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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The first 1, then the other 12, and beyond. What makes a good story?

   
Author Topic: The first 1, then the other 12, and beyond. What makes a good story?
History
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Hi.

Speaking as a complete tyro writer (so take this with a grain of salt or a shmeer of chopped liver), the first 13 lines must have a hook that pulls a reader into the story. In fact, if the first line doesn't spark interest in anyone, the story is dead before it starts.

I say "a" reader, for Lord knows we all vary in our interests, tastes, and attention spans.

For myself, there are a number of things in the first 13 that will hook me. A clever and/or shocking first line, mastery of language that I admire for its pure brilliance, word choices that evoke an emotional response or capture me in setting the mood for the piece, or perhaps an intriguing character or situation, etc. Anything that sets me back from the real world a moment and has me (metaphorically or actually) settle back in my chair or my pillow in joyful anticipation.

I've read many "requirements" of a well-structured story, from the distinguished WOTF's Algis Budrys ("a character in a situation with a problem, which he/she repeatedly fails to solve, then finally does...") to Joseph Campbell ("a hero rejects a challenge he/she is then forced to accept, suffers many trials before emerging victorious..."). I do not find these always true. There is a nice discussion here: http://savage.scrivenerserror.com/storystructure.shtml

There are all kinds of stories I enjoy, and no one particular structure or story element do I require--then again, I'm not a publisher or editor or agent (nor a professionally published author) to know "what sells" the best, nor do I care. However, in the end, this seems to be what is their greatest concern (and I respect this is their business and livelihood). Then again, does anyone really know "what sells"? JK Rowling's first HARRY POTTER book was rejected 12 times, Richard Adam's WATERSHIP DOWN 13 times, Richard Bach's JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL 18 times, Frank Herbert's DUNE 20 times, Madeline L'Engle's Newbury Winner A WRINKLE IN TIME was rejected 26 times.

So who knows?

For those of you seeking to make writing a primary profession (congratulations to 22 yo JKnoury again), then you need write to the market and appeal to herds of readers: young (and older) women with paranormal romance; children with stories of empowered children who struggle and triumph and earn adult and peer praise (and envy); bored adults with suspense thrillers, etc. Or you may appeal to smaller flocks of genre lovers: mysteries, future sf, epic fantasies. I've subscribed to author blogs and email posts like Dave Farland's Daily Kick expounding upon the business of being a writer, and knowing your audience, and being wary of who controls your work (for they control your income), etc. From all this, I surmise what is necessary to become a successful new author is to write something completely innovative in what has already been established as having mass market appeal. There is a paradox hidden poorly in there. But I digress.

As a reader, what makes a good story for you?
As a writer, would you rather write what sells or what you wish?


I suggest the challenge as a writer is to please someone else, while you please yourself. A story no one reads is like a song no one hears.

Just my two shekels while I procrastinate in the writing my newest fable for which there is no market. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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LDWriter2
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An interesting and timely discussion.

Many things could be said in response but I will just say that there are many reasons that a publisher would reject a manuscript other than the writing. But at the same time different editors do have their own ideas of what makes a good book and a good hook.

Writing to your market is a good idea or the opposite finding a market that fits what you write. More than likely there is one,


As to what make s good story for me.
I'm not sure if I can describe it. It's the genre, and what the book is about but more importantly how does it grip me? How soon do I lose myself in the book? Now that I have learned a few things about writing that isn't quite as easy as it once was. Sometimes I keep reading a book that doesn't pull me in because I'm curious about some event or because I may like one certain character. A couple of times I got pulled into a book by the writing even though it turns out to be not what I usually like. "Necropath" by Eric Brown is the latest example. Way too dark for me, and I don't like certain parts of the plot, but the writing is great. Even though I do have to finish it someday.

As a writer I want to do both write what sells and what I wish. I know most of my books are both: what I want to write and what can sell, such as Space Opera and UF.

But there are so many markets out there I would be surprised your newest fable really has none but if it does create your own market. You're bound to find someone else that will like it.

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ForlornShadow
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As a reader I don't look for the first line, I look for a good first chapter, if I'm not hooked by the first chapter then I know I might not be interested in the rest. Depending on the first line, even the first thirteen is a bit unreasonable. I've read books where the first three paragraphs are boring descriptions, but I liked the book because I continued to read the first chapter and it got me interested in the rest of the story.

As a writer I prefer to write what I want to write. Market's change and people's interests change, which means that what you write might not be the market by the time it gets to book form. Writing what I want allows me to imagine more, create more, and in the end be more in depth and more connected to my targeted reader, which might just be only myself in a few years. I find that doing what others want can be a little annoying and a bit stressful. But then there's always that little issue of what sells and what doesn't. Here's the thing: you can create your own market, once someone reads something good they tend to spread the word. I know I do.

I'm not published nor am I an editor or anything of the sort, in fact I'm not even out of college yet. But I know this, writing from the heart is the best writing out there, regardless of grammar or plot. Why? Because its got soul and that's what really drags me in to a book.

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rcmann
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Holly Lisle, on her web page, offered some advice that I thought made a lot of sense. I don't recall the exact words, but basically she said that if you don't enjoy writing it, nobody will enjoy reading it. Seems reasonable to me.

I want to write what I what appeals to me. Thing is, i want to write is well as possible. i want to write it skillfully, in a compelling and gripping way that makes it impossible to put down. I want to write my thoughts and attitudes, and present them so fiercely, in such pure form, that the poor reader will become transfixed and unable to put the thing down until he finishes it.

Or at least, I want to write coherently. But I see no reason to write something that doesn't please me to write.

Edit:

I have published a number of amateur stories (unpaid) online. Some people don't think that counts, but I do. I never tried to sell them. The hit counter and feedback told me that hundreds of readers liked them. That's good enough for me. The ones I got the most positive feedback on, were the ones where I just wrote whatever pleased me and didn't care who I offended. For whatever that may be worth. Probably nothing.

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MartinV
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When I pick up a book from a fresh author, I'm not very aware of the writer's voice but I will know if I like it or not. With familiar authors, I will feel their voice and this can repel me in their later books. So I'm not very much into constantly reading the same author.

If the author's voice is compatible with my own way of thinking, I will give the book a couple of chapters to see if the story appeals to me. I'm not looking for those hookish 13 lines. This must be a Western thing; we're a lot more patient with books, I think.

In my country, reading is still seen as a privilege as it was 200 years ago and this may have rubbed on me but I will not waste my time with something I clearly do not enjoy. The choice of reading onward is a very organic, emotional decision for me and I don't take it lightly.

Instead of looking for some hard rules, I tend to look for those soft rules, rules you can't put down on paper but are much more important than those other ones.

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History
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"Tell me many tales, O benign maleficent daemon, but tell me none that I have ever heard or have even dreamt of otherwise than obscurely or infrequently. Nay, tell me not of anything that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space: for I am a little weary of all recorded years and charted lands..."
--To The Daemon, Clark Ashton Smith, 1929, http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/prose-poetry-plays/48/to-the-daemon

In his email newsletter yesterday, Tarl Kudrick co-publisher of On The Premises,LLC Inc wrote:

"A healthy percentage of our submissions fall into a category we call the 'well-written bad story.'

One of the most prevalent kinds of well-written bad stories is the kind in which virtually nothing of consequence happens. These are a special sub-set of the "No Problem" stories we've discussed before, except in these stories, even less happens. Maybe the whole story is about an elderly woman reminiscing about her childhood... which would be fine if anything interesting happened in her childhood. I don't know if the authors of these stories are writing just-barely-disguised autobiography in order to work out their own feelings, or if they're aiming for the short story equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting, or if they're just thinking that if they strike the right tone of nostalgia, their entry will win. I do know that those kinds of entries don't stand a chance with us.

In fact, I've concluded that some people who enter our contests don't really want to be fiction writers. They want to write essays, or maybe poems, but not fiction. These writers have led me to revise my definition of a story's critical elements. I've said many times that a story needs to show us at least one character, to raise questions in the readers' minds, and to supply some kind of answer to those questions. I'm refining the question part to say:

A story must raise questions about characters or events in the story in the readers' minds.

If all your story does is make me wonder why there's injustice in the world, or why people can't be nicer to one another, or anything else I could have asked myself after reading any newspaper article, then I don't think your story is successful. Yes, the purpose of fiction is to evoke thoughts and feelings in the reader, but at least some of those thoughts and feelings are supposed to be about the characters and events in the story being read.

I'll put it even more simply: Stories are supposed to make readers care what happens in the story."


Agree or disagree?
--To be a success, a story must have the structure of a character and event and consequence?
--Is a story unsuccessful (that is, you "don't care") if it merely inspires "wonder" or makes one think about "injustice" or the need for "caring for one other"?

What of something like the two paragraph tale THE DESOLATION OF SOOM by Clark Ashton Smith (read it here: http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/prose-poetry-plays/11/the-desolation-of-soom)?

Successful or unsuccessful?
A wisp of it has stayed in my memory a few decades.

If we accept a story must have an accepted structure, then do we truly "write what we want"?

My answer? I agree (in part) with Mr. Kudrick on this point: "Stories are supposed to make readers care."
However, in my view, how you achieve this is immaterial.

...unless you wish to be published. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

P.S. There is another view I also share: "Stories are meant to entertain." Making the reader care and entertaining them seems to be what makes the most successful story, in my humble opinion.

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extrinsic
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What reader extrinsic prefers to read are dramatic narratives that matter. In short, that are well-crafted narratives that don't call undue attention to their structures and aesthetics or craft and voice.

Caring what will happen during a character's insuperable struggle with a dramatic complication is central. That's plot's other purpose, evoking emotional responses, empathy and curiosity, tension, beside organizing content and expression. Just like life's a plot in the minutia and the longer runs. That, simply put, plot is a cultural codng convention shared in common by all humanity across all time.

Reading is a different participation mystique experience than watching a drama unfold on screen or stage. Reading is a private and intimate experience. Watching is a shared and constructed experience. Conscious or nonconscious awareness of the constructed artificiality of a drama diminishes the experience.

Written-word dramas that call undue attention to their artficiality spoil the all-important participation mystique, jeapordize if not contaminate willing suspension of disbelief. Visual dramas aren't quite as challenging to participation mystiques, because they are generally closer to the alpha real-world existence. So, yes, exotic settings and larger-than-life characters with dramatic complication struggles in the sole and main sense of different from readers' everyday alpha existences are as pivotal as plot.

In order to invoke empathy, and consequently curiosity, an emotional cluster response must be incited in readers. Empathy involves three central features: a character with a complication with which a target audience finds common ground, rapport; and at least a duality of emotional situation stimulations, fear and pity being most high-concept and primal. A narrative ought to invoke a gamut of primal and other emotions as it unfolds.

In ten words I can tell what kind of emotional ride a narrative will evoke in me, sometimes within five. Usually, the sooner I know the weaker the writing, the more shortcomings of craft and voice. After that, say one hundred words, I better have forgotten to pay attention to the constructed characters, settings, events, craft, voice, and content on a conscious, clinical level. Or else the reading experience becomes a sterile analysis, calling undue attention to the narrative's artficiality.

What extrinsic reads, though, is most anything, from the driest clinical reporting, to the most evocative narrative, from the most annoying to the most empathetic, from the most transparent to the most obtuse, from the most solid to the most ephemeral, and all points in between.

[ February 13, 2012, 11:10 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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History
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Does reader extrinsic like narratives where the protagonist refers to himself in the third person? [Wink]
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extrinsic
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Everything extrinsic reads, everything extrinsic writes is in some way self-referential, as it is for all readers and writers, whether they are aware of it or not. Now, other of extrinsic's identities don't care much for extrinsic's occasional inclination to use third person self-referentially in order to avoid gendered and personal pronouns.

Fictional third person's strength after its stronger objectivity over first person is for writers to pass responsibility for opinions and attitudes onto created identities.

extrinsic is a created identity, albeit one that takes decorum and courtesy responsibilities seriously.

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MAP
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History, you ask some great questions.

The answer to me is simple. I write the genre I love to read, so I assume that those who enjoy the same books that I enjoy will be my readers. That gives me permission to write the stories in my heart, the way I want to write them without having to worry about if they will appeal to an audience. I'm part of my targeted audience. [Smile]

Here is my feelings on the first thirteen. I write novels and read novels, so I think short stories are different.

I chose my books based on the premise and word of mouth. If I hear great things about the book, and it sounds interesting to me, I'll give it much more than thirteen lines to capture my interest. I'll give it thirty to fifty pages.

That said, the sooner the book captures my interest the better, and there are some things that I think are important to establish maybe not in the first thirteen but in at least the first three or four pages.

The beginning of a story makes promises to the reader, and it is important that the right promises are made. The beginning of a romance is different than the beginning of an epic fantasy novel or a suspense thriller. Read a lot of your genre, and know how to present the story you are trying to tell.

I think it is important to feel like the story is being propelled forward as soon as possible. Make it feel like something is happening that will shake up your protagonists life and start the story. It can be something big or something small as long as there is something. I like dynamic beginnings.

I very much agree with the quotes from Tarl Kudrick. Stories need a strong plot for me. I don't like slices of life or essays or poetry disguised as stories. Beautiful writing is only interesting to me for a page or two, and then I need something to happen. But that is my personal preferences. I'm sure there are readers that disagree and love that stuff. I'm a genre reader not a literary. I do like a lot of the classics, but most of that has strong, compelling plots and characters. I think most great stories have both.

Beginnings are tough. They are the hardest part for me. Well, I struggle with endings too. I don't like false starts or starts that promise a different story or beginnings that try too hard to be hookish. The beginning should feel natural and lead seamlessly into the story you are trying to tell.

It's hard, but writing is hard. [Smile]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I may choose books based on the premise and/or word of mouth, but if I can't care as I read the story (usually about the characters), then I won't keep reading. Too many books, too little time.

And I read all kinds of things, not just science fiction and fantasy.

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rcmann
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"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men,and great Achilles, first fell out with one another."

Not even thirteen lines. But that opening prefaces a story that has lived for more than three millennia. The key point, to me, lies in the fact that it was a song. It was written to be perform in front of people. People would give instant feedback to the author each time he presented it. Homer didn't have to guess what sold. He knew exactly what sold, because if it didn't sell he went hungry.

Which leads me to remember a standard writer's suggestion. During the editing process one should read the story out loud at least once in order to spot mistakes that might otherwise escape detection.

That's the kind of story I like. The kind that seems like it is being told to me around a campfire, or in front of a fireplace. A fun story, not some rambling philosophical excursion. And not a moralistic lecture.

Maybe it wouldn't hurt us to hone our stories by tell some version of them, however abbreviated, to people in our lives and see what they think of them? Especially kids. A kid can spot a plot hole faster than a mouse with a cat in hot pursuit.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Ever notice how many times Homer mentioned "the wine-dark sea" in the Odyssey? Seemed as if it was at the beginning of every scene.

People are welcome to talk about their plots here (and receive feedback on them as well). No 13-line rule for a plot synopsis.

The concern with doing that, however, is some writers believe that once you speak your story to someone, your subconcious considers it finished and isn't interested in working on it any more. Something about vocalizing as opposed to typing, I guess.

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Robert Nowall
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There are only a few books I haven't finished once I've started them---but the first line, or first thirteen lines, are definitely not why I bought it in the first place.

I'm concerned about overemphasis on the First Thirteen...seems to me that it's something used to hook editors, that's of no use or interest to the reader.

On the other hand...maybe the First Thirteen will get your foot in the door, but it'll take a good "rest of the story" to get that other foot in there...

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Merlion-Emrys
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First off, I think many of the ideas being spoken of here vary rather wildly based on whether you're talking novels or short fiction.

This is especially true for the first 13 thing. Even here on Hatrack, the only place that really puts a super-strong influence on the concept, it's acknowledged that the first 13 lines aren't going to be nearly as relevant in a work tens of thousands of words long...you've got at least a couple of pages to get things going. We all know that no reader/book buyer is actually going to make a decision about a novel based on those 13 lines and it isn't as relevant even when dealing with editors/agents because of the nature of the novel submission process.
As far as short fiction, the beginning is important, but I personally think the idea of the "hook" isn't such a great one. I myself dislike them when reading, it's like those crazy used-car commercials with a guy running around and screaming about the crazy deals. It feels contrived. I feel that instead the concern should be the entirety of the story...the beginning is important, but it is important as an appropriate beginning to that particular story, not as a specially made "hook." This is especially true because of what I always say on the subject...what hooks one person will be indifferent or even repulsive to another.
Also, not every short fiction market makes their decisions based on the first 13 lines; many do, but there are also those that routinely read entire manuscripts, or read until whatever point causes them to naturally come to some sort of decision.

As far as "audience", first once again I think there is a big different here between short stories and novels. I believe that with short fiction, our "audience" is pretty much the editor of each publication. Right now the readership of short fiction is tiny, and I don't think, honestly, that most major magazine editors are especially focused on what readers want...I believe they publish what they want to publish, based mostly on their own taste/opinions and/or a particular vision they have for their publication. Even if they are thinking about readers, it's their personal concept of what readers want, not necessarily the reality.

Novels are a little different. They still actually have considerable general readership and various market research and whatnot gets done on them and their sales patterns. Agents and editors are, I think, when it comes to novels concerned strongly with what readers want or are looking for. However, I don't personally have a lot of trust in market research and even less in demographics and that sort of stuff, so even though the concern is there, I'm not sure how clear or full a picture of reader desires the gatekeeper types actually really have.


As to what makes "a good story" for me...almost anything with a speculative, supernatural, magical, spiritual, super-scientific element. My tastes are quite broad. I like everything from uplifting good-versus-evil high fantasy to extreme horror and back again. Aside from a speculative/fantastical element, I don't really have "requirements" like many people do. I don't necessarily need to love the characters, nor do I feel an absolute need for some massive conflict that is resolved. All I need is for it to be interesting, and for me that can mean almost anything.
Also, I am much more concerned with the content of a piece than how it is presented. I don't really care much about what person or tense you use or how POV is handled. Indeed until I came here, as a reader I was completely oblivious to all of those types of concepts. I do, however, enjoy style...people like H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Simon Logan and Clive Barker, whose work uses language as more than just a medium of narration, I enjoy a lot, but style or method isn't going to damage my enjoyment of a story...I'm interested in whats in it.


As to the second question...would I rather write what sells or what I wish, I don't consider there to be a difference. This is especially true now. I have never written anything other than precisely what I wanted to (for even when I have made small modifications to things based on trends or "common wisdom" it was because I wished too, and I've never made artistic compromises to do so) and some of what I have written has sold. No, I don't have any professional sales under my metaphorical belt, but nor do some of the folks I know who slavishly adhere to trend. I agree with the esteemed MAP; I consider myself my own target audience. I write the kind of stories I myself love to read, and since the stories I love to read are well loved by many others, it stands to reason there is an audience for such. Indeed, I believe there is an audience-a meaningful, significant one-for very nearly everything.

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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
One of the most prevalent kinds of well-written bad stories is the kind in which virtually nothing of consequence happens. These are a special sub-set of the "No Problem" stories we've discussed before, except in these stories, even less happens. Maybe the whole story is about an elderly woman reminiscing about her childhood... which would be fine if anything interesting happened in her childhood. I don't know if the authors of these stories are writing just-barely-disguised autobiography in order to work out their own feelings, or if they're aiming for the short story equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting, or if they're just thinking that if they strike the right tone of nostalgia, their entry will win. I do know that those kinds of entries don't stand a chance with us.

In fact, I've concluded that some people who enter our contests don't really want to be fiction writers. They want to write essays, or maybe poems, but not fiction. These writers have led me to revise my definition of a story's critical elements. I've said many times that a story needs to show us at least one character, to raise questions in the readers' minds, and to supply some kind of answer to those questions. I'm refining the question part to say:

I agree with what has already been said that the sort of stuff he refers to here sounds a lot like pieces of the "literary" genre. However, while I can't speak much to novels, having not read very many published in the last few years, my reading of short fiction in professional magazines in the past couple of years indicates to me that very strong elements of what this person speaks of here have found their way into published works of the various fantastical genres. Especially the aspect of unanswered questions, or having things in some way make sense or be coherent. I've read many stories...especially in publications like Clarksworld, Strange Horizons, and the former Fantasy magazine that had many of these "literary" traits, in which relatively little happens and in which few of the questions raised are answered. But even if that weren't the case, I categorically disagree with the statement that a story must both raise and answer questions...especially the answering part...because stories have been raising questions and failing to answer them and still been quite successful for decades. Of course, I typically categorically disagree with any statement that begins "a story must..." or "a successful story must..." because every such statement I've ever seen has been wrong.


quote:
I'll put it even more simply: Stories are supposed to make readers care what happens in the story."
Sure, but here we are so far adrift in the trackless seas of subjectivity that it becomes largely meaningless, in my view, to even say this. There are so many ways to care, and what makes people care or have interest is so wide and broad and varied...this is why I believe there is an audience for essentially anything. Apparently, if someone wrote a given thing, they cared about it enough to write it, and it seems stastically unlikely to me that they would be the only-or even nearly only-person to thusly care about it.


quote:
-To be a success, a story must have the structure of a character and event and consequence?
Disagree. I don't think all of these things...in the sense that they are usually meant when spoken of in this context...are necessary. Or at the very least, what can constitute these things (particularly "event" and most especially "consequence") are so broad and variable that it again becomes almost a meaningless concept. Looked at one way...since almost anything that exists could be or become one or all of these things...yes, they are all necessary. But looked at in the clear-cut ways that they are usually meant in discussion of story structure, I disagree that having all of these things in a straightforward fashion is necessary. This is especially true of the "consequence" part. You can have a slice-of-life piece where all someone does is make their dinner and think about there life...there is a character, there are events (the acts of making dinner) and consequences (the physical results of these actions) but that's not usually what is meant by those kinds of statements. However, slice-of-life, and also various abstract types of story/writing, do have an audience.


quote:
-Is a story unsuccessful (that is, you "don't care") if it merely inspires "wonder" or makes one think about "injustice" or the need for "caring for one other"?
No, it most certainly is not unsuccessful. To me, there is no higher achievement than inspiring wonder. If a story...or anything else...truly makes me feel wonder, it has succeeded in about the greatest way anything can for me. I think much the same goes for those other ideas as well.


quote:
or those of you seeking to make writing a primary profession (congratulations to 22 yo JKnoury again), then you need write to the market
I don't think you need to "write to market" even if you are trying to become a "professional" writer in that sense. From what I have seen, most successful writers didn't write to market. They wrote what they wanted to write, and became successful at it. This ties in with that paradox you touch on briefly, how we are told on the one hand to "write to market" and follow trends, but we're also told the greatest sin is to be "cliche" or "predictable." This has somewhat to do with what people talk about as "audience" and more to do, for me at least, with what I think of as "story types", an idea that encompasses aspects of "audience appeal" and "genre" as well as story structure and content. Some people go into a story wanting certain expectations met, wanting, in some ways, a certain predictability. Others, however seek the unexpected...or at least appreciate it when they find it.
Even more recent super-successes like Rowling and Meyer, I doubt that they "wrote to market." Rather, they defined it.

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rcmann
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I have spent a lot of time reading references about how to write and how not to write, both print and online, since I decided to switch to fiction. I have yet to find any advice that I value more than that of Mark Twain.

I admit to bias, but I revere that man's writing ability. Others may not regard him as highly as I do. But few people could deny that the English language was Mark twain's bitch. He could make the English language sit up and snap sugar cubes off the end of its nose.

One critique he write, "Fennimore Cooper's Literary offenses", has an extensive amount of advice to writers. He lists 19 rules governing literary art, and a possible 115 literary offenses. Then goes on to provide explicit examples of how Cooper violated 114 of them.

Many modern critics think he was too harsh. I don't. Almost all of what he wrote in that is advice that I have seen repeated over and over in modern terms on almost every writer's board. But Twain does it with his own style.

Here's the Gutenberg Project address:

www dot gutenberg dot org/files/3172/3172-h/3172-h dot htm

I recommend it. As a debate topic if nothing else.

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MattLeo
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Now Dr. Bob, I *strongly* disagree with your assumption here:

quote:
the first 13 lines must have a hook that pulls a reader into the story. In fact, if the first line doesn't spark interest in anyone, the story is dead before it starts.
It's not that hooks aren't common, or that they aren't good technique. It's that the notion that the first 13 lines always have to have an effective hook is easily refuted. If you go through your own library you'll find *many* instances of great books that don't have a hook. I know *I've* done this exercise, and my impression is that

(1) a small minority of openings have a distinctive, striking, persuasive hook.

(2) About half to a slight majority have a kind of narrative flourish that could be characterized as a "hook", but not necessarily a deal-sealer or intended to be. This body of openings shades into the third set --

(3) A substantial minority of openings that just get on with the story.

I find the stories that just get on with it are disproportionately represented among the *best* stories, not because that's an *intrinsically* better approach, but because it's a rare skill to launch a story with confidence and skill. Authors who can do that have a choice whether to hook or not.

In any case, I don't think it is possible to hook a reader into finishing an entire novel, just on the first thirteen lines. At best you can propel him over a rough patch of exposition on the second page, but certainly not through an entire chapter of backstory or world-building.

I have a different model of launching a story. It's like starting a fire with a bow drill. You work to get a tiny spark, but you can't ignite a log with that, even normal kindling would extinguish it. Instead, you feed it a tiny pinch of finely divided fuel, working your way up to kindling, eventually reaching the point where the fire will consume even green logs.

I think a reader comes to a story with a spark of interest. You have to nurse that interest until you can feed it just about anything, back story, characterization, shaggy-dog digressions (Neal Stephenson, I mean *you*), and it will want more.

I've read stories with wonderful, richly imagined world-building detail that simply smothers the reader's interest in the opening. The reader has to learn names, customs, history and political situation before he can make progress in the story. One even opened with characters having breakfast, except all the foods were unfamiliar and the meal was called something other than "breakfast"! Save it for the appendices!

I think the value of the hook, particularly in fantasy stories, often isn't in making the reader want to see what happens, but in reassuring him that he understands what is going on.

Often it is useful to open with a vignette in which the protagonist is doing something that is completely understandable, during the course of which enough of the world's rules are understood that he's ready for the main plot. So our hero his hanging from a cliff by one hand. How he got there we don't know, but we immediately know what is at stake and the obvious things he could try.

So he tries to get a foothold, but can't. Nor can he chin himself up with one hand. If only Mal hadn't stolen Hero's magic bag and pushed him over the cliff! But wait, there's a bird's nest. Maybe a bit of sympathetic magic...

See, we have used the explicable problem to introduce the antagonist, and to establish a little bit about how magic works in this world.

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History
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Some nice points here. Interesting discussion.

Dr. Bob is pleased, extrinsic.

That a story requires structure is a 99% rule, Justin. That it must have Algis Budrys' requirement of "character, event(conflict), and consequence" and establish the first two in the first page is important for WOTF wannabes (which many of us in the Treehouse aspire to).

I experience sensory overload at my local Border's successor Books-A-Million, Matt. There are hundreds of f&sf titles to choose from. At Amazon.com there are tens of thousands! Be it back cover blurb or first page, the book that has the best chance to stay in my hand rather than be placed back on the shelf is the one that hooks me.

Then again, this may be an example of my increasing proclivity to Adult Attention Deficit Disorder as I age (exacerbated by the plethora of movies, magazine, television shows, newspaper, and especially the internet--all clamoring for my attention and for the little free time I possess). [Wink]

Thus, I strive to have something attention-grabbing for the particular audience I wish to reach (i.e. hooks vary) in the first paragraph or, better yet, the first line.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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extrinsic
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A first principle for engaging readers (hooking) is to start with the persons and settings and events influencing an incitement introduction of a dramatic complication. That's all an opening must do.

Because many narratives open with dry backstory summary (diegesis) and explanation (exigesis) recitals, the term exposition, a traditional term for a drama's opening act, has come to mean tensionless reporting. Exposition's traditional meaning is comparable to exhibition or expo in the sense of themed celebratory occasions. Like World's Fairs, expos that exhibit the best samples of countries' cultural and technological identities.

My. my, how words' meanings have changed in just fifty years. I attended the last New York World's Fair back in the mid '60s. It was exiciting, inciting as an expo ought to be, as a narrative's opening ideally ought to be. One central theme running through the expo was what the future would be like (everything came to pass except flying cars), though the overall theme was peace through understanding.

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Merlion-Emrys
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Sure...everything in the manifest world we live in has structure. But the word can be defined quite broadly and any attempt to define what specific structure a "good" story must have is, in the end, no more than the opinion of the definer.

Of course, some people's opinions carry more weight in some areas of the industry than others but despite its prestige, WOTF does not set the universal standard for the entire publishing industry (although especially in bygone days, it did seem, at least to me, to set the standards in the minds of many Hatrackers.)


I guess because my taste is so broad, I invariably rankle at any attempts to define what a "good story" is, because I love so many things...and have seen so many things recently, professionally published...that fall outside any given definition.

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History
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"A first principle for engaging readers (hooking) is to start with the persons and settings and events influencing an incitement introduction of a dramatic complication. That's all an opening must do."

This is what I am challenging, extrinsic. I disagree an opening need do this at all. What an opening need do is interest the reader to continue reading.

There are all sorts of hooks that may or may not include any or all of the things you list. A hook may be an intriguing concept, a presentation of conflict before a character is even introduced, a startling setting, a fascinating character, evocative language, etc. Simply, it must (as per the definition) inexorably pull a reader into the story.

One type of hook will not catch all fish, as Justin notes. I will suggest writers need know what lures are most appropriate for their story's target audience.

Just my two shekels.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Merlion-Emrys
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I agree with your disagreeing, Dr. Bob, especially as regards novels. The need for a "hook" can be debated in short stories, but in novels the idea of needing a "hook" or an "inciting incident" in the first page or two just doesn't hold up, to me. That's not to say a novel can't have one or that every novel will have a slow buildup, but especially in some genres, the early parts of a novel will often be buildup. And that's not even going into the issue of prologues.


I also still don't really think its as much about target audience as it is about story type, about tropes and conventions. I don't think its about who the audience is, or even precisely what they like to read, since most people like to read more than one kind of thing. It's about the type of story you've chosen to write and what people will expect from a story of that sort. Then, you also have to decide whether you are going to go by those general expectations or if...and to what extent, you are going to flout, alter, or ignore them.

I'll use one of my own short stories as an example...the one I just sold to Stupefying Stories, "The Strange Machinery of Desire." The story is my take on the idea, story type, or plotline that runs thus: A guy goes into a bar/club, hooks up with a girl and she turns out to be a vampire/succubus/alien.
Stylistically, I did mine a little differently by setting it in one aspect of my "rusty" world, a sort of industrial dystopia like, but also quite unlike the "real" world. The bar became a fetish club. And the girl turned out to be a kind of industrial Medusa/Borg Queen sort of thing. And in the end, the protagonist does not die or get turned, but nor does he defeat/destroy the creature...the ending is somewhere in between.

So I took a particular story type and mostly adhered to the expectations of its sort, but departed slightly in several places as well.
I write a good deal of stuff like that...my personal spins on well-worn themes or structures, or versions of tropes that I've always wished someone would tell but no one ever seems to.

So, maybe I am splitting hairs, but I see it as being as much or more about knowing your genre, your story type and structure and your storytelling history, as about audience. This is especially true when you start mixing and matching elements and aspects...like my tendency to stick Lovecraftian creatures, places and themes into high-magic high fantasy settings. People (audiences) are hard to pin down, but these types of things can be boiled down and distilled, then mixed and applies like the colors on an artists palette, using your own taste and understanding as a guide.

Someone whose blog I recently started following said as part of a response to a comment I made:
quote:
I think knowing what you like is enough in most arts, really.

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extrinsic
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Writing principles are no more absolutes than any given word's meaning. The only absolute of significance is the first one, there are no absolutes.

Does James Joyce's Ulysses engage its approving readers by its voice, or setting, or characters, or plot, or other structure based on Homer's Odyssey or events, or theme, or none of the above? Some from column A . . .

Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, what's its "hook?" Syncrisis? (Comparison and contrast in parallel clauses.) Irony? Cynicism? Timeless relevance?

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Jane Austin's Pride and Prejidice, its irony thus its voice?

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

In all, as in any artfully dramatic narrative, introducing a dramatic complication, be it by action, sensation, ironic or cynical or satirical voice, emotion, introspection, or conversation, in some way introducing the beginnings of a passionate clash of personalities is a first principle because without one there is no movement to start or continue reader interest, no matter how delightful the language. That's poetry not prose, though artful poetry has dramatic turns: major and minor, though prose poetry . . . No absolutes.

A reason for the "outmoded" examples is they are in the common domain and easily accessible for copy and paste.

[ February 15, 2012, 12:57 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Brendan
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Atthe heart of Dr. Bob's lament is a cry to understand what it is that the modern day editor is looking for in what they constitute as story. What makes a story into a Story?

Several people have attempted answers, but I fear the discussion has devolved into details about what can or should(n't) be included in a story. Fine ideas and discussion, but to some extent it misses the heart.

A story is what people understand a story to be. What that means is it is something they have grown to recognise as a story from their experience with stories. Gobbly-gook? Unhelpful? Perhaps. But consider this. Story to most people these days is what they have understood from television and film. For some of us, that includes what we have read. But an expectation of what many these days think is a story is defined by what film and television have put before us.

So what do they put in front of us? Interestingly (or perhaps not so) they are more stringent than the written word. Most films (historical films and documentaries exempted) have a structure of
1) problem/conflict definition, followed by
2) specifically timed twists and information release,
3) periods of reaction then movement from reaction to proaction,
4) adjustments to the proactive behavior by the conflicting force, and
5) clear resolutions near the end without the introduction of new information to ensure an end (people like to think they can "get" the story before the end).

Get this structure wrong, and many people feel something is missing in the story, despite its other qualities. Get it right, and misgivings in other areas are more easily forgiven.

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rcmann
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Am I missing something? isn't that the same structure Shakespeare used? And Sophocles?
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extrinsic
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How much of those five principles are based on complications that are from self-inflicted causes?

Many situation comedies, that's the dramatic complication. Then, of course, outomes usually resolve the complication by a poetic justice readjustment. Social engineering.

What was Sienfield about? Nothing. But everyone's self-serving, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-centered selfishness. Self-inflicted complications galore. From Jerry to Soup Nazis, who was so artfully close to over the top self-inflicted complications from selfishness that he was funny in a schadenfreude way from none of us real people being anywhere near that self-serving. And Soup Nazis served soup. What an exquisite irony. I was amused.

Same model as the Honeymooners, the Flintsones, the Jetsons, the Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and many sitcoms, cartoon or human characters, in between.

An intriguing possibility there, that the complications are self-inflicted and consequently, for thematic unity, the outcomes are self-actualized and self-realized. Except for Sienfield's motley crew, who end up in jail for their selfishness. Shunned by society. Evil punished. Poetic justices is served like a bowl of soup. Social engineering.

[ February 15, 2012, 02:48 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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Except that many people, myself included, have gotten so sick of that endless stream of... stuff that tv viewing is dropping like a rock. Has been for years.

I think the Lexicon on SFWA calls them Idiot Plots. Most tv shows only function because the characters are idiots. If the characters behaved by any rational standard, the show would be over in five minutes. That, to me, gets old fairly quick.

There was a story not long ago. I won't name it for various reasons, not least because I don't hurt anybody's feelings who might like it. But the episode not only had idiots, it also had Deus Ex Imbecility. The hero had gone through a rough time, and it caused a rift with the heroine. But they still loved each other. Any rational adult with the sense to wipe themselves would instantly see that the damage done to the hero, although serious, could be overcome by patient work on both of their parts. With a little time, and the love they still carried for each other (not to mention their child), they could easily put it all back together.

But that would not suit the typical formula for angst, angst, and more angst in dramatic presentations. So what does the writer do? They have a doctor who has always been presented as competent make an incredible statement that the hero's damage hopeless and beyond fixing. THEN, the heroine, who has never given up on anyone or anything before, shrugs and walks out of the hero's life, taking the kid with her.

They paid somebody to write this? While significantly superior stories are posted on amateur boards every day?

............?

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MattLeo
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I think extrinsic has it right here when he talks about "incitement", however I think it's useful to make a distinction between an inciting incident and a hook, two categories which overlap but are not identical. For one thing hooks *always* come at the beginning of a story, inciting incidents may come some pages into the story.

An inciting incident by definition is a *plot turn*. A hook is not necessarily a plot turn; it may be a way of setting up some backstory before the plot starts moving. The distinction is easy to see in manuscripts that try to hook a reader with action that doesn't really have anything to do with the plot. It's like the author is making a deposit in the Bank of Reader Attention, but intends to withdraw it immediately without actually earning interest.

This can be a crutch for poor pacing, but it can also be done skillfully. Here is the opening of Terry Pratchett's *Night Watch*:

quote:
Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything else.
This is clearly a *hook*, but notice how astutely Pratchett files the barb off of it. Opening a book with a scream would normally be a melodramatic cliche, but it's Vimes' blase response that draws our attention. It makes us want to learn more about Vimes, and to see this attitude play out. The remainder of the opening scene consists of a pair of skillfully executed comic vignettes between Vimes and a student assassin and Vimes and his valet, which serve up backstory and characterization.

Some of the details in the opening are not explained -- what's up with the lilacs? We won't find out until the climax hundreds of pages later, but Pratchett doesn't so overload us with mysteries that we feel like we don't know what's going on. This is a good example to follow for the authors of many manuscript openings I've read. Pratchett pulls of an opening scene that's a satisfying read in itself, while simultaneously planting a limited number of key unanswered questions in the reader's mind.

Meanwhile, the actual inciting incident is happening *offstage*: a cop is being murdered by an escaped psychopath named Carcer. We don't even find out about it until the second scene, and the incident is never described in detail. What *is* described in detail is Carcer's character, which is horrifically evil, so evil in fact that most readers won't notice an interesting fact about Carcer: he's a heck of a lot like Vimes. They're both highly intelligent, dangerous, unconventional men with ruthlessly clever imaginations.

Now we have the story set up. Carcer has killed one of Vimes' men and Vimes is the only man who's a match for him. Conflict is now inevitable. The details of that conflict don't really matter yet; the two are so evenly matched end the it's got to come down to Good vs. Evil.

Pratchett is free to set the conflict anyplace he wants and structure it any way he wants. He chooses to set the conflict in the past. There's a risk of time-travel cliche here, but it works here because by making the present the future of the action, the stakes between Good and Evil aren't some nebulous probability. They're concrete. Vimes' wife is about to give birth to his first son. Also Pratchett cleverly gives Carcer and Vimes' parallel career paths in the past, Carcer with the highly efficient and universally feared secret police, Vimes with the night watch, who are so comically inept nobody would respect, much less fear them.

Night Watch is one of the best of the Discworld novels, the product of Pratchett at the height of his narrative powers. He launches the story in a way that rivets reader attention while giving himself the maximum possible freedom, then he makes very good use of that freedom to build conflict and tension.

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extrinsic
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If television provided quality programming all the time, no one would go to work, no one would clean up their rooms, no one would do the cooking. TV programming maintains a degree of mediocrity comparable to pea soup. It tastes like peas but it's mush. Pease and porridge, beans and bread, beans and gravy, in the vernacular of the let-them-eat-mush era.

TV networks pay writers able to consistently deliver mush that appeals somewhat to mass culture. I guess the powers that be do want citizens to read more, though TV and other convenient media entertainments are that one iota more entertaining than the drudgery of reading, and feed mass-corporation bottom lines more so than slim margin books and digests and journals.

Story? E.M. Forster defined story nearly a hundred years ago. "'The king died and then the queen died,' is a story. 'The king died, and then, out of grief, the queen died,' is a plot."

Forster gives a nod to Aristotle's maxim that causation is the heart of "poetry." Poetry meaning anything artfully composed with words for presentation to an audience, as opposed to the other genres of history, philosophy (science), and oratic argumentation.

Gustav Fretag, eighty years previous to Forster, located tension as the second motivating force for "poetry" or more precisely, drama, though by building upon Aristotle's definition: That which has a beginning incited by a First cause, having no immediately significant preceding cause, and a middle in which causation escalates, and an ending in which a final effect has no immediately following causation. Aristotle speaks of the neccessity of characters' involvement, prefering high-born free men self-inflictied tragic complications over others as the proper subjects of drama. Bigot there. And also, that the action be complete, that a transormation of forutnes take place over the course of the action, good fortunes to bad, bad to good, or bad to worse. Good to better not being a subject for drama.

Narrative theory has progressed appreciably since Aristsotle and Feytag and Forster. Drama now can be any kind of transformation save the good to better cycle: personality change, personal growth or decline, moral growth or decline, psycholgical growth or decline.

No absolutes though, if not drama then anecdote or vignette, and other genres, which can and do progress from good beginnings to better outcomes. Turns major and minor, change or transformation is at the foundation of causation, tension, and antagonism, the third motivating force of plot, which binds causation and tension each to the other and to itself.

But a snappy voice expressing strong commentary can and often does trump plot in the marketplace. Voice and plot (craft), now that's art.

[ February 15, 2012, 11:15 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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"If television provided quality programming all the time, no one would go to work, no one would clean up their rooms, no one would do the cooking."

An interesting assertion, to be sure. I hope you meant it humorously.

"TV programming maintains a degree of mediocrity comparable to pea soup. It tastes like peas but it's mush. Pease and porridge, beans and bread, beans and gravy, in the vernacular of the let-them-eat-mush era.

TV networks pay writers able to consistently deliver mush that appeals somewhat to mass culture. I guess the powers that be do want citizens to read more, though TV and other convenient media entertainments are that one iota more entertaining than the drudgery of reading, and feed mass-corporation bottom lines more so than slim margin books and digests and journals."

Perhaps so. But I am at a loss as to how the opinions/desires of the powers that be are in any way relevant to the larger issue of what constitutes a good story. I doubt most of the aforementioned powers would know the difference if you grabbed one of them by the scruff of the neck and ground their faces in it.

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Brendan
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quote:
Am I missing something? isn't that the same structure Shakespeare used? And Sophocles?

Agreed. I am not saying that this structure is new to the television/film era, but rather it has crowded out other alternative story telling structures. The parable of the Sower is a story, but a new story with a similar structure is unlikely to be published as a stand alone these days. (The closest I can think is Animal Farm, but it also fitted the above structure. Olaf Stapleton's books, maybe don't fit, but they are from the 1920s.)

I think Tarl Kudrick's issue is that a lot of (usually beginner and unpublished) writers that submit work to him have not grasped how to apply such structure to their story. They/we set up the wrong questions, answer questions that weren't asked, misunderstand the key expected timings for information release, fail to distinguish between reaction and proaction by the main character, make conflict static, and fail to resolve the key questions. All this results in a dissipation of the sense of meaning that the reader is looking for in a story, and it usually stems from a lack of planning of the overall story. I have seen this both from critiquing other work and in my own writing, so I know I am pointing the finger at myself. But just like riding a bike is rarely learned by watching others, structure usually has to be developed by the writer (only some "get it" intuitively, without years of practice).

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extrinsic
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"But I am at a loss as to how the opinions/desires of the powers that be are in any way relevant to the larger issue of what constitutes a good story."

If the powers that be include publishers effectively dictating what in their subjective realitiies constitutes a good story, then that's what a good story is for most intents and purposes.

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction defines a good story as an innovative crossover of accepted cultural coding conventions or original innovations that incite new trends: fresh, original voices with standard craft techniques; or fresh, original craft techniques with standard voices; or fresh, original voices and craft techniques.

There is a glorious creative spark that becomes a bonfire that sets the world ablaze that happens when a writer self-determines (self-actualizes) a fresh and original aesthetical artistic direction that suits others ideals of what constitutes art or story, as the case may be. In part, that path is blazed by thinking for one's self. In part, by processing and absorbing what others think is best for story. And in the main, by reconciling the dissonances.

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rcmann
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Forgive me. When I see term self-actualize being used it provokes mild nausea. One moment....

Now, where?... oh yes.

"If the powers that be include publishers effectively dictating what in their subjective realitiies constitutes a good story, then that's what a good story is for most intents and purposes."

Say what? Somewhere there is a basic discontinuity between my attitude and your own it seems. To me, simply because a publisher may not like a story is no proof that it is not a good story. The publisher might simply be a fool.

In the past this would have presented a more significant obstacle than it does today, granted. I can't swear to it, but I have read more than once that Beatrice Potter was forced to self-publish the first edition of Peter Rabbit because none of the publishers that she contacted thought it was good enough to print. If this tale is true, no further evidence of incompetence in "authority" need be cited. Although many more can be cited.

How many times DID Stephen King have to submit "Carrie" before he found someone willing to take a chance on it? And once he got a publisher, how much money did the book and the movie end up making?

If the powers that be proclaim that a story is no good, all that means is that they didn't like it. Which could mean that it is poorly written. Or that they had indigestion. Or that their kids/spouse/auto repair mechanic/boss/mother-in-law was giving them grief earlier in the day. Or it could simply mean that they are, as I said, a fool. A position is no proof of competence. Just look at government.

I recall once when I was with an engineering firm, my boss and I were going over some USGS topo maps. We found some fairly significant discrepancies between the maps and what was actually out there on the ground. He became quite upset, because the maps were supposed to have been prepared by licensed land surveyors working for the federal government. He said, "The USGS doesn't make these kinds of mistakes."

I opined (I like that word, forgive me) I opined that government surveyors were as human as anyone else, when it was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. I thought he was going to strangle me for blasphemy.

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Merlion-Emrys
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rcmann: I personally don't believe in ideas of "good" or "bad" when it comes to any form of art...to me its all entirely subjective, but what I think extrinsic is saying (I think) is that since publishers and other industry types exert so much control over what gets out there, their subjective opinions wind up somewhat defining for many people or setting the bar for what constitutes "good" particularly for "the masses."

Although especially when it comes to literature I'm not sure how much I believe anything that hinges on ideas of "the masses" because the reading public isn't really a mass...that kind of thinking could probably apply to television these days however.

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extrinsic
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A thread running through my posts on this thread is the many different ways story is defined. Some commonalities run through individual positions, some discrepancies.

Who decides for anyone which is what? The decision is a conversation between an individual and the literature and publishing cultures and readers. It's a long conversation that takes place over long distances too. It's a compromise, not a self-sacrifice, based on cooperation principles.

Paul Grice introduced the cooperative principle as a way to understand effective communication, among a number of communication principles that also apply to writing for and to audience accessibilty. (There, that latter one, that's a common thread running through many definitions of what constitutes a "good" story, audience accessibility.)

The Gricean Maxims, for example;

1) Maxim of quality: Be truthful, [for fiction writing, this one means be credible.]

Do not say what you believe to be false.

Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

2) Maxim of quantity: Quantity of Information

Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

3) Maxim of Relevance

Be relevant.

4) Maxim of Manner: Be Clear

Avoid obscurity of expression.

Avoid ambiguity.

Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

Be orderly.

In phrase form: "Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." (Cooperative Principle, Wikipedia)

The phrase form also considers timeliness, or kairos, the opportune occasion. The Gricean Maxims are in part a reiteration of the ancients' definition of decorum in terms of rhetoric: "A central rhetorical principle requiring one's words and subject matter be aptly fit to each other, to the circumstances and occasion (kairos), the audience, and the speaker." (Decorum, Silva Rhetoricae)

Pipe fitter decorum at a pipe fitter convention might not suit the sensitive dispositions of the Marvin Gardens Ladies Garden Club being held in the same hotel. My Cousin Rosalie would fit in on either side, though, and find great entertainment in the clashing conferences.

[ February 16, 2012, 09:36 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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babooher
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I'm sorry, but ambiguity can be rather nice when used effectively. It, like anything else, should be used carefully.
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MattLeo
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Well, I feel like this discussion has strayed away from addressing Dr. Bob's questions and into critical theory. That has its place of course but I think returning to Dr. Bob's much more straightforward framing of the issue might help ground this discussion in personal experience. I will take the questions in order.

1) AS A READER, WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD FOR ME?

In a word, "engagement".
  • Emotional engagement: Do I feel differently during and after reading it?
  • Intellectual engagement. Do I see things differently after reading it? Humor often does the trick.
  • Imaginative engagement. Do I picture myself in the milieu of the story, and is it rewarding to imagine myself there?
  • Aesthetic engagement. Is the writing beautiful? (rare!)

These are *fundamental* values; things that are important in themselves. Craft and style are *utility* values, things which are valued in that they contribute to fundamental value:

  • Prose clarity. Straightforward sentence construction. Apt choices of non-exotic words. Action and setting are clearly and concisely described. Dialog attribution is clear and unobtrusive.
  • Pacing and purpose. Characters in scenes pursue identifiable goals and developments on those goals come regularly.
  • Balance. Does the author pay attention to all the elements of storytelling: plot, characterization, dialog, scenery etc.?
  • Credibility. I'll define "credibility" this way: a credible story which allows a reasonably intelligent and motivated reader to willingly suspend disbelief *if he want to*.

    (list is a sample; it's not exhaustive)

I can be quite easygoing on stylistic values when stories deliver on a fundamental values. I'm fond of Victorian literature where a sense of boundless wonder is often studded with inanities then wrapped in turgid prose.

2) AS A WRITER, WOULD YOU RATHER WRITE WHAT SELLS OR WHAT YOU WISH?

This question isn't logically phrased; if you'd *rather* write what sells, then what sells *is* what you wish.

I think this might better be phrased this way:

2a)SHOULD YOU FOCUS MORE ON WRITING TO SELL OR WRITING TO PLEASE YOURSELF?

If you pay the bills by writing, the answer is clear: you should focus on writing to sell, pleasing yourself is secondary.

If you don't pay the bills by writing yet, I think you should *probably* focus on writing what pleases yourself, because the chance of making any kind of money out of your writing is vanishingly small, but you can always take satisfaction from writing a story that you like. But it leads to an important and difficult question:

2b) WOULD FOCUSING LESS ON WHAT I LIKE AND MORE ON WHAT SELLS HELP ME GET PUBLISHED?

Well, before you sacrifice your artistic aspirations on the Altar of Mammon, it'd make sense to pay attention to what editors and agents *say* that they want. Judging from articles and blog entries such people make, they maintain less of a finger-in-the-shifting-winds-of-public-taste posture than most aspiring authors do.

By in large what they claim to want seems sensible and reasonable to me. They want intelligent, well-crafted stories, without the commonplace blunders or cliches they're compelled to plow through every day in search of a decent story.

They're looking for fresh voices -- which is hard for a writer to accomplish if he's too assiduous at copying what he think sells. Like any reader they're looking for stories that appeal to them personally, which is inherently subjective; it makes more sense to look for an agent who's sold books like the one you've written than to tailor a book to some model of what a "median" agent or editor might like.

And agents would like prospective authors to stop spamming them with manuscripts that don't match the kind of stuff they handle. So if an agent's website or listing says she handles feminist-friendly erotica, don't send her your hard sci-fi story. She may be missing out on the next *Ringworld*, but if she *got* the next Ringworld she probably wouldn't know how to sell it.

Now if you visit your local bookstore, you might think some of these people are fibbing. Look at all those vampire urban fantasy knock-offs of *Twilight*! And what about what one critic wryly labeled "Methadone Books" -- YA Fantasies written to keep Harry Potter junkies on their feet as they wait for that next fix that will never come?

The problem is that those books are just the tip of the "me too" iceberg. 9/10 of just the *competent* "me too" manuscripts will never surface. And don't jump to conclusions about the current market based on what you see on the shelves of bookstores. It takes years for a book to get through the publishing pipeline. The books clogging the shelves of your local bookstore at best represent an outdated view of what was getting picked up for publication.

So by all means study what the market is picking up, but be sensible in your methods, and cautious in your conclusions. There is no perfectly marketable story, because such a story would have to be the same as a proven winner, only different.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by babooher:
I'm sorry, but ambiguity can be rather nice when used effectively. It, like anything else, should be used carefully.

I like ambiguity that to some extent timely clears up or an ambiguous ending that projects an after story I can wrap my imagination around because there are sufficient projections to work from. So long as the main dramatic complication is reasonably, unequivocally, and irrevocably finalized.
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MattLeo
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About ambiguity... Suppose it's not clear in a particular scene whether Alice is mocking Bob in her dialog. There's several reasons this might happen.

(1) The author has made Alice a snarky smarty-pants.
(2) The author has made Alice an insensitive clod who can't tell the difference between wittiness and being patronizing.
(3) The author is a snarky smarty-pants who can't write characters with their *own* dialog voice, so they all sound like him.
(4) The author is an insensitive clod who can't tell the difference between making his characters witty and making them patronizing.

So in case 1 & 2 ambiguity is good. In case 3 & 4 ambiguity is bad.

Masters of a craft often deliberately do things that are common mistakes for beginners. If a master illustrator draws a human figure with head that's too big, it's because he's creating an effect. The rest of the illustration will work to enhance that effect. If *I* drew a picture of a human figure with a too-large head, it'd be because I can't draw consistently. My drawing would be a jumble of random scales.

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