Here’s a fascinating exercise: My reading group of six ordered copies of the same issue of Glimmer Train, a highly respected short-story journal. We all read the stories (or most of them) and picked the ones we each liked best and least. Then we chatted about them over pizza, pretzels, wine and beer.
In several instances, a best-liked story for one of us was least liked by some one else. Sparks were flying! Out of our lively exchange, a few shared views emerged about what ingredients strong stories have and why other stories didn’t seem as engaging. Here’s what we came up with:
Create tension: There are conflicts, unmet longings and desires that animate the characters and compel us to read on to see what happens. There’s an emotional undertow that pulls us in.
Possess propulsive force: There’s a narrative drive, a sense of forward motion, a headlong energy that readers feel and respond to.
Put style in service of storytelling: Style is more than just the gimmicky, artful arrangement of words — it propels you forward into the story.
Capture the universal: Whatever the subject, however ordinary or extraordinary, as readers we come away with a sense of shared experience that we recognize and value.
Exhibit rigor: The author needs to more work than the reader, so that what he or she is saying is clear and compelling, meriting our attention and reflection.
Stories that didn’t engage us seemed to drift along with little conflict or forward motion. Nothing seemed to change; they had a static quality. Their style seemed to obscure and interfere with the story instead of advancing it. Multiple points of view often seemed to be used as a device rather than as a narrative necessity, resulting in a story that felt like a collection of fragments rather than an organic whole. Some stories seemed to demand a lot, as if it was the reader’s job and not the author’s, to make sense of them.
What an enjoyable, instructive evening! Hope you find some points to ponder and put to work for you as we all write on.