Dear Story Nurse,
How distinct do a writer’s stories need to be from one another?
A lot of authors have recurring themes, or recycle small details like names, or set several stories in the same universe.
But what about if it’s bigger things? If it’s a single change in how the physics of the world works, either way allowing for interesting and distinct things to happen. If it’s alternate endings to a story that could both work, or different story structures that could both fit the one plot.
Sometimes one version is clearly superior, but often not. It just splits off into a separate (but not entirely distinctive) story of its own.
I write science fiction, and short fiction—it’s very idea driven, I think that contributes to this problem. It feels like I have not so much a bunch of separate stories as a story/idea space, where story particles combine and mutate and split off in endless ways.
I find it very difficult to finish a story (instead spawning five new potential ones when I try).
My main concern is getting better at completing stories, but also is it unprofessional to send out stories for publication if they are similar to other stories I’ve written?
—Hydra wrangler (she/her)
Dear Hydra wrangler,
It sounds like you have two very different concerns that are all tangled up together. One is a commercial concern about how it looks to an editor or a reader if you have multiple very similar stories. The other is a craft concern about choosing from among multiple good ways to finish a particular story or develop a particular concept. In some ways these are the same concern: you do writing one way, and you think you should maybe do it a different way.
On the commercial front, it sounds to me like your work would do really well in a collection, where you can put multiple variations on a story side by side and let readers explore their differences. You might also try selling them as a series to a magazine or other venue that’s interested in that sort of experimentation. You’re right that without that context, many readers won’t want to read a story that’s 80% the same as another story they read of yours. But with the context, the similarity becomes interesting.
Another option is to combine the type of work you’re naturally drawn to with the type of work that readers are more used to, and see if some good chemistry comes out of that. For example, you could write in an episodic, metafictional mode about a recurring main character who experiences and explores these changes in the setting or story. The character’s curiosity and interest in figuring out what changed and how it affected things will help readers understand how to approach your work. Or you could focus on time travel stories or alternate history, where readers are used to looking at the ways a small change can create big ripples. Or you could try writing interactive fiction (along the lines of Choose Your Own Adventure stories) or video games, where you develop many different possible strands of story and the reader chooses which one to follow.
The key to all these approaches is to take this significant aspect of your work and see it as a selling point rather than a drawback. A question such as “Who loves stories like these?” or “Which creators have succeeded with stories like these?” and “What mediums are these stories best suited for?” will help you find venues and audiences that appreciate your work for what it is, rather than wanting it to be something else. And that lets you keep making the art that you want to make instead of jamming yourself uncomfortably into another mold. It may not be the most commercial art in the world, but in my experience, a story that you let yourself write in your own way, with passion and drive, always has a better chance at reaching readers than a story you write mechanically to someone else’s template.
On the craft front, I can certainly offer some suggestions for choosing paths and ending stories, but first I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with writing explorative, experimental work where you wander around in an idea space and disregard the niceties of plot. I think it’s useful to know how to write conventional stories if you want to; just keep in mind that you don’t have to.
By “I find it very difficult to finish a story” it sounds like you mean that you find it difficult to choose among several possible endings, so here are some options for what to do if you have 80% of a story and now need to decide among the many ways to write the last 20%:
- Consider the emotional resonance of your story. If one possible ending is tragic and another is uplifting, decide between them based on which feeling you want the reader to be left with. Listen to your own emotions too: What about this story grabs you? What do you want to happen to the protagonist? If you were reading this story rather than writing it, how would you want it to end? “I like this one best” or “This just feels right” is a perfectly good reason to pick one ending over another.
- Consider the plot requirements of your story. Consider what the 80% you’ve written has led the reader to expect. It might help to chart out the rising and falling tension or emotional resonance and see whether it bears any similarity to one of Mette Ivie Harrison’s 21 plot shapes or Matthew Jockers’s six archetypal plot shapes. If it does, that gives you a good idea of where readers will expect it to go. Then your choice narrows to either meeting or subverting those expectations. This is also useful if by “I find it very difficult to finish a story” you mean that your stories tend to trail away rather than properly concluding.
- Embrace your power to make decisions. Remember that your story doesn’t own you. You are not beholden to the list of possible endings, or obligated to explore them all. Some of the ephemerality exercises in my post “You Are Not Your Work” can help you get comfortable with choosing one ending for your story and forgoing the rest. Just saying to yourself “I am not required to write every story idea I come up with” might help you get out of that choice paralysis headspace.
- Embrace the pleasure of making decisions. Just as your artistic style is a benefit rather than a drawback, having a wealth of endings to choose from can be a joy rather than a chore. Savor the ease with which you generate ideas, and the satisfaction of making a choice and sticking with it.
- Make a commitment. Set a deadline by which you will make a choice, or promise a writing buddy that you will make a choice, and then adhere to that commitment. Sometimes external pressure is more effective than internal pressure. But if this approach sets you up to fail or leaves you feeling stressed and miserable, don’t do it!
- Leave it to chance. Make a list of options, cross off all but your favorites, number the remaining ones, and then flip a coin or roll a die or use a random number generator. If they’re all perfectly acceptable endings and it truly doesn’t matter to you which one you pick, then letting chance pick for you is fine. But if you find yourself resisting the one that’s selected (on its own merits, not just because picking one is generally difficult), cross it off and try again. Repeat until you have a selection. Go with that selection.
- Write them all. Nothing wrong with making more words! Write five endings to every story if you want. When you’re done, pick one to be the definitive conclusion, or leave all the endings on for the reader to choose from, like the three endings of the movie Clue.
- Learn from how you make other choices. How do you choose among a dozen restaurants where you might have lunch or a dozen brands of sandwich bread at the supermarket? How do you choose which book to read next, and whether to reread an old favorite or read something new? How about bigger choices, like which career path to follow or which school to send your kids to? Observe your own decision-making processes and see if you can apply or adapt them to fiction.
There are also ways to keep from getting into that pickle in the first place:
- Borrow a plot from another work and redo it in your own way, or play around with a classic plot such as the rising tension thriller plot or the hero’s journey. That way you’ll know how it ends before you even start writing.
- Shift away from pure ideas and toward characters; the plausibility and emotional satisfaction requirements of character development will narrow down the possibilities a lot.
- In a short, straightforward post on turning a concept into a plot, Dan Harmon details exactly how to take a cloud of related ideas and make a functional story out of it. Read that post and follow his instructions. (The eight-part plot he mentions at the end is explained here.)
Happy choosing and happy writing!