Great Expectations – No, Not Dickens


A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of having the characters in your stories want something, and about how ‘wanting’ gives shape and direction and a sense of purpose to your story. I’d like to expand on that idea and say that in an even more sweeping sense, the difference between good, publishable fiction and pretty, wandering words that no one cares about is determined by whether or not the writer can create a sense of expectations in the reader and then meet those expectations. ‘Wanting’ is just the simplest way of setting that sense of expectations in motion.

To be blunt, a lack of expectations is the most common reasons that I reject a lot of otherwise serviceable fiction. Most of the submissions I read for InterGalactic Medicine Show have already gone through the hands of at least two, and up to as many as four assistant editors, so there are no painfully terrible stories left in the pile by time it reaches me. But time after time what I do find is wonderful prose with no sense of purpose. Without that sense of purpose, fiction is just words wandering aimlessly around the page. No matter how beautifully composed the words may be, if there’s no purpose, there’s no story. A sense of purpose helps the reader to know where to focus, what to pay attention to; what’s important and what’s not. It makes them susceptible to red-herrings. Without it, the reader is drifting through your story aimlessly, hoping for the best. Or more likely, getting bored and losing interest. And that is the kiss of death.

Earlier this week an author I’ve worked with for a long time at IGMS emailed me about a story I rejected a while back, saying that every editor who had seen the story had said nice things about it, but ultimately rejected it, and could I give him an idea of what about his story had turned me off. (Let me say right away that the only reason I replied to his email was because we have a long-standing relationship. Don’t write to editors with this kind of question and expect to get an answer unless you know them very well.) 

My answer to him was this:

“There were other, smaller factors, but the knife in the heart, as far as I’m concerned, was that I was six, eight, maybe more, pages into the story and still didn’t have a sense of what the story was supposed to be about. I didn’t see any great want or need from any of the characters; the story lacked a specific focus and direction. To give you an example of the kind of thing I am looking for, go back to issue four of IGMS, to Eric James Stone’s story, “Tabloid Reporter To The Stars.” You know within the first 500 words that the main character is a disgraced science reporter who through sheer chance has been given an opportunity to redeem himself. A lot of other, fun stuff happens in that story, but at it’s heart, it’s about that character’s quest for redemption. To me, every successful story has to have that kind of engine. And to get back to your story, if it has that kind of driving engine, I didn’t see it, or it didn’t show up soon enough.”

A story’s purpose can be established in a variety of ways. It’s not hard to do; you just need to be intentional about it. One way is the classic mystery structure. Lay a corpse out for all the world to see, let us know who’s responsible for bringing the murderer to justice, and let the fun begin. Simplistic? Yes. But it’s so effective people have been doing for hundred of years and there’s still a market for it.

Another way to approach this is what Orson Scott Card refers to as the M.I.C.E. quotient. It’s detailed in his book, Characters and Viewpoint, (which I highly recommend) but in a nutshell, here’s how it works: M.I.C.E. stand for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event, and each of those terms represent a different kind of story structure.

With each structure, the kind of story you are telling is clearly defined. A Milieu story is any of the fantasy-type stories where the main character gets taken away from his normal life (usually here on Earth) and inserted into a very foreign realm. One of the earliest examples of this kind of story is Gulliver’s Travels. When Gulliver first arrives in either of the strange worlds he ends up in, the immediate question he (and the reader) asks is “Where the heck am I, and how do I get home again?” This question should arise within the first few pages of any short story, or within the first chapter or two of any novel. Once the question is asked, the necessary sense of purpose has been established. Once it is answered, the story is over.

The next kind of story, the Idea story, is one where the driving force behind the story is an idea of some sort. The classic mystery structure I talked about earlier is one example of an Idea story. Anything, really, that involves solving a puzzle is an Idea story. The movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is an example of an Idea story that isn’t a murder mystery. Various characters in that movie start having strange experiences and visions, and they all want/need to find out what’s going on. When they finally do understand what’s happening – aliens are visiting Earth – the story is essentially over. Idea explored, story done.

The most common kind of story today is the Character story. Character stories are often blended with other kinds of stories, which is fine as long as the author keeps in mind which is the primary structure, and which is secondary. You can’t start by emphasizing the mystery and end by emphasizing the character’s personal growth; you have to pick one primary and stick with it throughout. Sadly, the Character story has become so prevalent that many people argue that it is the only one worth telling. While I enjoy Character stories very much, I strongly disagree with the idea that it and it alone is worthwhile.

The essence of the Character story is showing the main character in their current life-situation, making it clear that that situation is a difficult or challenging one for them, and then showing their quest to create a new situation. If they succeed, you have the traditional happy ending. If they fail, you have the traditional tragedy. But the key here is to show right away that the way they are living at that moment (the beginning) is intolerable and has to change. That sets everything else in motion.

The last kind of story in the M.I.C.E. quotient is the Event story. This is your basic disaster story. Think Poseidon Adventure. The characters’ world is literally turned upside-down, and the story is about what they have to do to adapt to their new world (or return it to the way it was before the Event), and about who survives the experience and who does not.

All of these structures can be used to establish expectations for the reader, to tell them what kind of story they are going to be reading. But really, these structures still all boil down to one single question, the one I asked several weeks ago, and the one I ask you again now: What does your character want? Whether it’s to know “who done it,” or to know why their world has been turned upside-down, or to know why all the people around them are three inches tall, establishing expectations by making plain the character’s greatest desire is, in my opinion, the single most important thing an author can do in their story. It is, without a doubt, the single greatest reason why I reject stories that are otherwise wonderfully written. The author simply didn’t tell me what to look for.   

I had a long drive to make last week, so I listened to an audio book of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I’ve read the book three or four times and am a big Steinbeck fan, but this time I listened to it in an intentional, studying kind of way. I was already thinking about writing this essay, and wanted to see how Steinbeck handled things.

When I got to the end, I was at first puzzled. I didn’t see anything that fit the points I wanted to make, anything that verified any of the ideas I wanted to prove. Yet at the same time, the whole book was pregnant with anticipation and expectations. It was palpable, but at first I could not find the source. Now, John Steinbeck’s writing is on the moon, and I’m only walking on the beach, barely evolved enough to have come up out of the ocean, but still, there had to be something there, and I had to find it.

Then, several days later, it hit me. It was so simple that at first I completely overlooked it, but there it was. Steinbeck shares his main character’s hopes and dreams with us. Right there in the first chapter, he shows his characters to the reader as George is describing the perfect farm to Lenny, and then shows Lenny echoing almost every word George says: how they are going to get a few dollars together and get a place of their own, a place that these vagrant men can call home. A farm full of animals and vegetables, and personal freedom. That’s a powerful want – a shared want – and it’s repeated several times throughout the book. It’s a dream that even gets shared with other characters. Some scoff. Other are desperate to join in. And everything that happens in the novel is viewed through the filter of whether it helps advance the dream, or is likely to set it back.

Curly is a little runt who is always looking for a fight, but he’s the boss’s son, so fighting with him will lose George and Lenny their jobs, no matter who starts it. That’s a barrier to achieving the dream. The old man, Candy, has a stash of money and nowhere to go, so he wants in on the dream. He’s a non-threatening figure, so the boys take him into their confidence because he gets them closer to their dream. Back and forth the novel goes, and almost everything that happens impacts the dream in some way, whether it’s for good or for ill. In the end, the dream is shattered by events that were, in hindsight, inevitable, and that breaks the heart of every reader who has one.

When Kurt Vonnegut talks about having your characters wanting something as simple as a glass of water, it’s a fine starting point. But opening up your character’s souls and showing us their hopes and dreams is what great literature is made of. Doing so at the beginning of the story tells the reader what to expect. Of course, once you get the ball of yarn rolling properly, pulling all the threads together successfully is another project, requiring a host of other skills. But it is, without a doubt, the place to begin.

*(It’s summer, which means I’m travelling, leaving early Saturday, to return Tues. I’ll respond to all posts as soon as I’m home again. In the mean time, please, chat amongst yourselves.)*


6 comments to Great Expectations – No, Not Dickens

  • Edmund, I’ve studied writing for years, trying to see why some stories work and why some don’t, why some grab me by the throat and why others leave me dangling or, worse, bored. Bait and hook got me close to that understanding, and bait and hook fit nicely into what the character wants/needs/fears. But I still find books, stories, where I am properly baited and hooked, but not involved in the story.

    These lines explain the problem so well. >>Without that sense of purpose, fiction is just words wandering aimlessly around the page. No matter how beautifully composed the words may be, if there’s no purpose, there’s no story.

    Spot on!

  • Just to underline, italicize, and boldface a point both you and Faith have made quite well — if you take all the advice offered here at MW and create a checklist of what you need in a story, you still won’t get a great story if there’s no point to it all. Great characters, great plots, great words all have to add up to something more than the sum of the parts — otherwise, you’re just spinning wheels.

  • Young_Writer

    That’s why I do three pages of character sketches for my main characters. As you’ve all said, what’s a story without a goal, without wanting? Otherwise, you just have a bunch if purple prose dancing across the page.
    I think revenge is a powerful force. It’ll drive characters to do things they wouldn’t do under normal circumstances.

  • When I’m reading a submission I always look to see if the stakes are high enough. The ‘goal’ is not necessarily saving the world, but it needs to feel like that to the character.

  • EricJamesStone

    This is something I didn’t really learn until a few years after writing “Tabloid Reporter to the Stars.” Sometimes I would get it right by accident, like I did in that story, but I didn’t really understand why my characters worked so much better in some stories than in others. I still have trouble with it sometimes, so this is a good reminder.

  • OSC’s description of different story types is very helpful, and something I hadn’t encountered before. Thanks for that. And also for the re-emphasis on showing your characters desires and needs. It really does all boil down to that. Happy travels, my friend.