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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: I is for IDEA vs. STORY

IN MY LETTERS TO THE SLUSH PILE #8, I talked about how an idea or premise is not the same thing as a fully-fledged story. I suggested to the writer that he would be further ahead if he practiced story basics, or if he learned what those were if he wasn’t sure.

One of the most common faults I see when perusing the slush pile is a story that thinks it’s a story, when it’s only an idea. We all start out with an idea, but what we do with it is what makes it a story. Barb Galler-Smith and Ann Marston, fellow editors at On Spec actually have a term for this: they call such stories HAITEs, or Has An Idea - The End. To give you a better idea of what a HAITE is, I’ll share a couple of my very early writing attempts with you. (I’m sure I gave the editors a good laugh.)

Premise #1: Barbara Walters (yes, the Barbara Walters) is sent into space to do an investigative report on the Planet of the Cat People. (Laughing yet? It gets worse.) Barbara is turned into a cat and gets fixed.

Okay, other than the fact that a). it’s never a good idea to use a famous person who is still living as your protagonist, as you or the publisher could be sued, and b). cat stories have been overdone to death, and c). the science made absolutely no sense, and d). it was a victim story, this whole mess still qualifies as an idea rather than a story. Why? Because there was little to no dramatic tension, no climax that gave the reader an ‘aha’ moment, no character growth, no reader insight. In other words, no follow-through of essential story basics – conflict, dramatic tension, climax, and a worthwhile resolution. 

Premise #2: Doris discovers a strange hole in the back of her dryer. She climbs through it, only to realize it’s a door into a sub-sect of Hell, where all the lost socks go. 

What's wrong with this one? Again, the physics are a problem - how does full-sized Doris climb through a hole in her dryer, and logically, why would she want to? but that aside, it’s an idea, not a story. Doris goes on a strange Doris in Sockland Adventure. She’s annoyed when she can’t get her misplaced socks back, and the sock demon she encounters is an obnoxious little imp. Okay, maybe she gains some insight – the world isn’t what she thought it was, but again – no real threat to Doris, no big stakes. Stuff happens, Doris goes home sans socks, The End, and that’s all.

Thirty years have flashed by. I know better now, I'm an editor, and I see too many HAITE's in the slush. How can I make this clearer for the inexperienced writer? What advice would I have given to my much younger self? I can only tell you what I personally want to see in a fully-developed story. 

#1: I need to be engaged with the protagonist emotionally. This means I need to care about them and their situation (even if your protagonist is an anti-hero and/or is an unsympathetic type, I still need to be engaged. Something about his character must hook me - whether it's his mental acuity, a human connection of some sort, or something about his makeup/past that plays upon my sympathies). 
#2: Your protagonist needs to have a serious problem. (If you’re writing humour, this requirement is still the same, except your protagonist’s problem is amusing to us, while hugely serious to him.)

Ideas pretending to be stories usually stop after the above two points. They often come from writers who are exploring an idea or a premise, but the piece tends to lack substance and follow-through. It's often quirky, or dream-like, or its characters suffer terrible fates with nothing to be gained from the experience. The next couple of points illustrate where ideas become fully developed pieces. We've all been taught these story basics, but so often, they aren't applied or really understood. 

#3: There needs to be a series of escalating events where things go from bad to worse (not just wandering along, as in my quirky Doris in Sockland story, or What Was I Thinking Barbara Turns Into a Cat story).
#4: There should be a crisis (and not a stupid one, as in my Barbara story), which brings your protagonist to a sudden understanding or insight (known as the climax). This results in an irrevocable change that occurs to your main character, and/or other characters, as a result. To really nail the end, I shouldn’t see this change/conclusion coming, but it should make a lot of sense. The story should entertain me (if it's humour), or touch me (if it's drama). Even in a tale of great loss, there needs to be something the protagonist, and the reader, can take from it. What I'm looking for is an emotional and insightful event that makes me feel as if the time I spent reading the piece was worthwhile. 

A good story will do that. An idea masquerading as a story, won't.

2 comments:

  1. Barb Galler-Smith12:14 AM

    I've had a few HAITEs today in my slush pile. Some are such good ideas, too, I almost hate to say no because all is so nicely written, the idea is cool. But as you say, an idea is the start, not the end.

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  2. Yup - but take those ideas and develop them. Suddenly, the work is better. And also possibly publishable.

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