Writing the Right Story

I’m going to be blunt: not every story should have a happy ending. Yeah, we claim that we like happy endings and seeing the hero save the and get the girl in the end, but I’m calling bullshit. It works for Disney movies since mom and dad can bring the kids to the movies for an hour and a half of fun, popcorn, and soda, but that’s about it.

Think back to every movie where the nerd steals the head cheerleader from the captain of the football team. You know you’ve seen this movie a million times, but how much of it has stuck with you? The only scene I could describe from Say Anything is the boombox scene, and even that’s only because it’s become a trope (also, as an adult it’s kind of creepy). We know in our hearts that in the real world, head cheerleaders date the football star and the sensitive nerd/band geek/artist/writer gets shot down.

Think about the kinds of stories that stick with you. The “relationship” move that’s stuck with me the most is Chasing Amy, a story where the guy ruins everything beyond repair and drives away the woman he loves. It’s not a happy ending, but the characters feel real and consistent. Yeah, Banky’s rants about lesbians not existing are funny, but when Silent Bob tells Holden about Amy it speaks to something in anybody who’s been a situation where they drove away somebody they love.

It’s not just romantic movies where this applies. Most people would say Lord of the Rings has a happy ending, but does it? Frodo and Sam destroy the ring and defeat Sauron, but Frodo is left a broken shell of his former self. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones if you prefer the show) is filled with our favorite characters being murdered, mutilated, and tortured, but fans chomp at the bit for more books (or episodes). Breaking Bad’s happy ending involved Walt murdering a dozen or so people, and it’s only happy in the sense that they’re worse than he was (admittedly, being worse than a murdering meth kingpin who poisons children is a high bar).

This doesn’t mean all stories need sad endings. In Princess Bride (one of the best movies of all time), the happy ending is exactly what the movie needed. When Wesley bullshits his way through the encounter with Humperdink at the end, it’s perfect since he’s been bullshitting as the Dread Pirate Roberts for years and during two more of the film’s most memorable moments (“I’m not left-handed either” and “[Both cups] were both poisoned”). It still might have been a fun movie if Wesley stormed the castle as a plain old farm boy, defeating guards through trickery and luck, but it’d be just another cheesy movie. The happy ending works because it’s consistent with the film’s tone, not because the writers just needed a happy ending.

Henry Ford supposedly said that, “If [he] had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Tell the story you want to tell, but give it the ending and the character arcs it needs. Whether that means your protagonist burns down an orphanage or cures both cancer and AIDS, be honest. Even though people don’t know what they want, we know we all hate being lied to.

Learning to Walk

Whenever we learn something new, we have to learn the basics. Let’s be honest though: basics are boring. Who wants to drive a boring Civic with an automatic transmission when you have the option of dropping a Corvette to a lower gear and being shoved back in your seat when you hit the gas?

The thing is, you don’t get to start with the Corvette. I mean, sure, you could learn to drive a Corvette, but it’s probably better to learn how to drive on the Civic, then learn how to work a manual transmission, and then graduate to the flaming red sports car.

My coworkers have commented that when I drive I don’t use the brakes because I know how to downshift properly (side note: if you can’t down shift to slow down, you’re not allowed to say you know how to drive a stick). When I told them my factory brakes lasted nine years, and only had to be replaced because they rusted through (the pads were plenty thick), they didn’t believe me. Knowing the basics (e.g., how to use my transmission properly, not just how to make the car move) reduces wear and tear on my car.

It comes in my day job too. When I do a code review at work I’m constantly flagging exception safety issues, chances to use standard tools and algorithms, optimizations, and general design flaws. Having concepts like exception safety as second nature means I can write basic template code, and being able to do that means I can write tricky template code. It’s not because I’m a programming rock star (okay, I am, but work with me here), it’s because I’ve had the basics of programming beaten into me after years of practice.

The concept also applies to writing. Instead of trying to bite off a novel or series, write a short story or two and play with some ideas. Just taking the time to practice pays off in spades. Short stories mean you can ignore things like backstory and tying into a larger plot, so embrace that freedom so you can break things and get better.

The basics can be translating ideas in your head to paper (e.g., critiquers say things are confusing), grammar/style, tightening prose (I’m guilty of being overly verbose), or anything else.

Once walking comes easy, it’s time to tackle running. I’ll let you know what that’s like once I figure it out.

Trimming the Fat

Before going on Scribophile, the last people to read anything I put effort into writing were college professors. As a Computer Science major, every paper I wrote was for a general education course, and most of those professors didn’t bother reading papers thoroughly. One professor even shared, openly, that he grades entirely based on length. End result: I have a bad tendency to be overly verbose when I write. The professor who graded based on length got papers that included discussions on video games, dogs, and snack foods, despite teaching Anthropology.

Because of this, one of the best things I get out of critiques are places I can remove words and even entire paragraphs. Even when I think I have a great piece of writing (well, great for me, which is a low bar), there are things that can be removed. From a recent piece I posted:

When a badger gets in a coop and eats the chickens, you don’t blame the badger. Animals follow their nature, and men like this are no different. Killing one badger doesn’t keep another from attacking the chickens later, and killing our friend here won’t stop future attacks against us. It’s the responsibility of the dog to protect the chickens before the badger gets a chance to butcher them, and it’s the duty of the farmer to train the dogs. If your guards are spread too thin it’s your responsibility, your obligation, to fix the problem.

I liked that. I mean really, really liked that. Sure it’s not perfect, but I read that and thought I had something going. My main character got to be wise and awesome and badass. Then a critiquer trimmed the fat and did this:

When a badger gets in a coop and eats the chickens, you don’t blame the badger. Animals follow their nature, and men like this are no different. Killing one badger doesn’t keep another from attacking the chickens later, and killing our friend here won’t stop future attacks against us. It’s the responsibility of the dog to protect the chickens before the badger gets a chance to butcher them, and it’s the duty of the farmer to train the dogs. If your guards are spread too thin it’s your responsibility, your obligation, to fix the problem.

She summed up her suggestions with this:

Essentially, Badasses communicate more by action than words. When they do speak, it is “man of few words.” But each word has been carefully chose. Why? These kinds of men don’t have time to stand around chatting. They have shit to do, and usually they need to do it fast. Over time, thus kind of communication becomes second nature for them.

Mind blown.

Not only is the edit better, she hit the nail on the head with how my own character should act. I was so close to the story I couldn’t see the forest through the trees, but a fresh set of eyes helped point out the obvious.

In the next chapter one of the regular people who critiques my work described this same character as preachy, something I felt too but couldn’t figure out how to solve. I knew it was with a long speech he gave, but the speech was important and I couldn’t just cut it. Until, you know, somebody deleted it and showed me it worked even better.

It can be hard to see the fat, especially when you’ve been working a piece of meat for so long, but the fat is there. Identifying it means you can cut it, and that means tighter prose and a better story. If you can’t identify your own shortcomings (of which I have many), that second pair of eyes helps.