7 min read

What might be missing from my stories?

I write fiction, and I often feel that something is off about the resulting stories. (Not to mention the process.)

But I've never been able to put a finger on what is missing.

There are lots of things it could be:

  1. Theme. Specifically, intentional theme.
  2. Characters. How well they're developed on the page and off the page. Who they are. Why they do what they do.
  3. Character relationships. How lived-in or nuanced their relationships (to friends, family, coworkers, lovers, whoever) feel.
  4. Intensity and pacing. The scale of the story's events and the number of pages in the actual story. What the story's events mean to its characters.
  5. Continuity. How much of the piece, especially its setting, is carried over from previous stories or from my notes to give it depth and story.
  6. Truthfulness. How well the story grounds to what is real, or to real experiences.
  7. Expectation. How well and often the story sets expectations.

I'm going to go through these more or less in turn, then come back to what I could to play with these things and get them more into the stories I write. It's possible I'm not giving myself enough credit and that I'm brutalizing my own work. Still, I want to explore the possibilities.

Is it an intentional theme? Maybe. I don't write with a theme in mind. I find the idea slightly sickening, like that would mean selling out to ideology and turning the story into a propaganda piece. Maybe that is worth trying once, with a topical theme rather than a message, to see if that is the thing. And if that doesn't work, maybe I will even have to try (shudders) writing with a message.

(The funny thing is, I don't actually think this always results in bad stories when other people do it. And I couldn't begin to know for myself since I have never done it. I only hear that it is often done poorly.)

Is it something to do with characters? I don't make long character documents or detailed analyses. I don't think about the characters much outside of the work of writing each story. My stories are often short, 700 to 1500 words. The longest in recent memory is 2,388. That's not a lot of space to develop characters.

Maybe it's less about the space to develop the characters and more about the characters themselves. I sometimes end up relying on generic characters: "Tough space sheriff," or "Secret agent who investigates the supernatural." I suspect those genericisms are often, unconsciously, a character I know with all of the identifying—and interesting—details filed off, with no replacements.

In some stories, I think what's missing is a protagonist I appreciate. In a few stories, I get the sense that the protagonist always wants to be somewhere else, doing something else, that they're being dragged along by forces outside their control. I get the sense that they don't respect the people around them. I get the sense that they think about other people only in the way that one thinks about detours: Damn. I guess I'm going to have to figure out another way to get what I want. Or not. What bullshit. They can witty at times, but I wouldn't like to hang out with them. They make bad neighbors and shitty friends. I don't like them. I don't respect them. And what's maybe worse, I don't understand them.

I don't understand why some of my protagonists do the things they do. One can ascribe general motives to them, like curiosity, and those motives make some amount of sense. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who read one of my stories, and he speculated the protagonist in that story's motive was curiosity. It makes enough sense for that story. But something about it feels shallow or unearned. Why is he curious about this and not that? Why when he feels curious does he act on it in the way that he does?

I'm reminded of a Margaret Atwood short story I read recently, "Happy Endings." The ending suggests to me that plot—the what happens—is sort of secondary to the how and why in making a story interesting.

Maybe it's about character relationships? Some of these protagonists feel self-absorbed. Their relationships feel one-note. Every other character is defined by a simple archetype or (often slightly antagonistic) relationship to the protagonist. "The annoying coworker," or "the nagging friend." There's no nuance.

Maybe it's about scope or length? The stories are short and small in scope. Is that what bothers me? Maybe, but I think it's more the intensity and pacing, as well as the continuity.

Intensity and pacing seem lacking. I think this might be due to a lack of introspection. It may be clear what the characters are feeling, but not what the story's events mean to them. Their reactions and feelings make sense only on a basic emotional level. A good thing happened, so I'm happy. A bad thing happened, so I'm angry, sad, or whatever else.

As far as continuity, I generally write in a new setting each time. There's not much depth or continuity. There are few notes on the world outside of the story. I don't think about it in the shower. There is nothing storied about the setting now, and there won't be later, because I won't be using it again.

There's another sense of continuity that connects back to character, though. I sometimes get a sense from my characters like they walked on stage just now and they're playing the part of whatever it is they are to each other. They've been given a simple prompt, no more than four words, and no script. "You are old friends," or "You are old rivals." That's all that their relationship is. That's all it will ever be, because this is a very short story and I'm not likely to revisit the characters. Their relationship lacks continuity of history.

That's compounded by the lack of specified history and the lack of certain relationships. I don't think I've ever specified in a story exactly how long two characters have known each other. I also don't write longstanding or close family relationships into stories much. I don't write long-term romantic relationships. Most character relationships are shallow coworker or neighbor relationships, or unspecified old-friend relationships with no visible or "truthful" or "grounded" history. There is a sense that these people came off the factory line ten seconds ago along with their relationship to one another.

Maybe what's missing is to do with expectations? I don't tend to do a lot in the way of buildup. I tend to skip over anything that feels like Necessary Buildup. I get impatient with it, thinking: Oh, if I write that then the reader will know where the story is going, so let's not write that. Let's avoid setting up any kind of expectation at all. Let's just let things happen. If there's no foreshadowing, if it's just one damn thing after another, then it can't feel predictable, right? The writing doesn't commit to anything at all, and it feels like it.

Maybe it's about truth or honesty? I rarely can point to a personal experience that relates to any given story I've written. It's based on a mix of vaguely similar personal experiences and other stories I've read, and who can say how much is experience versus copying other stories? Some of that copying is unconscious and some semi-conscious. I worry that in so copying I'm going to end up writing stories that make no sense, that have a naive and ungrounded quality, like a castle in the sky. It doesn't help that I rarely do any research. That got me into minor trouble once.

Really, all these areas seem to boil down to just three:

  1. Intentionality. What kind of effect do I want this story to have? Does the text support that effect? Am I consciously setting expectations? What am I doing with those expectations? To what extent is there a theme? Is it one I can get behind?
  2. Character, especially the protagonist. Are they nuanced? Are their relationships nuanced? Could I develop the character or their relationships further through introspection—adding more context so the characters become more understandable? Can I give more of a sense of perspective somehow?
  3. Continuity and grounding. Where's the history? What feels implausible or like a stretch? It's fiction, so it can't be true, but is the story "truthful" in whatever sense?

Maybe it's worth setting some challenges or exercises for myself in these areas:

  1. Write a story with a topical theme, like say coping with death.
  2. Make my character's internal narrative about who they are, who their friends are, who their friends are to them, explicit. Challenge their narratives in the story. Show other perspectives through other characters. Look at the results. Are they more like I want?
  3. Find something about my protagonist that I like, something that I find admirable, and find a way to bring out that aspect of their person.
  4. Take a story I've written to completion and explain each character decision.
  5. Write a story in a setting I've used before.
  6. Write a story using a character I've used before. This doesn't mean committing to write a whole series about the character—just exploring them from a different angle. They don't have to be the protagonist even if they were the protagonist in the last story. Ideally the new story shares continuity with teh old one, but I'm allowed for this exercise to make some tweaks in service of a good story.
  7. Write a story based around a long-term relationship. Don't be afraid to write a timeline or notes first.
  8. Write an expectation into a story. Make explicit note of it. Follow up on it twice later in the story. An easy way to do this might be by expressing what the protagonist expects or what another character expects—the reader might not expect the same, but the prompt will probably get them thinking and expecting something on that same topic.
  9. Pick some aspect of a story that feels implausible. Ask: Is there some additional context that would make this reasonable? Some additional introspection or some detail about the characters, their relationship, or their setting that makes the story's events or the characters make more sense. If so, try adding it—even if it means changing how the characters feel a little bit.
  10. Pick some aspect of a story that feels implausible. Ask: Is there some research I need to do here? Go do the research as much as possible. Upsettingly enough, that might mean reaching out to someone (maybe more than one) and admitting I don't know, rather than speaking only to the Internet and keeping my cluelessness a secret. After researching, write notes. Go back and edit the story as appropriate.

This is not a to-do list, but it might be a non-exhaustive board of worthy, overlapping challenges.