This week in addition to planning my edits for the third draft of Mulrox I decided I was going to write a new short story. And I was pretty happy on Saturday when I finished it. However, later that day I started to read it aloud and immediately realized it had some major problems.
In this two part series of posts I’m going to outline the problems I saw with my story. I hope that by providing specific examples I can help others avoid similar mistakes. This week I’ll be looking at problems with my story question, and next week I’ll be talking about lack of surprise.
Analyzing your own work is hard and unpleasant, but I think critical to improving. I’m obviously still struggling to master these concepts in my writing, but I’m not going to know whether I’m succeeding unless I take a close look at what I’m doing.
My goal in analysis is to increase my ability to quickly assess whether something is working or not, pinpoint why, and then either determine a solution, or decide that I need to start over. Ideally once I am familiar enough with these problems, I would be able to avoid these issues in the first place.
Multiple Central Questions
You’ve now heard me talk a couple of times about the importance of the central question for creating a coherent story.
Well I didn’t take my own advice and when I read back over the story I realized that not only did I have multiple central questions, but I also imply a third question that is never answered.
Let me show you what I mean.
The short story is one set in the Tales of the Glenn world. Here is the description of the stories from my writing projects page to get a little background. https://www.kerelynsmith.com/writing-projects/
Tales of the Glenn (works in progress)
A collection of short bedtime stories about a fun-loving dog named Hubble and his two friends Gween, a lazy and argumentative penguin, and Bear an anxious and over-prepared super bear. The three animals live together in a tree house at the top of an old oak tree. The collection follows the animals’ misadventures in and around the glenn.
The Story Plot
The story unfolds like this:
- Gween is obsessed with cheese, as we know from earlier stories
- One night Bear and Hubble wake up to a strange noise and they find Gween locked in the fridge with all the cheese in the house gone
- Gween is convinced that someone has stolen the cheese and locked him in on purpose.
- He begins to conduct an investigation about who did it
- The Cheese napping, and locking Gween in the refrigerator happens several more times with no further leads
- Bear and Hubble decide to conduct their own investigation
- They find that it is Gween who is eating the cheese. However during these cheese raids he is in a trance like state where he floats through the air and cannot be awoken until he has eaten all the cheese in the house. He is locked in the fridge because the door closes on him as he eats
- When they try to tell him about the trance he doesn’t believe them
- They then come up with a plan to store the cheese somewhere safer so that the Gween doesn’t get locked in the fridge
- They look for and find a nearby cave to store the cheese
- In order to get him to store the cheese in the cave, they come up with a trick to make him think it was his idea
- The trick works
- The End
The First Question
The story starts off with the question:
Who is stealing the cheese and locking Gween in the refrigerator?
This is a fine question. It sets up the story to be a mystery where whoever is investigating must go around and look for clues as to who is stealing the cheese. I could easily have this be the entire story, where the climax of the story is the reveal of the culprit.
However I did not take this path. Instead I answered the question halfway through the story, with this:
They find that it is Gween who is eating the cheese. However during these cheese raids he is in a strange trance like state where he floats through the air and cannot be awoken until he has eaten all the cheese in the house. He is locked in the fridge because the door closes on him as he eats.
Okay, but that is a really strange thing that is happening to Gween. He’s never exhibited this behavior before, so it immediately makes the reader wonder, okay what is the deal with that?
And here is where the second question comes into play.
The second question
What happened to Gween and how do we fix him?
This changes the story dramatically.
We are no longer looking for motives and opportunity to steal cheese, but some event that may have happened to Gween earlier, or perhaps some character who inflicted this upon him. It’s no longer a simple crime and punishment story. We are now looking for the why and how of the cheese trance.
I think I could have successfully melded these two questions if I had raised and then answered the first question within the first scene or so. The cheese napping then just becomes the first indication that something is wrong with Gween, but the true story begins as we try to solve the problem of the cheese trance. But because I placed this new question halfway through the story, I completely upset the expectations of how the story was supposed to progress.
The Third Question
What is worse is that in my story I never answer the second question.
So what do they focus on? The third question.
How do we get Gween to stop locking himself in the fridge?
This has the same problems as the second question: it happens way to late to get so much focus. But it has another problem. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
This crazy magical thing is happening in a mostly non-magical universe, and it is never even questioned. Hubble and Bear’s character response is illogical. They should be much more concerned with stopping the trance, than coming up with a new place to store the cheese.
Because the third question is illogical, it makes a particularly poor central question. The reader is no longer willing to go along with the plot because it springs from an inconsistent character response.The unanswered questions of the trance are so distracting it’s hard to get excited about the rest of what actually happens in the story.
It also has another unfortunate consequence. You can no longer relate to Bear and Hubble because their actions are not understandable. And once you’ve distanced the reader from the characters in this way, it is very hard to make the him care about what happens.
The effect of me answering the wrong question is that we spend the second half of the story involved in a plot we don’t care about, and we finally get to the ending, though the question I posed was answered, there is no sense of resolution. Gween is still cursed and no one seems to care.
How Did This Happen?
My original intentions for the story was to answer the second question. I think I got carried away in the detail of trying to lay out an interesting mystery at the start. That took me off into the weeds for far too long in what was supposed to be a short story.
The story went off on the tracks again, because I did a poor job of articulating exactly what the story was about at the start. As a result the ending I came up with didn’t fit the story I intended to write.
- Be intentional and mindful of what your real question is
- Ask yourself, does this central question make sense given the situation, or does it spring from illogical character response?
- Do not let another question hijack the story, especially at the beginning
- Make sure that the story does not leave large questions unanswered
- Be on the lookout for unintentional questions
- Make sure your central question is either the most interesting question, or has the most interesting answer. You do not want the reader more interested in a subplot.
- If you find unintended questions that are distracting, either remove them or make sure to answer them
- Make sure the answer at the end of the story answers your central question and not another question
- Make sure that the answer is satisfying and reasonable
Have you ever run into a similar problem? Do you have techniques for making sure you are staying on topic or making rational character choices?
I’d love to hear from you!
“Background-Texture-wall-brick 15162331_1920” by ShonEjai is licensed under CC0 fro https://pixabay.com/en/background-texture-wall-brick-1516231/