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That Certain Something


Here’s the apparent job description for “Writer (fiction)”:
Write engaging, vivid stories about compelling characters in interesting situations, structured effectively, that come to a satisfying and interesting ending.

You would think that would be enough, that if you consistently filled those expectations, you would be set and able to consistently sell your writing. And sometimes it is enough: sometimes that satisfies the need. But maybe you’re doing all those things, and your writing still isn’t consistently selling.

Here’s the kind of rejection you get for work like that: “Dear Writer, Thanks for sending me The Great and True Story of a Girl Scout Assassin, but I’m afraid it’s not for me. It was competently written, but it just didn’t have that certain something I’m looking for that raises it above all the other competently-written stories that cross my desk. I wish you the best of luck in finding another home for it. Sincerely, An Editor You Won’t Be Working With”

This is maddening, because it says “you did a good job, but for some reason it still didn’t make it.” Editors talk about stories not rising above the others, of liking them but not loving them, of them not standing out.

So what makes a story rise above its fellows, inspire love, stand out? The intuitive response would be that it does the things we talked about better. The characters are stronger, the plot is more compelling, the description is more vivid. But usually standing out is going to mean something else, and it’s going to differ from writer to writer and sometimes from story to story. The stories that rise above are not just more competent than the stories that don’t, although more competent is always better.

The stories that rise above have multiple, surprising features that hit people where they live. It’s unlikely that some single addition to your (ideally) already competent fiction is going to make it rise above: instead, one feature toward the beginning might make the reader tentatively fall in love (in a Platonic sense) with the character, while another throughout the novel might be a constant source of stifled laughter, and another …

Well, I’m trying to be specific about something that is general, that arises from the special talents of the individual writer. Instead, let me try to offer a list of some of the kinds of things that can make a novel rise above:

  • An exceptionally vivid setting, like Twain’s Mississippi River town of St. Petersburg or Frank Herbert’s Arrakis
  • A character who is fascinating to watch at his or her work, like Tolkien’s Gandalf or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Frank Abagnale’s self-depiction in Catch Me if You Can
  • An endlessly entertaining voice, like most of Twain’s or Vonnegut’s work
  • An idea that is so rich and fascinating that it helps drive the story and locks the reader in a sense of wonderment that sticks, like Pullman’s daemons or Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde tranformation or Asimov’s Laws
  • Intricate and surprising plotting with secrets and revelations, like Rowling’s entire Harry Potter saga or the movie Identity
  • Painfully important stakes that make the reader desperately sympathetic with the character, like the destruction of the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • A character who inspires an unusual amount of sympathy, like Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Wally Lamb’s Delores in She’s Come Undone
  • A situation that provides wish-fulfillment, like (again) the Harry Potter books or Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can

There are others, probably many others, but I hope those will suffice for examples.

To successfully offer “that certain something”, there are four things you have to do:

  1. Be strongly competent in as many of the aspects of writing as possible. A few good features will not rescue a fatally flawed or badly-executed story.
  2. Employ not one, but multiple “rise above” features, which could be any number of things
  3. Do all of this in a way that only you can do it, writing with a deep sense of passion for your subject
  4. Make choices in your writing that find opportunities in your readership. (Tolkien had to find the concept of the One Ring highly compelling, but if the idea didn’t resonate with so many readers, it wouldn’t have flown.)

I don’t claim to have mastery of rising above, or even that all stories that rise above do so in the ways I’ve talked about. There’s not even always a clear line between great competency and transcendence. But my key point, I hope, will be of some use to you: a good story is all very well, but what features in your writing set that good story ablaze?

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