I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately. As an aspiring author, one of the things I’ve been trying to pay attention to are what the properties are of the stories I end up enjoying. And, just as important, what are the properties of the stories I don’t enjoy, particularly the ones I end up abandoning.
After probably about a hundred or so of these stories, I think I’ve figured out a crucial element that is missing in many of the stinkers. It’s one that is easier for a short story to omit since its absence in a longer work would be much starker.
It’s often said that a story requires a conflict, that without that conflict, there is in fact no story. But I don’t think that’s quite right, particularly after having read many books on writing. The required ingredient is more fundamental. Rather than a conflict, what every story needs is a question. Seeking the answer to the question is why the reader cares about what is happening. Without it, the story is little more than just a chronicle of events rather than a cohesive story.
Often the question is, “Who will prevail in this conflict?” but not always. For instance, in a romance, the main question might be something like, “Will these two characters get together?” In a murder mystery the question is, “Who is the murderer?” In science fiction, the central question can sometimes be, “What is the nature of the world?”
In a long work, there will likely be several questions, but there’s usually one overarching one that the the lion share of the story is about answering. For instance, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the question is, “Will Frodo succeed in keeping the ring away from Sauron long enough to destroy it?” In the original Star Wars movie, the question is, “Will the rebels get the Death Star plans and be able to exploit them?” In the Lost TV series, the question is, “What is the nature of this crazy island?” All of these works have lots of subsidiary and concomitant questions, but the main ones hang throughout.
In longer works, it’s often possible to ask a question, and answer it at some point in the story, but in a way that asks another burning question, so that the story can be a chain of related questions. Indeed, even in a work with one overarching question, each scene is often a subsidiary question followed by an answer that implies another question, leading to the next scene. (Which makes sense since scenes are essentially mini-stories in and of themselves.)
But in a short story, there’s usually only time to ask and answer one question. And it needs to be asked, explicitly or implicitly, early in the story. In a novel, the author might be able to take two or three chapters to get around to it. In a novelette, it needs to happen in the first few pages. But in a short story, it usually helps to have it happen in the opening paragraphs.
And here I think is where I see a difference between the shorts I’m enjoying and the ones I’m finding problematic. The ones I enjoy ask their question early, and spend the rest of the story answering it, often in an unexpected way. I know fairly early what the story is about, and it eventually comes to some definitive answer, albeit not always a happy one.
Many of the ones I don’t enjoy never get around to asking a question. Often, the de facto question becomes, “What is going on?” The whole purpose of the story is to leave the reader in a state of confusion until the end, where enough clues might have been dropped that we can deduce what is happening. More often than not, I find the answer in the “What is going on?” stories to be lame. And that’s when an answer is given; too often, no answer is offered, or the answer is so subtle that it’s easily missed.
This isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” story can’t work. But if that’s the sole question, at least for me, it has maybe 1000 words before I start to lose patience with it. If it’s going to be longer than that, the writer has an extra burden to find another way to to keep me interested while I’m waiting for the big reveal. (In other words, to ask and answer other interesting questions.) And if there is no big reveal, if the story is only there to confuse me and make me feel unsettled and lost, I’ll feel robbed.
It also isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” question in the early part of a story is bad. Sometimes it just takes some setup for us to become aware of the story’s main question, although again, I think there’s a time limit on this, which for me is probably along the 1000 words I mentioned above, at least for short stories.
Of course, some stories ask a question and then never answer it. I’m actually a bit surprised by how many of these there are. But at least these stories are compelling while they’re being read, even if they never deliver. (Although, again, I usually feel robbed when this happens.)
At least, this is what I think after a couple of months of intense story reading. I might feel differently after another couple of months? What do you think? Is the question as crucial as I’m thinking it is? Or am I completely on the wrong tract here?