…Is often very, very small. And yet it could be the absolutely biggest thing you need to know:
by Charlie Jane Anders
Hollywood people often say that it’s a miracle there are any good movies at all. Because so much can go wrong, and so many random things have to go right, for a movie to avoid being a hopeless disaster. I can believe this, because in general the difference between the good and bad versions of the same story is often razor-thin.
This is kind of a depressing thing to realize, because you would kind of hope that it would be easy to tell if a story is going to work or not. Like, either your soufflé rose or it didn’t, right? And you ought to be able to tell if a story is “clicking” or if it’s just kind of a mess, because the pieces either fit together neatly or they don’t.
For sure, part of becoming a successful writer or creator is developing a really good sense of when your own work isn’t hitting its potential. This is something you get through a lot of trial and error, by throwing yourself at the wall 100 times until you learn to see the wall coming. I wrote 100 awful short stories until I learned how to write a pretty good one.
But also, writers are really good at spinning bullshit and convincing you that their made-up story actually happened—and that means that bullshitting yourself is an occupational hazard. It’s easy to bullshit yourself that you’ve made two pieces fit together when there’s actually a really awkward gap.
And this is the part that drives me nuts, both as an aspiring creative writer and as a consumer of media: It doesn’t take much to make a story totally fall apart. I mean, most stories can survive having the occasional dumb scene or the occasional cringe-worthy moment. But a story relies on the readers (or audience) choosing to go along for the ride, and the moment you’re not creating a ride worth going on, they’re gone.
It’s easy to see why telling stories and casting magic spells are so often compared or conflated in fantasy stories—because telling a good story is very much like casting a spell. You’re creating another reality and trying to immerse people in it, and you’re hoping to make it so compelling that people “forget” it’s not real. (Almost like a trance.)
On top of this sense of total immersion, you want people to become emotionally attached to your characters and not want them to die horribly. As Dorothy J. Heydt famously said, the eight deadliest words for any work of fiction are, “I don’t care what happens to these people.”
And that’s where the differences between a successful and an unsuccessful story often become vanishingly tiny….