TLDR: Even bad published fiction has a certain je ne sais quoi. Read on to find out what it is and how to put it in your story.
If each scene you write doesn’t have a goal, an obstacle, a physical action, a physical reaction, an emotional reaction, and a direct arrow leading to what happens next, then you’ve got problems.
Working to improve my own writing has made me pickier about what I read. I recently had to put down Cold Magic by Kate Elliott after pushing through to 40% completion.
The writing was descriptive, the plot was fast. The worldbuilding hooked me and drew me in. So what was the problem? Well, I kept getting hung up on ham-fisted exposition and plot twists that were more jarring than exciting.
But I’m not surprised that this book was published. It had just enough je ne sais quoi to entice, I’m sure, many readers, but what is that undefinable something?
I want to push myself to the next level and I want to push the fellow writers in my writing critique group to the next level and this book had something that a lot of our writing does not have, but what?
This year I submitted two stories to the Writers of the Future competition. I received an Honorable Mention for my short story Sunrise for Souls in the 3rd quarter 2020 competition. I received another Honorable Mention for my short story The One Life of Merulo Fragment in the 4th quarter.
A judge for the competition writes here that: Stories that keep me reading all the way through will almost always get an Honorable Mention. That’s my way of saying, “You’re writing almost at a professional level, but this one didn’t quite do it for me.” Or better yet, “I’d really like to see more from you. Keep trying!”
She then lists 4 things that prevent most stories from reaching beyond honorable mention:
- the basic concept of your story has been done before
- the idea is good but the execution is a bit off
- plotting is a bit off (consistency issues or weak payoff)
- missing theme or message. story feels hollow
This list frustrates me. It could be anything that’s wrong with my story!
So how do we, as authors, get past this and make the leap to the next level. How do we inject that je ne sais quoi into our stories. Here’s my best answer:
1. the basic concept of your story has been done before
WHO CARES? I love derivative crap that is engagingly written. I don’t think writers should worry about this one. You want to write hero’s journey space opera with wise cracking robots and roguish scoundrels. You and me both, baby! This one doesn’t actually matter.
2. the idea is good but the execution is a bit off
You’ve got to learn to revise. At some point the story goes under the knife. Every spare word is cut. Sentences get rearranged for impact and pacing. Passive voice is thrown out. Active voice is welcomed in. Blank empty scenes are lavishly decorated. Adverbs like “lavishly” are forced to justify their existence. This takes time, which, unfortunately, I believe is a major obstacle to me and my non-professional peers.
3. plotting is a bit off (consistency issues or weak payoff)
This requires study and the most difficult slaughter of darlings. Too many writers think that “kill your darlings” refers to some flowery descriptor that needs cut or a beautiful metaphor that just doesn’t fit. In my experience the hardest darlings to kill are giant, slobbering plot darlings. And most of these result from writing by the seat of your pants. Well no more for me. I’m studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. I’m using Scene Cards. I’m outlining. And you should too. Look, do nanowrimo, do free writing, but then get it under control. If each scene you write doesn’t have a goal, an obstacle, a physical action, a physical reaction, an emotional reaction, and a direct arrow leading to what happens next, then you’ve got problems.
4. missing theme or message. story feels hollow
If you desperately want to include a message or a theme, then you need to read John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, but more often than not, a story feels hollow if the reader can’t connect to the characters. Characters that have real feelings, goals, dreams, desires, and flaws will create their own themes. Most hollow stories feel hollow because they put the cart before the horse and said, “I’ve got this great plot idea, if only I had some characters to put in it.” No chance, chief. You’ve got characters or you’ve got nothing.
Which is not to say that you can’t imagine a conflict and/or setting first. You can and probably should, but on the tip of your tongue should always be the question, who? Who lives in this setting? Who is affecting and who is affected by this conflict? The wise owl knows how to design a story: Who who who?
Alright, that’s all I’ve got. Leave me a comment if you resonated with any of this or you think I’ve got it bass-ackwards or you’ve got suggestions of your own. I look forward to hearing from you.