Monday, March 18, 2013


We're in the middle of another round of winnowing at Flash Fiction Online. As it often does, winnowing makes me think about what goes into a good story. One of the things I noticed with this round of stories is that the ones I rejected as "NAS" (not a story) had something in common. They all failed to answer my "why" questions.

"Why is the main character acting like this?"
"Why is the world like this?"
"Why do I care?"

Okay, that last one grows out of the first two.

The best stories answer questions. I'm going to use an imperfect analogy for a moment. If you equate a novel with a movie, then a flash fiction piece is a short discrete section with its own beginning, middle and end. A short story or flash story doesn't work when it's only a scene. So, let's take Dangerous Liaisons (1988). If you were to write the sword fight scene toward the end of the movie as a flash piece you're going to have a problem. Valmont makes two decisions based on what's come before in the movie. We know why he makes the choices he does because the groundwork was laid. Without the groundwork, the fight scene and its conclusion are unfulfilling.

But wait, why did the Sixth Sense (1999) work? Wasn't the biggest why hidden throughout the story and only revealed at the twist ending? Not really. When you go back and watch the movie again (and again), you start noticing that the writer and director, M. Night  Shyamalan, littered the story with clues, some subtle, some less so. In fact, one of the characters tells you flat out the why and why it's "hidden" early in the story. We just don't notice. But our subconscious picked up on them in the first viewing which is why we don't feel cheated at the final reveal.

I believe that the reader needs to know or, at least, be given the clues to put the why together through the story.

Let's take another example.

The first few minutes of Disney's Up (2009), show the main character, Carl, as a young boy meeting the girl he'll eventually marry. We see the heart break of their learning they can never have children and the life they make for themselves. We see Carl's losing Ellie.

Why is showing Carl as a young boy, and then through his marriage, important? Because those minutes, a story story, tell you why Carl won't sell the house, why he's shut himself away from the world, and why he reacts the way he does when the mailbox is damaged. So, when Carl then makes the decision that changes his life, we understand it. Heck, we want him to succeed.

If you strip those moments off, and just start with present day Carl and his house surrounded by construction, the story no longer works. After all, it's just an old house. Why doesn't he get with the program and move? Carl goes from being a sympathetic character to just a grumpy old man standing in the way of progress. He hasn't been shown to have capacity to be more. It's a different movie all together.

If the why is only revealed in your "twist" ending, you might want to reconsider your story structure. Either show me, or give me hints to let me figure out the  big "why" of your story, let me know why your main character acts or is the way she is, and I'll keep reading. Let me wonder about her motivation, and it's easy for me to put the story down.


Holley Trent said...

I've been guilty about giving away the "why" at the wrong time...and then I figured out it was a revision issue. You've got to get some space from story and come back to it with fresh eyes or that pacing problem is going to be damned near invisible. Critique partners are good for reality checks in that regard.

Last year, I had to rewrite an entire novel I thought was perfectly paced from scratch because the "why?" was in the wrong place. Took me months to fix, but fortunately someone else spotted it for me before an editor saw it. X-(

Nancy DiMauro said...

At least you figured out the "why" was in the wrong place before trying to submit it.