Hollywood people often say that it’s a miracle there are any good movies at all. Because so much can go wrong, and so many random things have to go right, for a movie to avoid being a hopeless disaster. I can believe this, because in general the difference between the good and bad versions of the same story is often razor-thin.
This is kind of a depressing thing to realize, because you would kind of hope that it would be easy to tell if a story is going to work or not. Like, either your soufflé rose or it didn’t, right? And you ought to be able to tell if a story is “clicking” or if it’s just kind of a mess, because the pieces either fit together neatly or they don’t.
For sure, part of becoming a successful writer or creator is developing a really good sense of when your own work isn’t hitting its potential. This is something you get through a lot of trial and error, by throwing yourself at the wall 100 times until you learn to see the wall coming. I wrote 100 awful short stories until I learned how to write a pretty good one.
But also, writers are really good at spinning bullshit and convincing you that their made-up story actually happened—and that means that bullshitting yourself is an occupational hazard. It’s easy to bullshit yourself that you’ve made two pieces fit together when there’s actually a really awkward gap.
And this is the part that drives me nuts, both as an aspiring creative writer and as a consumer of media: It doesn’t take much to make a story totally fall apart. I mean, most stories can survive having the occasional dumb scene or the occasional cringe-worthy moment. But a story relies on the readers (or audience) choosing to go along for the ride, and the moment you’re not creating a ride worth going on, they’re gone.
It’s easy to see why telling stories and casting magic spells are so often compared or conflated in fantasy stories—because telling a good story is very much like casting a spell. You’re creating another reality and trying to immerse people in it, and you’re hoping to make it so compelling that people “forget” it’s not real. (Almost like a trance.)
On top of this sense of total immersion, you want people to become emotionally attached to your characters and not want them to die horribly. As Dorothy J. Heydt famously said, the eight deadliest words for any work of fiction are, “I don’t care what happens to these people.”
And that’s where the differences between a successful and an unsuccessful story often become vanishingly tiny. (Obviously, “success” and “failure” are subjective in this context—there’s no such thing as a story that works for everybody, and even the most critically panned book or movie will have its fans. The best you can hope for is to sucker a lot of people into believing in your totally fake universe that you put together out of bits of string and old party streamers.)
To some extent this is a “Devil in the details” thing: It’s the little details that will trip you up. Small inconsistencies can make your world feel flimsy. But, too, tiny character moments and little bits of emotional resonance, in between the big incidents, can do a ton to make people buy stock in your world and its people.
The difference between a shitty story and a great story is often just one of clarity, also. A great story sets up its premises early on, then builds on them and deepens them, until finally you reach some kind of crisis. Going back to the topic of movies, I’ve been amazed by how many movies I’ve seen lately where the first 20 or 30 minutes are compelling and fascinating (the “first act”) and then what follows is a dull morass. It’s like the “building and deepening” part of the recipe just got thrown out.
It’s so easy to skip over a crucial step in character development, or just to leave out the little emotional touches that make a character work. As a general rule, big dramatic moments are no substitute for small, keenly observed moments, when it comes to making characters feel emotionally grounded and real.
Characters don’t have to be lovable, but they do have to be consistent and have a clear progression. Even characters we’re supposed to hate need consistency and a feeling of moving from A to B.
And chasms in the logic of your story are also very easy to miss. Sometimes, something happens that makes no sense in the context of your world as you’ve established it. Or your characters make decisions that are illogical to the point of idiocy. Stupid, self-destructive characters are notoriously hard to care about.
It’s also very easy to lean too hard on a particular character trait, until it becomes a defining trait for that character—even though you didn’t intend it that way. As I’ve learned in journalism, if something happens two or three times, it’s a Trend. So you only need to see a character do something a couple of times before it becomes, “This character is always doing that thing.”
We’ve all seen or read stories that have all the ingredients for greatness, in more or less the right order, but they just kind of fall apart. Often, it’s just a matter of having let the crucial elements of the story slip out of focus here and there, or making choices that have a huge knock-on effect later on. You start out asking one question, and then through a series of stumbles and false moves, you end up answering a completely different, often less interesting, question. (I really think that’s at the root of why so many stories fail: They don’t honor the premises and questions they set up in their beginnings. Often, this is just due to narrative slippage, which in turn is due to just tiny lapses in judgment or attention.)
A story is the sum of a million tiny creative choices, and they all make sense at the time you’re making them. But sometimes it just takes a few of those choices to be out of wack, and you end up with a bloody awful mess. This is one reason why it’s so important to get critiques and feedback on your work, over and over. But it’s also a reason why attention (and intention) are so important—the more aware you are of the inner lives of your characters, and the inner workings of your world, the likelier you are to arrive at the place you set out for. But it’s still a goddamn miracle when any of this works.