Sunday, November 25, 2012

What makes a good story?

A professional colleague of mine, K. Stoddard Hayes, wondered on Facebook what my opinion was about literary vs. genre stories. Specifically she asked for my opinion on the discussion about whether a story can be good "only if it is well crafted on every level from grammar to themes" or "because people enjoy it regardless of any traditional literary standards of merit?"

It just so happens that before I launched On The Premises, my co-publisher and I worked long and hard to figure a way to rate the quality of short stories. We didn't want our winners to be chosen based solely on subjective criteria. We didn't want to hand people money and say, "I don't know why we liked that other story better, but we did so you come in second." That's one reason we rely on multiple raters: inter-rater reliability (how much judges agree) is one of our scoring criteria. It helps that I'm a professional measurement expert whose day job includes being paid to invent ways to measure non-physical aspects of life. (How do you usefully measure the "friendliness" of a customer environment? It can be done!)

Our first step was to "operationalize," as we social scientists say. In this case, that meant changing the question from "What is a good story?" to a pair of more easily answered questions: "What does a good story do?" and "What does a bad story do?"

We came up with a list. Here are some excerpts.

Good story: Makes us want to finish it. When it's over, we want to share it with friends.

Bad story: Bores us.

Good story: Either uses standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation so these elements of writing do not distract from the story, OR deliberately uses them in non-standard ways that thoughtfully enhance the story.

Bad story: Uses non-standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation thoughtlessly, and probably accidentally, and as a result these elements of storytelling interfere with our ability to enjoy the story being told.

Good story: Has characters that seem like real people to us. We'll remember them long after the story ends.

Bad story: Has characters so generic and one-dimensional, or so clichéd, that they seem like plot devices, not real people.

Up to this point, our measurements wouldn't distinguish a decent but ephermeral spy novel from great literature. This next one, though...

Good story: Uses language artistically. Surprises us with word choices, comparisons, and imagery that evokes feelings and thoughts far beyond what the surface definitions of the words normally would.

Average story: Uses language plainly but correctly, much like basic journalism is supposed to. All elements of the story being told are clearly understandable, so we are never confused about what is going on, but the language itself evokes no thoughts or feelings in us beyond what we would think and feel if we personally witnessed the events being described.

Bad story: Uses language poorly. Surprises us with confusing or inaccurate word choices that make us not believe what we're reading. ("The pillow clanked against the bed.") Evokes thoughts and feelings in us that go against the ones the story is trying to create in us. Relies on flat or clichéd descriptions that bore us because we've seen them so often. Uses esoteric or unusual language that detracts from, instead of enhances, the effect the story is trying to produce.

We had others, but I hope I've illustrated my point. I don't think asking what a good story is is as useful as asking what a good story does.

So let's return to Hayes's question: can a story be good only if well-crafted at every level, or just because people enjoy it?

For most readers, enjoyment is enough. I think that's fine. I can't see any point in forcing readers to read something they get absolutely no enjoyment from. (Even in high school English class? Yes, even then. Are schools TRYING to make tomorrow's adults hate reading fiction? They seem to be.)

Publishers who want to sell lots of copies of books probably don't have to evaluate a story much past the "will people enjoy it" question either. Oh, they need to make sure standard (and therefore non-distracting) grammar and punctuation are used, but beyond that, they just want to know if people will stand in line to buy it.

If you have learned to enjoy language itself, however, you might want more out of a story than just plot and character. Plainly written stories might bore you because there's not enough innovative and elegant writing involved.

(Some people, in fact, value the writing itself so much more than the story that they actively dislike plot, because plot frequently takes a reader's attention away from the language. Heavily plotted stories, such as nearly all genre writing, are frequently better served by ordinary language than "beautiful writing," which is one reason certain literary types disdain genre writing. These types prefer the form of language over its basic communicative function. They probably also like poetry because poetry is 100% language--no characters or plot required. Writers who disdain characters and story might be happier abandoning prose for poetry so they can concentrate exclusively on language.)

To me, the best stories excel in all the areas I've mentioned. They contain fully developed and interesting characters in a complex, interesting situation that's written about using language that enhances every effect produced by whatever it describes.

So to answer your question, K. Hayes, I think a story can be great even if it's just a fun read, and the more enjoyable it is, the better it is. But it can be even better than that if it meets all those "traditional literary standards of merit" as well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fun with Commas

If you ever want to start a fight, follow these steps.

1) Get a bunch of fiction editors in the same room. (That step alone might be enough, but if you want the sparks to really fly...)

2) Give them the text from any outstanding short story published in the last 50 years. Make sure this is a special version of the text, in which all the commas have been deleted.

3) Tell them to figure out, as a group, where commas should be placed.

It's bad enough that major style guides can't agree on such simple questions as whether

Mary, Tricia, and Alice


Mary, Tricia and Alice

is the preferred way to list the names of three characters. (The Wikipedia entry about that extra comma is the best treatment of the subject I've ever seen.) Yet if you read that entry, you'll notice that it discusses the rules with regard to non-fiction prose. That's probably because in fiction, you can get away with anything if you do it well enough.

In all prose, a comma's primary purpose is to help a reader organize (and therefore understand) text. But in fiction, commas have a secondary purpose: to slow the prose down by making the reader pause.

Think about this passage about a 10-year-old girl named Susan:

Susan, breathless, rattled off all the friends she'd made at summer camp: Toni Lisa Kristen Kirsten Debbie Melanie Other Debbie Gwendolyn Sarah a different Susan Beth Barbie (no for real!) Wylie Jamie Maria...

I left out all commas in the example above because I don't want readers to pause; I want them to feel like they're being hit by a firehose. If readers get lost while reading that sentence, good! That's what it would feel like to have a hyper 10-year-old tell you all that. If readers follow the first few names then skim the rest and move on to the next sentence of substance, good! That's what most adult listeners would do after the third or fourth name—tune the speaker out and wait for real substance to resume. By taking out the commas, I make reading the text more like hearing "young Susan" speak, and instead of feeling like you're reading, you feel like the story is happening to you. (At least I hope you do.)

In fiction, a comma's secondary purpose can conflict with its more universal purpose, and that's where the arguments start. Consider this sentence, and presume it's part of a short story:

So after the party we went to Mike's house.

Should that sentence have commas? If so, where?

My answer is, wherever you want the reader to pause.

If you want the sentence to seem fast, maybe even a bit rushed and poorly organized, then leave the commas out. If the writer doesn't want to have that effect on the reader—if the writer wants the reader to ignore punctuation and focus on the factual meaning of the words—then I say put them in, because readers won't pay much attention to punctuation that does what they're expecting

What if you, the editor, aren't sure which works better, and you don't know what the writer wants? You can always ask the writer, but you can also examine the surrounding prose. If that prose is written conventionally, the commas go in. If it is not, and the author is breaking traditional rules to achieve a specific effect, I'd probably leave them out, even if the writer's submitted draft includes them. 

How do you handle problems like this?