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What do you want from a story?

I've been thinking about that question recently. Partly because of a post Chance made, in which she talks about how important she finds sentence-level writing, and partly because I've been reading the poll-winning collection Stranger Things Happen, and noticing the differences between the kinds of stories that Kelly Link likes to tell and the kinds of stories that I like to read.

Stories offer a lot of different things. Writing, as mentioned. Characters. Plot. Humour. Ideas. Even, in some cases, giant robots. And different types of story balance these elements in different ways, and different types of reader value them differently. I don't often have trouble with sentence level writing. There are exceptions - I find Jon Courtenay Grimwood's prose ugly, for instance, and there are certainly writers I enjoy for their way with language, such as Ian Macleod or Lucius Shepard - but for the most part, the writing is not what impresses me most about a story.

I think there's a reason for this. I'm quite a traditional science fiction fan (I grew up on Asimov), and traditionally, science fiction stories are stories of ideas. To paraphrase the brusque editor from 'A Year In The Linear City': ideally you'd have both, but ideas can get by without style and the reverse just ain't true. Style without substance to back it up is just doodling with words.

Of course, different people have different ideas about what constitutes substance; it's a hard thing to define. To me, it means the story has more than just characters and mood; it means the story is about something. On the other hand, to (say) a horror fan, mood is probably much more important - arguably, the most important thing about a story.

And that's where my problems with some of Kelly Link's stories come in.

Half of the stories here are delights, full of charm and wit and inventiveness; and they are easily enough to make the collection worth reading. 'Travels With The Snow Queen', for example, is a skewed, second-person take on fairy-tale land and the search for a happily ever after that takes a vicious pleasure in undercutting reader assumptions at every turn. 'Flying Lessons' is another greek-gods-still-live-among-us story (I seem to have read a higher than average number of those recently), but somehow, miraculously, it's one that doesn't leave the uneducated reader (i.e. me) feeling that they're missing half the joke. I've no doubt that it works even better if you do have a classical background - the references that I can pick up are enough to assure me of that - but simply as a story, in itself, as an intrusion of myth into the modern world, it works wonderfully well.

'Vanishing Act' describes exactly what it claims to: the process of vanishing. An easy comparison is with Buffy's 'Invisible Girl'. The central themes of isolation and loneliness are the same in both cases, and although the execution is very different, both are strong examples of metaphorical sf. And then there's 'The Girl Detective', my favourite story in the book. It tells a fun, pointed story, halfway between pop culture and myth, in kaleidoscope fashion: a series of incidents and digressions, darting back and forth in viewpoint and time, that combine to form a picture greater than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, I didn't find all the stories in the collection as enjoyable. In fact, several of them had me grinding my teeth in frustration. Too often they felt self-indulgent and undisciplined.

'Shoe and Marriage', for instance, isn't really a story at all; it's four vignettes that are connected only by, well, shoes and marriages. All four have the air of tales half-told, and they do not fit together in the way that makes 'The Girl Detective' so satisfying. The strongest is the first, in which Prince Charming (never named) wonders about the girl whose foot would have fit the glass slipper - the girl he never found, because he fell in love elsewhere. The weakest is the last, in which a new couple visit a fortune-teller who reads the soles of shoes like others would read palms; it's explicitly titled as 'a happy ending', but veered too far into sentiment for my tastes.

I was also disappointed by 'Like Water Off A Black Dog's Back'. The central story is that of the relationship between Carroll and Rachel, characterised by Rachel's reluctance to reveal too much about herself or her family. This is understandable, as it turns out, since her family seem to attract misfortune: they lose things. Her father lost his nose, her mother lost her leg. Both have prosthetic replacements. But the story never seems to go anywhere - nothing is really resolved. It's a portrait of a relationship, and an effective one, but really no more than that.

Perhaps this is to do with the nature of endings. Kelly Link writes, effectively, mimetic stories that happen in a speculative context. Putting it another way, the landscape may be fabulous and weird, but the development and resolution of the story is centred entirely on the characters. Any fantastical or magical elements may reflect on their predicament, may illuminate it, but they are not necessarily developed in any way. They are not necessarily involved in the resolution of the story in the same way as they would be in, say, a Ted Chiang story.

A good example of this is the most science-fictional tale in the collection. 'Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water' is the story in which blond alien women invade New York, but that's not what the story is about. Rather, the story is about a brunette woman who is friends with (and possibly secretly in love with) the man who lives in New York and discovers that blond alien women are invading. So the invasion never really goes anywhere; we only hear about it second-hand. It's a symbol, not an event. As a result the story, though entertaining, was too slight for my taste.

Maybe this could be characterised more precisely as the difference between narrative and emotional endings - endings that resolve the plot, or endings that resolve the characters. The most satisfying stories, for me, are those that have both, but I value the former over the latter. I can and do enjoy transformative endings, such as that of 'Flying Lessons', that don't strictly resolve the narrative; but those that merely invoke vague mystery, such as that of 'Water Off A Black Dog's Back', seem less interesting. And when a story like 'Shoe and Marriage' has neither, I find it very hard to care, however elegant the prose, however developed the characters. And I get frustrated, because it seems such a waste of that prose and those characters to not do anything with them.

So. I certainly recommend the collection; I just don't do so unreservedly. And I ask again, because I want to know: what do you want from a story?
 
 
 
 
 
 
I want character most of all. But I want stuff to happen to them. I hate "slice of life" type presentations.

Tobes is currently struggling with "The Scar". He likes China Mieville's world and characters and ideas but he feels that after 300 pages they should have *done* a bit more. I'm reading "The Speed of Dark". The protagonist is interesting, the ideas being explored are as well. The simplistic writing works for the viewpoint character, but it fails horribly when we switch POV and I find it jarring. Everyone speaks the same way, the language just doesn't feel mature thought I can't identify what it is that's failing.

I can't tell you what I want out of a story. I want to enjoy it but different things make me do that. I like being surprised by enjoying things I didn't know I would but I hate the number of misses I go through to get those hits.

Alexei Sayle's "Barcelona Plates" is a collection of short stories and the first one (the one the collection is named after) is fantastic with an interesting and unexpected conclusion. But beyond that I stopped reading halfway through the collection because it was the same mood, the same cynical view of the world coming from a variety of characters who paraded past and told me how much life sucks. I suppose I want variety.
I want character most of all. But I want stuff to happen to them. I hate "slice of life" type presentations.

Mm. This is, rightly or wrongly, my perception of mainstream short fiction - that it's almost all slice of life stuff. Geneva lent me some Annie Proulx and Michel Faber a while back to test this theory. I really should get around to reading them.

I can't tell you what I want out of a story. I want to enjoy it but different things make me do that.

Very true - I can enjoy stories for different reasons. It would have been more accurate to say that the thing I want most is the idea.

But beyond that I stopped reading halfway through the collection because it was the same mood, the same cynical view of the world coming from a variety of characters who paraded past and told me how much life sucks. I suppose I want variety.

I felt some of that with Stranger Things Happen. Even the very good stories were a little samey in their style and outlook. But then, there's no law saying I had to read the book in 24 hours - I might have been better off dipping in and out of it over a couple of weeks.
I can't read most modern fiction, but I think Michel Faber is superb. I think his stories are generally quite eventful, in a quiet way. Try his short novel 'Under the Skin' which is science fiction anyway.
If I'm reading science fiction then I'll tolerate stories which don't have much in the way of characterisation. When reading fantasy I won't. Of course, the best have that *and* plot *and* good ideas, but fantasy can't get away with it just being about the Idea. Cue for someone to point out a story where it does manage, but I don't think I've ever read one.

I'll also read things purely for the prose on those rare occasions when it's just that good, even if the actual content is something I wouldn't normally read. Doodling with words can be pretty :)

On the flipside, bad prose has to be really very bad to stop me from reading something if I've already started and got past the beginning. Of course, if the beginning is both atrociously written and uninteresting, then the book gets put away :)
If I'm reading science fiction then I'll tolerate stories which don't have much in the way of characterisation. When reading fantasy I won't.

Yeah, this is something I've heard before. I find it interesting, because I can't think of an obvious explanation for it. The only thing I can come up with is that more fantasy books have 'standard furniture'; the elves, dwarves, medieval kingdoms aspect of it all. It's more common for fantasy books to use existing ideas to illuminate new characters.

That's quite odd when you think about it. For one thing, science fiction has plenty of furniture of its own, particularly in space opera. For another, in principle there's a broader range of ideas available to fantasy than to science fiction, since fantasy isn't constrained by reality in any way. But it's the best I can come up with.

Of course, the best have that *and* plot *and* good ideas, but fantasy can't get away with it just being about the Idea. Cue for someone to point out a story where it does manage, but I don't think I've ever read one.

Some of Ted Chiang's stuff is described as 'hard fantasy', in that it takes a fantasy idea - angelic visitations, for instance - and treats it in a hard sf manner. But with Chiang there are characters and plot as well, so it doesn't fit your criteria, really.

I'll also read things purely for the prose on those rare occasions when it's just that good, even if the actual content is something I wouldn't normally read. Doodling with words can be pretty :)

Good writing can save, or elevate, an old idea. Quite a few of Ian Macleod's short stories are like this. Something like 'Verglas', in which a man has to decide to follow his family in transferring his conciousness to a native alien animal - the idea isn't new, but the execution makes the story memorable.
I'll also read things purely for the prose on those rare occasions when it's just that good, even if the actual content is something I wouldn't normally read. Doodling with words can be pretty :)

It can be at that, yes. It's what makes Neil Gaiman's less inspired and interesting works still very much worth the read, for example.

On the flipside, bad prose has to be really very bad to stop me from reading something if I've already started and got past the beginning. Of course, if the beginning is both atrociously written and uninteresting, then the book gets put away :)

See, this is why I quit reading Stephen Donaldson's stuff. 'The Gap' was merely offensive, dull, not terribly well executed space opera with awful characterisation, but the "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" were so crap on all levels that 'Lord Foul's Bane' remains the single book I've ever started that I didn't finish.
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This probably comes down to my need to identify with a character again.

Do you need to identify, or just to understand? If the characters are unlikeable but for good reasons, is that enough?

Incidentally, can I borrow your book?

Well, Geneva was first in the queue, but since she's away at the moment...sure. As long as you don't take too long. ;-)

some of those stories sound interesting.

Not just 'Vanishing Act', then? :)

(Actually, I did think there were things about the book you'd like.)
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As long as the sentence level writing is of a competent level, with no repeated, distracting errors, I do not need it to be perfect. However, if a story is slight, but the writing itself is gorgeous, I will simply revel in the flow of the piece. One comparison might be a movie with little plot but stunning cinematography.

Character does win out over plot, but not to extremes. I don't want to read stories where the character self-indulgently rambles all the time, but I'm not too fond of characters that seem little more than emotionless robots to serve some high-falutin' premise. The best kind would be where the plot and character strongly affect each other. The plot drives the characters forward, and the characters drive the plot forward, with any premise/theme key in both.

I can't, however, emotionally connect without strong characterisation. A book may have intriguing ideas, but that doesn't make it re-readable for me.

I don't need humour to make a book, though something completely depressing is not my cup of tea. I can forgive a lot to do with character and plot if a book is incredibly funny, but there won't be anything more than a shallow connection to it.

There are of course, exceptions to this, when the book is just so damned good that my views above are forgotten. That happens very rarely, though.
However, if a story is slight, but the writing itself is gorgeous, I will simply revel in the flow of the piece. One comparison might be a movie with little plot but stunning cinematography.

Good comparison. There are certainly films I appreciate for beauty above anything else, although I can't think of one that wouldn't have been improved by more substance as well.

I think everyone wants their stories to have it all, really, but have different preferences otherwise; which things they can tolerate in lesser amounts.

The plot drives the characters forward, and the characters drive the plot forward, with any premise/theme key in both.

My only problem with some things that get described as 'character driven' is that they don't seem to drive anywhere in particular. There's no framework to understand the characters in. I'm trying to think of an example now, but failing.
I like what you had to say about the collection. It worked for me more than it did for you, but that's partially temperament, and partially way of reading (I'm not sure any short story collection benefits from a 24-hour reading!) But the highlights for me of the book were the same ones you mentioned. I was just more tolerant of the other stories because I liked the variety of the collection, though I, too, dislike slice-of-life mainstream stories. (Luckily, a lot of people seem to be disliking those types of stories these days, and more writers are trying other things.)

I'll be curious to know what you think of Jeff VanderMeer's collection. It's got a wide range of stories, vignettes, fake journalism, etc. -- a lot more variety of storytelling techniques than in the Link collection.

Cheers,
Matt Cheney
Thanks for the comments. What with one thing and another - I'm now partway into Transmission, I've got Adam Roberts' new novel The Snow to review after that, and I'm away next weekend - I'll almost certainly have to read Secret Life over a couple of weeks, rather than in one or two sittings. I think this is a good thing! When I get a review up, I'll let you know.
I like Kelly Link a lot more as a writer that I think I would if I were just a reader. She has a lovely playful nature with words and a really strong voice. She is also ambitious, even when she fails to achieve what she sets out to do. (So some of the stories I think are interesting as a writer, rather than as a reader - like "Water Off the Black Dog's Back" But other's I find fully satisfying like "The Specialist's Hat" and "The Girl Detective." (And some I really didn't care for at all, like "Travels with the Snow Queen."

However, I disagree about the "you can have an idea with out style" Well you can- You simply won't have a very good story in my opinion. It's one of the reason I find many of the golden age writers unreadable with their clunky prose and walking and talking plot points.

(It's also one of the reasons why I really enjoy SF in the short fiction form, and far less often in the novel form. I'll put up with the clunky prose and characters that act simply at the whim of the author (and bear no resemblance to actual humans) for a short period of time if the idea is cool enough.

But in novel length fiction, it makes me want to start yelling at the book and that makes my neighbor's cranky.

What do I want in fiction? I want it all. A compelling plot, characters I care about, writing that sparkles. Yes I know we rarely get that. So I think there is a balance of where I am willing to compromise - as long as you keep me caring. (Though if the characters are in an idiot plot I get really irritated fast.)

And that's where I disagree on the "you can have an idea ..." statement. What you really need is a reason to keep me caring about what is going on. Personally, a way cool SFnal concept isn't going to do the job unless the story is under 5k.
However, I disagree about the "you can have an idea with out style" Well you can- You simply won't have a very good story in my opinion. It's one of the reason I find many of the golden age writers unreadable with their clunky prose and walking and talking plot points.

There's good writing and there's good writing, however. There's writing that you notice for the flair of it; Link's prose is a good example of that. There's also writing that you don't notice. I would cite someone like Greg Egan here. His prose is clean and smart; rarely impressive, but certainly more than competent, and - crucially - well-suited to the task at hand.

I think I'm trying to say that in my view, bad writing is bad writing, but that an absence of style does not in and of itself mean that writing is bad.

But in novel length fiction, it makes me want to start yelling at the book and that makes my neighbor's cranky.

That's fair. It's a situation that's improving, though, although I suppose it depends on your threshold. For instance, SF Novels I Have Read Recently includes Ian McDonald's River of Gods, which I thought quite astonishingly well-written; Tony Ballantyne's Recursion, which had first-novel problems but in general was good, in an elegant way; and Tricia Sullivan's Maul, which is as slick and polished as you could hope for. And all of them, crucially, score highly on the ideas front as well.

And that's where I disagree on the "you can have an idea ..." statement. What you really need is a reason to keep me caring about what is going on. Personally, a way cool SFnal concept isn't going to do the job unless the story is under 5k.

Whereas for me, sometimes it is. If it's way cool. :)
Well, I can't be any more precise than saying that I don't want the ego of the writer getting in the way of the story. I don't want stylistic ego-masturbation, I don't want someone constantly shouting "Look at me, look what I can do, isn't this different!" in my face. That doesn't mean I'm not happy with experimentation and unusual things, but I'd rather have a rehash of something that has been done before than newness for newness' sake and a rickety story framework to hang all this on. People should leave their stylistic excercises in their creative writing classes.
I also don't want whatever Kazuo Ishiguro is willing to give me, cause I think he sucks green monkeydicks. Of my list of most overestimated writers, he is right at the top, even before Charles Dickens. I'm normally a hamster when it comes to books, but his I left in a hotelroom. On purpose.