I’ve been reading slush recently for Stupefying Stories, and I’ve noticed a theme to those entries that I’ve had to recommend against.
‘Stupefying’ processes submissions in an unusual way; our High Editor, Bruce Bethke, does the initial culling, scanning the first few paragraphs and tossing out anything egregiously bad. This seems a little backwards to me, but he’s the boss. Anyway, I don’t get to see the very worst. What I get are the things that start out in such a way that they are at least plausibly publishable. If you know how to spell and put together a sentence, if your paragraphs scan, if you don’t use dozen adjectives in the first page (or “scintillatingly” even once), then I’m likely to see your stuff. So far I’ve recommended about 10% for further consideration, which seems to be average among Bruce’s slushies.
By far the most common cause for me to give a thumbs-down is that the supposed protagonist doesn’t have anything to do with how the story turns out. Either they’re just witnessing events, or it’s just happening to them, without anything they can do about it. The disparity of power is so great that the reader has no reason to believe that they have a chance to win — and then they lose, big surprise.
If the New York Yankees play the baseball team from the local Ernst & Young office, I expect the Yankees to win. If E&Y should somehow win, it would be an interesting story to see how they managed it. But if the Yankees beat them 98-0, I would turn to the person who tied me up and dragged me there (the only way I attend sporting events) and say, “Why did you think I needed to see this?”
Just so, suppose the entire plot of a story is that a dire invulnerable creature breaks into a house and eats the protagonist. (This is a made up example, not an actual plot of anything I’ve reviewed.) It could be vivid; it could be horrifying. But there’s not enough back and forth there to make an interesting story; no suggestion that the snack had any shot at escaping. It’s okay if he loses, so long as it’s not a foregone conclusion.
Even if he wins, the story doesn’t satisfy if the winning is too straightforward. Man gets caught in an avalanche and manages to dig himself out. Not an interesting story; there need to be reversals. He has to try more than one thing (three is a magic number).
And then, there are those where something interesting might be happening, but we don’t get to experience it happening.* The supposed protagonist has no skin in the game. She comes in after the fact and is just seeing the results. Or, the story abruptly ends right where it starts to get interesting. To use an example mentioned here recently, suppose someone developed a drug that made people doubt everything they thought they knew. Interesting premise. Now for whatever reason he decides to dump tons of it into the water supply. The journey to that point might make an interesting story in itself (assuming it wasn’t his plan all along), but this is only the beginning of a bigger story. What happens after that? Some of the stories we get are really only an idea, not the whole story. They set up a situation and then leave it to our imaginations what happens. If I wanted to make up the ending myself, I would be writing a story. When I read a story, I expect the author to do that work!**
As with all supposed rules of writing, there are doubtless brilliant counterexamples that break them. But there has a be a damned good reason; the author has to have done it consciously, not because they didn’t know any better.
* This is not to say that a first-person narrator has to be the same as the protagonist; for instance, in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain has a narrator two steps removed from the action, and some people regard that story as okay. But we get to hear about what was done and said by the people who had an actual hand in making the story happen. The narrator is just a colorful frame for the story.
** Which is not to say that the ending can’t be ambiguous. But it can’t be totally wide open. Maybe it’s narrowed down to two possible outcomes, either one with interesting implications.