Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Damn Good Story

*shakes off dust from sleeves*

*clears throat*

I'm back, yes, I'm back. With a real-live post, thoughts, and everything. Please excuse any incoherency and/or boring thoughts. I'll be back to my usual fun self in a post or two. You know, practice and all that.

I've taken a peek at Scott's post for tomorrow, and it goes hand-in-hand with what I planned to post about today. His thoughts are in answer to Davin's post yesterday about making sure we have a Good Idea presented in our story - and not just covering up a mediocre/bad/non-existent idea with good/fancy/grand-sprig-of-parsley writing.

I believe Davin and I have had a similar experience with our current works-in-progress (which we just swapped to read yesterday - for the second time). We both started with good, but vague ideas not cemented in anything - and after months and months and even years, finally worked a central Good Idea into our story.

I don't know about you, but I don't come up with some grand Good Idea before I start my novels. Even if I think I have something brilliant brewing in the back of my brain, it all gets changed and boiled down to nothing but a dry bone by the time I'm really into the meat of the story. Somewhere in the writing process my novels change and adapt to a mold different from what I planned. I'm okay with that. I plan as much as I can. I like to pretend I have control over the story and where it's going, but in reality, there are so many elements taking over that I often don't have enough arms and fingers to catch them all and pin them down. But I like that. I like the organic feel of my story pushing me in different directions as a writer because it means I've created something that feels alive and original.

So if I don't have complete control over the central Good Idea of my story, where on earth does it come from? My subconscious? And, as Scott will argue, what exactly IS it? Is it theme? Something that connects the layers of a story, all the characters? What they learn? What their experiences teach the reader? Is it a specific scene? The central action/conflict, a moral?

And, does it even matter?

All I know is that I've read some damn good novels lately. One of them was Young Adult, one was Science-Fiction, one was a literary classic. Genre didn't matter, plot didn't matter, even style and execution didn't matter, in how the books made me feel when I finished reading them.

Davin has a good point that many books are judged by their adornments. Many readers may not see the "core" of the story, the "heart," the central "Good Idea." If there even is one. If someone were to ask me what the Good Ideas are for the novels I just read, I couldn't say. I know my current novel has some sort of central Good Idea running through it, but I'm not sure I can pinpoint what it is even though I wrote it! The closest I can come is to say: "Trust is a two-way street" - but that sounds corny and boring and limp, and too much like a forced theme. Nothing like what all my adornments and style and plot and characters turn it into.

And I'm willing to bet that Davin, when he's finished reading it, will say the Good Idea is something completely different.

In the end - and I know I'll be shot down for this, so get your guns ready - a good story often depends on the reader, not the writer. If I set out to look for the central Good Idea in a story, I'm probably going to find one (even if I can't completely define it) if the story is decently written at all. And if I happen to like that Good Idea and I can apply it to myself, the story is going to resonate with me and I'm more than likely going to think it's a fine piece of work. Of course, all those adornments mean something, too. I can't like a story much if poor writing gets in the way of everything else. See what a snob I am? I won't even get into what constitutes poor writing for me. Let's save that can of worms for another day.


  1. Wow, you mean I get to be the first commentor? Party time.

    Y'know, I really enjoy stopping by "Da Lab" every day, specifically for posts like this. This is a really good question, and you do a great job of walking through it.

    I agree you that a good idea is dependent on the reader rather than the writer. This is proven time and time again by how subjective critiques are. One person can read a story and be completely blown away while his next door neighbor yawns with boredom. Does that mean writers don't have "good ideas"? Not really. We are really just the vehicle for getting it out there, where it becomes confirmed by the readers that like it. Obviously, the higher the number of readers there are that enjoy the story, the more indicative it is that the idea is a good one.

    Question - do you and Davin actually exchange writings when it's still in the rough draft stage? If so, does that cause you any angst to share things when it really is in a beginning or formative stage? Just curious.

  2. Welcome back, good lady! We've missed ya.

    As for the good ideas, having just finished Donald Maass's books, I've had drilled into my head that we should be passionate about communicating something in our books. If we are, that'll show in our writing.

    The passion's the thing. That might pull along even a mediocre idea, if it's communicated effectively.

  3. I agree with Simon. It's all about the passion. Or as Maass says, the FIRE. I think it's what you are getting at here with the concept of a good idea. We want to tell the reader something. And yes, poor writing can definitely get in the way of finding what that good idea is. Great post.

  4. I think the author has to get a good story out--by whatever process it takes (whether it's mapping it out ahead or just sitting down and letting the story flow). Whether it's well received depends on the reader. I'd say that it can still be a good story, even if a lot of people don't like it. There is the theoretical good story, but, if people didn't like it, it wouldn't be popular.

    Good writing can disguise a dull story, and a good story can carry many people through bad writing. I believe I've heard that somewhere before. Was that yesterday?

  5. This has been a very interesting discussion over the last couple of days, and I'm curious to see what Scott says tomorrow as well. And, I am starting to wonder if our differences in opinion have to do with semantics. While I think a reader plays an important role in the communication of a book, I don't think they are the only ones to determine the good idea. At most they are 50% of the good idea, and less in my opinion. I think a good writer communicates a good idea, even if that idea can't be expressed by a single sentence or phrase. Even if it can't be expressed by words at all, I feel that a good writer should at least be aware that they are creating an idea.

    I also feel like I was far too sloppy in yesterday's post. I really had a different concept in mind, more about making sure you don't forget what you're trying to do by the time you get to the end, but that's okay, because this stuff is interesting to think about it.

    And, I haven't read Maass's stuff, so I don't really know what he's talking about, but passion, in my opinion needs to be refined by intellect. As I see the word passion, it's all about the heart, and I think that's the starting point for good writing. But, at some point, the brain has to jump in and bring out the intention.

  6. Welcome back! I agree that it depends on the reader, but like a good argument, the writer has his part as well, so my conclusion? It takes a village. I know... Bad! I couldn't help it.

  7. I never think about the good idea or the central idea. A story starts with an idea of course, but as I write, I don't think about what is the theme or whatever. First and foremost, it must be a good story. If you have a good story with a solid plot, strong characters and a coherent structure, you bet there somewhere in there there are plenty of themes are for others to find.

  8. Hey, you're back!

    I think in a lot of cases, the "Good Idea" can be expressed as "What if?"

    What if two cowboys fell in love?
    What if the world ended tomorrow, and only you knew about it?
    What if your wife turned out to be your biological sibling(thru adoption etc)?
    What if the terrorists found out you know the secret formula?

    Those are all the germs of the story...things that get you writing. Then you have so come up with the better idea. After asking "What if?", ask "So What?" That's probably the key to making it all work.

    My $0.02.

    Keep 'em coming!

  9. See, "What if two cowboys fell in love?" is a premise, but it's not a story. You could push that idea around for months and still not turn it into a story; it could just stay a question. You need another idea, you need an answer to the question. Maybe the answer is the real idea.

  10. Scott, "the answer" I think that's what I was trying to get at yesterday. Don't set up something that you don't provide the answer to, and an INTERESTING answer to. Like Andrew says, you can start with a good question and find the answer along the way. But, no matter how you do it, don't stop until you deal with the answer. And, and answer can be that there is no answer. At least I hope it can.

    Thank you for saying it that way.

  11. I think that's what I said.

    Start with an interesting premise...then figure out what important things happen. That's the real magic, making the premise matter.

  12. Well, I think people worry far too much about premise. I think that the outcome is far more important and interesting. "How did this happen?" is a much better story framework than "What would happen if?" Premise is the wrong end of the telescope to be looking through.

  13. For me, both ways of framing the story are equally valid. I have successful stories that started from the What if? and went forward. I also have ones that were based on How did this happen? And, in my reading, I've been interested and impressed by both strategies too.

  14. I think you are right when it comes to the reader. They interpret stories differently (like some of the other comments made have said). =) All we can do is hope they like the story. Those silly readers.

  15. Eric: I'm so glad you love to come over to "Da Lab" - we should rename it that, hehe. I like how you point out that the more readers who enjoy the story the more indicative it is that the idea is a good one. Whatever that idea is, be it the "what if" or the "answer to the what if" that Scott and Andrew and Davin are discussing down below.

    You know, I think that's why we all want to be published - because the more readers we can reach the more we can see how our ideas are perceived, thereby giving us the validation to keep writing or bang our head on the wall.

    Answer to your question: Davin and I exchange bits and pieces of writing when it's in the rough stages, but as far as a whole novel goes we've tried to wait until it's polished, holding together, and not in any way the formative stage. That, to me, is kind of a waste of time to share with anyone unless I'm completely stuck on something.

    Simon: I like your point about passion. I haven't read Maass's book, and I'm not sure I will, but it's nice to know that passion is at the root of the communication in our stories. I can tell when a writer isn't passionate about their writing. This is why, good sir, I'm not sure I can enter your flash fiction contest with an assigned topic - it kind of takes the passion out of it for me. I may try, though.

    Susan: Thanks for stopping by! Fire. Yes. I had the problem of finding the fire in my earlier stages of my WIP. That's when I realized I had to chuck it and rewrite it with a more concrete idea.

    Lois: I like your thoughts here. It's true that a good story can not be well received, but it still lasts the test of time. I know very, very few people who love The Awakening, one of my favorite novels. That doesn't mean it isn't well written or good. This is where we enter the ART QUESTION. In my opinion it's what lasts the longest that are the best ideas, and what I consider true Art. I, of course, don't ever think I will create that.

    Davin I think you're right about semantics. As I wrote this post I kept getting confused as to what I meant and where I was heading with my idea. There are central ideas in a story, and there are GOOD ideas in a story. I don't think they are always the same.

    I also agree with you that the reader is not the only one to determine the good idea. It does take the writer - on a hefty scale - to communicate the idea efficiently in the first place. And yes, the writer should know what their idea is. This is why I was having such a blasted hard time with Monarch at the beginning. I really didn't have a clue what I wanted to say. I was telling story, the What If, and it wasn't going anywhere.

    Nisa: Hehe, I like the village quote. I think that's true. A writer can write and write and write, but nothing will come of it until it is read by someone.

    Lost Wanderer: I'm curious, do you get to the end of your story and try and find the themes that you subconsciously put in there, or do you just let it lie and see what readers say?

    I usually let things happen naturally, then in rewrites and revisions I try and strengthen a specific idea that seems good and central. I just always want to make sure it comes across well.

    Andrew: Good discussion here about the "What if?" I think the "What if" is what may be the beginning of a Good Idea, and out of that beginning comes a story where the Good Idea can be explored and strengthened by the writer.

  16. Scott, Davin, and Andrew: I think Scott's post tomorrow focuses more on this, and puts across some really good points. In the meantime, I think we're just pushing words around the table. Which is fine. I like to push words.

    I think premise is a little overrated, honestly. One of my friends wrote a post awhile ago about The Big Idea and how important it is to have one and execute it correctly. Big Ideas are fine and good and all, the Big What If, the Unique Angle, but in the end every story has been told.

    I'm at a loss lately what makes a story good. I think it's a million little elements coming together, and premise is just one of them, so putting so much weight on idea or voice or structure or first chapters can be misleading, frustrating, and sometimes a waste of time.

    I'm finished rambling now. Carry on.

    Carolyn: Yes. Hope plays a huge part in writing and publishing. Hope that the right audience will get your book at the right time, and they'll love it when they do. I think that's why traditional publishing seems like such an essential factor to so many writers.

  17. Glad your back! You don't sound rusty at all.

    Excellent points. I do feel led in many directions at once, this story feels like a living breathing organism in my mind.

  18. Ivana: I think that a lot of the Big What Ifs are really just set dressing in the end, just a bubble around the real story. Most adventure stories are the same Campbellian transformative hero's journey, no matter if the story is set in a steampunk alternaverse or on an island populated by vampires. The steampunk and the vampires are maybe what the author thinks of as Big Ideas, or Big What Ifs, but in the end, really, the adventure story is the hero's journey and everything else is merely costuming. Donald Maass, bless him, is merely paraphrasing The Hero Has 1,000 Faces and offering up a template.

  19. Scott: I agree with you on all of that. Everyone's raving about Avatar, and it's definitely a beautiful, amazing film - especially in 3D - but as my husband and I were driving home after we saw it, we picked it apart and concluded that it's just Pocahontas over again. I was a bit disappointed in the plot, honestly, but it didn't make me like the film any less.

    We also concluded that The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise is the same story, but the plot for that film didn't disappoint me in the slightest. So what's the difference? I'm still trying to figure it out. I'm thinking Avatar relied heavily on it's super-amazing graphics to gloss over other things. This sounds familiar.

  20. Maass? Or Vogler?
    How am I going to distinguish my novel from everyone else's without a unique setting and characters?
    You're trying to play down a bunch of things that are pretty critical in story-telling.
    And what's wrong with the Hero's Journey?
    What am I missing?

  21. I think that if the author is a thoughtful, intelligent, talented writer who writes with passion and care, the story WILL contain good ideas--or at least fertile ground for readers to find those ideas--whether the "big ideas" were put there deliberately or not.

    I think that if the author has nothing going on upstairs and is just writing to make money or express some kind of Mary Sue fantasy, it shows.

    It's one of those things that is subjective, yet clear to the majority of readers. The "idea" stuff doesn't have to be obvious or easy to summarize, but a piece of fiction has to make you think and look at things differently... otherwise, it's just boring prose, no matter how pretty.

    But if you're a good writer, whether you start with a Big Idea or just with an inspirational phrase or whatever, it doesn't matter. Everyone seems to have a different process that works best for them, and many different processes produce equally brilliant works.

    If there is one thing I've learned from writing blogs, it's that there is no magic procedure for how to write a good book! Yet, there is a clear difference between a good story and a bad story, between good writing and bad writing.

  22. How am I going to distinguish my novel from everyone else's without a unique setting and characters?

    What do you mean by "unique?" If the only thing that sets your stories apart from other peoples' is that they are set in a universe where mirrors are doors, or whatever, then you've got bigger problems. What sets good writing apart is good writing. What sets good storytelling apart is good storytelling, good story dynamics, good understanding of character interaction and emotional honesty and a truthful meaning of the events to believable characters. Not zombies or detailed alternate worlds or whatever.

    You're trying to play down a bunch of things that are pretty critical in story-telling.

    No, I'm not. I'm saying that premise and setting are not critical parts of good storytelling. Yet people put more thought into those elements than they do about the dynamics of the characters.

    And what's wrong with the Hero's Journey? Nothing at all. But too many stories muck up or entirely forget the hero's journey and fuss for hundreds of pages about secondary or tertiary concerns that don't advance the story but might look pretty. Also, my other point was that Maass isn't offering up anything new or particularly insightful.

  23. Genie: I'm planning on doing a post about that line between what's clearly bad and what's clearly good. That is, of course, subjective in its own right. I'm squirming as I think of the post...

  24. What sets good writing apart is good writing. What sets good storytelling apart is good storytelling, good story dynamics, good understanding of character interaction and emotional honesty and a truthful meaning of the events to believable characters.

    So I could just rewrite Romeo and Juliet in my own words, same characters and settings and plot, and that would be fine?

  25. So I could just rewrite Romeo and Juliet in my own words, same characters and settings and plot, and that would be fine?

    Think you'd be the first? The answer is yes, it would be fine. I don't know why this seems an odd concept to you.

  26. When I start a book I have the arc of the story in my mind, but not the plot twists and turns. Those always surprise me.

    I think your statement that a good story depends on the reader is interesting. I will say there have been a few stories that didn't speak to me until someone else brought certain story elements to my attention. Then I realized there was brilliance in them I hadn't picked up on. However, some stories are just plain bad in my opinion. I don't care who's reading them. :)

  27. I don't know why this seems an odd concept to you
    Because it's lame.
    Yes, I know this kind of thing sells.
    Look at all the fanfic out there and derivative book versions etc.
    I'm sure people are out there feverishly working on Avatar novels by the dozen.
    Good on them.

    Their "great idea" is really "I'll suck off the teats of the masters."
    This works. This sells. People devour it. People like what's familiar.
    But by doing so, by not coming up with something original, you're just rehashing the same things, you'll never be a Master yourself.
    I'm just saying to be complete, you should come up with your own world and characters. For every book.
    Just my opinion.

  28. Andrew: So are you against obvious story re-tellings?

  29. Candice: I'd love to know which ones you're referring to. I've read some bad novels in my time, but sometimes it's difficult for me to distinguish if I just didn't like the story or how it was told or the writing or if it was just bad. This was, of course, before I seriously started writing novels myself. Now it might be easier to distinguish why.

  30. @Lady G: I'm not against anything. I just wonder what that same author could have invented if they started from scratch.

    There's a huge "retelling" effort underway. Old TV shows are reborn. Old car styles come back. Heck, the Steampunk movement is a rebirth of Victorian styling. If something was good in the past, why not? Like I was telling you offline, Avatar is in some ways a retelling of Exodus. (Or Dances With Wolves.) Popular shows have novelization spinoffs. Why? Because all these things have a Great Idea in there somewhere.
    (see? I'm trying to bring it home)
    Great characters, interesting conflict, good storytelling. Why not?
    A lot of famous authors started out this way, sold some formula novels, then branched out.
    I'd still rather be the inventor, the creator of a new concept. Much more fun that way.

  31. Andrew: Good, good points here! I think that's why certain stories stick around, like I said above. There's a Good Idea that keeps getting used over and over, and that's fine. If it feels unique when it's retold, I'm fine with that. If it entertains me, gets me to think, feel, etc., I'm good with that.

    This can all go back to the "are there an original stories?" I think there are. I don't think premise is necessarily what makes a story. It's the writer that makes it.

  32. And I think I just contradicted myself and made no sense. I'm calling it a day. I'll blame it on my bad, bad head cold.

  33. I'm just saying to be complete, you should come up with your own world and characters.

    Bollocks. Look at your website, where you've given a detailed, point-by-point primer in the hero's journey. You think that if you take that template--that's as old as storytelling itself--and layer on setting nobody's ever thought of before that you're suddenly orignal and a Master? Making the hero a dentist or a spy doesn't change the essential story. Setting it on Venus doesn't make it a different story than if it's set in Philadelphia. You are focusing on the wrong things if you want to master storytelling.

    Shakespeare didn't invent any of his characters, premises or settings. Was he a hack? Was he not a master?

  34. Hey, thanks for the shout-out for my blog! I put a lot of work into that, it's good to be noticed. :)

    I would say original--probably. A master? I concede probably not.

    I think Shakespeare was the James Cameron of his day. Not sure why he focused so much on biopics. I guess that's what was popular back then. Easy pickin's.

    So for my next WIP I'm going to retell Star Wars, except make it Steampunk and underwater. The Death Star will be a giant sea anemone, and storm troopers will be sea zombies.

    Hey, you said setting didn't matter!

  35. So for my next WIP I'm going to retell Star Wars, except make it Steampunk and underwater. The Death Star will be a giant sea anemone, and storm troopers will be sea zombies.

    Just don't violate anyone's trademarks, and it could be good, if you tell it right. From where do you think Lucas stole the idea? As long as you realize that the real story is the protagonist's search for self and significance, I don't see the problem. What's the real difference between "Star Wars" and "The Wizard of Oz?" Maybe it's nothing more than ruby slippers.

    Also: You've done a lot of good work about the hero type on your blog, so I hope people go read it.

  36. Just don't violate anyone's trademarks

    No worries, it'll be a crossover:

    DV: Spongebob Squarepants, I am your father.

    SBSP: You'll never defeat the Na'vi!

    DV: Your ruby slippers will tell you I speak the truth!

    SBSP: WTF?

  37. Also: Most of Faulkner's stories are set in the same time period, in the same Mississippi county. And he was assuredly a master. As was Shakespeare (John Webster was the James Cameron on the Elizabethan stage, if you must know). The setting and premise, I repeat, are not as important as you think they are in good storytelling. In very important ways, they don't matter at all. The popularity of "Lord of the Rings" has nothing to do with hobbits or Middle Earth. That's all set dressing that Tolkein stole from Norse myths, mostly. None of that is what the story is about. You could change it all and the story would be just as good.

  38. I respectfully disagree. All that Norse crap is what makes LOTR cool.
    Those are lasting images that people take with them. Making the hobbits hobbits is not random. Using elves and dwarves is not random. You can't just mix and match and have the same story. Everything matters.
    If Dorothy was a Donald, it would be a totally different story, even if everything else is the same. Think about it...the death of the Wicked Witch would symbolize the death of and separation from his mother. In important ways, characters and settings are everything about the story.
    Would Titanic work on PT-51?
    In good storytelling, every word matters, including setting and characters. There. I said it.

  39. Balance.

    Wizard of Oz works because the setting and technology stuff is so cool that it's engaging. At the time it was a much bigger deal than Avatar is now, likely--I actually wasn't alive then. It could use setting as a support because, like both Andrew and Scott say, this stuff helps. And with that support, the character development didn't have to be as profound for people to like it. If the setting or time or whatever is not as breathtaking, the character development gets pushed into the limelight all on it's own. It's a solo act and then must do more of the work.

    In my own writing, I'm trying harder and harder to integrate everything, character and story and time and place. A story can work if those things aren't integrated, but when they are, it's supreme.

  40. In good storytelling, every word matters, including setting and characters.

    Yes, but not equally. There is no way to demonstrate that if the Norse crap were replaced by Welsh crap (or Breton crap or some other crap), LOTR would be any less endearing and enduring. There is no way to measure how important it is that Frodo is a hobbit and not something else. But it is certainly the case that, had Tolkien been a weak storyteller in terms of character and causality, we'd not be having this conversation about him.

    I think that the hobbits make it Tolkien, but they don't make it the story, especially as hobbits are just stand-ins for English country folk. Frodo's sense of being Frodo is what matters, not his hobbitness.

    If Dorothy was Donald, it would be...Star Wars. Which was my point. The death of the wicked witch wouldn't necessarily symbolize anything about his own mother. Does a controlling old woman always symbolize a mother? Yeesh.

  41. Davin: You make an excellent point about balance. That's why I'm always thinking it's so many different things all lending a hand, not one more important than the other. When it all comes together to entertain, to tell a damn. good. story. all the elements matter because they are all leaning on each other. Take one out and it's not going to be the same. Stick LOTR in a different setting with different characters and it won't be the same. Sorry Scott.

    *squirm, worms, squirm...*

  42. "all the elements matter because they are all leaning on each other."

    I have to disagree. While it's true that every element present in a story is present in that story (how could it be otherwise?) and that to change any element means that the story has been in some way changed, I don't think that every element is significant. I don't think that every element is important, and certainly they aren't equally important.

    If Sam's name had been Arthur, would the story be significantly different? If hobbits didn't have hairy feet, would we read it significantly differenlty? If Gondor had been a floating city of houseboats in the middle of a huge lake, would the story be vastly different? I say no. I say no very loudly. It would not be the exact same story we all love, but we'd have fallen in love with this other set of details and, I think, the story would be the same.

  43. Scott: You're right that we wouldn't know the difference and it would probably still be a great story. You're right that all the elements are not equally the same.

    I may be confused, I don't know. But when I think of my book, Monarch, I had to put it in a specific setting or the entire Good Idea of butterflies wouldn't even work. So that elements is very important.

    However, I think I get what you're saying - that the skeleton of the story remains the same. I could tell Nick's story in Russia with polar bears instead of butterflies, and still show his journey and engage the reader just as much. But then it wouldn't be Monarch.

  44. Ivana: I'm glad you said that. I was just about to say that we seem to be confusing the terms "story" and "novel." "Lord of the Rings" is a novel that tells the story of Frodo Baggins and the destruction of the One Ring. But it is not the story of Frodo. "Romeo and Juliet" is a version of "Tristan and Isolde," but only a version of it. The central story, "Tristan and Isolde," remains, no matter where we set it or if we call it "Romeo and Juliet" or "Lancelot and Guinnivere" or "Twilight" or "Titanic."

    You can turn it around, too. "Grendel" and "Beowulf" both tell the tale of Beowulf and Grendel, but the novels are markedly different. Indeed, though they share the exact same characters, setting, time, costumes, buildings, etc., I will say that they are different stories entirely. Joyce's "Ulysses" is heavily based on Homer's "Odyssey," but they are different stories, and not because one of them is set in Dublin.

    Did "Monarch" become a totally different story with each revision? I know that "Horatio" didn't, at least not with the last four revisions. Yet piles of detail changed.

    I don't know what the central idea of a story is, but I know that whatever it is, it's got nothing to do with premise or time period. Andrew brings up character, but does he mean character or character traits? I don't know. The former matters, the latter not so much. This all gives me a headache and is making me cranky so I'm going to stop now. Sorry if I've offended anyone, but I really truly feel that something is being lost, something vastly important for us as storytellers is being marginalized, and I find it upsetting.

  45. Scott, NOW things are getting clearer. I agree with you that the central idea of a story has nothing to do with premise or setting or time period. It's probably not what sells a story, nor what everyone remembers after they read it, or even what the writer intended, but without it, I believe the story fails. I've read many stories that don't contain a central idea, even a bad one, and I'm always left feeling empty and lost - even if the writing and setting and characters were beautiful.

  46. Authenticity is a big thing for me when it comes to a good story. I don't always pick out "the" good idea while reading but if I'm happy at the end (not because the ending is happy, just because I'm satisfied) then I know the story had a good idea.
    Good post, Michelle!

  47. Michelle: Yeah, that's it. And this central idea (which I am just simply calling "the story") is the least sexy part of the novel, the part that's hardest to construct, the part that's (as you say) likely least visible, and is the most important thing about it and what the fewest writers seem to concentrate on. And without it, there's no story in there.

  48. Am I beating a dead horse? If so, I'm sorry, but I can't shut up. I will say that for me "story" is more important than "setting", but at some point they MUST come together. I am as a character, dependent on my time and place, my decisions in my "life story" are affected by time and place, no matter how smart I think I am, I cannot escape my surroundings.

    In my own definition of story, changing a setting should change the story. If it doesn't, then I have not made the connection between character and setting. I have not immersed myself fully into the place where my character supposedly exists. My inner change, is not totally inside of me because I am always affected by external surroundings.

    If things are interchangeable, then we have not perfected them yet.

  49. Scott: I often wonder if this what we're talking about when we read a story and ask ourselves at the end, "What was the point of that?"

  50. I propose we change the title of this post to "We Need A Damn Definition Of Story."

  51. L.T.: Well, you've hit on a good point - what makes you satisfied at the end of a story? Answering that question may answer a lot of the questions going on here in the comments. Hmmm.

  52. Davin: Let's go argue in chat. :P

  53. Davin: I think there's "story," which is what happens to a character (maybe), and "narrative," which is how we writers convey the story (the particular thing we end up writing). I think we look around for settings and characters and suchlike as ways to illustrate the story in our narrative, and for the narrative to be balanced, aesthetically pleasing, to work, every one of our elements must work well together and make sense of some sort. But the narrative is not the story, nor is the setting the story, I really don't think.

    Q. What would happen if Jimmy held up a liquor store?
    A. He'd get shot.
    Q. Why did he hold up the liquor store in the first place? Why'd the liquor store owner shoot him?

    I think this construction, which not only asks and answer the "what if" question but also considers the "why" of it all, is more what a story is than anything we've discussed so far. Changing "liquor store" to "Xzyggrllian outpost on planet Oooooopah" doesn't make it a different story; it makes it a different narrative. You still have to deal with the story no matter how cool Oooooopah is or how alien the Xzyggrllians are. Make it a soup hut in Saigon. Make Johhny a woman named Sophia or My Le. You still have to deal with the story behind all the narratives. Most writers forget to. That's my point.

  54. Scott: This is why Monarch failed until I made up a motivation chart for all my characters and figured out where the REAL story is. That's when it all clicked. Some of those motivations were connected directly to setting, though, so I'm stewing over that.

  55. Scott, I need more clarification. Is the story the process of asking and answering the question or is the story and question and the answer itself?

  56. Davin: How would I know? I'm still trying to figure out what a story is; all I know at this point is what it isn't. I think a story is an idea of motive, character, cause and effect. Or, a story is an idea about why something specific happened to a person. Either way, there's character and causality. People confuse this with plot, and they are wrong. A story, let us say, is a symbolic ritual re-enactment of a potentially life-changing moment. A narrative is a work of art which expresses that symbolic ritual re-enactment. I'm growing deliberately obtuse, partly in fun and partly because I'm not sure what a story is. Like I been saying. What the hell?

    Anyway, I'm going to go further out on this limb and take your second answer as the most-likely correct one. The finished narrative is presented by one who's already asked and answered the question. Let's not confuse the acts of writing and reading.

    There's this concept that I can't focus on, and it infuriates me that it's just out of reach, or behind me or (most likely) over my head. Darn it.

  57. Michelle, I just want to say I love your term "grand-sprig-of-parsley writing"! You guys are doing wonderful stuff on this Literary Lab.

    Here's something you all might want to mull over: a novel actually needs more than one Good Idea. A novel needs two tracks running not-quite parallel to each other. The climax of a novel is where Two Good Ideas collide.


  58. Victoria: Thanks for stopping by! Now, if you can provide us with the definition of what a story is, we'd be thrilled. It seems to be the main problem of today. Perhaps story is where the two Ideas collide?

  59. First, I'll say, What the hell?

    Then, I'll suggest that the Why questions (and the answers) that you proposed in your shooting scenario are dependent on time and place, and if the answers are essential to story, then I think time and place becomes essential. I agree though that time and place cannot cover for lack of story--is that all we're saying here?

    Please grasp that thing that is just out of reach because I feel like understanding what we are talking about here will somehow help me in my quest to embarrass Tolstoy with my greatness.

  60. I just walked into another room to get some water, and a sheet of paper was standing on one end, held up by some draft, and it was walking towards me. Suddenly, everything feels okay again.

  61. And I think we should call that a day.

  62. Hmm... I recently had an idea for a story, a "What if..?" Although, it really started as a "I wish life were like this..."

    As I started writing the story, I had to figure out the time and place in order to get my idea across most effectively. And, I'm thinking of the types of characters I must introduce to also explain and further my idea. I have a particular story I want to tell (going by Scott's definition, I don't think I know yet what the story boils down to), so right now I'm cooking up all the elements and ordering them around so that I can get this idea across to the reader.

    I don't think there are too many stories in the world, so I think it is the narrative (which to me includes characters, setting, plot) that makes works of writing unique. Thus, if people keep retelling "Tristan and Isolde," that's fine by me.

  63. Annie: Yes, setting and characters can really be what make a story shine, I agree. They are usually always what's marketed, remembered, and retold by readers. So I think they are, in their own, right, very important. I also think, though, to hold it all together, there's got to be that story, the Good Idea or Ideas. Like you, I almost always begin with setting and characters.

  64. Well, actually, in this case I began with the idea, and now I'm trying to come up with the setting and characters.

  65. And this is why I need to stop commenting because I totally read that backwards. Well, you get my point. :)

  66. There's our fiesty Glam! Welcome back :D

    And, it's just so DIFFICULT getting all the points together. Idea, plot, execution.....

    some day's it is inspiring

    others it's just overwhelming :s

  67. Ah, yes. Flannery O'Connor defined a story as a complete action with a point. Of course, she was better at short stories than she was at novels. But she was so smart she's pretty much impossible to disagree with.

    She waxes quite brilliant on the subject in her collected essays, "Mystery and Manners." She's incredibly deep and sometimes difficult to follow, but if you stick with her you eventually see that she knows exactly what she's talking about and is inarguably right. Also, she's hilarious.

    She's the one who answered the question: "Do you think modern universities stifle writers?" with, "I don't think they stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a decent writing teacher."


  68. Victoria: Thank you. Yes, I cannot argue with O'Connor. I tried to once in college and my professor slammed me down so hard I can still feel the impact. I now have O'Connor's collected works and try to read her often. However, lately, I haven't, and I'm sad about that.

    I like her description of story. It's the "point" that I see missing in some of the things I read. That's when I don't feel satisfied.

  69. Tess: I lean more towards overwhelmed most days. :)

  70. Yes, the "point" is what O'Connor thought was missing from a LOT of contemporary fiction. She was pretty clear about that.

    That's what I consider the "resolution." I look at fiction as two nearly-parallel storylines destined for collision. The moment at which collision becomes inevitable and the collision itself mark the beginning and end of the "complete action." I always advise writers to write toward the collision, not the resolution. Just tell your story.

    Only when you've finished watching the dust settle will you know in what way this collision has changed you and your view of the world, and that will tell you what your subconscious point was when you started it.

    If you learn nothing from telling your story, you've got no point. That's throwaway writing.

    Fiction that lasts is storytelling that teaches the writer what it means to be alive.


  71. Victoria: Yes, this is why I'm absolutely convinced that if my novels don't disturb me at some point, they aren't good and not worth writing. I need to be learning something along with my characters, and so far, I have. It has been draining. No wonder I can't churn out books one after the other. I'd waste away!

  72. Oh my god, Michelle, being disturbed by your own fiction is a WHOLE other great blog post!


  73. So let it be written. So let it be done. :D

  74. Yay, Victoria!

    I like the collision metaphor. I definitely can see that. I try to have a point in my stories...whether they have one or not is a different question.

  75. A damn good story can depend on the reader's tastes, true. (But in the end, I think it depends on both reader & writer.)

    There are fun books whose adornments I enjoy more than their Cracker jack theme. They read like viewing a popcorn movie: a fun way to pass time but not a way to truly live life or dig deeper. (think Twilight)

    But there are other books that read more like a gourmet meal. All the flavors resonate together: adornments, theme, plot, characters, etc. Those are the books I buy and re-read. And recommend to friends.

    Thought provoking post!

  76. I think that's a good summary of your story. Trust. And also friendship.

  77. Don't all authors (artists, musicians, actors etc.) believe their ideas are great? Who decides?

    I believe that an author cannot stand alone in his or her belief(or they'll go mad=) For me what makes a great book is only fraction of everything; Its a product of the zeitgeist. No-one can predict what elements are necessary or how they must be combined to create it.

  78. I completely agree, Glam. One of the things that always bothered me during my school years is the exploration of themes in stories. I mean ... how are we to know precisely what theme the author intended to communicate in their tale?

    SON OF MAGIC, my first complete MS, has the stated theme of "memories make us who we are." Does that mean everyone's going to pull that same theme from the story? Probably not.

    If I were to choose the one overarching theme from CALLARION AT NIGHT, I'd have to say it's "forgiving the past."

    But the reader will probably find other messages I never intended in the story. In that way, you're right about a good story depending on the reader. We can craft a story we think is fantastic, but if the reader doesn't like it then it's not good.

    I couldn't have said it better myself.

  79. Matthew, the playwright Tom Stoppard once told an interviewer that meeting with a class of graduate students is like getting caught in customs. "Yes, I can see that's in my luggage, but I honestly have no memory of putting it there."


  80. This is a great first post back! Like you, when I am writing a lot of my planning goes out the window - and also like you - I kind of like it that way.

  81. So good to hear from you. I listened to Dean Devlin who co-wrote and produced Stargate, Godzilla and Independence Day and he believes that writing should be organic. He says you have to be PASSIONATE about what you write, or else (viewers) will see through it. "Write your book or movie for what you really want to see in it, NOT for what you think people will want to see." I thought he made a really good point, especially for screenwriters, but writers as well. BTW, he always writes his FIRST draft as fast as he possibly can, normally away from home in a hotel room, from morning to late at night.

  82. For the first time in a long time I sat down for weeks and hashed out a plot for my new WIP. I outlined and micro-outlined and contemplated and ponificated and you know what? It was mostly pointless. My characters are taking the story in a slightly different direction, albeit wonderful and dare I say better direction. Just goes to show, the best laid plans...


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