What Makes a Story Fail

During my Crafting Fiction editing seminar last month, one of the writers who attended asked me this question during the Q&A session: What makes a story fail?

It was a question that I didn’t have a ready answer for.

My job as an editor is to offer advice and guidance on how to make a story succeed, which seems to suggest that I’d be something of an authority on story failure. The question was framed in a larger discussion taking place about plot, characters, theme, and other elements of story craft. It was posed as an inquiry about individual stories – that perhaps there was something that could go so catastrophically wrong, it would qualify as a failure.

Stories are so personal to their writers, it’s hard to contemplate the idea of them failing. And, as I discovered while I was giving my answer on the spot, failure not only depends on how you define success, but also on the idea that success and failure are the only two options.

I gave an example of a book that I considered more of a failure than a success – not taking into account its sales and popularity – which was Twilight. In terms of evaluating the story, if I applied the 5 Elements of Writing Weaknesses it would be possible for me to make a case that Twilight missed it’s mark. All the elements are there, they just need a little TLC to be solid. I would never have predicted that it would find a resonance with so many readers who were able to love the story that can be seen through the cracks.

On the flip side, there are many stories I consider a tremendous success that are not even half as popular as other books within their own genre. Feed by Mira Grant (a pen-name) would be a prime example – it’s the first zombie story with a book description that intrigued me enough to overcome by anti-zombie bias. Not only did I finish reading it, I went back for book two, and then lamented when I had to wait for book three because it hadn’t been published yet. The 5 Elements were done well, or were done exceptionally, and any missed marks were easily forgivable.

When writing is a business, there is an unavoidable truth that the amount of money in your pocket at the end of the day matters.That type of success, though, is dependent on other people’s opinions. Most writers fantasize about their stories becoming so wildly popular that they earn enough income to be comfortable their rest of their lives, or that Hollywood takes notice and offers them a movie deal. And, in general, stories that are well crafted – successes – will receive that kind of attention more often. Although if we’re being completely honest, luck does have something to do with it, too.

What matters more about success and failure than potential sales or popularity is one simple thing: Does the story make you, as its writer, happy? Are you proud of it? Is it something, if you hadn’t written it, that you would read? If the answers to all those questions are ‘yes’ then the story is a success.

If the answers aren’t ‘yes’ I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you didn’t answer ‘no’. It’s more likely that you answered ‘not yet’.

Stories don’t fail, they just aren’t ready. There’s a lot of reasons that could be the case, and in future posts we’ll discuss how to evaluate what to do when you suspect your story is in more trouble than its worth. For now, just know that there is a large difference between success defined by other people and success that you can define for yourself. I’m an advocate for defining your own success, and we’ll talk about that more in future posts, too.

Have you encountered a popular story that made you wonder how it got so popular? What would you have changed in the story to make it better? Are there books you’ve read that made you wonder why more people haven’t heard of it? Is one of your own stories making you question what you’re supposed to do next? The comments are always open.

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