Whether it’s a breakneck thrilling train ride or a slow scenic tour through countryside, opening our eyes to expansive vistas of beauty or whathaveyou, a story—like a train—needs a locomotive. Y’know, that big carriage at the front of the train whose engine propells the rest of the train forward along the tracks.
Locomotive: [Latin locō, from a place, ablative of locus, place + Medieval Latin mōtīvus, causing motion; see motive.]
Synonyms Examples Word Origin
something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.; incentive.
the goal or object of a person’s actions:
Her motive was revenge.
(in art, literature, and music) a motif.
causing, or tending to cause, motion.
pertaining to motion.
prompting to action.
constituting a motive or motives.
verb (used with object), motived, motiving.
The real locomotive of a story is the characters. It is the characters tha truly make the story move forward via their response to events. It’s the characters who move (motivus!) the story forward from one event or one place (locus!) to another. An event (such as the inciting incident) may occur, but if the characters passively accept it and sit there with their thumbs in their asses, you don’t actually have a story. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. There was no locomotion.
I have to care about your characters. Very early on you need to make me care about your characters or I’m not going to want to bother reading further. They have to be someone. They need hopes and fears. They need to act in accordance with their hopes and fears, specifically in how they deal with the Inciting Incident and events through the story. They need genuine motive.
Character + Events / Motive = Locomotion (aka a story that is going places!)
5. The Feels – Emotions and Themes
Let’s start with what a good story must not be. A good story isn’t boring. At the end of the day we read for pleasure, enjoyment and entertainment. No one likes a snoozefest, so don’t give them one. A boring story is a waste of the reader’s time. If it’s not the kind of story that really lights your fire, why would you expect anyone else to like it? So at a minumum a story must never be boring. Author Jack Ketchum was once famously advised to “Write lively”, but I’ve heard it expressed by others more commonly as “Don’t be boring.” Just. Don’t. Do it. Getting a second opinion on this, it’s important! Get someone else to read it and see if it rustles their jimmies. If a story is boring, I’m going to reject it.
Hurt Me. Scream at the sky. Break my heart. But don’t waste my time. – Jack Ketchum
So you’re bound and determined to not write a boring story. You’ve slapped your characters with an event and they’re off responding according to their realistic and fully fleshed out personas and dispositions. Is that enough? Is it enough to just let the story play out or is there any need to try and impart something deeper? A theme or a message? is it necessary to attempt to evoke a particular emotion in your reader?
The theme in a story is its underlying message, or ‘big idea.’ In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey in the writing of a novel, play, short story or poem? This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language. It is what the story means. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme.
Does a story need a theme to be successful or enjoyable? There are plenty of stories, in both fiction and film, without prominent themes that are great fun and thoroughly enjoyable; however, in the end, I think almost every story has some sort of theme going on. Whether it is just one of the importance of friendship or comradeship that is a subtle undertone of your military scifi blast ’em up, or the inescapably prominent themes of cosmic horror and human insignificance that pervade the works of HP Lovecraft, almost every story has some kind of theme going on. A really good story has a theme that illicts emotions. This is this two punch combination that will floor the editor and make them buy your work. Genre or medium aside, this is the hallmark of great art.
In my opinion, the very best art evokes emotion. At a basic level, beyond making any kind of statement or addressing any kind of theme, this is probably the primary purpose of art. The best fiction is evocative fiction.
Since we developed spoken language, long before writing, we were telling each other stories. It’s how we make sense of the world around us, each other and our inner selves. We’re humans, with all that entails emotionally, who enjoy hearing (or reading) about other humans with emotions. Its through the sharing of emotions and empathy that we identify and relate to one another, and to the characters in stories. When a person picks up a book, they’re effectively living or experiencing vicariously through the characters in the book. The reader wants to feel what these people are feeling: whether it is the sheer terror as the character steps into the darkened cellar or the triumph as the warrior stands above his vanquished. They want to feel the rush of emotions as the man or woman falls in love, and the crushing despair when love is lost, or it all falls apart.
The best writers make you feel by painting characters who are real people. The situations that the characters encounter don’t need to be real, but they have to have realistic motives. Like the rest of us, they must have talents and deficiencies. The must have their own hopes and fears. They should have their own idiosyncrasies and neuroses. The best writers create characters that the reader could very well see themselves being; Or characters within which they can see their own real life family, friends or acquaintances. And then? And then they fuck with those characters.
If a story has no emotion or discernible theme— i.e no real “feels” —, even if well written, I’ll most likely be overlooking it in favour of something more evocative. Something that challenges me or speaks to me on some deeper level. Move yourself closer to the short list by writing evocative lively fiction.
6. Failure to maintain suspension of disbelief
There is an unwritten contract between any reader and an author, wherein an author gives the reader a story and the reader promises to believe it is plausible or true. We’ve all gotten part way through hearing a story, whether reading it in a book or hearing it from a friend and thought “Nup… I call bullshit. I’m out!”. This is the moment when our ability to consider the story as true or plausible is shattered. Our ability to suspend our disbelief has failed. From that moment on, it is near impossible for a writer to recapture the editor or reader’s interest in the story (particularly within the confines of a short story!).
The key to preventing this from occuring is to make the story consistent. By this i mean, the characters and world they live in have to consistently conform to the standards that the author has set, just as in the natural world we have general laws and conventions by which things abide. The story itself doesn’t need to be realistic, it can be wildly fantastical, but within that fantasy world it must be consistent. If an author breaks too many of his own laws it will come across as contrived and they’ll lose the reader.
Many stories that come through the slush pile fail to maintain my suspension of disbelief. When events occur too haphazardly; when a character randomly busts out new unknown magic powers or implausible skills; when a character acts too wildly out of character and the story travels down too unlikely a path — I’m gonna reject the story. My main logic here is that often it would take substantial re-writing and editing to correct this. For this reason, your tale will be rejected in favour of other stories that are better formed and require less work.
7. Lack of Peer Review
It’s often said that critique groups or beta readers are essential tools for writers to vet their work, help them hone their skills, help them reduce mistakes in the manuscript before they’re sent off to the editor or publisher. This is completely true.
Often there are discussions about what is a better, a critique group or beta readers. Personally I find beta readers who are conversant in your chosen genre to be the most effective as they tend to drill further down into your story, rather than the high level look that seems to be more common in critique groups. I’ve also found that many critique groups are geared towards one or another genre. It can be counter-productive to have people are not familiar with horror writing, for example, to be critiquing your horror stories. If they’re not conversant with traditions and tropes or common horror conventions, they often just “don’t get” your story. Personally I prefer to find other writers who I trust and whose fiction I admire, who write within the genre I write to beta-read my work. I find that I have better outcomes and get better advice this way. Other people have different experiences, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is great, but choose on or other (or both) of these options and use them. They WILL improve your writing generally, and they will improve specific stories that they look at.
Why do I mention this? Sure, some professional writers can churn out high quality work that would fool me or other editors into thinking it had been peer reviewed, but I think you can genuinely tell most of the fiction that comes through the slush pile that has only ever seen the author’s eyes. The techniques and issues described in Parts I and II of this series (also see my post on filtering) are not rocket science. They do take time to learn and time to become confident and consistent in implementing. It takes a long, long time to train your critical eye to be able to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the mistakes and deficiencies in your own writing. Even then, we often can’t see our own mistakes. Beta Readers (get more than one) or critique groups will likely catch some or all of the mistakes or force you to address issues which, in turn, make some of those other mistakes more visible to you. All this should be done before the story ever reaches the editor or publisher. If you’re going up against tens or hundreds of other writers of differing abilities, perhaps some of them genuine professional writers, you need your story in the best state it can be before it arrives in the editor’s inbox.
Here are some things which indicate lack of peer review:
1. Writing starts too far before the beginning of the actual story – Determining this is a tough skill to learn for new writers, increase your chances of hitting the mark via peer review.
2. Long tracts of exposition. Exposition can be nice, but it’s also dead writing that isn’t moving the plot forward.
3. A lot of passive voice/filtering. (see: )
4. Starting scenes with descriptions of the weather – we know you’re trying to set the scene but this is a weak and lazy way of starting a story/scene. Start a scene with something happening or someone doing soemthing. Weave a sense of weather/ambience/etc into the following text.
5. Logical inconsitencies in characters, plot or world building (See suspension of disbelief above)
6. Story is thinly veiled fan fiction.
7. Story infringes another’s copyright or
8. Story uses common tropes and does nothing new with them/Story is wholly derivative.
As soon as editors start discovering these things in your work, they’ll reject your story. Let these kind of prose level and structural issues get caught by your peer reviewers, don’t let them get through to the editor.
I could probably write more on this topic, but at the end of the day, the road to rejection is perilously short if you don’t know the pitfalls to look out for. Start at the beginning, give me real characters, hit them with a event or incident, have them react. Have something you want to say and make me feel something, damn you! Write lively and never be boring. Be consistent with your characters and with your world building. Get someone to review your work. Once you’ve tightened all the nuts and bolts, submit your work and gird your loins. Rinse and repeat. With time and effort and repetition you’ll improve and your stories will get out there.
And most of all? Enjoy.