Thinking About Story: The Sum And Its Parts
I’ve undertaken a project of sorts. In June I decided to read a story a day for the next year. I own a lot of unread collections and anthologies—thirty-two by my last count. I need to put a dent in them, especially when new ones are released more than often enough to keep me well stocked with short fiction. Also, I’ve read paltry little of the various online spec fic magazines, venues to which I plan to submit my own work. Of course, sending work blindly is as good a route to rejection as any; it helps to be familiar with what a given magazine published. (You know this already.) It’s about time I did my homework on these markets.
There is one other rationale for this endeavor: I want to be inspired. Whenever I’m regularly reading short stories, I generally find myself brimming with ideas for my own stories. I’ve read nearly fifty stories since I started this one-a-day venture; in return, I’ve landed on exactly one viable story idea. (Even the not-so-viable ideas are, sadly, in short supply.) I’m hoping that ratio improves, especially as I see more stories that subvert the traditional guidelines about what makes an effective story.
I’m sure you know the kind. They’re reproduced on plenty of websites, printed in numerous craft books, recited in writing courses formal and not. Compelling, dimensional characters, ones with distinct personalities, believable actions. A conflict that presents the protagonist with obstacles in pursuit of a goal. A conclusion that is surprising yet inevitable. And on and on.
For as many stories follow these precepts, I’m sure most people wouldn’t have much trouble thinking of exceptions. Do we have fully rendered characters in “The Lottery” or “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas?” What is the conflict of “The Rose in Twelve Petals?” Are stories with an element missing, “Hell Is the Absence of God” eschewing dialogue, inferior for their lack?
If we abandon more recent examples and look to the literary past, I feel pretty confident we’ll find many more exceptions. But, the objection begins, they were writing in different ages. You can’t apply the same principles, because those principles didn’t formally exist. Fair point. Has the process of story, then, been codified, strait-jacketed?
Not at all. For one, working within established parameters can enhance creativity. Just because an idea is outside the box doesn’t mean it’s inherently better than one inside. There are simply good ideas and bad ideas—in this case, stories. For another thing, there are still writers, publishers, and groups who support work that defies, or at least tweaks, conventions.
That’s good news. As you know (Bob), I’ve been struggling to write creatively again. Too much thinking, borne of my recent studies, not enough doing. Many writers wrestle with doubt and a sense of futility; still, that solidarity hasn’t made it any easier to pull myself out of this malaise. But I look at the stories I’m reading. Some would serve as good examples of traditional stories. Others are a far cry from the template laid out in craft books. They’re still stories, though. Right?
That is beyond my ability to answer. If it appears in the fiction section of a magazine or in a collection with other fiction, it must be a story, yes? Objects are matters of function, not form. However many types there are, a chair’s a chair by its use. It’s not a very good chair if you can’t sit on it.
This, then, raises the question of what a story does. Clearly it can’t be defined by what it contains, or does not contain. Sure, the majority of stories conform to our general idea—characters, plot, setting, and so forth. But, as Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, puts it, “Not all stories have to do the same things.” In so far as they need to do anything—all the examples of unconventional fiction I've come across lately are proof enough that there's no single aim for storytelling.
Again, this should be good news to me. Liberating. There is no one way to write a story. So why do I still feel afraid of writing?
In writing this, I discovered a sizable can of worms. More another time…