Story Basics


by Raymond M. Coulombe

In my not too distant past I spent way too much time wading through the slush pile of story submissions. I came back from the experience with a bit of insight on what makes a story bad. Good stories can be good a lot of ways. Bad stories have some things in common.

Of course the easy ones were those where the author had only a passing knowledge of the English language. It does not matter how great your idea is; the editor isn’t going to turn it into passable prose for you. He’s got better things to do, like kill his liver with cheap booze.

Those obviously badly written stories didn’t damage me all that much. First of all, it was easy to throw them in the reject pile halfway through the first paragraph. There’s a certain value in the obviously bad. Very little of my energy got invested in the process. There were even times a horribly written story amused me, like a bus crash involving clowns, lawyers, politicians, and mayonnaise. Don’t ask.

The worse submissions had an interesting story idea, good characters, snappy dialogue, and well written prose. The author drew me in and made me care. There was a good beginning, decent middle, but somehow the end eluded the author. Ah hell. A story needs a beginning, middle and an END. The best gymnast in the world won’t get a medal if they can’t stick the landing.

A number of times I was invested enough in the story to send it back with a request for a freaking end. Once in a great while the story would be rewritten and resubmitted. Sadly, I can only think of one time when the author did a really good job on the ending. He went on to publish a number of books, so I’m glad I bothered -in that one single solitary instance.

One final thing: don’t make your main character a completely horrible person. Character flaws are fine. They can help drive the story. However, if you make your main character a total jerk with no redeeming qualities, no one will care what happens to him. By extension, they also won’t care about your story.

Just a few hints from a slush pile survivor.

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