These observations about the submissions received in the String -of-10 Contest sponsored by this site are more about me and my reading experience than about any one entry. However, I am sharing them with you so that if and when we sponsor a fresh new contest, those who read this and enter will be at a distinct advantage.
All fiction stories benefit from a well-thought out title. A title should reflect the overall story if possible. One classic rule says that a title should be the character’s name (Antony and Cleopatra, Ethan Frome, Moby Dick) or the setting (Howard’s End, Mill on the Floss, Our Town), both character and setting (The Old Man and the Sea, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), or they reveal theme, in abstraction (Sound and the Fury, War and Peace, From Here to Eternity) or suggest theme in a specific object or event (The Golden Bowl, Light in August, The Sheltering Sky), or character or setting that reflect theme (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Paradise Lost, The Grapes of Wrath).
Titles should enhance the story, add to it in some way, yet not telegraph so much that there is no surprise left at the end. Specific ambiguity? Is that possible? I think so. This is even more important when writing short fiction. Whenever there is a word limit as in this 250-word contest, every word MUST count. The title gives the writer another way to set up, entice, and pay-off the reader, and title words are FREE, above and beyond the word count of the work itself. So use a title. Writing isn’t just random thoughts. It’s thinking carefully about all the ways you can help the reader have an emotional response to your story.
Many stories lack surprise and surprise is what jolts a reader into having an emotional response. I don’t mean just a twist ending either. Surprise is more than that.
First, surprise comes to the reader when a setting is specific and interesting. When there is no setting established at all, the reader is left in a blank empty space, and readers, like Mother Nature, abhor a void. A writer can engage a reader with a few small details that create a unique place in which the story can exist.
Second, surprise comes to the reader when a character is unique. When there is something different than we expect about the person, his attitude, his way of speaking, even his appearance. A wise teacher once told me (and our class) to always do something unique to a character, give him a headache, a limp, a funny haircut that reflects in some way who that person is. Actually he used “a toothache” as an example, and I watched a movie in which the character had a toothache throughout and that toothache paid off in the end in his own behaviour. I thought aha, Gordon’s toothache! Dang. I can’t remember what it was, something by Russell Banks I think.
Third, surprise –and delight–happen when the language is full of vivid specific detail, images that pop off the page, clear and precise and visual.
Fourth, surprise happens when an ending provides both the unexpected and a sense of the inevitable. The reader might guess from the title, the specific character traits of the hero, the dangerous setting, that the story may end badly, but the reader should not know the exact details of that ending (I am thinking here of The Old Man and the Sea here or Of Mice and Men).
It is in the details that the reader will be surprised and satisfied because though the writer may have promised an unhappy ending, he ends it with epiphany or an unthought-of-sadness. The twist must NOT be the pulling out of a gun that the reader didn’t know a villain had, but rather the pulling out of the gun the reader knew he had, and then decides not to fire.
So yes, twist the ending, but don’t create surprise with a non-sequiter. Classic rule from Master Chekov: If there is a gun on the mantle in the beginning, use it by the end. And the reverse is also true, if you are going to use a gun in the end, put it on the mantle in the beginning, but do it all subtly because…
The real surprise should come with the revelation of the human spirit. We need to know the person, the character a little before we can appreciate the surprise. Can it be done in 250 words? Yes.
3) Cliched story plots
Third and last observation for today. It’s hard for a new writerto know what a cliched plot is. Everything feels new to him because he hasn’t written before. But what’s new to the writer isn’t necessarily new to the reader, especially an editor. Therefore if you are going to write about illness, revenge, execution, suicide, dead mothers, boy meets girl, Martians landing on the earth, and football quarterbacks, etc, then it is important to pay attention to the details of your story and create unique characters, unusual settings, screwy attitudes, a strong identifiable voice, anything that lifts the cliched plot above the mundane. Most of the time this means a lot of writing practice and thoughtful revision. Reading every line, every word, and doing the revision without overworking it. Not easy, but it comes with working at it every day, just like playing the basoon.
The classic belief in storytelling is that there are only 5-12-24 actual plots in the world, and that’s true on some levels. It’s what the writer brings to a cliched story that makes it good. This has been proven over and over by Will S, Charlie D, John S, Edith W, Charlotte B, Tommy Hardy, Margaret A, Carole S, Willie F, and even Stephen K.
This post by Gay Degani is reprinted here from her Words in Place Blog.