You encounter your new next-door neighbor when you’re out walking the dog and they tell you how the movers still haven’t showed up, which meant they spent their first night in an unfamiliar house sleeping in their clothes on the floor, huddled together in their sleeping bags. Then the two of you talk about how life can throw you curve balls when you least expect it and sometimes you just have to laugh. When you and Fido get home, you chuckle again, decide to write up the anecdote as a short story, and later that day submit it to your favorite on-line magazine. A few weeks go by and the editor sends you a brief note. “Thanks for submitting. It’s a nice story but I’m afraid it’s not for us.” And when you think about it, you realize that’s the same word another editor used on a different story you submitted a month ago.
Has “nice” become your fall back position? Or maybe the word is “boring” or maybe even “safe”? What are these editors trying to tell you? What’s missing from your submissions? Is there some kind of secret ingredient you need to add to turn those rejections into acceptance letters?
Odds are you’re making a mistake we’ll all prone to. You’ve neglected to add in the essential element every writer needs to make their story sing, the DNA that holds the entire narrative together, the reason for the reader to care.
In other words, the meaning of the story.
Time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You’ll need to use your imagination to dig deeper, to craft a story using this anecdote as the surface “inciting incident” and then flesh it out into a narrative that resonates with the reader. Because you don’t just want them to read the words on the page, but experience the human emotion behind the events, whether it’s loneliness, trust, embarrassment, or love.
Let’s take the example above and see where this turn of events might lead.
You could choose to tell the story from the young son’s perspective as the father, a middle manager in insurance, suggests they sleep outside under the stars and then regales them with Greek myths as he points to the constellations. The boy slowly realizes his up-tight father still has a childlike sense of adventure and wonder, not that different than him, and even years later, will remember this night with a deep sense of love.
Or perhaps the father blames the mother for the timing snafu and berates her in front of the children even slapping her for her incompetence, and the reader slowly understands this single mishap is only the tip of what is a festering unhappy relationship that will likely tear this family apart before too long.
Or perhaps the family consists of only a single mother and her ten-year-old son, both of whom are fearful of this new environment and during the night on the floor before a roaring fireplace they share their fears with each other and the mother realizes she does not need to hide her feelings from her child.
Regardless of the direction the story takes, you as a writer need to ask yourself some crucial questions:
- What am I trying to say to the reader about how life works?
- How can I take the initial inciting incident and morph it into a deeper story?
- What’s the primary emotion I want the reader to experience?
- Is there a “life truth” I want to express through telling this story?
- What is universal about the story that will make it relatable to readers?
An anecdote only takes you so far. Always strive to find the deeper meaning from a story so that if an editor asks you “Why should the reader care?” you’ve got an answer.
And it isn’t because the story is nice.