Two weeks or so ago I wrote a short story. It was started as a collaboration with my writing friend, Julie, the process of which I blogged about here. I sent it to Julie for feedback and she loved it, then I sent it to some other writing friends, who agreed it was beautiful but said it was too mysterious, and made suggestions about how it could be improved. I was in a quandary. Which advice to accept? I made some changes to make it less enigmatic, and emailed it to yet another writing friend, Les Zig, who’s an editor. He said that it was now a little too clear, and it was what he called static. Characters stand on their marks, he said, say their thing to establish or move the premise, and then there's a denouement. He went on to break down the story, like so:
· boy comes in disgruntled with grandfather
· boy talks to grandmother
· grandfather comes in and there's minor conflict with boy
· boy goes out and chops wood
· grandparents talk off the page
· grandfather comes out and gives boy his consent.
This last thing was an even bigger issue as far as static went, he said, because the grandfather acts through no journey or action of the boy. So in terms of an arc, the boy's development occurs on autopilot—his life shaped by his grandmother, who’s done the talking off the page to the grandfather—when really the story is about the boy finding himself and his independence and choosing a life for himself.
Needless to say, none of this had occurred to me.
He suggested that I think about “the unexplored possibilities of the story”. One thing I often query, he wrote, (particularly in movies, where it's often overlooked) is how did the characters get to the scene in which they appear? What happened just before, off the page? Saying all this, let me give you some examples of what's I think are unexplored opportunities, and the characters hitting their marks. For instance, the boy comes in and says nothing he does makes the grandfather happy. Now does he deliver this dialogue simply to set up the story? That's the way it seems to me, given the grandfather comes in and there seems no connectivity to this statement. By connectivity, I mean something like this: maybe the boy storms into the house and says, 'Nothing I do makes him happy' because he's trying to help the grandfather fix the car, but the grandfather is unhappy with his work. Now you have a motivation for why the boy's unhappy, why he comes in, and the statement he makes.
I have a dog and a cat in my story, and Les pointed out that there were a number of props in the story—the dog (does nothing), the cat (does nothing), the oily engine part (does nothing). They become scene-setters. In the case of the engine part, why not a) introduce it much earlier into that scene, and b) have it an object of contention? Again, just for example, the reason the boy comes in originally is to fetch an engine part, he's upset because the grandfather is unpleased with his help, the boy picks up the engine part, he talks with his grandmother, she cuts herself, the grandfather comes in to find what's become of the boy and the part the boy was sent to get, and at the end of it all we find the boy's actually picked up the wrong part. That's a bit more telling about the differences.
You can see that Les is an awesome editor. (You can look up his fees and charges here.) You can also see that although readers said the story was beautifully written there were some problems that maybe only an editor would’ve picked up.
What I’m saying is that Les has taught me to look more closely at my work in the future. To examine not only every word, but every prop, every action and reaction, before I think my work is done.
As an aside, here’s something interesting. Les said my cat was just a prop and served no purpose, yet at least three of my readers said they particularly loved the bit about the cat. I should mention that my readers were all female, except for Les. My conclusion: keep the cat!