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Sunday, September 22, 2013


THE FOLLOWING PREMISES ARE REPRESENTATIVE EXAMPLES of some of the stories we’ve rejected at On Spec. They have one fault in common. After reading each premise, see if you can determine what the fault is. 

Premise One: A neighbor listens through the walls of his apartment to what sounds like the rape of a young girl by her step-father. After hearing this abuse carrying on for several weeks, he decides to act

Premise Two: A twenty-something’s live-in boyfriend mysteriously leaves the house every night. He returns by dawn covered in scratches and puncture marks. She thinks he’s dealing drugs, but she doesn’t confront him. When she finally does at the end of the story, she discovers he’s a were-cat. 

Premise Three: Two pest control officers travel the country killing robots, because they believe robots have become too human-like. In the end, they realize they’ve murdered a hospital full of real people.

Did you figure out what the common fault is?

For me, the above premises fail to garner my respect. In the first premise, I kept wondering why the protagonist waited, why he didn’t intervene or investigate the moment he suspected a child was being abused. Because he waited (as some ordinary people might, because they don't want to be involved or they're unsure), he lost my respect. Why should I care about a sit-on-the-fence coward? Why would I want to read about one? This story had the potential to give us a hero or a fool, but it did neither.

In premise two, the writer keeps the reader dangling. Her protagonist does nothing to challenge her boyfriend, because if she confronts him too soon, the story is over. She’s a passive witness – the only action we see from her is a lot of hand wringing. This 'putting-off-of-the-end' so we can finally have a big reveal is tiresome.
In premise three, the story fails to lay down enough rationale for the two pest control officers to go on a killing rampage. When we learn (surprise, surprise) that they’ve killed real people, we’re not horrified, nor do we think about artificial intelligence rights (which might have been the writer's intent), we're just annoyed. We’ve wasted time reading about characters who are stupid with nothing else to redeem them.

A good protagonist must engender a sympathetic response in a reader. We should relate to them, and, even if they are flawed in some way, admire them. Reader respect is lost when writers haven’t developed their protagonists enough for us to care about, or when characters act in ways that would lose them respect in everyday life. Antagonists must engender respect as well; this comes about only when they pose a serious risk. In either case, both types of character should have something about them that lifts them above the ordinary, that shows us their heroic side, or their diabolical. They need to be 'doers' and 'thinkers', action-oriented and bigger than life.

On a personal note, as I was plotting a short story the other day, I kept running into difficulties. I had a piece of action in mind for my protagonist, but for some reason, I couldn't justify him doing what was required (the story is tied to an historical event). I finally realized my problem had to do with reader respect. If I forced my protagonist in a particular way, I wouldn't like him. And if I, as a creator, can't respect him, why should I expect a reader to?

I re-thought the whole thing and came up with a stronger character and a much better plot.

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