So you’ve written a short story. Congratulations! You’ve maneuvered the characters into position, shown the heroes and the villains, pulled them into conflict and steered them into a climax.
And yet — something is missing.
Have you had that feeling before when you read back a story draft? That there’s a hole somewhere in the story? Many stories in their first or second versions can feel this way. Because if a story is only the sum of its parts — then that’s all it is. The stories that we love to read, the truly masterful stories, are the ones that make up something more. Their authors have learned to fill up those holes that are in the early outlines of stories, that make drafts like Swiss cheese.
I’m not just talking about plot holes here, the blatant mistakes of story or logical inconsistencies. Those things are essential to fix, but that’s just good housekeeping. I’m talking about identifying the beating heart of your story, and of finding ways to make it mean something larger than it is.
Say you’ve got a story about a breakup. You draw the characters well; you show Sally’s quirks and Bill’s good humor; you show the evolution of their relationship, and their fall. But so what? Why did we read this story? What’s special about this rendition of a story that we’ve seen before?
The hole in our stories is the big so what question.
When we’re writing a story that will rise above the average, we need to fill that hole and think hard about the extra meaning of the tale we’re telling. Why does this break-up matter? You might think it’s because it says something about men and women and gender. Or perhaps it’s really about what it feels like to grow up. Maybe it’s about what it’s like to be a young person in America at the turn of a new century; or it’s about power and jealousy and revenge. If you’re going to fill that hole in your story, it must transcend the story itself.
In T.S. Eliot’s words, “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.”
It means that just plot — a what and a what and a what — is not enough on its own. It’s not truly why we read, or why we remember and love stories. We read because we’re looking for a larger meaning. So fill that hole in your story by expanding your gaze, and allowing a few moments of insight that make your story larger than it is.