I had a brilliant – if extremely crotchety and outright mean – creative writing professor in college. Of all the things he taught me, by far the most valuable is this:
“Event” does not equal “story.”
Let me explain. The other day, I critiqued a short story about a drug addict. In it, the main character’s life was threatened by a drug lord for money he owed… then he walked around town and did some drugs and other stuff… and then he came back without the money and got shot. End of story.
Confused, I told the author I felt I was missing the point. Her response was that there was no point. It was simply “slice of life.”
So I pose the question: if you knew before reading something that it would have no point, would you want to read it? No, not if the theme was “there’s no point [in life].” If there was literally no point to the story. No tension, no character development. Just a guy being told he’s going to die, walking around town, and then dying.
Would you read that?
It seemed to me that this writer felt her story would be carried by the intensity of the ultimatum, the drug trip, and the gun-to-the-head. But these are only events. Nobody cares about events. Readers care about story. About characters and their development, about struggle and triumph, about universal human problems and emotions. You can have something crazy happen in your story – an ultimatum or a death – but no one will care unless you make it matter. If all your character does in response to an ultimatum is act like nothing’s amiss, then that ultimatum, however impressive in itself, means nothing. If the shot to the head has no meaning, why bother?
Imagine you read a paragraph where a man named Tom is swarmed by owls (weirdly, inside his own home). The event of the owl-swarming seems inherently interesting, but is it? Do you care about this scene? We don’t know Tom and we don’t see his reaction. We don’t know why this is happening. It’s weird, but all the good bits are left out.
Now imagine the scene from The Sorcerer’s Stone where Vernon Dursley is being swarmed by owls as they try to deliver a letter to Harry. Vernon is flapping and shouting and red-faced. It’s hilarious, in part because the event is piggybacking off what we know about prim, proper Vernon. And we’re on the edge of our seats, too, hoping one of the letters reaches Harry. This event has therefore become story. We are officially interested.
Let’s return, once more, to our drug addict. What if he got the ultimatum, and tried to escape his death? What goes through his mind when he fails? What would it mean if he said goodbye to his mother and accepted his fate? Why does he get high? Why does he go back to get shot in the head, willingly? We aren’t interested in the drugs and the shooting – we’re interested in the addict. So tell us his story, why dontcha?