So how do you judge a short story anyway?

Your Vote Counts

I recently voted in the Nebula Awards, which are the annual gongs given out by SFWA, a professional science fiction and fantasy writer organization. I’ve never voted on short fiction awards before. For the first time, I had to answer the question ‘what is the best story of the year?’

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

You might find that strange. After all, I’ve written many short stories. I don’t know how many copies they and the anthologies that often contain them have sold, but it’s in the tens of thousands. More urgently, I was already working on Season Two of Chimera Company, which is a serialized sci-fi adventure told in weekly novelettes (very much on my mind at present, with the launch issue April 30).

By this point, you see, the first round of nominations had already concluded, and I had to pick from a shortlist, of which I had already read two, and ten were new to me. (“Best short story” and “best novelette” are separate awards. Roughly speaking, if it takes you at least 45 minutes to read a piece of short fiction, it’s probably a novelette).

It would be easy to mistake me for someone who knew what they were talking about, but I was stumped. I knew plenty about how to write and sell stories, but I didn’t have a critical framework for judging those of other authors. So before I read the finalists, I first sat down and considered my quality criteria.

What is quality?

That’s a big question! 

Before I became a full-time writer, my professional background was in quality management in the software industry.

“Are we working effectively?”

“Are we building what our customers actually need?”

“Is this project going to be a success, and what do we mean by “success” anyway?”

These are the kind of questions that defined my professional life for many years, to which I now added: “Is this is the best short story?”

Quality is a tricky concept.

“You can’t control what you can’t measure,” as software engineering guru Tom DeMarco famously wrote (well, it’s famous if you’re a software process geek – for normal people, maybe not so much). And yet no matter how hard we try to measure quality in the software industry, it remains defiantly fluid and contextual. A group of people can all have wildly differing views upon what quality means to them, and they can all be equally valid.

Literature is no different.

The idea that there is a single objective measure of quality when it comes to fiction is at best ludicrous. Worse, it probably implies a deep-seated bigotry and ignorance of how real people read literature.

So I present to you a concise version of the framework I used to judge the quality of the Nebula finalists, and which I am already using to judge potential writing ideas for my Chimera Company serials.

I hope you find mine interesting, but I make no claim that this any more valid than whatever you yourself use to judge stories.

I’ve been using my Nebula thoughts to inform the way I write season 2 of Chimera Company. Season 1 launches tomorrow!

1. Characters.

Good stories are about people*. Interesting people placed into situations in which they reveal their nature, often in ways that are unexpected and uncomfortable.

(*Except where they aren’t. It’s one of the delights of storytelling that rare treasures come along that break all the ‘rules’, and yet succeed brilliantly. I’ll give an example in a minute).

In recent years, a lot of fascinating scientific research into storytelling has suggested that telling stories may be the fundamental quality that makes us human. Complex human language developed in order to tell stories, and perhaps specifically to gossip about individuals in the tribe. (I’ve just read an excellent book that introduces a lot of this recent research: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr)

Like most readers, I want characters who excite me. I want to feel compelled to yell at the page to tell them to stop doing this evil thing or making that stupid.

Having read the Nebula finalists in quick succession, which ones left a residue of that compulsion to yell at the page, and which sets of characters had I forgotten by the time I’d read the next story?

2. Plot.

I want stories in which things happen.

I want to need to know what happens next.

Without compelling characters, it’s difficult for me to care about the events, and without events to challenge the characters and force them to reveal themselves, I am unlikely to care about the characters.

Writers sometimes talk about character-based stories and plot-driven stories as if they are two distinct beasts. I think this is misleading. In fact, I think most good writers would agree with me in saying that it is only a difference of emphasis. Great stories are generally both character based and plot driven. (Here I’m using “plot” and “events” as synonyms).

3. The Big Idea.

Memorable  science fiction stories tend to have at least one compelling concept.

Isaac Asimov’s 1940s robot series of short stories had the concept of ethics for artificial sentience, encapsulated in the Three Laws of Robotics.

In Jurassic Park, we get to ask what would happen if dinosaurs were brought back to life in the modern world?

And in one of the Nebula finalists, The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, P. Djèlí Clark imagines the stories of the negroes whose teeth were used in a set of falsies supplied to George Washington.

There can be more than one big idea, of course, and sometimes it can take the form of a theme that is more subtle than a T-Rex slobbering down your neck. Nonetheless, even subtle themes can be the critical connecting glue that holds the story together.

If there is a single reason why I choose to read science fiction above other literary forms, it is because it lends itself so well to the BIG IDEA. Stories set in the contemporary world can have memorable characters and exciting plots, but they don’t have stargates, rampaging dinosaurs, or an immortal God Emperor imprisoned in a telepathic throne who keeps the forces of chaos at bay for a little while longer.

It is in the big concept ideas that I get my sense-of-wonder fix.

This is why I read science fiction.

4. An expertly mixed cocktail.

I’ve listed the three main elements I am looking for: characters, plot and the big idea. But are they smoothly interwoven, or are they bound together by chewing gum and the author crossing their fingers in a spray of flashy prose in the hope that you don’t realize the story is… well, an unholy mess?

And I’ve only mentioned three key elements. There’s much more to storytelling, elements I am relatively agnostic about, but can still ruin the story when an author gets them wrong.

Take structure, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I felt were ruined by an author adding gratuitous flashbacks or a parallel story for no better reason than that they thought a non-linear narrative made their story more “sophisticated”.

And it is often with structure where an author who delivers excellent individual elements fails to find a way to tell them that results in a great story.

You might ask, how can you possibly have compelling characters, exciting plot, dazzling conceits and concepts, and deliver all this in a finely honed story of just 5000 words?

The answer is: with great difficulty. Writing a well-crafted short story is not easy!

I can enjoy and recommend stories that do well in several areas, but don’t quite bind together. But in my mind to be a good Nebula winner, the story has to do well in all these categories.

Except where it doesn’t.

The Joy of Exceptions.

I said earlier that one of the pleasures of reading is to encounter the occasional gem that defies convention but works anyway.

One of my favorite short story examples is The Crystal Spheres by David Brin (1985).

Let’s see how that fares with my quality criteria.

  • Characters: it doesn’t have any.
  • Plot: an unnamed narrator recounts a sequence of events after they have concluded. It’s straight reportage, and I don’t believe there’s any form more likely to suck the immediacy out of a plot.
  • Ideas: oh, yes! There’s two big ones. One causes the immediate problem described in the reportage. The other is expertly delivered right at the finale and hangs a question mark and an ellipsis over what happens after the story concludes.
  • Does it hang together? Absolutely it does. And although a first, rather shallow, pass at assessing this story isn’t too complimentary, when you think about it in a deeper and more flexible way, it blossoms into its own.

True there are no characters in the conventional sense. No named individuals, if I recall correctly. However, I argue that there is one character, and it is one we can all empathize with and thrill to see this character display fortitude and selflessness.

The character is the human race itself.

And, yes, the events are told in reportage, yet it is a compelling account and the events are told with great efficiency. There is more of significance going on in this short story than in several novels I’ve read.

The Crystal Spheres is storytelling at its finest. Powerful ideas told in a compelling and efficient manner that has resonated in my mind for the past 30 years. It lurks in my subconscious, popping up into the forefront of my mind every few years demanding I think about the story again. That’s great storytelling.

The Scores on the Doors.

How did this year’s Nebula finalists do?

I’m not going to rate them publicly because I don’t feel comfortable criticizing fellow authors in public unless I feel they have acted in some way unethically.

But I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed the exercise of reading the ten finalists I had not read before, and I felt all of them had at least one aspect of storytelling in which they did well.

I felt one story was head-and-shoulders above the others. I knew in my gut when I read that this was high-class storytelling, and when I used my quality framework to assess it, it was no surprise to see that it has a compelling main character, a thrilling plot, at least two great ideas, and all of this was seamlessly crafted together.

I felt two more stories were at least fairly good in all four elements. Not so impressive were the three that excelled in one element but disappointed me in all the others..

Nonetheless, I felt all twelve stories had something to offer that made it worth my time reading.

If there was one common theme where I would like to see improvement should I renew my SFWA membership and vote next year, it is in blending the elements of the story together. Too often, the author wanted to make a story about a particular idea, but I felt the characters had been compelled to tell the author’s story rather than their own. Occasionally events occurred for no reason that made any sense except for the author to make the other bits work, or a character behaved in a way that felt contrived.

Overall, though, this was a fine set of short stories and novelettes. I enjoyed the exercise in thinking about them critically, and I’ve used that critical framework to inform my own Chimera Company stories, especially with regard to freeing up my characters to tell their stories rather than mine.

So, big win all round.

CHIMERA COMPANY

Chimera Company is my new science fiction adventure told in the form of serialized novelettes published every week starting April 30, 2019. Each issue is 0.99 to buy or preorder, and once they are live you can borrow them for free in Kindle Unlimited. Artwork by the inestimable Vincent Sammy.

For those who like season collections, you can have one by the end of the season. And for those who like to listen to their sci-fi, the season 1 audiobook is in production.

I’ve written a series several times before, but I found a whole bunch of new storytelling challenges in writing a serial at novelette length. I’m proud of how it worked out, and I like to think my muse, Tharg the Mighty, would be proud of what he set in train many years ago. If you want to find out more about the universe of Chimera Company, including free prequel series to download, you can do so here.

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About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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3 Responses to So how do you judge a short story anyway?

  1. Andy West says:

    Ah ha, so all is revealed. It’s a good framework. For me, the nebulous concept of ‘depth’ is also a thing. It overlaps with the Big Idea (because without one of these there’s unlikely to be depth), plus also characters can be deeper or shallower. But overall it’s a feeling that there are stories beneath the story, a sense that fundamentals of the story’s universe are (albeit maybe dimly) revealed by it’s unfolding, and indeed also that my brain / imagination is engaged on such things at the same time as the surface events. All of the above are things too though, plus characters I can come to care about.

    • Hi Andy. I wholeheartedly agree that sometimes powerful themes and conceits run below surface level but still have a profound effect on my reading experience. And in my own writing, I’ve learned enough confidence to sometimes use themes that in my mind are critical to adding that connective glue of meaning to the story, but is not something many readers will consciously pick up on. That’s not the same as deliberate ambiguity, though. A lot of readers love ambiguity, but you already know that I don’t 🙂 Except for Philip K Dick on a good day for perplexity.

  2. tctaylor@ntlworld.com says:

    Like that.

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