Yesterday I read a fascinating article written by Ferrett Steinmetz, an accomplished author and slush pile reader, about what he looks for in a story.
Slush Pile Readers Want To Love Your Story
Some of what Steinmetz wrote surprised me. For instance, that readers of slush want to fall in love with your story. He writes:
As we lay our eyes upon the first sentence of your epic tale, we are filled with the hope that you—yes, you!—will win the Nebula for this very story.There are many things that can cause a slush pile reader's Hope-O-Meter to drop but it all comes down to this: The reader doesn't care about what's happening.
What you as a writer must understand is that our Hope-O-Meter starts topped off—but as we encounter each bit of bad writing in your story, our Hope-O-Meter drops.
Steinmetz writes that this lack of caring usually comes from one of three things:
If we don’t know all three of those soon, then generally speaking we’re going to lose interest. (Great writers can break any rule, of course… but if you’re a great writer, then why are you still in our slush pile?)
- Who is this character we’re expected to follow along until the end of the story?
- What is s/he doing, and why is s/he doing it?
- Why should we care about this particular action?
The Secret: How To Get Your Short Story Accepted
So what you’re doubtlessly asking by now is, “How can I keep that Hope-O-Meter filled all the way up?” And the answer is, “Get me to care about your characters, quickly and efficiently.”And now for the 64 million dollar question: HOW does a writer get a reader to care about their characters?
To illustrate this, Steinmetz gives examples from actual slush that didn't make it:A writer gets a reader to care about their characters by answering the right questions.
1. Who is your protagonist?
Jason’s hand trembled as he crouched in the bush and aimed at the slaver on the rooftop. The slavers had come to Juniper County to put anyone they could find in shackles, so now Jason had no choice: he had to shoot.The flaw here, Steinmetz writes, is that we don't know who Jason is.
The slaver turned, his eyes going wide as he saw Jason. Jason pulled the trigger; the slaver’s head burst open.
Swallowing back nausea, terrified that someone had heard, he ran for cover…
- If slavers came to their home town, most people would shoot at them, so this doesn't tell us a whole lot about Jason.
- Jason is nauseous and nervous so that might indicate he's inexperienced but it could also just be that he's afraid of being caught.
What we needed to know about Jason:
a. Who or what he is fighting for. Does he have a family that he's trying to protect? (This covers two things: character and motivation.)Further, the reader needs to know the answer to these three questions in the first three paragraphs.
b. How experienced of a fighter is he? Is he an able hunter or a clueless accountant?
c. What are his ultimate goals? Does he want to escape the town? Drive the invaders out? Rescue his family? His friends?
2. What is your protagonist's goal?
Here's an example of a passage that nails the "who" but falls short when it comes to "what":
At six o’clock on the dot, Damien clicked off his computer and stacked his unfinished paperwork neatly in his in-tray. The desk had become untidy over the course of the day, so he lined everything up geometrically; the desk blotter perfectly parallel with the keyboard, the monitor at a forty-five degree angle.Here we know the kind of person Damien is, but we don't know what motivates him and we don't know what his ultimate goal is. Steinmetz writes:
He made his way to the elevator, observing a spot on his shiny leather shoes. He unfolded a handkerchief to buff it clean, then pressed the exact center of the button that marked the first floor.
When the elevator arrived, Damien spritzed the air with a small can of perfume, trying to neutralize the odors of stale BO and farts pent up within
Note how this opening has no real indicators of Damien’s wants or needs, aside from a clean shoe and a fart-free elevator. It’s a kind of weak characterization, because it does tell us what his immediate needs are without letting us know what his goals are.
However, if we know that Damien is leaving work to go to a pick-up bar to try and get a girl, then suddenly all of these mundane details take on personal shape; he’s buffing his shoes so he’ll look good, he’s spraying the elevator to avoid smelling bad for his partner.
Or, if we know he’s going to visit his dying mother in the hospital, the rituals take on an air of desperation; his mother’s illness is out of his control, but he can control his own personal space.
3. What makes the protagonist interesting?
Here's an example of a passage with bland characters:
Beatrice stirred her soup in time to the rhythm of her husband chopping wood outside. Her cousin Jack took over stirring as she went into the bedroom to check in on Cindy. As Beatrice picked her daughter up, she wriggled and grinned.Steinmetz writes:
In this case, you have four characters in the first paragraph, none of them doing anything that makes them memorable. Anyone can chop wood, if they need to. Anyone can stir soup or check on a baby.We want our protagonists to be interesting. If they're not interesting then they're boring and who wants to read about a boring character? Steinmetz writes:
Interesting characters do things that no one else would do in their circumstance; that’s why you remember them.Also, a writer needs to make each of their characters interesting and memorable but in different ways. Otherwise characters blend into one another.
4. What is the story goal?
Usually the story goal(/story question) is the same as the protagonist's external goal.
For example, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones' goal was to find the ark and bring it back to the university for further research and study. That was also the story question: Will Indiana Jones find the ark and bring it back to the university museum before Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazis snatch it from him and use it to swing the tide of war their way?
However, the protagonist's goal isn't always so closely linked to the story question.
For example, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke's goal is to destroy the death star and thereby save the rebel alliance. However the overarching story goal is to destroy the empire. Even when Luke succeeds in destroying the death star the empire is far from beaten since the emperor is still alive.
Steinmetz holds that it's important for readers to know both what the protagonist's goal is, and what the story question is (if they're different), from the beginning.
Here's an example of an opener where the story goal is withheld:
The work will take three months, and if done poorly, risks fatally poisoning you,” Nellie explained to the scent-engineer. “So I need to make sure your skills are up to speed.” She tightbeamed a spec over to his PDA; he whistled.Steinmetz writes:
This is quite an unusual request,” murmured Paco. “Even if you granted me full access to your family’s pheromone farms, I’m not sure it could be done.” He nodded, contemplating the request. “But if so, I’m the only man who can do it.”
That’s the attitude I’m looking for,” she said, reaching out to clasp hands and seal the bio-contract.
A lot of writers, for some reason, think it’s more interesting to conceal the central premise of their story and then reveal it later on. At some point around page five or six, we’re going to finally have the Big Reveal that what Nellie is looking for is an Enslavement Pheromone to turn humans into mindless ant-drones. Mwoo hah hah!
Unfortunately, the irritation of leaving your reader in the dark is almost never as cool as your actual central concept.
5. Don't include too much description
I know, that's not a question, but Ferrett Steinmetz makes an excellent point:
[I]f a story started with, “The tendril-fields were wet and pulsing, the rose-pink tentacles reaching up to grab at the spine-birds that flew overhead,” then fine, I’d be like, that’s amazing. Tell me more. But generic descriptions of landscape are a pace-killer.
6. Show don't tell
Thing is, there’s a big difference between “he’s insane” and “he thinks bugs crawl into his ear whenever he talks on his cell phone.” There’s a big difference between “He’s in love” and “Every time he fills up at the gas station, he buys a single flower for his wife and leaves it on her pillow.” There’s a big difference between “exhilaration” and “The story you spent three months agonizing over just found a home at Shimmer.”Great examples and excellent advice. The epitome of something simple to understand but not easily done.
Stories are about concrete details. If you write about emotions as though they’re just these abstracted principles, then your story lacks all power. When you write about characters feeling stuff, get as gritty as you can; it’ll make them more unique and pay off, and it won’t make us slush editors go, “Oh, yes, another story written by a madman who doesn’t actually sound all that insane.”
I encourage you to read the rest of Steinmetz's essay here: Confessions of a Slush Reader: Why Should I care?
Other articles you might like:- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Opening Line
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Alexa.com: Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets
Photo credit: "recession" by Robert S. Donovan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.