Make sure there’s a story there

I am currently working on the next anthology I am co-editing with Randee Dawn:  “Across the Universe” (a collection of alternate history Beatles stories). And there’s one thing both of us keep noticing:

We’re getting a lot of stories that aren’t stories.

Coming up with a clever idea for this anthology is fun. What if John had never died? What if the Beatles were dogs?  What if the Beatles had sold their souls to the devil? We’ve seen quite a few really unusual and strange ideas.

Unfortunately, sometimes that’s all we’ve seen.

The clever idea is the start of the story — it’s the background setting for the story. A story needs characters, and a plot, and change, climax, and a resolution.

If everything is exactly the same at the end of the story as it is at the beginning and all we’ve had is a description of the background (no matter how well written), then there’s not really a story there, is there? Make us care about the characters and the problems they have to solve and readers will remember your story long after the charm from the clever idea has faded.

I see this all the time when people come to me with a story idea.  “Do you think this is a good idea?” they ask, and my response is always “It’s a good start, but stories are about characters. Make me care for your characters and you can have a very mundane plot and I’ll still be happy. The most clever idea in the world won’t matter if I don’t care about your characters.” (And, of course, even if you do have good characters and a great plot, you still have to write well to make me want to read it!)

So unless you’re writing a “character study” or an emotional piece whose sole purpose is to establish a setting or person (and good luck selling that to an agent or editor), you need to tell a story.

And (sigh) once again the disclaimer: There are no real rules in writing other than grammatical and spelling ones. There are exceptions to every piece of advice that anyone gives you. I can name “stories” that have been published and are successful that do not follow the advice I have given here — but they are not the norm.

 

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