“I don’t get that one,” my beta reader said.
One of the stories in one of my upcoming short story collections, The Divide, did not resonate.
Then I did what I shouldn’t ever do: I explained the point of the story. Like having to explain a joke, that’s a terrible sign, isn’t it?
The beta reader nodded and said, “It’s not a big enough finish. It needs more punch.”
At first I thought all I needed to do was give the story a little tweak and a boost. I added a paragraph, thinking that would do it. Then I thought about it longer. Uh-oh.
I realized that the problem with the story went deeper than adding clarification and a punch.
Here’s why I am deleting The Divide from that collection:
1. In writing that story, I made an intellectual point but hadn’t made it matter to the reader. Intellectual points do not stand well on their own in fiction. Aim for the heart and guts, not the brain. That’s why good fiction is visceral.
2. The story is merely interesting. That’s not enough. (In fact, if someone says your story is “interesting”, bad sign!)
3. The story has a clearly stated moral rather than letting the reader think at all (another bad sign.) Readers like to connect their own dots at the end of a story.
4. The stakes weren’t high enough. Yes, bad things could happen if the protagonist didn’t complete his action undetected, but I never let the reader like the protagonist that much. When bad things happen to people we don’t know well enough, that’s just a newspaper report about a far-flung disaster, not a short story.
5. The story lacked punch because it lacked an emotional connection. This was not a plot problem. It wasn’t about what anyone was doing so much as who the characters were. Worse, this story was about one of my pet peeves. I got preachy about Gitmo. I got angry about Private Bradley Manning‘s imprisonment. I had points to make about both sides of that issue and you know what? So what? The points I made were better suited to another form of writing. Or it could work as fiction, but I didn’t hit the target I aimed for. This wasn’t A Few Good Men. This was just a lousy short story.
I’m shelving the story. (You get this blog post instead.) Maybe I’ll revisit it and sand the rough edges someday, but I doubt it. I’ll probably let that one die. All short stories can’t be gems any more than you can hit a home run every time you’re at the plate.
That’s okay. Just don’t publish fiction that doesn’t please you. That won’t please anyone.
- Publisher offers Stephen King short story free to Klout influencers (teleread.com)
- Building Blocks Of The Short Story (pittsburghflashfictiongazette.com)
- Your Protagonist Doesn’t Have To Save The World (pittsburghflashfictiongazette.com)