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  1. #61
    Lost in a large book nicba's Avatar
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    Talking Good debate!

    That's what I'm doing, I'm just interested in things people who have already jumped may have learned. They might help, they might not, but I want to hear them all the same.
    That was sort of why I started this thread in the first place. And it has generated a fascinating debate. Then, too, I had this feeling about short stories, and flash fiction in particular, which I couldn't quite express but which was voiced so well by juzzza:

    Short stories that I really admire are more like brush strokes than mini complete paintings of stories. I DON'T like the idea that a word count restriction means you are simply cramming the elements of a good story into the parameters. I like it when the writer takes less to create resonance.
    As to the debate about writing what you want versus what the audience want, surely the answer must lie somewhere in the middle ground?

    Writing only and purely for yourself, and then thinking that it still ought to get published afterwards, sounds to me like the direct path to madness and a cold and lonely room in the ivory tower of "true art." Such art, too insightful for us normal non-gifted mortals to comprehend, has always irritated me to no end. It always remind me of the story of "The Emperors New Clothes."

    And while writting to a formula certainly can produce insipid carbon-copy stories without any merit at all, I think it's wrong to insist that any kind of framework will instantly stiffle creativety and force you to write less than your best. Just look at most forms of poetry. That's a rigid framework if there ever was one, dictating sentence length and structure, forcing the author to choose words that follows certain ryhme and rythms. Yet no-one would claim that Homer, Shakespear and Kipling stunted their creativity by writing in verse, would they?

    So, some knowledge of the things that people consider the must-have elements of a story can't be all bad. Even if I still insist on writing "brush strokes" rather than "miniatures" some of the time .

  2. #62
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Look, the word 'story' itself has a definition, and that definition is a formula for all writers, to an extent. The question I was addressing had more to do with creative freedom then the elements of a good story. We are really speaking of two different things here. When you try to write for the purposes of a commercial sale, then you necessarily are sacrificing some of your freedom. But that may be the only reason you write, in which case you are then fulfilling all of what you hope to.

  3. #63
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    When it comes to genre short fiction, you're dealing with a very different group than you are for book publishing. And the tastes of these editors varies widely. Way, way back, I deliberately submited a story to a magazine that kindly had three people read it and then they gave you their feedback. The story did have a resolution, but not a neat and tidy, spelled-out one. One reader liked the ending and what I was trying to do, one liked what I was trying to do but felt it could be better and the third didn't like it and didn't like the ending. Yet another magazine was seriously considering buying the story when they had to go out of business due to serious illness of the editor. I have another story written more recently that is nominally a fantasy story, doesn't really have a central conflict and it has a resolution but not a very tidy one. The odds of any sf/f magazine being interested in it are long. Such structures -- character study as opposed to direct conflict, ambiguous endings, etc. -- are more common among literary mainstream magazines than in the genre, though not unknown in the genre. A lot of editors, running semi-pro magazines as their labor of love, have a very set view of what is and is not acceptable sf/f, based usually on which authors they like. They're not always going to get what you are trying to do, though you can point out if your story is like a story by a well-known author. But that doesn't automatically mean that what you are trying to do is wrong or won't possibly sell somewhere.

    So what do you do to sell to them:

    You can rewrite the story. But this is usually only worth doing if you see your way clear on how to do it, because if you rewrite, there are still no guarantees of anything. Or you can fish around and target market. The nominal fantasy story is something that I may send to literary mags that are willing to see sf/f stories (a welcome change these days,) because they may be more likely to bite. Or you can write other stories that you think better fit what a magazine wants. But again, there's no guarantee that this will work either. Most stories, especially in sf/f, have characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. Maybe. I've seen a lot of open-ended stories in Asimov magazine, for instance. But having those things guarantees you nothing.

    So it's something that yes, we have to deal with, but the assessments of magazine editors are not always a very good signpost of how to construct stories. If an editor gives me feedback, say that he found things unclear and confusing in the story, this reaction could mean any one of the following:

    The story was perfectly clear, the editor just wasn't interested in it enough and so missed details. The story does have a confusion problem. The problem isn't confusion but a lack of tension and character pov that slows the pacing down and that's actually what put the editor off. My ability to figure out why the editor had the reaction he had depends in part on my ability to assess my own story and detect potential problems. But even more, even if I discover potential problems, I have to come up with a way to fix them and be able to execute that fix. Likewise, if you want to write something that you think will be exactly the sort of thing the editor wants, you have to be able to actually execute that sort of story, to have a clear understanding and knowledge of how to use tools to create that story, and do so in a way that it will hopefully attract the editor's interest over all the other similar stories he is reading. It's all subjective and thus, not an easy thing we're trying to do.

  4. #64
    Light, sweet, crude. Wildeblood's Avatar
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    The moral of the story is...

    Getting back to the original question, what element a story must contain: I'm going to suggest something no-one else has mentioned yet - a moral. Some little nugget of truth about the world that I can take away and apply in real life.

    You can have your conflicts and their resolutions; your plot skeletons; your well-developed characters and their cut-out antagonists; your lavish world-building; your elegant prose; your beginnings, middles and ends; but if, when I come to the end, as I inevitably must, there is nothing for me to take away, all you have succeeded in doing is wasting my time.

    This is what is wrong with fiction published today (oh yeah, IMHO - mustn't forget the magic disclaimer). When you get to the end of the next 500 page behemoth you read, don't ask yourself whether it had good characterization, good world-building, or a recognizable plot structure. Ask yourself, "What did I learn from that?" The answer doesn't have to be a Great Truth, it can be any little thing. But, it must not be nothing. If the answer is "nothing", you have been doing that author a favour by reading their non-story, and they should be paying you for your time.

  5. #65
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Wildeblood; Some questions please. Why does a story have to have a moral and more important whose morals? Which branch of our society, country, cultures, mine or yours "morals" must I place in a story and say this is the right way, or this will result if you do a or b? You must apply this to your life in order live better?

    Morals change and reflect the time and place you are living in. Roman morals and ways of seeing morality are different than todays. Medieval, again different, The English Commonweath (Cromwell's Protectorate) very different again. You write a story based on any of the above, the "morals" displayed by your characters are going to be poles apart in some respects from each other and todays.


    I would not have the gall to preach to people in any respect. I hopefully create stories that make people think, I hopefully reflect aspects of this world we live in, often twisting them on their head. I try and create real people with all their faults, not standard cut out heros. I try and create a good and interesting story, something that takes people away from the normal hum-drum. I might work to a theme, have done so, but it is the working through of an idea and has nothing to do with a desire to inflict my vision of morals or morality on anyone. I have never set out to place a moral in a story, if others see one in my work, then that is the affect of their reading the words through the filter of their own thoughts and ideas.

    But that would make my stories non-stories by your definition.

  6. #66
    Banned Eurytus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wildeblood
    Getting back to the original question, what element a story must contain: I'm going to suggest something no-one else has mentioned yet - a moral. Some little nugget of truth about the world that I can take away and apply in real life.

    You can have your conflicts and their resolutions; your plot skeletons; your well-developed characters and their cut-out antagonists; your lavish world-building; your elegant prose; your beginnings, middles and ends; but if, when I come to the end, as I inevitably must, there is nothing for me to take away, all you have succeeded in doing is wasting my time.
    I don't agree with this at all. You could apply the same standards to film and it would be equally wrong. Stories, whichever medium they are expressed in, work perfectly fine as a source of entertainment and have done for 1'000's of years. Nothing was ever wrong with that.

    In fact the "shoe-horning" in a moral or philosophy can actually be more damaging to a story in my view. I can think of several stories (some in film some in books) where frankly the moral/philosophy got in the way of the story. Where the artist was so enamoured of their little message that they forgot about good writing, good characterisation and good plot.

    Additionally given that your readers may have a very wide spectrum of moral viewpoints making your story have a blatant moral message could do more harm than good. Some readers will plain disagree with it and therefore discount your story completely. Some will have a moral core that is far more complex or advanced than the one you are trying to present and will dismiss yours as "trite".

    But beyond all these considerations what is wrong with a good story, told for its own sake, with no inner message?

    In my view, absolutely nothing.

  7. #67
    I AM too a mod! Moderator Rocket Sheep's Avatar
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    I agree. Even the word "moral" makes me shudder.

    I like to watch how characters deal with things. I like to see some resonance with real life problems but I would rather see these problems approached from different angles or extrapolated into some futuristic sense. I like more questions raised than answers given.

    I'm horribly stubborn. I don't like to be told what to think.

  8. #68
    Loveable Rogue Moderator juzzza's Avatar
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    Ooh hell no, Morals are for losers...

    Only joking.

    I just don't think I walk around all day, slap bang into a moral lesson. Relationship lessons, human nature, things about myself... Sure. So reading about those kind of things has much more resonance for me as a human.

    If these identifiable situations happen to take place in fantastic worlds as a back drop... Even better.

  9. #69
    infomaniac Expendable's Avatar
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    Wheel of morality,
    turn turn turn.
    What is the lesson
    we have learned?
    -The Animaniacs
    Moral lessons aren't always appreciated. A writer might write a very moral piece only to be rejected as immoral because their writing seems to celebrate immortality.

    But I think Morality is something that if you search for it, you'll find in just about every story.

    There's a story about Webster, the man who wrote the first dictionary who was stopped one day by two old ladies who wanted to praise him for not including any 'scurrilous' words. Supposively he stared at them in shock and demanded, "You looked for them?"

  10. #70
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    There are moral lessons and then there are moral questions. When I hear moral lessons, I think about a class on Aquinas or Kant, and I cringe. I don't want to read that any longer for pleasure. But characters, particularly well developed ones, have to deal with choice, and choice requires a decision making process. I think it's intersting to understand what motivates a character to do what he does.

  11. #71
    Where have I been? Moderator JRMurdock's Avatar
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    Morals are good for a story, but not essential. A character 'should' change in a story, but that is also not essential and can be a change for the better or worse. Including a moral won't make or break a story though, as many are in disagreement).

    I've written a couple of stories that had moralistic endings, though I didn't mean to. It was interesting to have those endings pointed out to me after I'd written and edited the piece and missed it myself. Once it was pointed out, I thought 'Hey! That's pretty cool.' but it was in no way needed to make the story work.

    As I keep saying, , if you want to write a story, write somthing that make you happy or makes you think. If you want to sell a story, see what the publicaitons prints, read their guidelines, and write something that fits. Or write something then find a publication that prints material like that. Just make sure that you always write the best story you can. That's the key. Try not to digress to expanatory work. Excell in your grammer (including in this forum). Mostly, write what you are comfortable writing. Don't try to write a super mystery thriller if you don't know the first thing about how to solve a mystery for example.

    The biggest thing is you must enjoy the story yourself. If you don't enjoy what you've written enough to read it through and edit it at least three times, then how can you expect anyone to want to read it once?

  12. #72
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    The morals-stuff had me thinking again...

    First, I'm not sure Wildeblood was thinking of a moral lesson (although "the little nugget of truth" does go in that direction). What, if there's a continuum between moral lessons and no moral content whatsoever, and somewhere along the line there's a marker that says "story ends here".

    What am I thinking of?

    Okay:

    Setting: Supermarket
    Character: Joe
    Conflict: Joe wants to buy a chocolate bar, but isn't sure what flavour to buy
    Resolution: Joe buys a chocolate bar with nuts

    Is that a story? Or do we ask something more of a story, before we assign that lable? (Personally, I tend to say, yes, it's a story, but you need a very skilled writer to make it interesting. But I can understand people who ask more of a story.)

    See, there's this story by Virginia Wolf I keep referring to. It's called Kew Garden. Obviously there's a setting; but all that happens is that a snail crawls under a leaf (this is the resolution; the conflict could be described as "a leaf blocks the protagonist's path"), while people walk by. For the record, I have this one in the Penguin Book of Short Stories, so it has been classified a story before. For the life of me, I can't draw a moral from that one (well, if I dig deeply into the conversation snippets we get...): The focus is purely aesthetical (at least that's my take). No moral, no suspense, but beautiful imagery and lots of snap shots.

    The question, then, is: when you think of stories, would you include something like "Kew Garden"? A prose text with aesthetic focus to the point that all else (almost) disappears?

    Or do you, actually, need to have a meaningful decision in a story?

    I think that's what it means to demand a "moral". Not a moral lesson, but the presence of "something morally significant".

  13. #73
    Where have I been? Moderator JRMurdock's Avatar
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    What you pose is not a story in the traditional sense. It's an anecdote. It's a story, but one you'd tell your friends, not sell as fiction.

    That is unless you're dang good and somehow make allusions to how this is not buying a chocolate bar, but makeing a life changing decisions like to get an abortion or not. And yes, you'd need to be really good to do that. I'm sure the snail story is very similar and you must really 'dig' to get to the alluded conclusion. It's more than just a snail crawling under a leaf, it's about life struggle perhaps.

  14. #74
    Light, sweet, crude. Wildeblood's Avatar
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    The accidental troll.

    Quote Originally Posted by Holbrook
    Wildeblood; Some questions please. Why does a story have to have a moral...
    In order to be remembered. Normal people can't remember hundreds of pages of narrative verbatim, but they can easily reconstruct huge amounts of it, if they understand the point they are trying to make.
    ...and more important whose morals?
    Actually, that's not more important, and it's also off-topic.
    Which branch of our society, country, cultures, mine or yours "morals" must I place in a story and say this is the right way, or this will result if you do a or b? You must apply this to your life in order live better?
    And now: I feel the need, the need to be rude to you:-

    Please read what I actually wrote, not what the paranoia of political correctness causes you to imagine I wrote. I am aware of the long-running thread, titled "Civilization", in the general forum; have been following it since it began; and would make any contribution I wanted to make in the proper place.
    Morals change and reflect the time and place you are living in. Roman morals and ways of seeing morality are different than todays.
    Would the first drongo to mention "morals" and "morality" please stand up?

    Need a line of smilies here, I'm sure you're a nice person really.

    So why does a tale need a moral? Consider Peter and the Wolf - presuming everyone knows the tale and its moral. Once you have understood the little kernel of wisdom in this story, you can re-tell it in any culturally relevant, politically correct, gender-neutral, inclusive, affirmative, non-discriminatory, special-effects ridden, big-budget or low-budget, manner that you please.

    You can say, "Peter is a boring name for a protagonist," "Earth is a boring setting for a story," "Every good story (for my target demographic) needs robot monsters from space," and tell the story of Ji'non'Loq Axx'Lo-Tul and the anti-Jedi assimilator, if you want to. (Ji'non'Loq is a female name, by the way.)

    But if you don't remember the moral of the tale, you'll have to advise people to buy the original book. Too bad if your friends don't have $23 and a fortnight to waste slogging through 500 pages of waffle.

    And if the reason you can't remember the moral is because there never was one, you better hope your friends enjoy the exact same types of gritty characters, lavish environments, and edgey writing as you do; else they might resent wasting $23 and a fortnight.

    This is why Publishers Are Evil, they don't want you to be able to remember the story, they want you to remember the book. They want you to tell your friends it had great characters, a unique setting, edgey dialogue (whatever the hell that is) and they really should go out and buy it. That's why they never edit the utter crap they publish and just push the "longer it is, the better it is" theory.

  15. #75
    Light, sweet, crude. Wildeblood's Avatar
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    Moral of the previous post...

    Wildeblood wants book publishers (note they are book publishers, not story publishers) to rediscover: the process of "editing"; and the principle that "quality is superior to quantity".

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