1. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    How overt do you like a story to be?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Steerpike, Aug 8, 2016.

    In general terms, my short story is about a girl who is passive and always goes along with her sister, even when she doesn't believe in what her sister is doing, or when it could lead to harm. But she rationalizes this, and believes deep down that if it really came down to it, for something very important, she could stand up to her sister. The resolution of the story comes when she realizes, and finally admits to herself, that she can't stand up to her sister and never will be able to.

    My initial version, a lot of this is subtext. The reader is meant to piece this together and realize the significance of it vis a vis the character. I had someone read it, and he thought it was unclear. He didn't pick up on this transformation of the sister as being important.

    I tried revising, and basically presented the information more forcefully via internal monologue. The younger sister (the POV character) is presenting her state of mind more clearly in this way. Problem is, I think it's too forced. It's not as bad as "Now she realized she'd never be able to stand up to her sister and she'd only been fooling herself," but it's in the cab and on its way to that ballpark.

    What do you lot prefer when it comes to this sort of thing? Leave it for the perceptive reader to make the connection, or make the point of the story more overt?
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2016
  2. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    Hi Steer,

    Do you have a moment where she sets out to TRY to stand up to her sister, but then realizes later that she can't?

    The general plot structure for most stories is about like this:

    20% character sets their goal, sees the light, or starts off on their "journey" whatever that may be. Point of no return.
    33% first significant challenge or reminder of what's at stake if they fail
    50% midpoint - character goes from being on a reactive/defensive mode, to being in charge with a plan
    62-66% another challenge - kind of like the one at the 1/3 point, but where the stakes are amped up or the loss is more serious
    75-80% beginning of the point where things are heading to the climax

    So with yours, it sounds like the climax point is where she has the moment leading her to realize that Big Sis holds the reins and always will. She sets out with the intention of finally standing up to her, but in the end, ultimately realizes she can't.

    Do you have other points leading up to this? Perhaps a moment where she has a glimpse of what she's losing by doing this--for example, we could see how Big Sis's manipulation has already destroyed someone else's life or caused them to hold back from following their own dreams, and it's a somber reminder that this could be in store for MC too (this could be a good "second pinch point"). Or, maybe the midway point could be where she realizes that she has to break away from Big Sis's control and start thinking for herself, so we see that that's what she deep down wants, even though she lacks the courage to fight for it.

    Also, how serious of a story is this? Is it a children's book about little kids where the one sister always lets the other "get her way" (on things like what game to play at the park or what movie to see), or is it a more serious or tragic story where one [adult] sister has a narcissistic personality or other negative persona and wants to somehow halt the sister from being her own person?

    And what are the costs of the sister who can't follow her own path? What is she giving up, or giving into, by letting Big Sis push all the buttons?

    I think a good "pinch point" type scene (maybe around 33%) would be to see what happens if she DOES assert "disobedience" (or try to) against Big Sis, even if it's accidental. So if she votes for a candidate who Big Sis doesn't like, what's the fallout? Silent treatment? Big Sis coming to sabatoge her life as revenge? What?

    And what causes Little Sis to allow herself to be controlled by it, instead of telling Big Sis to go get bent? Ultimately, no matter how nasty or controlling a person may be, if you're not their under-18 child or dependent on them financially, they cannot control your choices. They can scream and shout and pout all they want, but a mentally strong person would just tell them off or ignore them or if it's really bad, just cut them out of their life. So why doesn't Little Sis?

    If Little Sis submits to a life she doesn't want in order to appease Big Sis or because she's afraid of a fallout, it's ultimately her own fault for not seizing the reins herself.
     
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  3. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Did you have another person read the original copy to see if it made sense to him/her? It might a subtext issue, but it might instead be a sample size of one issue. Even if you know this reader fits into your intended audience, the sample size might be something to consider.

    Onto your actual question, I prefer stories where there is some of both--I can get a good amount out of the story even if I miss some of the subtext, but the subtext is still there if I feel like digging around in it. In my decidedly amateur opinion, you can be a bit more forceful in helping us understand what she's feeling/thinking and a bit less forceful in helping us understand why she's feeling/thinking those things.
     
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  4. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is a good topic.

    Based on my experiences, if you want a lot people to "get it" you really do have to hit the nail on the head. More perceptive people might apprecciate your work less if you do this, but others who wouldn't otherwise get it, will.
     
  5. ddavidv
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    ddavidv Contributing Member

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    Ben makes a point that sprang to my mind: it may be just your reader. Not everyone gets the 'hidden meaning'.

    I think your book needs to work on two levels. The first level is it has to work as a story that just tells something. The second level is the deeper subtext of what the sister eventually realizes.

    I'll use a movie as an example. Steven Spielberg's first film was Duel.* Level One is a simple story; a lone driver in the desert is pursued and toyed with by a unseen man in a semi-truck. Level One is a simple cat-and-mouse game.
    Level Two is harder to see...and it may actually be different for different people. Car driver stuck in the rat race of life is made to feel the value of his life. Good vs Evil. The unseen truck driver may not be a real human. The film can carry different meanings to different people based on their own vision.
    Spielberg stated that the multiple license plates on the front of the truck were to indicate the states where he had previously killed. Nothing in the film alludes to this and I certainly never would have guessed it even after watching it multiple times.
    Remember, some viewers will only ever see a trucker chasing a guy in a car. For them that is the only level to the story.

    *Duel was actually a short story based on a real occurrence experienced by author Richard Matheson.
     
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  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @FireWater

    Thank you for the reply. I should have specified when I wrote my initial post that I'm working on a short story. I think some of the ideas about structure that you mentioned nevertheless apply. Thus far, the story doesn't have the little sister actively attempting to oppose her sister and being shot down. She's dissatisfied with always being the passive or submissive one, and she disagrees with her sister's action, so she's trying over the story to build herself up to the point of opposing the older sister, and rationalizing why she doesn't, but it all collapses in the end.

    The older sister was initially my POV character, but I think it works better from the little sister's POV. Writing the older sister is interesting. Both sisters love each other, but the older one is on a destructive path, but it's one she considers the right path, and that she ultimately thinks will be best for them both.

    Maybe you're right about exploring more of why the younger sister is unable to stand up to the older one. As it stands now, it's just that she's always been passive, deferential, and avoids conflict with the older sister. In the story, she's trying to convince herself that she's done being that way, but instead of prevailing over her own nature, she realizes that she can't. The sisters are on the cusp of adulthood, so between their ages and the events of the story I view this as the little sister's real opportunity to establish her own identity and become an independent adult.

    I like the idea of her working her way up to an actual disobedience early on and suffering some consequence from her sister. That's something to think about. So far, the conflict regarding standing up to the sister has been almost all internal.
     
  7. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    No, just the one person read the original. Usually, I get pretty good feedback from this person, but the story types are usually different as well.

    Good idea about focusing more on her actual feelings and less on the why of them, letting the reader draw conclusions there. The character herself may not be entirely sure why she feels the way she does.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    What do you think about leaving some of it open to interpretation? I'd like people to get the general point about the little sister giving in, and that she's going to be subject to her sister for the foreseeable future. But I'd like the reader to have plenty of room to interpret aspects of the story differently.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Interesting about the film. I haven't seen that one. I like Spielberg and Matheson, so I'll have to check it out.

    I think I've got the first level working pretty well. The events of the story are told in a clear, if not entirely linear, manner. But since the little sister gives in at the end, I wanted the reader to get at some of the why of it. Particularly since what the older sister is doing isn't exactly "good." I would like the reader to sympathize with the younger sister even though she's basically giving in at the end, or failing to do what she thinks is the right thing.
     
  10. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is tricky. I'm not good at picking up on subtle clues or subtext, but I hate to feel patronised by being spoon-fed.

    My instinct says I would make it obvious that the protagonist can't stand up to her sister through action - showing her backing down over something that's important to her - but have her internal monologue contradict it. Basically, show that she's in denial. I think this allows an author to make things much more overt without the reader feeling patronised.

    But in your shoes, I'd get at least two more readers on it and see if they all agree. I've had 15 people read the same book and found 14 of them got it, and 1 was totally confused.
     
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  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks, @Tenderiser. I think you guys are right on this - on showing some significant earlier event where the little sister tries, and fails, to stand up to her older sister over something important. It's going to add to the length of the short story, but it will be worth. Once I have a draft of that version, I'll get it out to more readers. You guys are right, n=1 is not a good sample.
     
  12. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Those aren't the only two options, but I am for sure leaning toward making a story more overt. If things aren't clear, you really don't have much of a story at all.

    I know people say this all the time and it probably gets annoying, but read more short stories and lots of them. I recommend picking up a copy of the Pushcart Prize. It will give you a real sampling of the short fiction different places are publishing and basically includes the best short stories of the year. Reading more short stories will help you see there are more options and how important clarity is to story. If you want to write short stories at a publishable level, you've got to read at that level too.

    Personally, I'm not a fan of internal monologs. They can be fun to write, but they usually need cut out later. When reading more (or maybe you already read a lot, but this could help others), you don't often come across these internal monologs in short fiction. I won't say never, but it's rarer than you might think. It's better for the story if it's not a large, dense chunk that gives us everything she thinks and feels. Try dispersing all that info throughout the story. It should make the piece more engaging overall.

    Years ago when I wrote my first short story, I gave it to my brother to read. My brother loves me and said it was good, but he didn't really get it. It wasn't that I needed to be overly overt, though, I don't think that's really a bad thing. But I did need to more clarity for this story to work. Clarity is a big part of writing. Things have to be clear and well delivered at a sentence level but also in terms of character development and desires. I thought I had a good story, but I had no idea how to fix it. I read a lot, and I wrote more stories. I say try being as overt as you can in a different story just for practice. Then take that clarity and go back to something like this story.

    It took me writing about 50 more stories until I could go back and fix my first story. Sometimes we get very ambitious with our writing when it takes a little more time for our skill level to catch up. That was the case with me. But maybe you are a more experienced writer and don't need to write 50 more stories to come back to this one the way I did. However, there is only one way I have ever found to deal with a story having clarity issues no matter what level you are at. That is to open a new document and rewrite the story from scratch. That's what I did when I went back to my first story, and it's what I have done for others. If there's a better way to handle these issues, I haven't found it.

    I am a huge fan of subtext. It's just a great tool for writers. However, I think you really want to be clear even with subtext. I went to a class on subtext. It was really interesting. Subtext shouldn't be some sort of puzzle for the reader to figure out, and the same is true for short stories in general. I find subtext works best when it can only mean one thing. Don't give readers something complex to figure out, give them a complex story delivered with finesse where the only thing your readers are going to have to figure out is where they can read more of your stuff.
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2016
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  13. tonguetied
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    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

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    I reread your post a couple of times and now am wondering what exactly you meant by "that ballpark", obviously I am one that would probably miss the second level of your story, only if I read something a few times do some of the hidden nuisances come to light for me. Even the cab is starting to sound like a metaphor. Anyway I would probably think the story should not end that way, giving up on yourself like that, I would expect a new effort of recognition of self to be down the road - or something in that 'ballpark'. Personally I kind of like something that if I reread it I can see new aspects of the story, I may seem dense but really I am just very slow. :)
     
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  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @deadrats we may be defining internal (or interior) monologue differently. I've read a lot of short stories, and they almost all have it (I can't come up with any exceptions offhand, but I won't say "never"). Internal monologue can be direct or indirect. Maybe you're thinking only of direct internal monologue? That aside, I think you're right that another option, in between the two extremes, will be best. I lean toward not explaining, and I want to keep resisting that urge, but of course I want the reader to have a reasonable shot at putting things together.

    @tonguetied I wouldn't rule out the little sister ever breaking free, but my thought on her character is that she was at a key transition point by the end of the story, and failing to break away will dominate her for the foreseeable future. I want the potential turning point to be significant, and the fact that she doesn't break away to therefore also be significant and hard to come back from.
     
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  15. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Why should the reader have to put anything together? That's really not what reading short stories is about. Readers shouldn't just have a reasonable shot at putting things together. You are giving them a story not a quiz. You don't have to make things complicated to be complex.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Why shouldn't they? I disagree with the assertion that this isn't what short stories are about. Many short story writers put the pieces out there and leave it to the reader to connect them. At least, in this is true in the realm of literary fiction. Maybe not so much if you're writing genre stories, but even there I can think of authors who do it. I like to read stories that you have to think about a little bit.
     
  17. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    All I read is literary fiction.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Then we're probably using terms differently, or else reading different authors. Most short story authors I read certainly leaves pieces for the readers to put together, to interpret meaning in what is being related. James Joyce, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, William Trevor, Angela Carter, and so on.
     
  19. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I have read all these authors. They tell stories. They don't give clues for the readers to piece together. All I'm saying is you really need to have that clarity. Someone told you your writing was unclear. Maybe rethink your approach. It seems like you are afraid of being too simple, but that probably isn't going to happen.
     
  20. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I disagree. They do both. Those authors have stories open to interpretation because they aren't explicitly stating the meaning of the story. Carter has a story about a girl breaking free of traditional patriarchal notions of female roles and female sexuality, and doesn't explicitly lay it all out in front of the reader. It's a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood, but the pieces you need, the symbols, actions, etc. are all there for the reader to use to understand what she's saying.

    Maybe you don't see this in those works, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.
     

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