Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Real Story by Terry Wright

Most of you know I run my own electronic publishing company, and as you can imagine, I get short story submissions from all around the world. Invariably, better than 99% of those submissions tell a story that, on the surface, is interesting in concept, but in actuality lacks execution. The real story, the teeth of the story, you might say, lies beneath the surface, unseen.
Missed opportunities for conflict and tension abound, and it pains me every time I start a new submission only to be disappointed by a flood of back-story narrative, coincidences, and characters that lack motivation.
Example:  In one story, a guy visits an old abandoned lighthouse where he sees movement in a window. I think, “Cool, a haunted lighthouse story.” He leaves, drives to a military cemetery (just happens to pull in) and stumbles upon a gravestone that spurs his interest in the soldier buried there (out of thousands, mind you). I think, “What’s this got to do with the lighthouse?” And thus begins his unmotivated quest to learn about this soldier, who turns out to be the hero who had saved his father’s life in the war. Talk about a coincidence beyond belief. And never again is the lighthouse mentioned. The entire read is chucked full of coincidence and back-story, one info-dump meeting after another, completely devoid of conflict, tension, drama, suspense, and high stakes (or any stakes, for that matter) as this guy tracks down the soldier’s family.
The real story remains untapped, buried in a graveyard of relentless words that left me emotionless (if you don’t count ‘angry’ for having wasted my time). The saddest part is that the author doesn’t recognize the problem.  He truly believes the story is worthy of publication, that strangers would pay money to read it. That’s because he has no real support system to help him develop his story and understand the craft of storytelling.
We in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers are lucky to have each other to share our stories with, whether in one of our critique groups or through our Colorado Gold Writing Contest.  Here we can bounce our stories off each other, test our characters’ motivations and goals, and see where success or failure has rewards and consequences in the end. We can help each other find and reduce or eliminate missed opportunities for tension, conflict, and emotion, and prepare our very best story craft to send agents and editors and know we are not wasting their time.
Granted, we still may not get a contract. There are many reasons that manuscripts get rejected. One is bad writing and another is bad craft. As writers, these things are within our control. Things like subjectivity, economics, marketing, production, distribution, and sales are beyond our control.
So write a good story, get deep into the heart and emotions of your characters, reveal what’s below the surface and show the teeth so your reader gets the real story.
Only three weeks remain before the Colorado Gold Writing Contest closes.


Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the great example of untied loose ends. Now, I'm wondering about the lighthouse.

Giles Hash said...

I've written a few stories like that. It's why I avoided short stories for so long. I didn't know how to avoid wasting the readers' time while giving them all of the information they needed.

I think I'm learning, though! :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

I think a good critique group is priceless. I love mine.

Mario said...

Good post. Great analysis about why a story doesn't work.