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What Makes A Story "Work"?

Posted on 08.05.2013 at 12:09
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Last summer I embarked on a project: I’d read a story every day for the next year. I can no longer remember my rationale for this decision, but I can speculate. For one, I’d been reading a lot of novels and book-length nonfiction, so I certainly could have used some re-familiarizing with the short story. Also, I knew of many speculative fiction magazines online and in print I hadn’t yet read; if I was going to submit to them, it’d be smart for me to get a sense of the kind of work they published. That I started the project when I did seems serendipitous in hindsight—I began a grad program a few months later, and reading short stories kept the creative side of my brain nourished without demanding swaths of time I couldn’t give even if I’d wanted to. I’m convinced that such reading was essential to maintaining my sanity, especially through this spring.

I finished the project last month, only a few weeks behind schedule, an impressive feat if you knew how frenetic the past semester was. Reading so much, as you might expect, gave me a lot to think about. But the question at the forefront of my thoughts, one I’ve raised before, is, What makes a story good? (Or successful or effective, whatever vocabulary you’d like to use.) What is a story’s goal? What’s it supposed to do?

The latter are admittedly philosophical questions. I could just as well ask what any art-form is supposed to do. What the point of art is. And that, to me, seems stupid—not because I think the answers are worthless, only that 1) I recognize there are many answers to that question, so the search for the point is misguided, and 2) I don’t much care about providing those answers. I’m interested in aesthetics, and I believe art matters, but I’m not in the business of explaining why it matters. I’m more interested in the creation of art, practice over theory.

And yet, as someone who’s devoted significant sums of time and money into honing my writing, I can’t help encountering questions that demand my attention and consideration. And when I see the issue of what makes a good story addressed, obliquely or not, in what I read, in conversations I have, my curiosity gets stoked anew.

During the first semester of my MFA, I became acquainted, if only tentatively, with some of the experimental subspecies in speculative fiction—slipstream, interstitial, New Weird. Some of the stories that bore those labels were not to my taste; I was either puzzled by them or I felt some unidentifiable dissatisfaction with the story (in part or in total amounted to the same reaction). Others I liked, loved. Even if I didn’t become an instant convert to the unconventional, I was intrigued and so remained on the alert for work in similar veins. Still, my inability to pin down what made some of these stories and not others work continued to rankle me.

In the introduction to Feeling Very Strange, an anthology of slipstream, the editors write, “A failed slipstream story can seem like idle noodling, a grab bag of uncommitted allusions to genres without any investment in characters or the ideas behind them, or acknowledgment that genre tropes are anything more than pawns on a chess board.” Yet I had read stories that, by dint of their publication, could ostensibly be called successful, and to me they felt like nothing more than that noodling.

I had a recent conversation with a friend, a writer and editor, and he told me that some stories outside the box leave him cold, however much support they’ve gotten from other readers. Another writer/editor posted a status update in which he said he hated Freytag’s pyramid, a core concept in many a creative writing class and craft book. I’ve read great stories that throw that model out the window, and I’ve read terrible ones that follow it. Execution, as they say, is everything.

That still doesn’t resolve the issue, even in a provisional way. If the received wisdom is nothing more than a set of readerly preferences, how do you write something unorthodox well?* Is it even possible to aim for that, or do you just write however it comes to you and hope for the best? Maybe that’s the way we ought to work, whether we’re traditionalists or not. After all, just because you’ve done everything according to the conventions doesn’t guarantee you success (itself a slippery concept).

Of course, writing and getting published are not the same; I’ve conflated the two here at times. That distinction has relevance to what I’m getting at, but I think I need to stop here for now, come back when my thoughts are a little less abstract.

* In The Elements of Style, which is as orthodox as it gets, Strunk and White write, “Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Can you be certain? How? I hope I’m thinking and writing my way toward an answer, even an incomplete one.

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