The Most Dreaded Word in My Writing Life

Nope, it’s not “rejection”.

Many moons ago, in a college short story writing class, the professor very kindly handed me back the story I’d written and told me, “It’s not a complete story. It’s a vignette.”

This means, of course, that it lacked a full story arc.

Ever since then, when I start a new story, the evil vignette  has taunted me. Lots of books, classes etc., go into remedies for completing a story arc. Some of them get very technical about seven point story structures and Hero’s Journeys.

Someday I hope to find the parallel universe where I will embrace such a disciplined approach. Meanwhile, in this reality, I have a short attention span. I get hives when methods for creating magic start sounding like instructions for installing a faucet.

I still like the way that long-ago teacher explained why a vignette is not a story. She told us, “A vignette describes a situation and introduces characters, but nothing changes.”

OK, the word “journey” does come in handy.

I know the word “journey” is overused in writing parlance, but I find it helpful, as long as it doesn’t require a master’s degree in Classics to explore the concept. (This won’t.)

Here’s my understanding of this. If a story describes only action—say, a huge battle is planned, fought, and won or lost—external things have changed. But most readers want more: they want to know about internal change, too.

It’s the protagonist’s journey that creates an arc. What does she realize? How do her feelings change? How do her actions reflect this? What profound difference do we detect in her at the end of the story?

If your protagonist whisks a ship full of evil aliens into another dimension and saves everyone on the planet, that’s cool. But readers are going to want to know how this alters the way she experiences her life or her perception.

Change can be small.

One interesting thing I learned about this change is that it can be very small, as long as it is clear to the reader and resonant in a universal way. I find it helpful to return to the short story masters for this. Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekhov can’t be beat; with a single word or glance these writers generated emotional tsunamis.

I also find myself drawn to Young Adult literature, both reading it and attempts at writing it.

A good YA story arc, and the main character’s journey, are usually crystal clear, straightforward, and totally cathartic without being maudlin. For YA novels that illustrate this, I love The Hunger Games trilogy, of course; Cured, by Melissa Dickerson (whom I found here on LSQ), and anything by Gabrielle Zevin.

YA is especially refreshing after I’ve forced myself to read a bunch of critically acclaimed “literary” stories that leave me scratching my head and wondering if I’m too simple-minded for this writing thing.

Get help.

You write the last word of a story and feel like this is the breakthrough piece. Finally! Dig out that “A-list” submission file. I think that feeling is important. If you are deeply moved by telling your story, chances are that others will be moved by reading it.

But obviously it is hard to critique your own work. And though it sounds simple, I often find it difficult to identify a vignette. I think that once I’m invested in characters I’ve created and the situation I’ve put them in, I’m resistant to the idea that in this story-that-is-not-a-story, nothing really changes.

A critique group, class, or writing buddies can be essential to helping us establish a true beginning, middle, and end to a story. An offhand question about a protagonist’s motive or backstory (or a gentle exhortation to “For gods’ sakes please do something about that crappy ending”) can be the key that pushes a writer into closing the loop…and turning a vignette into a fabulous story.

Note: I’d like to thank the friends, family, and other readers who have given me feedback after reading my posts. I’ve enjoyed the conversation and learned a lot. For example, my ignorance about all matters Hogwarts caused me to ignore Hermione in my search for intentional women time travelers. I stand happily corrected.