Story Hospital

#25: Story Ending Choice Paralysis

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%:

There are also ways to keep from getting into that pickle in the first place:

Happy choosing and happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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