Monday, April 28, 2014

Finishing School for Stories

By DeAnna Knippling


So you have a story. You're not sure whether it's really ready to share with other people. You're afraid that it's going to stick its foot into its mouth. It's going to say something truly embarrassing to your great-aunts. It's going to slurp soup, spit when it says the word "protuberance," and, in short, flop.

Like all children, it has its good points, but you're afraid of what it's going to do the first time it goes out to a bar and gets a bit drunk. You're terrified of what it's going to wear during its first job interview. You have fevered nightmares in which it dates all the wrong sort of people, the crazy ones with parents who look altogether too similar to each other or are familiar from America's Most Wanted.

What to do?

You could lock the story away in a drawer. After all, children can't embarrass themselves in public if you never let them out of doors.

Or you could subject your children to a militant writing group that will whip them into shape. GRAMMAR ALL CORRECT? SIR YES SIR!

Or, like many intelligent parents, you could send your story off to finishing school, a place where it can learn to balance books on its head, walk elegantly, and learn which fork to use with salad and which glass to use with the blood of your enemies.

Deportment. That's what many perfectly good stories need. Deportment, also known as editing. That's what many editors are doing for you: putting your stories through finishing school. (Although some editors have been known to correct more fundamental issues and are more akin to plastic surgeons than teachers.)

So what elements of deportment should your story possess? What is the essence of a story being finished?

In short, a story is finished when no element of the story is in the author's, rather than the reader's, favor. To put it bluntly, no reader gives a damn about what the author intended, thought, or attempted to do. They only care about the story's effect on them. A story is finished when it operates in service of the reader, not the author.

However, as in a normal finishing school, the devil is in the details. Here are some that I've been noticing in unfinished stories lately:

Plot

  • The story must have its own beginning, middle, and end, and must not be merely the prologue or first chapter of a larger work. If that's the case--write the larger work.
  • The story must begin at the beginning of the plot. There must not be six pages of working up to the actual beginning of the first real, significant event of the plot, especially in a seven-page story.
  • Tension must increase with every scene; it must not be avoided simply because the author doesn't feel like writing about something embarrassing, bloody, sexual, heartbreaking, research-heavy, confrontational, taboo, etc. Writers are not allowed to flinch.
  • Plot twists must not be easily anticipatable (developing a skill for identifying easily-identifiable plot twists requires a solid grounding in reading the genre), and they should not usually occur at the end of a story--plot twists are often not properly the end of anything, but a technique used to increase tension in a sagging middle. Only in the shortest of short stories is a plot twist at the end truly enjoyable (e.g., O. Henry).
  • A story in which a despicable character meets a grisly end at the hands of fate rather than the direct or indirect efforts of the main character does not constitute a plot twist.
  • The climactic struggle must be fought on camera as it were, and the main character must play a pivotal part.
  • The very ending of the story must tie up loose ends, resolve major story questions, and settle the characters in a new stasis or on a new course of action, except in cases of serial fiction, which are more properly chapter endings than the ending of a story per se.

Character

  • Stupid characters are dull.
  • Contemptible characters are also dull. Evil characters are often interesting--but that for which we hold no respect holds only the same level of interest as a gossip column or a car accident.
  • Nobody wants to read the story about stupid, contemptible characters who get what's coming to them without any struggle on the part of the main character. This is mere wish fulfillment on the part of the author. In fact, nobody wants to read a story primarily and obviously driven in order to fulfill the wishes of the author, except in cases in which the author wishes to give the readers a particular type of pleasure. Moralizing, instructing the young, and other types of edification are for Sunday school, not stories.
  • The "everyman" character is dull, because they do not make identifiable choices. They have no modus operandi, and it is the modus operandi which truly identifies a character, not their physical characteristics.
  • Every character should have an identifiable modus operandi: Can the reader discern what type of behavior to expect from the characters? To the point where it's amusing seeing a certain problem cross that character's path, because you know they will--they must--handle it badly?
  • Do the characters' dialog and actions match their backgrounds, their habits, and their roles in life?
  • Characters who break character, either by acting out of character or by directly addressing the audience, have failed at being characters, unless it is within their character to do so.*

Other details

  • The opening of the story should establish the genre, place, and time of the story. "Now" and "here," especially in combination, are overused and often dull.
  • Details and information are provided before the reader can think to ask about them.
  • The writing is clear and cannot be misinterpreted, even briefly.
  • The readers' time is not wasted, not by a single word.
  • The reality of the story is grounded in all five senses.
  • Communication is valued above grammar, but grammar is still valued above sloppiness.
  • The language of the story hasn't been polished to death--even finishing-school graduates value some individuality. Do not surgically remove a mole or a prominent nose only to have to add it back in again to add character.
  • The author does not break POV by telling the reader that the character thought, understood, saw, heard, or realized something--they simply show it.
  • Changing character points of view within the same section is an annoyance in the hands of all but the masters.
  • Stilted or generic language and details benefit the writer, never the reader.  If one wished to see "a man," one would have glanced at any one of several to be found at hand.
  • Repetitive traits in your writing should charm the reader--if they don't, as in overuse of adverbs or an over-exuberance of exclamation points**, eradicate them.

As always, in any finishing school--if it is charming, then it is not a defect, it is an element of individuality. But it must charm the reader, not the author. If it only charms the author, it's merely an affectation. 

How dull.

*Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Ferris Bueller is exactly vain enough to visualize his life as a movie of which he is the main character, even when he isn't.
**But don't let this hinder proper use and exuberance!


About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at www.deannaknippling.com or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.






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