As a writer, the most effective action I’ve taken in the last year has been to join not one, but two, writing groups in my local area. One meets on Saturday mornings and the other, which specializes in science fiction and fantasy, meets on Sunday mornings. Since I joined these groups this past March, I’ve sometimes felt like I’ve been in Writer’s Bootcamp, but it’s been worth it because I’ve seen my writing skills grow by leaps and bounds. But something happened at the last Saturday meeting that I thought was noteworthy, and worth blogging about.
I’m working on a short story that I estimate will come out at somewhere between 8K and 10K words. It’s a contemporary story with a single fantastical element. The storyline is about a man who’s lost his entire family in a terrible vehicle accident. Unable to move on with his life, he decides that he’s going to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. And then, just before he has a chance to jump, a passerby hands him a book. A magical book.
The way the writing group works is that up to five submissions are reviewed each week. Each submission can be up to 2K words. Submissions are uploaded by Wednesday evening and critiqued by the group at the Saturday session.
My submission, which was clearly part one of either four or five parts, took the story right up to just past the main character’s initial reaction to the odd, strangely informed content of the book. In essence, he parks his car and takes a trip down memory lane, walking past the places he and his departed wife went to when they were dating. Along the way, I drop tantalizing hits that something isn’t right, until the confirmation of his suicidal intent, and then the reversal represented by the unwanted receipt of the magical book.
When my turn to be critiqued arrived, I was surprised at the sheer amount of controversy and disagreement amongst the reviewers that my story caused. In fact, the group spent more than forty minutes, double the normally allotted time, discussing the story.
Some of the comments were:
Start the story at the bridge. Get rid of the long walk because it adds nothing to the story.
Too many coincidences. The plot hinges on a huge chance encounter.
Get rid of the part at the very beginning where the guy in the white car gets angry because the main character slid into the parking space that he wanted.
The walk is just a big infodump where we learn about the accident that took his family away. Communicate this information by showing him at the grave site instead.
The story has no hook.
There were a lot of comments, and I agreed with many of them. On a more mechanical level, I also received some excellent suggestions on how to tighten up my language in places. But the list above represents the most significant comments that, after much consideration, I ultimately rejected. In fact, #1, #4 and #5 together represented the majority opinion of the group (seven out of nine reviewers).
The real question is: Why did I reject those comments?
So I’m going to go all anthropomorphic for a moment. Sometimes I envision a story as having a soul. Some souls are malleable, capable of being changed into strange new forms without messing up the central dynamic of the story. The transposition of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the modern day in the TV show, Elementary, shows how malleable some stories can be.
But this story isn’t like that. It’s about a day that changes a man’s life by causing him to re-engage with the world. In an elliptical way, it may even be about the meaning of life.
Anything that doesn’t take place on that day can be referred to, but not shown. The story has to be about the man, his interactions with the book and the impact that they will have on people’s lives on this singular day. From a story dynamic, we need to know the man’s back-story by the time he receives the book, or their interactions will lack the necessary impact provided by a full understanding of the context.
I rejected the suggestions because they conflicted with the soul of the story.
I rejected #1 because we really need to know who our main character is before we place him in peril. You can’t sympathize overly much with someone you barely know.
I rejected #2 for several reasons. First, there’s a magical element to the story which trumps coincidence. In fact, it’s even possible, though deliberately left ambiguous in the full story, that the book may have religious significance.
Second, there’s a general principle that an author is allowed any prerequisite necessary for a story to work. Once the prerequisite has been established, however, everything must flow logically and consistently from that point. This is how you can have, for example, a story about a business traveller who gets mistaken for an international spy because they look alike. It might be implausible, but if it’s a necessary prerequisite, then it’s a given.
There is some logic to #3, but what the reviewers don’t know is that the angry man in the white car is a planted seed that will pay off later in the climax of the story.
#4 is a mantra that you hear all the time in critique groups: info dumps are bad. The problem here is that I don’t believe in ironclad rules. I would change the wording of this rule to: info dumps are bad if they interrupt the flow of your story.
It’s true that a lot of information is imparted during the main character’s walk to the bridge. But it’s broken up into digestible chunks and mixed in with a bunch of mini-scenes that define the emotional state of the main character. I also steadily increase the prominence of the clues that he’s planning to commit suicide. If the reader figures it out early, there’s suspense. If the reader doesn’t figure it out until the man is on the bridge, there’s surprise.
I might tighten up the walking sequence a bit, but it’s necessary for the soul of the story I’m trying to tell.
#5 says that the story has no hook. I disagree. To me, a hook is a story question that makes the reader want to continue reading. This is a subtle story and it needs a subtle hook. If I accomplish anything close to what I’m aiming for, then a good model for this narrative would be a Shirley Jackson story.
But see for yourself. Here’s how the story starts:
Malcolm Jameson rounded the corner in his silver Toyota Camry and instantly spotted that rarest of things, an open parking space on a weekday morning in downtown Sanavale. He’d only been looking for a space for thirty minutes. He pulled up slightly in front of the space and prepared to back in. A horn began honking insistently. He looked in his rearview mirror to see a battered white hatchback stopped a short distance behind him, the car’s driver, a forty-something man with gray-streaked hair and a goatee, pounding impatiently on the horn. He ignored the man and expertly slid into the space without any back-and-forth jockeying.
As he pulled his keys out of the ignition, the white car zoomed by. Malcolm thought the driver looked oddly like a mime, shouting unheard within the passenger compartment of his vehicle and flipping him the finger. He shook his head sadly. Probably just sour grapes because Malcolm had gotten the space instead of him.
Malcolm put the keys under the seat and got out of the car. He left the door unlocked and approached the parking meter. He waved his smartphone in front of the meter and it dutifully extracted a payment for two hours, the maximum allowed for street parking in this mostly residential neighborhood.
Well, the car was probably going to get towed at some point, but that wasn’t really going to be his problem.
It’s true that I could start the story with a line like, “It was a good day to die” or something like that (although I think that provides too much information too soon). Instead, I’ve provided a more subtle hook. There are three clues in the first four paragraphs that something is wrong (the keys under the seat, the unlocked door and the implication that the car will probably get towed but it won’t be his problem).
I think you can have a hook that’s subtle. I don’t think it has to be an MTV-like hook — “HEY, look at me! I’m a hook!”
If I can boil this all down to a single lesson, here it is. A critique group can provide input on your story and they can show you choices you may not have thought about, but they’ll never know your story the way you do. You need to understand the soul of your story. You need to feel the truth of your story and hold on to your convictions when it’s appropriate, even if that means disagreeing with others. If you can do that, then you’ll be able to make effective decisions about changes that may help or harm your story.