Let’s say that you have a love story set in the highly competitive world of championship dog shows. Perhaps Don grew up around blue-blood Miniature Pinschers, and despite the health problems associated with their suspected inbreeding, he remains a purist—his great grandfather was a founding member of the American Kennel Club. Alice bred Australian Shepherds—that is until her prizewinner mated with the French Poodle next door, resulting in Fifi, the sweetest Ausiedoodle she ever saw. She is now fighting for the inclusion of half-breeds in the AKA obedience trials. Don adores her feisty spirit but fights his attraction—they are second cousins, and Don can’t let his oft-defended standards slip.
Here are some of the common storyphobia symptoms I’d find:
Fifi jumped off the couch and over the object in front of it. The object was brown, solid, three feet tall, rounded on top, had brass hinges on one side and a leather strap handle on the other, and stood on four stubby legs. [The logjam of words dammed your river of thought, robbing your prose of its story purpose: Fifi sprang from the couch and over an object that looked like a trunk on legs. She looked back at Alice, then Don, clearly expecting them both to applaud her trick.]
You’ve learned everything there is to know about dogs—the AKA history, its breed approval process, symptoms of inbreeding, cleaning carpet smells, etc.—and put it all in the first few pages so your reader will understand the world of story. [Which will net you a perfectly wonderful…newspaper article. Each of these areas of research, if dramatized and distributed throughout the novel, would seem less like vomit and more like key nutrients.]
Rather than orienting the reader by feeding out story, you withhold it, thinking you’ll spring it on them later—as a surprise. Such as at the climax of the book, when Don and Alice are in bed and one of them exclaims, “But you are my second cousin!” [Whereupon your reader will laugh. If we knew they were cousins from the start, then learned of Don’s predispositions, then felt the attraction burning, we’d think “Oh no! How is a guy like Don going to deal with this?”]
With typecasting by breed, you came up with the perfect humorous metaphor for prejudice in American society, with all you’d need to explore its roots and possible solutions and deepen the taboo-like tension between these lovers—then forgot to make your point. [These people are dog breeders, yes, but you never write scenes at dog shows or at kennel club meetings because it was so much more fun to show them…breeding.]
Your prose repeats on you: Fifi jogged, no—ran, sprinted, galloped!—across the yard. [Just get Fifi across the yard so we can see what will get this story moving! Unless there’s nothing there. In which case we’ll set down the book and watch TV.]
I blame word count enthusiasts for such problems. Once allowed to drift off-track, as can easily happen while trying to apply as many black marks to a page as one can in a day, it can be hard to re-center the story without a thorough re-imagining. Something to think about for those of you about to start NaNoWriMo.
Once diagnosed, storyphobia is easily cured: Find that first moment of conflict and write straight into it until you’ve come up with its essential manifestations. Feel the blood pounding through your veins? That's the pulse of your story. Assign perspectives essential its full exploration to each of your characters. Then drive your characters into that conflict, over and over, never letting them escape into backstory or inane stage direction or a meaningless glut of words. Hold them there until they scream for mercy—and when you won’t bestow it, watch their glorious transformation.
Do that from the start and you can avoid storyphobia altogether.
Then call me in the morning. I’d be glad to edit that kind of project.
Do you recognize any symptoms of Storyphobia in your work? Or do you have more creative symptoms to share?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her article, "The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing," co-written with Janice Gable Bashman, is in the current Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Sourcebooks. Her essay Memoir of a Book Deal tells the larger story while also serving as a primer on story structures. To follow her writing please "Like" her Facebook Author Page. She follows back most writers on Twitter.