There’s a bare minimum of what a story needs to accomplish: it has to allow the audience to suspend disbelief. A story doesn’t even have to be entertaining to accomplish this. Entertaining is good, thought-provoking is good, original is good…but first, the story has to let you believe in it before it can do anything else.
How you do you make a story believeable?
- Stuff happens. The stuff may or may not be caused by characters in the story.
- When stuff happens, people react to it. It isn’t the events. It’s the “and then what” that’s important. If it were the stuff that was important, stories would be, “Once upon a time, there was an earthquake,” and then they would end there. People like stories about people, not stuff.
- More stuff will happen later on. When it does, make sure people are expecting it–at least subconsciously. You know, the idead of “don’t put the gun on the wall unless you’re going to fire it later” should be rephrased to “if you’re going to fire a gun, first show it on the wall.”
- There’s the stuff, and then there’s what the stuff means. While you can’t screw up the stuff, what the stuff means is more important than the stuff. This is just like life, when two people are fighting about who does the dishes. You can’t screw up on who does the dishes, but how you treat each other is more important than who does the damn dishes on a particular day.
- What the stuff means needs to follow the same rules as the stuff: first, meaning happens; second, people react to what stuff means; third, new stuff will mean something too, and you have to set that up. Again this is just like life. People don’t get divorced just out of the blue; they either fight or don’t fight about it first. Maybe even about the dishes.
- There’s stuff, there’s what the stuff means, and then there’s what the story means. While you can’t screw up the stuff, and you can’t screw up the meaning, you really can’t screw up what the story means, or people will feel cheated when you get to the end and throw your book across the room. Only really skilled writers can make you throw a good book across the room, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not that kind of writer.
Say your story is about how a couple gets divorced and how they come to grips with that. Right there, you’ve screwed up your story. That’s not a story! That’s life. Now, say your story is about how a couple gets divorced and starts a restaurant together and hires a kid who actually likes to wash dishes and the ex-wife has an affair with him but so does the ex-husband and eventually the kid runs away to get married to a woman who refuses to do any kind of housework whatsoever, and the exes decide they’ll use paper plates from now on and get back together in memory of this kid. Now, that’s a silly story, but it’s a story, because it’s about finding out what makes you happy, and how to make a win-win situation. It means something.
There are two ways to screw up the meaning of a story. One, don’t have one. Two, include stuff and meanings of stuff that have nothing to do with the meaning of the story. Oh, you can vary it: show what happens when people try to act against that meaning or when they do it only half-assed. But the meaning of your story is your story. If your meaning is “love conquers all” then don’ t make the ending depend on robots (unless the robots mean love).
Note: The person telling the story goes with this, too. If the voice of that person doesn’t fit in with the story, that’s bad. Don’t have Kafka tell a love story unless you want a Kafkaesque love story.
Great. Now how the hell do you do that? It’s simple (but not easy). Strip the story of all its words and just leave behind the story. Write down what happens, scene by scene. Don’t use more than one or two sentences per scene. Or draw pictures. Whatever.
Then write down what each scene means: this brings the lovers closer together, this drives the lovers further apart, this sets things up for a big fight later. Again, maybe a sentence or two. Maybe just one word.
Third, write down what the story means–one or two sentences. (I don’t advise doing this first, because as soon as you write it down, you’ll want to go through your story and “fix” everything without really knowing whether it’s broken or not.) Go through the rest of your notes and find out whether or not they go with that meaning. If not, ditch ’em and put in something that does. Don’t change your meaning, unless you’re just plain wrong.
Only after you fix the ideas behind your scenes should you come back down and edit words. Words? Words are just the way you tell a story. Just like you use words to deceive your readers, your words can easily deceive you. You may think everything’s fine, because you like your words. But no. If your stuff, your meaning, and your story meaning aren’t in place, you haven’t done the bare minimum of writing a story, even if your words are brave and smart and funny.
Think of the cheesiest, most cliche’d story you know. Soap operas. Their stories are about how life is full of continuing drama. The person who swore eternal love for you is really sleeping with your best friend, who is really your mother, who tried to kill you as a child… Soap operas mean something: Life goes on. And everything that happens in a soap opera illustrates that point. Even though there are sometimes plot holes, the writers still come up with (outlandish) explanations for them, because if they didn’t, they’d lose their audience. It was really her twin sister, the gun wasn’t loaded, she really wasn’t allergic to peanuts. And that’s okay, because life goes on. (The meaning of a soap opera has to be very flexible.) Soap operas are not the fine dining of stories. But you can’t deny that people like them–they are good at being stories. People forget what they’re doing and care about what happens.
And, really, that’s enough. The rest is gravy.