Six impossible things

Knowing What You Want To Do

The other day, I got a note from a gentleman who disliked one of my stories. The characters shouldn’t have been like this, the plot shouldn’t have gone like that, the structure didn’t make sense, the climax was unsatisfying. I ought to have done X and Y and Z and Q instead. I wrote back, with as much politeness as I could manage, and said the equivalent of, “I’m sure that would have worked in a different story, but it wouldn’t be the story I set out to write.”

The response I got boiled down to “But I don’t like what you did.”

To which my answer was, “Then you should read something else, or write your own story.” Because while I don’t think that particular story is unflawed by any means, I don’t think the flaws were in the places he assumed they were. A lot of the “problems” were deliberate choices I made in order to achieve a certain effect, and while I may not have executed them as well as I hoped, I don’t believe the correct solution was to junk all those choices and write a completely different story.

Some writers, however, fall into this trap regularly. Mostly, it seems to me, they do so because they aren’t clear from the start what type of story they’re writing or what effect they’re going for, and so when some knowledgeable person or confident and articulate reader says “This is wrong because X”, they don’t stop to think about whether X is something that belongs in the type of story they’re writing.

Most genre fiction, for instance, has characters who have a clear goal to reach or problem to solve. When the dragon is dead, the spies have been caught, Mr. Right has proposed and been accepted, or the correct murderer has been arrested, the story is over. The climax of the story is the final push to reach the goal or solve the problem. It’s the scene in which the dragon is killed, the spies are chased down, the final proposal happens, or the detective confronts the murderer. There may be other things going on in the story that don’t resolve, but the center line is clear.

Stories where the characters have a clear goal or an obvious problem are usually satisfying, regardless of whether the characters win or lose, because the stories have clear edges and endpoints. We know what the characters are trying to do, and we can tell whether or not they succeed in doing it.

At the other end of the spectrum are the sort of slice-of-life stories in which the main character simply wanders through his or her day. Various things happen; some of them may be significant, but most aren’t. The day ends with the majority of the events unresolved, and so does the story. Maybe there’s been some character growth; maybe not – the reader can’t always tell, because there isn’t usually a key event or an epiphany or any opportunity for the character to demonstrate that he or she has changed. It’s just life.

These stories don’t have obvious, clear edges. Even the beginnings and endings often seem arbitrary – why did the writer decide to write about George’s Monday, instead of Wednesday or Tuesday? The writer may know, but the reader is frequently at sea.

And of course there are the stories in the middle, where the problem or goal isn’t clear, or where there are multiple solutions and it’s not obvious that the protagonist has chosen the “right” one, or where the writer is using the viewpoint or structure to emphasize certain aspects that would normally be minor, so that the “obvious” story line gets blurred and something else comes forward, or where the writer is experimenting with nonstandard techniques to an extreme degree.

Writers can do this kind of thing on purpose, or they can do it accidentally. A writer can choose to be ambiguous, or to make non-standard choices like giving the viewpoint to a housemaid who is totally uninvolved in the murder investigation that would normally be the main plot. On the other hand, sometimes a writer gets distracted mid-book and wanders away from their original ideas, or never had a really clear idea of the endpoint or the story problem to begin with. And sometimes, the writer doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off the complexity they were trying for, resulting in unintended ambiguity and/or lack of clarity.

Readers can’t tell the difference. They don’t get a file dump of the writer’s brain; they just get the words that came out onto the page. So when a reader looks at a story and finds it unclear or ambiguous, or even just unexpected, they have to make an assumption about whether the writer meant to do that, or whether the writer made a mistake. Without any other data to hand, the conclusion nearly always depends on whether or not the reader liked the result.

It is relatively easy for most writers to handle praise that they don’t think they quite deserve. When a reader tells a writer that they loved the strange, meandering plot that started in one place and ended in another, and that ended ambiguously, the writer generally smiles and says thanks even if they intended to write a straightforward slam-bang-action-adventure. Sometimes, such comments even encourage the writers to stretch and deliberately repeat what was initially an accident.

When a reader tells a writer that they hated the book, though, most writers are in trouble if they didn’t have a clear vision to begin with. A writer who set out to do something experimental and stretchy, who deliberately mucked with the timeline and inverted the plot and messed with the viewpoint, is not going to be surprised when some readers come up and say the story was a horrible mistake. If the writer agrees with the reader that the experiment was unsuccessful, they can tell them that they were experimenting and it didn’t quite work out, but that’s what experiments are for. Often, a productive dialog ensues. If the writer did exactly what he/she set out to do, it’s a lot easier to accept that the result is just not going to be to everyone’s taste.

A writer who never had a clear vision of their story, who isn’t sure what they were trying to do, much less whether they achieved it – that writer is exceedingly vulnerable when an annoyed reader starts explaining that their magic system doesn’t work properly, or their plotting is horrible because it doesn’t resolve, or that their characters wouldn’t do that. This kind of thing can sabotage a writer’s confidence for years or decades, especially when it comes from an authority figure who ought to know better.

If you know what you are trying to do, and somebody says you failed, you can explain what you intended and discuss what you might have done instead, and get useful feedback. If you are just flailing around, and somebody says it didn’t work, you can’t tell whether it didn’t work because you need more skill or whether it didn’t work because the techniques weren’t appropriate for that story, or whether it’s just a hot mess.

  1. I ran into something like this and a cooking metaphor went through my head.

    “This salsa isn’t nearly hot enough!”

    “That’s fine. I was going for mild.”

  2. Even before publication, writers can fall victim to this. If they have multiple critique partners who all say something different, it can be hard to know what advice to take unless you have a clear goal in mind of what you’re trying to accomplish.

  3. I’ve had something like the reverse happen to me, once or twice. I’d write a story where I deliberately tried to avoid or downplay certain aspects/tropes/cliches (because I dislike them). The readers would read more of those aspects into the story than I’d intended, and their response would be “I like that! Gimme more!”

    Or I’d write a story and bring it to a close with what I thought was a strongly implied “happily ever after” ending, and the readers would tell me “That’s a great start; please go ahead and write the rest of the story.”

  4. I had one of those once: somebody read _The Interior Life_ and complained that Sue didn’t have any more problems; her kids should have complained that homemade bread didn’t squish flat like Wonder Bread and her friends should’ve complained that she didn’t want to gossip about what was going on in the soaps any more.

    IIRC I said, “So sue me.”

  5. I’ve found this places a considerable responsibility on the critiquer. We have to think about not only whether we liked this, and why, but also about what the author was trying to do.

    It’s like trying to be a good listener — to hear the intent behind the words. And where we’re not sure, we can qualify accordingly: ‘I don’t know whether this is what you were aiming to do . . .’

    • No the pressure remains on the writer to have a clear vision and remind themselves to filter advice through their heads not their emotions if they don’t.

    • Yes, it does. It’s hard to help correct somebody’s aim if you don’t know where the target is!

      One of the things I try to do when critiquing is to just ask. “This seems like it’s going in X direction. Is that what you were trying to convey?” Or even “Is it that Fred’s trying to weasel out of the job, or does he just not understand what’s expected? Or is it something else?” I try to leave questions as open-ended as possible; that seems to be easier for most writers to deal with — even the ones who have a solid vision of their story.

  6. LOL!

    A reviewer recently said of one of my books (paraphrasing): Everyone is so gull darn NICE! The protag is nice. Her parents are nice and want to help her. Even the villainess was once nice. I couldn’t hack it!

    Obviously the book was not to the taste of this reader! But I cheered inside when I read the review, because: a) I was aiming for a story in which most of the people were nice, well-intentioned folk – the dramatic tension does not depend on dysfunctional relationships, etc. (there’s already enough of that IRL); and b) plenty of other readers have weighed in with the opinion that it is one of their favorite books ever.

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