In Which I Critique Your Story (That I Haven’t Read)

This past weekend, I bopped by San Antonio, Texas to punch a couple bulls, hide a bicycle in the basement of the Alamo, eat buckets of tacos, and also work as faculty for this year’s Paradise Lost writing program. I got to hang out with some fellow pro-grade writers (Delilah S. Dawson, Robert J. Bennett, Marko Kloos) and work with some semi-pro up-and-comers, all under the vigilant stare of the madman known as Sean Patrick Kelley. The program had both a retreat track and a critique track, and I did a couple sessions of critiques with a handful of writers each time.

Now, whenever I do these things, I like to come back and noodle on some of the issues that pop up from time to time — stuff that isn’t just held fast to one story but persistent issues I’ve seen in the stories of some of these writers and, frankly, in the early drafts from a lot of penmonkeys (including yours truly). That’s not to say the stories are bad. Many were quite good, and have a great deal of potential — but every story could use some improvement.

As such, I figure I’d unpack some of the critiques I had, because honestly? They probably apply to your stories, too. These are common potholes on the road to story excellence — even though I haven’t actually read your story, hey, just pretend I have. Pretend I’m sitting there with you now. Staring at you. Quietly massaging your manuscript. With a knife. I have a creepy grin, like maybe I just ate the neighbor’s cat? And I’m touching my nipple. Whatever. Point is: check your story for these problems. See if they apply to you. And if they do? Get to fixing.

Let us begin.

Lack of Urgency, Tension, Conflict

The standard shape of a story isn’t a straight line. It isn’t a straight flat line, it isn’t a straight inclined line. Stories have swoops and jiggles and jaggles — it is a craggy and dangerous mountain, not a safe and code-standard wheelchair ramp.

But here’s what happens: your story has too straight a line. You have robbed your tale of tension. You have undercut the conflict. You have urinated in the mouth of urgency. And what results is this kind of gutless, gormless narrative. It’s a pair of underwear with the elastic blown out. It’s just laying there on the highway shoulder. Slack and sad. It’s covered in ants. Nobody wants to pick it up because nobody feels compelled to pick it up.

I want to feel that when I read your story, shit’s serious. I want to feel that the characters are being urged to action. I want to feel driven to the precipice of a cliff, whipped by the lash of the story — I don’t want to feel casually perambulated to the precipice of a curb where I will then get over the curb so I can have ice cream at this lovely ice cream stand there. I want danger! Risk! Fear! I want emotion and consequence. I want stakes on the table — something to be won, something to be lost, something to matter. I want to know that somebody wants something and that the world stands against them getting it. Life! Death! Love! Hate! Things exploding! Lemurs on fire! AHHHH.

Here’s the trick, right? In life, we avoid conflict, but in fiction, we seek it. Or, rather, we should — but what happens is, authors model story after life. They want the story to work. They want the characters to do well. They want the characters to win, yay, woo, huzzah. They’re afraid to punish. They worry that the stakes are too high. (Spoiler: they probably aren’t.) And so they race to the end of the story and they establish three boring beats that go like this:

1. HEY LOOK A PROBLEM

2. HEY LOOK A SOLUTION

3. THE END YAY

That is not nearly enough story.

A story should look more like:

1. HEY LOOK A PROBLEM

2. I’M GONNA JUST GO AHEAD AND FIX THAT PROBLEM AND —

3. OH GOD I MADE IT WORSE

4. OH FUCK SOMEBODY ELSE IS MAKING IT WORSE TOO

5. WAIT I THINK I GOT THIS —

6A. SHIT SHIT SHIT

6B. FUCK FUCK FUCK

7. IT’S NOT JUST WORSE NOW BUT DIFFERENT

8. EVERYTHING IS COMPLICATED 

9. ALL IS LOST

10. WAIT, IS THAT A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?

11. IT IS BUT IT’S A VELOCIRAPTOR WITH A FLASHLIGHT IN ITS MOUTH

12. WAIT AN IDEA

13. I HAVE BEATEN THE VELOCIRAPTOR AND NOW I HAVE A FLASHLIGHT AND MY PROBLEMS ARE SOLVED IN PART BUT NOT TOO NEATLY BECAUSE TIDY, PAT ENDINGS MAKE STORY JESUS ANGRY, SO ANGRY THAT STORY JESUS GIVES EVERYONE MOUTH HERPES

A lot of the complexities and consequences that should be found are often skipped or zipped past — but all of that (which you could roughly lump under the single term UH-OH) should not be avoided. You should instead be hovering over that turmoil. In a flight, we want to get past the turbulence as fast as we can. But in fiction, we thrive on turbulence.

Do not hurry past it.

Your tale — and the reader’s investment in it — is fueled by tension, conflict, urgency. The feeling that all this has to happen. That things matter. That this is of significant consequence.

Begins At The Wrong Moment

You are beginning your story at the wrong moment.

And now it’s super-boring.

Listen, storytelling is an act of breaking the status quo. It is a straight line interrupted — and it’s that interruption, that fracture, that chasm, that makes the story interesting. It’s why the story matters. It’s why the story must be told right now.

But you have chosen to begin it at a time of no consequence. And so the first three pages are about as interesting as watching two garden slugs make love to a tube of Chapstick.

I understand the inclination, here. You think: But to get people to care, I need to give them context, and to give them context we have to settle into the bones of this thing and see the characters just living their lives and once we’ve met the characters and set the stage, only then will people care when I set fire to the curtains.

Problem is, that opening section is taking up my time. If after the first page I have no sense of where the thing is going, I’m going to put it down and go eat a taco or something. I have better things to do than read stories that refuse to commit, that won’t make a promise to me, that make no effort to hook my interest at the starting line. We don’t watch baseball expecting that the first hour will be batting practice. We don’t expect the pilot episode of a TV program to give us an hour of character introductions only. We don’t go out on a date only to meet our date’s parents first and look through hour after hour of photo albums and yearbooks and baby booties.

Get to the part where shit happens. Get to the gunfire! The robot! The drama! The fucking!

The saying goes, “Start the story as late as you can.” Which means: push, delay, wait until the story not only begins but has already begun. Throw us into event, action, reaction — a murder, a chase, a betrayal, a scene of struggle, a moment of mystery.

Ask Yourself The Question: “Why Now?”

All this leads into: you don’t know why this story is happening right here, right now. But you need to know that and you need to tell it to me, your faithful reader. You need to make it clear that this story has to happen in the here and now. It’s why I’m reading. I assume you’ve chosen this point in the story’s timeline and marked out this plot of narrative real estate for a reason. It’s not random. It’s because the character’s lover is about to leave (or has already left). It’s because the enemy has seized all the other homes but this one and this is the last stand. It’s because the disease has killed 90% of the world and if they’re going to save the last 10% with the new information they just discovered it’s gotta be right fucking now.

Load the moment with meaning.

Too Easy With Answers

You introduced a mystery. That’s good! As I am wont to say: question marks are shaped like a hook for a reason. They embed in our brain meats and drag us through the story.

But just as you should not immediately solve a conflict upon creating it, you should not solve a mystery upon introducing it. You must let it sit. You must let us pickle. You must be cruel.

The best storytellers are cruel storytellers. They are slave-drivers and tormenters. They are monsters and sociopaths. Your inclination to be nice is itself nice. It is also way wrong-o.

Hold off answering questions. Embrace Tantric storytelling. Delay satisfaction.

Hold off as long as you can while still maintaining structural narrative integrity.

And when you answer one question:

Introduce another — or three! — as a result.

Fails To Fulfill The Promise Of The Premise

Your story is sending off signals. Chemical markers. Pheromones.

And it’s telling us something. It’s telegraphing for us what kind of story it intends to be. Sometimes these are subtextual signals and sometimes they’re more overt, but no matter what, your story is making a promise to us.

You have to fulfill it.

Chekhov’s Gun is not about a gun. Chekhov’s gun is about the promise of the premise — it’s about laying something out on the table and having it mean something, having it be a thing that matters to the story. It’s a treasure map with burned corners, an instruction manual with pages missing, a corpse with its fingerprints burned off. You have to make good on what you’re telling us. You can hand me a cup and tell me only that it’s an alcoholic beverage — and I’ll be interested to find out what kind of alcoholic beverage. But when I drink it and get a mouthful of ants, I’m going to be pissed off.

You can’t show me that it’s a fantasy novel and then tell me it’s sci-fi.

You can’t introduce a whodunit without telling me whodunit.

(Originally mistyped as “WHODONUT,” which is a story I would like to read. And then eat.)

Point is:

You cannot break your promise.

That’s not to say you can’t do something unexpected. But that unexpected thing has to make us go, “OH COOL,” and “HOLY SHIT THE HINTS WERE THERE ALL ALONG,” and not make us go “WHAT MANNER OF FUCKERY IS THIS.” You can’t write a whodunit where some unseen rando was the murderer — that works in noir, but not in a real-deal murder mystery. “Oh, it was the car wash guy you never met ha ha ha suckers.” You can’t switch gears and make the story become something different — you have to warn us. You have to promise.

And then you gotta pay your narrative debts, motherfucker.

The Protagonist Is Wallpaper

You’ve created a fascinating story full of great characters and nifty notions and then you stuck in there a protagonist whose entire job is to be the wallpaper that witnesses the whole thing.

Do not do this. Stop right there.

The protagonist is the agent of change. The protagonist gets shit done. She has agency. She has meaning. And she has to be interesting. A fully-fledged character with wants and needs and fears and stuff to say and things to do. The protagonist is not a tour guide. She is not an exposition machine. She is not a pair of animated binoculars. Delilah and Robert had a conversation about this at the event, where they referred to this as sticking a GoPro camera onto a remote control car and just wheeling that little fucker through the story.

No, no, no.

The protagonist isn’t a passive participant.

She is the active agent of effort, conflict and change.

She is front and center, not hiding in the back row.

Nothing Going On Beneath The Surface

A first draft of a story is often: “This happens, that happens, she says this, he says that.” It’s a sequence of events. Maybe one clumsily laid out, maybe one artfully arranged. But ultimately?

Superficial.

Your goal is to lift that piece of plywood and see what squirms in the dirt and grass underneath. Go deeper. Sink your fingers into the rich and heady earth. Tell us the theme. Figure out for us what you’re trying to say. What’s really going on? What’s the argument the story is trying to make? Why does this matter beyond mere event and action? The story isn’t just a robot. It’s got a soul.

You need to find that soul and remind us of it.

We need glimpses of skin. Salacious looks at something secret. Something special.

Go deeper.

You Never Figured Out The Rules

Every story has rules.

Those rules are not written on the wall, usually — and if they are, someone (the author) paints over them so that they cannot be seen, so that the suspense about what’s really going on remains.

But the author still has to know the rules.

And many don’t. You start the tale and there’s magic or a murder or a conspiracy or a spaceship (OR A MAGICAL MURDERSHIP CONSPIRACY IN SPACE), but you don’t know all the details. You don’t know the rules. You’re just making it up as you go. Which is fine! We all do that. But by the end? It all has to hang together. This thing you wrote — it must, must, must have rules. And it cannot betray them or break them (unless you organically establish a way to break them, but even there, that’s actually just another unwritten rule, isn’t it?).

You have work to do. This thing has to make sense. The plot isn’t just a sequence of events — all the pieces of the plot snap together and interlock. They’re LEGO bricks, and they’re building something. You have to know what, and why, and how. Order is revealed in the chaos. The reader will know if you haven’t figured it out. Because the reader is like a bloodhound. The reader can smell your bewilderment because it’s coming off you like rank halitosis.

* * *

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