Monday, August 11, 2014

What Makes a Story? Beginning, Middle… End?

I usually post a modified version of the book reviews I do for an established literary site on my blog and Goodreads, but this time I don’t feel comfortable doing so. I’m a different type of book reviewer, you could say. I’d rather say nice things about a writer’s work, or at least make some constructive criticisms of where he or she could improve it, but sometimes I’m at a lost for words. This is one of those times. Amazing, isn’t it?

Back in the day of the dinosaurs, those of us who had the pleasure of taking English composition classes and creative writing courses where taught the basic structure of fiction. Every short story, novella or novel has a beginning, middle, and last, but not least, an end. These are sometimes called by fancier names such as inciting incident, rising action, and resolution, but they pretty much mean the same thing. When a reader sits down to read fiction he or she expects to find character(s) who start a journey of sorts—physical and/or emotional—and after a series of incidents, which illustrate the personality of the character(s), the story comes to a resolution of sorts. A story may have a “happily ever after” ending or a “happy for now” ending or the merely satisfactory  “that’s the way it goes but tomorrow is another day and we’ll keep trying” ending. One thing is certain—the tale comes to a conclusion

I guess this isn’t the case anymore. How did I know my English professors back in the dinosaur days were wrong? After recently reading a “short story” collection by a recent graduate of an Ivy League Institution, I’m led to believe that strings of words thrown onto a page can qualify as a story. Okay, it’s not all that bad, but in a way it is. It’s a crime. A young author, with a strong voice and a talent for coming up with interesting characters and situations, has been taught that telling just the beginning and middle somehow equals crafting a complete story. To me, and probably the majority of humanity, it doesn’t. Who would knowingly mislead impressionable students?

Another sad observation—when did using passive “was” verbs and adding he saids all over the place equate to creating dynamic prose? I’ve learned a lot over the years from genre writing workshops, particularly that a good writer shows not tells the story. Readers don’t want to read a listing of dry facts. Readers want to imagine the characters in their minds taking action. In the process of exercising our imaginations, we readers walk away from the story feeling that we’ve learned something about ourselves or life and, better yet, were entertained in the process.

How can readers learn anything from being told the beginning and some of the middle of a character’s arc? We can’t. An incomplete piece of fiction breaks the cardinal rule of all artists, “Whatever you do, don’t be boring.” Maybe in Ivy League literary fiction circles the entertainment factor isn’t considered all that important and, subsequently, has been junked? Perhaps root canals are considered entertaining in those circles? Yikes!

 Throwing up academic credentials as an excuse for being boring reminds me of a conversation at a party a friend and I had with a man introduced as a creative writing professor from a local private university. My friend asked him what sort of creative writing the professor had published recently. This gentleman stated that he didn’t publish his fiction because, “It was too good to be published.” My friend and I continued talking about our recent novel ideas and book deals while the creative writing instructor looked at us as if we’d grown horns or a third eye.

I surmised the professor didn’t enjoy receiving rejection letters from publishers, so he simply didn’t even try to pen publishable fiction anymore. But then that begs the question—Why should parents pay tons of money to a college which employs an instructor with no interest in writing publishable fiction to instruct their children in the craft of creative writing? Shouldn’t the professor teach “creative ways to avoid rejection” classes instead?

After this recent book review, my impression of creative writing classes offered at prestigious and costly private colleges has not improved. I learned one simple axiom in many writer’s workshops: Writers write. And the sole purpose of writing for publication is to connect with readers—not to bore them. I liken offering incomplete works to the reading public to a master chef tossing uncooked ingredients willy-nilly onto a plate and calling it a culinary masterpiece. (I realize some enjoy sushi, but I want my fish cooked.) When you can’t finish the job, you’re not really a success, are you? 

I can’t boast an Ivy League education, but my books have received some great reviews over the years. Not one reviewer has ever said my fiction was boring or incomplete. I listened in English class and took notes at writer’s workshops and became a published author. Thank heaven I received good advice!

Click on the Cynthianna Mainstream Romance book link at the top to learn more about my PG-rated romance novels and novellas. You can even review one if you wish. ;)


A J said...

I feel whoever taught this person at the Ivy League college did the public a disservice by encouraging such a writing method. Writers ask that readers give them time, the most valuable of human resources, in exchange for entertainment. A writer who delivers a work like the above has betrayed the reader.

Cindy said...

That's my take on it too, AJ. You pick up a book and it says "short stories". You expect to read a series of short stories, right? You don't expect to read what I'd term "first drafts" or "story ideas" that haven't been fully fleshed out. You feel like you've been lied to, and it doesn't leave you with a good feeling. The next time you might come across this writer you'll probably say "no thanks" and pass up their book.

It's a matter of truth in advertising. If I'm buying apples, I expect the bag I purchase to be full of apples--no kumquats or prunes. I agree that the college profs aren't doing their students any service by telling them that unfinished drafts are publishable. That's just cruel to get the kids' hopes up and plain silly on their parts if they don't know better.

It's why I always recommend writers attend workshops that are put on by PUBLISHED AUTHORS. That way, you'll at least have half a chance of receiving information and tips on how to become successfully published. If you don't want to be a published author, why would you spend so much money on a creative writing degree or class?

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