Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far

1) Characters are most interesting when they lie. It’s when they’re the most naked, the most vulnerable, the most perplexing — the most like us. Stories need stupid decisions that, at the time, seem absolutely rational and necessary. Without stupid decisions, the world isn’t thrown out of balance, and so there’s no need for a ‘rest of the story’ to balance it back.

2) If you keep having to dip into the story’s past to explain the present, then there’s a good chance your real story’s in the past, and you’re just using the present as a vehicle to deliver us there. However, we cue into that charade extremely fast, and move on to another story, another book.

3) Don’t run down every single rabbit hole. Yes, your twenty-five-year old character has endless kool-aid stands and dances and family reunions behind her, all of which add texture to who she is. But, please, we don’t need to know about each and every one of them. If it doesn’t contribute directly to the end, then it doesn’t belong.

4) If the main character’s not in jeopardy — physical, psychological, emotional, whatever — then you don’t have any tension, and you don’t have a story. There’s no reason for us to turn the page, as what you’re delivering us is simply a recounting of these events that happened, none of which matter, as nothing’s at stake at the character level. The story is the ups and downs, though, the near misses, the impossible obstacles, the unlikely saves, the sacrifices, the victories, the accidents.

5) If you haven’t manipulated us such that we’re invested in either one outcome or another, then we’re not engaged with what’s happening on the page — again, you don’t have a story. At the end of any piece of fiction, we need to have that feeling of satisfaction — not so much that this was the outcome we were rooting for, or the outcome we suspected (one of the most basic pleasures of reading is to have our expectations subverted), but that this was the inevitable thing that finally had to happen to make the rest of the story true.

6) The only question you need to be able to answer about your story is Why today? Why this day out of your character’s life rather than all the other days? And the answer, it’s always Because this is the day that’s breaking the rhythm, the day that’s an aberrance, the day everything can change, if the character can just walk that tightrope to the last page.

7) Making people laugh is so much more difficult (and worthwhile) than making them sad. Too much fiction defaults to the somber, the tragic. This is because sad endings are easy, in comparison — happy endings aren’t at all simple to earn, especially when writing to an audience jaded by them. But the truly great fictions, they trick you into thinking we’re heading for something dour, some big final downer, but then, at the last moment, there’s a flower in this expanse of tundra, and the main character sees it, and just leaves it there for the next person coming along, and you’ve done your job.

stephen graham jones
boulder, co
22 March 2011

Author: SGJ