Storyville: Are You Unique or Just Difficult with Your Fiction?

I often look at a new story as an opportunity to do something different—maybe I should set this new tale someplace exotic, or what about a split-personality? Maybe I should tell the story backward, or use language totally of my own invention? I want to stand out, but I don't want to alienate my audience, either. So today we’re going to talk about whether or not your story or novel is unique, innovative and fresh, or merely complicated, vague and difficult.

If I’m reading your story and the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene, and/or the first chapter (for novels) doesn’t make any sense, gives me no idea what is coming, and does not establish character, setting, or plot? You may be missing the mark. I don’t mean that you have to give it all away on the first page—no, you can hold back secrets, and slowly reveal them over time—that’s not what I’m talking about. But ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have I given any physical description of my character, so that the reader can picture them? There is NOTHING worse than getting to page 5 or 10 or 100 only to discover that the protagonist is male, when you thought she was female; bald or red-headed when it wasn’t established; missing an arm or leg or some other physical deformity; covered in tattoos; or much older (or younger) than you thought. All of those things—sex, race, height, weight, hair, physique—should be established early on.
  2. When is this story happening? Be it 1800 or 2017 or 2500, you have to find a way to show us when this is all unfolding. Doesn’t mean you have to name the year, just find ways to present the world we are in.
  3. Where is this story happening? I love to write setting, it’s one of the most important aspects of my writing, and it should be a critical part of your storytelling as well. Whether you are a minimalist or maximalist, you should ground your story in place. I love to see setting early on in a story, mixed with character and of course that narrative hook. All fives senses can be utilized, but even if it’s just a more utilitarian approach we need some basic information about where this story is happening—the time of day (light out or dark out), the weather, the structure it’s in (house or apartment) if indoors, and the landscape around us (mountains, forest, ocean, plains) if it’s outside.
  4. Do your scenes serve the plot? Are you dropping red herrings and tangents that have little or nothing to do with the actual story?

Early on when you develop your narrative hook, we’ll get that sense of urgency, the inciting incident, the crossroads, the moment in time after which things will never be the same again. We should also get the conflict—internal and external—so that we know what’s motivating your protagonist, and what’s in the way. External may be a physical threat, a long distance to go, a monster, family member, the supernatural, really anything that is in the real world that is physically in your way. Internal would be the emotions, feelings, and thoughts that are driving the story—fear, anxiety, hope, sorrow, revenge, horror, love, etc.

Be fresh, be different, but never leave out the basics. Every story should still do the same thing—hook, entertain, surprise, and move your readers.

One thing I see often in stories that makes the experience a difficult one are too many characters. For one thing, quite often they are too thin, the author not taking the time to describe each person with physical details that reveal character and personality, or in a unique way that makes them stand out, differentiating one brother from another, one hired killer from another, one lover from another. Don’t forget names—if those three brothers are Bob, James, and Karl, already they seem pretty similar. If they are Bobby, Jamal, and Eight Ball, maybe that helps to establish who they are. Ask yourself if you really NEED five brothers, or seven office workers, or ten members of the crew. If they all play a unique role then yes, maybe you need them. Stephen King has HUGE casts, but he is also a master of showing and developing primary AND secondary characters.

OMG it turns out the protagonist has been dead all along. Or, the story has been told from inside an insane asylum. Or, the whole thing was a dream. If you have twists and turns and a major reveal, make sure that the clues are there, bread crumbs leading us to the ending (or reveal). It’s hard to be subtle, and hold back information, and then reveal something shocking that doesn’t feel like it comes out of left field. Whether it’s “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” by Stephen Graham Jones, or “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, make sure it’s earned. (I love both of those stories, obviously.) No deus ex machina, please.

Speaking of subtle, there is a difference between vague and subtle, between theme and random details, between clues and red herrings, between developing character and wasting time on tangents. Also, be sure the story is on the page and not still in your head.

Telling backwards stories rarely works, for me, anyway. Don’t just do something weird for the sake of weirdness, make sure the formula—backwards, split personality, epistolary, list stories, footnotes, etc.—works for the story you’re trying to tell.

By the end of your story, we should care about the main characters, we should know exactly what happened (at least, MOST of the details, especially the crucial ones), and we should experience some sort of emotional reaction to a powerful ending. If these elements aren’t present, go back and look at what you did, and make sure you aren’t being vague, confusing, and overly complicated, and that key elements aren’t missing from your story. Be fresh, be different, but never leave out the basics. Every story should still do the same thing—hook, entertain, surprise, and move your readers.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow June 1, 2017 - 7:25am

..."there is a difference between vague and subtle, between theme and random details, between clues and red herrings, between developing character and wasting time on tangents."

"By the end of your story, we should care about the main characters, we should know exactly what happened ... and we should experience some sort of emotional reaction to a powerful ending."

You've done a pretty good job of summing up everything that matters in those 2 sentences. Great column. Thank you.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 3, 2017 - 12:20pm

Thanks!