Thursday, March 08, 2018

A series of events is not a story

Sometimes it's useful to analyze why a book doesn't work for you.  I recently read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.  It's the story of a family in Kabul during the takeover by the Taliban.  They had to find a way to support themselves when women were no longer allowed to work outside the home, travel without a male family member, let alone negotiate with suppliers or customers who were men.

In other words, a pretty interesting story, right?  Yes indeed. I bought the book, and read it all the way through. There was nothing overtly wrong; it wasn't a bad book that made me cranky to read,  but at the end I felt emotionally unsatisfied.  Why?

First, and this makes sense, the author did not flesh out the Taliban as a true antagonist. She's writing about real people who still live in Afghanistan, and the political situation there is still unstable. Making the Taliban the villain in the piece could have repercussions none of us want.

While the villain doesn't have to be a criminal mastermind like Snidely Whiplash, there must be a sense of the force that is thwarting the protagonist's goals.  And the protagonist has to recognize the antagonist as the antagonist. That's one of the key elements missing here. 

Without an antagonist, there's nothing at stake.  Which is ironic in that this entire family's life was at stake for most of the book. Knowing it intellectually is not the same as feeling it during the story.

Second, the main character doesn't change. I think this is due to the fact that the writer came to the story long after the events happened. She didn't know the family in 1995; she's starting her interviews in 2005. Thus, she's meeting everyone after the events in the book, and maybe didn't know to ask what the family was like before these life-altering events occurred.

And finally because there's no villain, and the characters don't change, there's rise and fall, no tension to the book. It's just a series of events. Interesting events, but at no time was I on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next.  I didn't put the book down with a sigh that it was over.

I see a lot of queries for memoir that start out "I've had an interesting life." Well, it doesn't get much more interesting than fighting for your family's survival in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and that didn't work as a story.  An interesting life is just the start. What's your story? Who's the villain? What was at stake? How did you change, or how did you effect change in the world? 


Amy Johnson said...

As of ten minutes ago, there is a green sticky note stuck to the bottom left corner of my computer monitor. It says: "Remember there must be 1.stakes antagonist 3.change in characters 4.tension."
And I included a Janetquote from today's post. Each of the four items got an asterisk, which means it's important. And the first thing I wrote on the sticky note is a star, which means the entire contents of the sticky note are really, really important. The note will be a good reminder as I'm writing. Thanks, Janet.

Colin Smith said...

If you're struggling with "series of events" vs "story"--or maybe don't realize you have this problem but know something's not right with your novel--here's a short clip that could change your life.

I don't watch South Park, and don't intend to start. But here, the writers of that show share what they discovered to be the key to writing stories, not just a sequence of events:

South Park Writers Share Their Writing Rule 1

I hope the link works. I'm commenting on my phone (grr) and had to type it out. If it doesn't work, google "South Park writers rule 1."

Unknown said...

When done well, I love books where the antagonist is not a person, but a concept, behavior, or force in the world. Angie Thomas' The Hate You Give has an inciting incident that creates an enemy, but the antagonist is really race and racism. Such an encompassing topic allows every character to respond and grow.

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is another favorite. It's a series of events, but Strout uses Olive's personal shortcomings as her antagonist.

I agree with Janet. When not done well, these types of books can fall really flat.

Colin Smith said...

Argh!! The link has a typo!!! 😠

Here's the correct version:

Donnaeve said...

I love these sorts of reminders. I know I get caught up in a scene and realize I've sometimes wasted words by not keeping Janet's points in sight: "What's your story? Who's the villain? What was at stake? How did you (or protagonist) change, or how did you (or protagonist) effect change in the world?"

Stories ebb and flow, and quiet moments are needed in them, but even the quiet moments should be moving the things forward, or showing how a character is different now than they were then.

A good refresher/reminder for all stories!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am forever asking these questions as I write and revise as most of my early drafts turn out as a series of unfortunate events looking for a story. Some of this rises from my own squeamishness in abusing my characters. However, if your characters have no real obstacles, then there’s not much of a story. Sigh:/

Dena Pawling said...

However, if it's a Series of Unfortunate Events, it can be turned into 13 books, a movie, and a television series.

Especially if your name is Lemony Snicket.

JMacBride said...

As everyone's said, this is a fantastic reminder to check that the basics are there in every scene, and in the overall narrative.

I'm wondering, though, how the author could have improved the antagonist in this story. If the author had designated one specific person -- or a few people -- in the Taliban as antagonist and given a face to the opposing force, would that have been enough? Or is it more complicated than that?

Craig F said...

I have seen this in both overly plotted and overly pantstered books. Either way, it is easy to get lost in details lose sight of the end game, tell a story.

Sometimes I think it is easier to start with a short story than to create a book from whole cloth.

Steve Stubbs said...

Thank you for this post. You discussed this some time ago and it really helped. I spent YEARS trying to figure out why some stories were so damn blah. Other people I talked to could not put their fungers on it (of course I did not want them to unless they washed their hands first.) So that insight of yours was the greatest thing I ever took from your blog.

It is worth saying that MILLIONS of people are banging away on laptops, but almost all of them are writing autobiographies, so they are not in competition with people who are writing fiction. And an account of how boring it was growing up in East Podunk does not satisfy your criteria for a gripping novel.

Mister Furkles said...

I wonder if you need to personalize the villain in a true story. "Ann Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" had the NAZI occupation as villain and I don't recall any being 'characters', but I read it so long ago. Then there is "Mama's Bank Account" aka "I Remember Mama" and "Metamorphosis".

I haven't read "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana", but is it have suspenseful? The MC or MCs must want something or have a problem to solve. If the MC is trying to live under difficult circumcises, is that suspenseful? The Frank family tried to survive the NAZI occupation or escape to an unoccupied country. In "Metamorphosis", Gregor Samsa just don't want to be a cockroach no more.

'I just gotta make it through the day' is not suspenseful. 'We gotta escape this giant volcano' is suspenseful.

Or maybe it just depends on whether the writer is a natural story teller.

When I was a little kid, we sometimes drove up to a hotel on the mountain. The old folk would gather in the lobby in the evening and tell stories. One told about driving down the mountain to the auto service station with failing brakes. The fellow telling it kept everybody's rapt attention. He was a story teller. They all were.

Maybe Gayle Lemmon isn't a story teller. William Manchester's biography of Churchill is a great read because Manchester is a great story teller. Martin Gilbert's "Churchill: A Life" is okay, but not a great read because Gilbert is historian and not a story teller.

What makes one writer a great story teller and another not?

Stacy said...

I just finished Killers of the Flower Moon. While racism and corruption were the real antagonists, they were personified in one of the characters throughout a good deal of the book. Doesn't sound like personification wasn't available for this one. At any rate, highly recommend KOTFM. If you're okay with a somewhat slow beginning build, it reads like a good crime novel.

CynthiaMc said...

In my writing sketch book I have a list of things I like in a novel and things I don't like.

My current commute book (I always keep at least one audiobook on my phone) is boring. I have four days to finish it before the library yanks it back. Usually that sends me into a reading frenzy. I am not frenzied. I may finish it. I may not.

The setting is WWII, not my favorite time period but okay. The time period alone suggested action. Nope. Absolutely nothing is going on. Nothing. One sister throws hissy fits and another whines and gets depressed. I keep yelling at both of them "For the love of God DO SOMETHING!" I'm over halfway through and they haven't done anything yet. I don't think they're going to.

Plenty of people have enjoyed this book. Beautiful writing. Great scene painting. This author has a string of other books people have enjoyed. This is just not my type of book. I'm a Jack Reacher girl. I'd rather bang some heads and blow something up. Wahoo.

Mary said...

That South Park link is brilliant. I'm reading a memoir for a friend and this will really help me explain why it isn't doing it for me. There's a series of events, but no cause and effect--great writing, but nothing that is connected. It is so hard to do for a memoir because you feel like you are beating a dead horse on occasion, and you can't keep that up...e.g. please stop showing why you kept fighting fire even though it meant no man would wait around!, but it has to be subtly woven in.In the genre I just published, plenty of guys have self published their own firefighting stories but each chapter is just "and on this fire, we almost died!" Interesting sometimes, but ultimately--so what did you learn? How did you change? What's the point?

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I love it when Reiders talk about books they found boring or infuriating whose title they don't mention, of course. Then I try to guess which book it is. I'm always tempted to ask for a clue. Like Cynthia's book I'm guessing the author's name starts with K?

Stacy said...

Whoops. Meant doesn't sound like personification WAS available.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, as always!

If I wanted great scene painting, I'd go to an art gallery.

I need plot and a driving curiosity to see where the current plot leads. If it's not leading me anywhere...

LynnRodz said...

I'm a little over halfway through All The Light We Cannot See (sorry Cecilia) a Pulitzer Prize and New York Times #1 bestseller. Many may disagree with me, but I'm having a hard time getting through this book. Yes, we have the Nazi occupation in France as the antagonist, but so far not much has happened. 300 pages in, the young German boy is gearing up to go to the front line and the blind French girl is still waiting for her father's return. Apparently, from reading the back cover, the two shall meet, but until now this has been a series of events. It doesn't even help that I know Saint-Malo quite well.

If the second half becomes more interesting and a story develops after their encounter, then perhaps 150-200 pages could've been eliminated in the editing process. (A good thing for me to keep in mind.)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Lynn:Dang it, I could have easily guessed that one in three words- blind,France,WW2:) I agree with you that the first half was all crickets I had Goldfinch PTSD while reading. But fret not my Facebook friend,the second half is incroyable.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Pardon the wonky punctuation marks, typing from phone

Joseph S. said...


I've never thought of a story in the context of But or Therefore instead of And. It's easy to grasp conceptionally BUT the subtleties of application trip me up. THEREFORE I will give it more thought AND analysis.

Have you evaluated your writings with their Rule in mind. If so, what did you learn?

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This is such a great reminder. And thanks for that link, Colin. That's great advice--and so succinct!

On the subject of antagonists and stakes... don't forget to give your antagonist stakes, too! I think back on my favorite stories, and in all of them, the stakes for the antagonist are JUST AS HIGH as they are for the protagonist.

Jurassic Park: Stakes for the protagonists: Survival. Stakes for the antagonists (Dinosaurs!): Freedom/Survival.

Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney): Stakes for the protag: Losing the love of his life and never gaining freedom. Stakes for the antag: Losing his actual sanity.

You can still have an excellent story with mismatched stakes, but you lean into cartoon villain syndrome realllllly quickly.

This is for personal antagonists, obviously. I don't know what stakes you could give to a volcano (another fav: Dante's Peak).

CynthiaMc said...

Cecilia - I try not to say anything that might hurt someone's feelings. Everyone on Goodreads loved this book. I'm the outlier. I just hope someday I have even half the success this author has. I move fast and I like plots that do too.

Claire Bobrow said...

This post addresses the number one thing I'm focused on right now in terms of my own writing. Close behind it, of course, are #s 2-2,000 of all the other stuff I need to work on :-0
By transcending the "series of events" issue, hopefully heart and emotion are not far behind (fingers and computer keys crossed, anyway!!!)

Colin: thanks for the awesome link. Lynn + Cecilia: I love, love, loved ATLWCS. So many of my all-time favorites got off to a slow start and then became incroyable (as Cecilia said). The Name of the Rose, anyone?

Claire Bobrow said...

Bethany: there's a great breakdown of why Jurassic Park works (compared to its sequels) in a talk given by a guy named Mike Hill. Of course it's just one person's opinion, but he makes a pretty good argument and his analysis is useful for writers, too. If you google "Spielberg's subtext Mike Hill vimeo" it should get you there.

Beth Carpenter said...

Good advice today. Colin, thanks. "Therefore" or "But", not "And Then. Very clear.

Cecilia, had to look up "incroyable." Love adding new words to my vocabulary. Thanks.

Colin Smith said...

Here's the video Claire referenced:

Mike Hill on Why Jurassic Park Works and Jurassic World Doesn't

(I'm working from home this afternoon so I don't have to comment using my phone!!!)

Thanks for sharing that, Claire. It's a really interesting analysis. It might make your head spin, especially if you start thinking, "How on earth do I get all that subtext and allegory and symbolism into my dino porn haiku mystery?" Sensei Stephen King would probably say things like this have a way of working themselves into a good story, and the author may only realize they're there after reading through the first draft. He says this happened to him with CARRIE. Once we recognize the subtexts, etc., we can go back and find ways to strengthen them and make them look intentional. :) But I don't think it hurts for us to think about these things as we write our stories.

Joseph: One of the beta readers for one of my past novels pointed out to me that, while the writing was good and it had some good moments, it didn't grab her because it felt like a sequence of events. At the time, I wasn't sure I understood the criticism, though I agreed something wasn't working. That clip from the South Park writers nailed it. Now I do try to think about how each part of the story, whether it's a novel, a short story, a piece of flash fiction, or even one of my #vss365 Twitter stories, hangs together. Am I just stringing words and sentences on a pretty thread, or does each piece hook together?

Sorry--have keyboard, will vomment. :)

Timothy Lowe said...

I am an admitted omnivore when it comes to reading and enjoying books, but you can't tell me there's any urgency to the first half of The Stranger, and yet it's one of the most captivating things I've ever read. Short, but completely devoid of direction until the second half. Yet utterly compelling. Yes, I'm a bit strange myself, but there are books out there that brilliantly break the mold.

Not that I would ever dare to try emulating them...

Adele said...

"Wild" didn't work for me, and when I am ambivalent about a book I like to figure out why. I realized it did not - to my mind, anyway - have a climax or a resolution that equalled the drama of the beginning of the book. She finished her hike and went home. Later on, her life had changed.

Now, before everybody limbers up their keyboarding fingers and lets me have it - yes, I do know it was a best-seller and has recently been made into a major motion picture. I accept that this book worked for a lot of people, but - if I were an agent I would have passed. And that's why you shouldn't let rejection make you stop submitting.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Cynthia, your comment makes me happy :). Because I am unable to write half a page about how I pour milk into my cereals, watch it spill over and then clean up the mess.
I'm a commercial writer and (still) worried my writing isn't good enough because of that. When all the people, one day maybe, give me one star for my book, you'll be the only one who gives me five, ha ha.
My plot moves fast, like you, but not that beautifully flowery.

What's "vomment"? Translation tool has no idea and says: "Did you mean comment"?

Did you guys make it up (AGAIN 😉). Comment and vomit or so? What does it mean, talk too much??

Colin Smith said...

OneOfUs: Janet's Blog Rule of Thumb: If you see a word that looks made up, check The Blog Glossary first. :)

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I apologize for asking.
I've read it.
Still don't really know.
Doesn't matter.
Move on.

Julie Weathers said...


Have you evaluated your writings with their Rule in mind. If so, what did you learn?

I'm doing that now.

You've read some stuff with both Baron and Lorena my two POV characters. In the problem chapter, a couple of readers have mentioned it feels flat. It's the first time Baron has ever come across that way. The two blue pencils I did with Chris Humphreys were both his scenes and he liked them very much. This time, I fell on my face.

Part of it was me fretting about word count and plopping the reader in the middle of something. I needed to set it up and then do a but lo, what should appear, but disaster...and a magnolia.

I'm just going to have to let it flow organically and see what comes up.

Easy reading is damned hard writing as Nathanial Hawthorne said.

Colin Smith said...

OneOfUs: That's okay. The next Rule of Thumb is, if the glossary doesn't help, then ask! :)

A vomment is a cross between a comment and vomit. It's a comment that is big on volume, but small on content. If someone says they're vommenting, it means they're babbling mindlessly, just filling the comment space with words... like I'm doing now. Ooops. Sorry! :)

Our own dear Ms. Diane Major came up with the term accidentally (it was a typo), and it caught on. :)

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Colin, thanks. I got the typo thing of course ;). Then, the definition/examples were too clever and complicated for someone like me ;), so I gave up on them.

Anonymous said...

The thing about not having an antagonist in the form of an actual person isn't *just* that the story might (not necessarily) be missing stakes and conflict. It's also a problem at the end when there's no one to defeat. You can't "win" against a concept and that lack completely deflates the emotional payoff of genre fiction. (As opposed to literary fiction, where I suspect this might be a feature, not a bug.) This is part of what makes writing a series difficult, because there's usually one overarching Big Bad that's represented by sometimes different people in each story and each of them are defeated in their story, but the underlying/main antagonist survives until the end of the series.

One of Us: Don't ever apologize for asking a question, especially when it comes to our weird lexicon over here. There are still times I'm not quite sure what we're talking about and I've been reading along for quite a while.

Also, I miss Diane and her comments. :( The occasional twitter sighting just isn't the same.

Adele said...

One of Us: TSTL = Too Stupid to Live. Example: The person who lives in a small English village that has had 5 murders in the past 3 days and still decides to take the dog for a walk at midnight. So, basically a character who deserves their sticky end. Usually a character is TSTL either because it's a satire, or due to sloppy writing - the author just didn't bother to think up something more worthy of a reasonable human being.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

kdjames, 😘.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Adele, 😘.
When I wrote TSTL, I meant myself because I didn't quite get my head around the definition/examples/explanations of vomment on the glossary. So I was 'too stupid' ;) (I had gathered TSTL from the other day when it was used here).

Today, I'm just stupid ;), maybe because my dentist numbed a tooth today and got the brain instead, ha ha. Or maybe because they showed me on an x-ray that my former dentist left a piece of their file in it (must have wandered up my brain by now).

Unknown said...

I know we're not supposed to point these out, but one of our comments has an hysterical autocorrect.

LynnRodz said...

Cecilia and Claire, thanks for the heads up, I'll trudge along somewhat less now knowing things will improve.

AJ Blythe said...

Mister Furkles, I don't think I want to know "What makes one writer a great story teller and another not" because I'm scared I won't tick the boxes. Some things are best left unanswered!