I was reading over one of my short stories the other day, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.* I knew there was something, but damned if I could see what it was. It had a lot of things I like: love, robots, horrible wrongs being done, sarcasm. The characters did stuff. Things happened.** There were no explosions, but, hey, explosions aren’t right for every situation.***
It wasn’t until I was watching Catching Fire that I figured it out. Watching that movie is like having a Tension Beast wrap its claw-covered paws around your guts and squeeze: OHGODTHISISHORRIBLE….Oh, but things are okay for a bit….ANDNOWIT’SHORRIBLEAGAIN.**** I don’t know how people eat popcorn during that movie. It confuses my fight-or-flight instincts. I’d probably attack the popcorn bucket.
That’s when I realized what was wrong with my story: there were no stakes. Therefore, there was no tension. Therefore, I was bored titless.*****
Reading it over again, I see the problem bold as brass. It’s an interesting idea, yes, and the characters are fun, and there are interesting things happening, but without a sense that there is something at stake, then it’s just kind of ….meh. And nowhere in the story do you ever get the feeling that this needs to be done. The audience needs to know that there are consequences to things not going as planned. Shit will go down. As it is, there’s just a vague feeling that something might happen. Maybe. Or maybe not. The biggest consequence of things not going according to plan is…that things don’t go according to plan.
So I am bored. And if I am bored, editors will definitely be bored.
Without a sense of the stakes—defuse the bomb or the kids die, find a cure or be turned, ask the boy out or remain alone forever—plot becomes an intellectual exercise. The audience needs to realize that there is something to lose here. It doesn’t always have to be a thing, either; it can be losing a relationship, losing a friend, or losing face. But there has to be risk, and it has to be real.
* I do this a lot. And not just with writing: paintings, cookies, sketches, things I’ve knit…they all get the ‘what’s fucked up about this’ stare. Kinda hoping it doesn’t extend to any children I might have.
**You’d think that’d be a given, but I’ve read enough bad literary fiction to know better.
***Just most situations.
****Trying to avoid spoilers here. Take notes, internet.
*****Just learned Scrivener corrects ‘titless’ to ‘titles’. And, man, lot of footnotes today.