going to work out on their own anyway? This robs the reader of vicariously experiencing the choice/consequence paradigm that seems hardwired into our story-loving brains.
6. At the end of the story, CHANGE has been effected. Your character isn’t the same person as he was before. The world around him, or his perceptions of it, are somehow altered.
So what do you think about the agency-as-a-model-for-fiction-writing paradigm? When you read a not-quite-there short story, what is it that makes you feel let down? And did the story you submitted to the contest have a protagonist filled with desire who makes choices in the face of opposition that result in specific consequences that lead to change? Of course it did!
And don’t forget: our story and essay contest winners will be announced on this very blog on Aug. 31, so stay tuned.