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After I had finished making selections for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, I wrote a post discussing some of the recurring patterns in short stories that did not make the cut. And now that selections have been made on two more anthologies (official announcement coming soon!), it seems a good time to expand that list. (I am proud to say that this time, every author did get personalized feedback—which apparently is not common these days.)

Variations of the “And” Plot

In an “And” story, something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens… but each event seems meandering. There is no progression from one episode to the next; and no buildup to a theme’s culmination.

This time around, there were a few subspecies of the “And” plot that deserve special note:

  • Wish Fulfillment: Again, not all wish fulfillment is bad necessarily. Harry Potter begins with wish fulfillment: neglected boy is suddenly told he is special and goes off to wizard school. The danger with a wish-fulfillment plot is when the author gets caught up in all the nice things happening to the protagonist, and avoids providing a real plot or conflict. The author is in danger of shying away from true obstacles, which seemingly get in the way of all the nice things happening to the characters. Done well, wish fulfillment can launch a story and make it cool, or it could even be the culmination of a story—but in between, there had better be serious conflict, drama, opposition, struggle, and in a word, plot.
  • Revenge Fantasy: Strictly speaking, this is a kind of wish-fulfillment story, but with the focus on all the suffering meted out to the protagonist’s enemies. Again, this had better be the culmination of a well-constructed plot, or it will simply be boring and lurid.
  • Passive Characters: In this type of story, the protagonist is basically a bystander. Problems are resolved via Deus ex Machina, as the protagonist stands around impotently and drifts from scene to scene, the better to observe all the exciting things that other people are doing to other people. (This is distinct from a “Watson” viewpoint character, who is not actually the protagonist but serves as a narrative device to observe the real protagonist.)

Nihilism

Yet again, the grimdark emo plot makes an appearance. It seems like many authors believe that fiction ought to be depressing and to reiterate the meaninglessness of life. This often leads to flabby stories in which a series of bad things happen, with no real theme or point.

A useful contrast would be HP Lovecraft. His stories were unrelentingly grim, of course; but they were not truly nihilistic, to my mind. Rather, in the Lovecraft mythos, human experience was approximately trivial in comparison to the vast ancient powers who battled over the cosmos. On some level, meaning still existed; it’s just that humans rarely mattered!

And this does not mean that grim, depressing stories are verboten. But they need to have a point. The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, or Old Yeller were all grim; but the grimness was in service to the story, not its focus.

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So there you have it. The recurring theme of all of these entries is that stories, in my opinion, ought to have conflict over important stakes. The conflict need not be big and pyrotechnic; small vignettes can also be good. But it has to illustrate something that matters. At a time when we have literally millions of books to choose from, a good story needs a reason to demand the reader’s time. Tell a story worth reading.