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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

March 2009

Less Than The Rules Demand: Getting By On Attitude

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Read Bruce’s previous column here, his next one here, or visit his author page to see them all.

When writers realize that fiction is harder to write than they thought, they look for advice or instruction. And do they ever find it. How-to books tell them that a story unfolds in eight steps (or eleven or three or six). A creative writing teacher at the university says that a story consists of two epiphanies, one in which the character understands something, and a second, usually on the last page, in which the character understands the full implications of the first epiphany. The leaders of a local weekly writing workshop all seem to agree that for a story to work, there must be a protagonist who tries three times to solve a serious problem, failing each time before he comes to an understanding that enables him to attack the problem in a new way and succeed.

Once writers have opened the flood gates of literary theory, they’re soon up to their eyebrows in terminology. Every story must have a climax, which some teachers claim is the same as the crisis and some insist is not. Other teachers say that the whole idea of rising action is outdated and unnecessary — no crisis, climax, or denouement are needed for a story to succeed.

It’s no good hoping that editors will sort all of this out and tell writers whose theory is right. Editors just add to the confusion. Editor A writes on a rejection slip, “This is not a story.” The same manuscript then goes to Editor B who loves it, buys it, and calls the writer to say, “What I like best about your writing is your marvelous sense of story.”

Why did editor B see a story where editor A missed it? Can’t someone just write one clear book that explains once and for all how stories work so that teachers and writers and editors can all use the same terms and standards?

All the Rules Are Right, Including the Rule Against Rules

I like rules. I like definitions, categories, and writing advice of all sorts. When I’m writing fiction, there are often a lot of things for me to try to get right at once, and rules help me to stay organized. But my favorite rule of all is that, ultimately, there are no rules. Or as Rudyard Kipling put it, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”

All definitions for fiction are provisional. “A story consists of sympathetic characters behaving badly.” Is that a definition of story? For some stories, yes. Certainly not for all. “In a story, the protagonist changes as a consequence of his or her own decisions.” Again, that’s a good fit for some stories, but not for others.

Here’s a reliable definition: A story is a narrative, any narrative. One thing happened, then another thing happened. E.M. Forster’s example of story was “The king died, and then the queen died.”

Here’s a story:

The Cat and the Wood Stove

Sitka came into the living room and sat in front of the wood stove. She licked her paw and cleaned her face. She lay down on her side with her back to the stove. Her eyes closed. She lay unmoving. Well, not quite unmoving. Occasionally, her ear twitched. Fifteen minutes later, she was still there. And fifteen minutes later. And fifteen minutes after that.

Is that a story? It certainly is. Do you want to read a 300 page collection of similar stories? Probably not, even if you like cats and are fond of my cat in particular. So defining story isn’t enough. We need to define the successful story.

A successful story is a narrative that the reader reads all the way through to the end and enjoys.

Is this definition of any use to the writer who wants to know how to write a story? It is. It tells the writer that the text must engage the reader’s attention, keep the reader’s attention, and leave the reader feeling satisfied at the end.

What Did They Like Last Time?

All further elaborations of story theory proceed from the goals of luring the reader, keeping the reader, and making sure that the reader has enjoyed the ride. But as soon as we start asking what the reader will enjoy, our theory begins to break down because readers don’t all like the same thing. If stories were amusement park rides, some readers would want to ride the Tower of Terror time after time, while others want to ride only the train that toodles past the duck pond and gives passengers a chance to look around. What Tower of Terror enthusiasts enjoy about their ride is not at all the same as what the train passengers enjoy about theirs. If you want to design new rides based on understanding existing rides, you had better figure who you think your riders—your readers—will be.

Some readers want to drop straight down, fast, in suspense from the first line to the last. Others are content to follow the story in slow circles, looking at pretty sentences. It should be obvious, though, that as we make theory more practical by sorting the audience into categories, we are making what we say about story less universal.

If we accept the value of making theory more specialized, we can focus in further by theorizing via induction—by looking at individual examples and finding common features. If you want to know how a horror novel works, you read fifty horror novels and then construct a theory of horror novels based on what you’ve read.

Theory can help the writer who feels a little lost. If you’re going to write a horror novel, I’d say that reading and thinking about fifty horror novels would be a good start. But as soon as you begin to believe that your theory is a blueprint, you begin to overlook possibilities.

All of the Good Stuff

Theories tend to emphasize plot. In horror novels, as in many stories, the reader reads for suspense: things are bad, and they keep getting worse.

But if a dominant pleasure in horror novels is fear, then studying scary plots and the way that they are made is only going to enable you to write a horror novel like all the others. More original work will emerge only when you begin to question the rules and consider other ways that the effect might be achieved. You might think about times when you were afraid and consider what it was that frightened you. Was it that you could hear something but not see it? Was it because you didn’t know whether you were awake or dreaming? Or was the worst thing a smell that you never could identify?

More broadly, I think that writers should pay attention to all the ways that literature can provide pleasure. It’s a long list. There are the sounds of individual words, the shapes words make on the page, or the rhythms of sentences. Good writing can surprise with an unexpected but apt word. Characters may intrigue us by having oddball attitudes or a lifestyle that we would never want for ourselves but watch with fascination because it’s so strange, or by representing personality traits that we’d like to have but don’t. Writing can enable us to taste imaginary spices and hear the?vowels of invented languages, or conjure the taste of cinnamon and the sound of Italian. It can remind us of how certain clouds look or how adolescence feels.

Any of the various pleasures of writing can be the basis on which a reader says, “That was a good story.”

If Your Only Tool Is a Hammer

As I’ve already said, I like rules. I like hearing people tell me their prescriptions for what a story must contain. But I know that prescriptive advice teaches only how to do again what has already been done. I also know that prescriptive advice has a bad side effect. It causes hammer vision.

If your only tool is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. If your theory says a story must move a character through an arc of change, then you may come to the end of a story in which nothing changed and say, “Well, that wasn’t a story.”

A certain amount of damage is done to perfectly good stories because of hammer vision. Writers sometimes do violence to interesting drafts based not on the story’s potential to succeed on its own weird terms, but on whether the story can be made into a nail.

I’ve noted that editors sometimes reject a text saying, “This is not a story.” But for almost all editors, these five words are merely a convenient way of saying what the editors really mean: “This is not a story as I define story for the purposes of pleasing my readers, whose tastes I know.” Even editors who define story prescriptively will adjust their theory to admit a story that they think their readers will like.

Editors can’t always know what they like until they see it. Perhaps an editor is tired of receiving shapeless lumps of iron in the mail. “Nails!” he says in desperation. “I need you writers to send me nails!” If you send him another lump, of course he’s going to reject it. But if you send him a screw, he might recognize it as something that will do the job just as well as a nail, maybe better, while adding a bit of flair and novelty.

Where This Leaves Us

I’ve gone to some effort to deconstruct the “rules” because I hope you’ll see that story theories, although useful, are never the law. I see some writers batter their heads against rules that they think they must follow when, in fact, they have the option of going around the rule. Whatever works, works.

Particularly for writers of flash fiction, attempts to make our stories “still be a story” can result in a plotted story that is too short for plot, a story of epiphany that is really more interesting if it stops short of the realization, or a beautiful hybrid of prose poem and flash fiction that the writer never sends out because “it doesn’t seem like enough of a story.”

Short-short stories can be demanding in that they have to achieve their total effect in a very small space. But it’s also true that effects too slight to hold or please a reader for the duration of a 3,000 word story can work perfectly well for 700 words. It’s possible to write a very short story using all the structures and pleasures of a longer story, but a flash can succeed by giving the reader a few of fiction’s smaller pleasures and none of the big ones.

My example story for this month, “Baby, It Didn’t Have to Happen This Way,” has a trace of plot in that the characters have goals. But I would argue that this isn’t really a plotted story at all. I don’t think that the reader feels a stake one way or the other about whether Evan avoids money or Paola gets the fame she craves, and we don’t know for sure in the end whether they achieve their dreams or not.

By most prescriptive models, whether based on epiphanies, turning points, or try-fail cycles, “Baby” isn’t a story. There’s not much to it. But if you read all 700 words, if you look back and say, “I don’t know what that was, but it was kinda fun,” then I did it. I got by on nothing but attitude.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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