- After Five
- What makes stories stand out?
What makes stories stand out?
Plus: Giveaway, giveaway, giveaway!!!
Hello and welcome, friends new and old. This month’s letter wants you to rediscover the joy of stories that leave an impression. Reading will cost you only 15-ish minutes. Dive in, please.
State of the Suyiverse: Fall-ing
From the Desk: Print ARC giveaway of WOTW for After Five subscribers
Essay: What makes stories stand out?
From the Grapevine: Starred review from Kirkus + WOTW on Netgalley!
For the Road: RRR!
(If you’d like to ask more questions about anything you see in this letter, come by our water cooler AKA our private Discord and do so!)
State of the Suyiverse
It was my birthday last month, but I ended up under the weather the weekend of, leading to quite muted celebrations. But muted was good. I read a book, I caught up on lost sleep, and I celebrated the advance birthday gift I’d received much earlier in the month: a letter from the Canadian immigration office saying, Welp, I guess you’re stuck with us now!
Otherwise, I’ve been going gently into the slowly cooling weather and the start of the fall term. I’m teaching advanced fiction and introductory creative writing this semester, both of them opportunities for students to really stretch their writing muscles. I spent the summer trying to reshape my syllabi to do more actual writing in class, especially activities that take us down roads less traveled. Don’t we all need fresh ways of looking at the world? Here’s to treading new paths and a cozy September for us all.
Listening: “Aengus the Prize-Winning Hog” by The Toxhards; “Hater’s Anthem” by Infinity Song
Reading: Fever House by Keith Rosson
Watching: RRR (2022); Atomic Blonde (2017); Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); What We Do In The Shadows S05
From the Desk: 🎁GIVEAWAY!!!🎁 ONE (1) print advance copy of WOTW for a lucky subscriber
I’m exclusively offering ONE (1) PRINT ARC OF Warrior of the Wind to ONE (1) RANDOM lucky subscriber to this newsletter. Here are the rules of this giveaway:
Must be 18+ years old to participate
Must be an existing newsletter subscriber to enter
Open to any subscriber, resident anywhere in the world
Entries close on Friday 15 September, 11:59PM EST. Any entries submitted after then will not qualify.
A random winner will be drawn from the list of entrants. This winner will be contacted immediately via email for shipping details. The winner will be disclosed publicly in the next newsletter.
Non-winning entrants will not be contacted. If you receive no follow-up email, assume you have not won the draw.
What makes stories stand out?
Stepping away from our last letter’s peek into the publishing world, I want to spend some time this month thinking about what makes stories memorable. I’m teaching an advanced fiction class this fall, and in a bid to revamp my syllabus, I’m trying to distill some complex ideas into smaller, more memorable chunks that they can think deeply about in their own time. One of these lessons is to prompt them to think about the story (fiction) they are writing, and if there’s anything about it that may make it stand out from the pack, and if there isn’t, what they can do if they intend to change that.
I’ve therefore spent the past few weeks thinking: What makes stories stand out?
For this piece, I want you to think back to the last story (fiction literature of any length) you read or encountered that struck you and left a lasting impression. What was it about the story that made that happen? Was it the fact that it was an enjoyable reading experience or that the characters or place hit too close to your personal experience? Was it that you found the people endearing or the authorial use of language interesting? See if you can articulate these things as concisely as you can. We’ll cross-check them at the end of this piece.
I say this because I realise and acknowledge that “stand out” may mean different things across the differing value systems we, as readers, individually apply to the stories we read. When we say “stand out,” do we mean that the story is: Good? Memorable? Attention-grabbing? Exciting? Prominent? Conspicuous? All these being synonyms of one another yet not quite meaning the same thing demonstrates the challenge of this task. So, although in this piece, I end up with parameters that attempt to cut across these varying value systems, I’m pretty sure there will remain a subsection of unconvinced readers.
In attempting to answer this question, I have also considered what others like me have documented on similar topics. I thumbed through a few craft books on my shelf and looked at a myriad of threads, blogs, articles, newsletters, etc that I’ve saved over time for reference. Most authors of these texts preferred to be tentative in their offerings rather than definitive, which was the opposite of what I sought. It makes sense, then, that the two that ended up striking me the most came from professionals not just approaching this topic from a creative lens but a business/analytical one as well.
Angie Hodapp, Director of Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency, in 2021, wrote that “Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King.” She approaches this through the lens of “appeal”: What makes stories appealing? she asks and, employing the lens through which a literary agent or interested reader would approach a new story, attempts to break these down into 4 kinds of appeal: Conceptual (“deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up”); Emotional (“promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading”); Experiential (“difficult to describe…and any attempts to do so often end with, ‘You just have to read it to get it.’”); and Literary (“aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence). She then uses what she calls a “Genre-Appeal Grid” to demonstrate how this may possibly play out in different genres (not too dissimilar from my elemental sliders).
The other source I found fascinating was from the editors and critics at Mythcreants: “ANTS: The Critical Elements That Make Stories Popular.” A is for Attachment, which is “the degree to which the audience cares about elements of the story.” N is for Novelty, “the degree to which the audience is fascinated by the details of the story.” T is for Tension, “the degree to which the audience is riveted by the events of the story,” and S is for Satisfaction, “the degree to which the audience appreciates the outcomes of the story.” They provide a well laid out “translation” of the language readers usually use in expressing their experience along the ANTS scales, and then offer suggestions on how to include them in your own stories.
These two sources formed the basis of what I’m now calling IPA (like the beer, but not like the beer): Innovation, Participation, Affection, a three-part yardstick for measuring how and understanding why a story stands out.
1. Demonstrates Innovation
Innovation is the most forefront, right-out-the-bat quality that can make a story stand out, simply because it is easy to glean from a cursory examination, and a reader may experience it without even reading the story! Hodapp’s “Conceptual Appeal” is a good example. An excellent story concept is what causes that excitement in your voice when you tell a friend, “it’s like if Love Island were a true crime podcast” or “the whole story is written in the form of a book report.” Innovation can be baked in from the ideation stage, before a word is written. Perhaps, in a way, this also makes innovation not always reliable on its own—a story can be innovative in its framing, but may fail to deliver on the page.
However, innovation doesn’t only occur at the conceptual level—it may also occur in the telling of the story. Innovation on the page may take the form of unexpected subversions of well-worn tropes, unusual twists in stock characters or plot events, atypical use of language, or an out-there employment of a literary element: tone, mood/atmosphere, point-of-view, etc.This is akin to Mythcreants’ concept of “Novelty” (and a dash of Hodapp’s points about “Literary Appeal”): investing in originality in the story’s creation and writing is a sure-fire way to get your work to stand out.
TL;DR: A story may stand out if it demonstrates innovation on the conceptual or execution level, and the best of them succeed at doing so on both levels.
2. Induces Participation
One thing you learn about innovation in a story is that its effect wanes quite quickly. A story with an innovative concept or mode of delivery that then relies on its own cleverness to get the reader through quickly becomes stale. Never underestimate the tendency of a reader to think, “Okay, I guess this is great, but is that all you’ve got?” And if it’s indeed all you’ve got, then it’s a downhill race to losing the reader.
Therefore, once we get past innovation, the next thing a writer wants to do is draw the reader into the story and tease them into participating. Basically, offer the reader something (or somethings) to cause them to want to engage deeper, to become an active participant in some element or aspect of the story. Mythcreants’ “Tension” and “Satisfaction” work here—narrative tension is one of the easiest ways to induce participation. “This was gripping…kept me on the edge of my seat” is an expression of high narrative engagement. Satisfaction is what happens when the reader feels right or vindicated or affirmed with what they expect from the story’s events or character actions or themes expounded, etc. Engagement may therefore also be induced via reader investment in the world of a story, or in the actions and thoughts of its characters, or in the themes the story unpacks and/or engages with, or with the way the story itself is narrated or told in terms of voice, tone, mood, language, pacing, etc.
Hodapp’s description of “Experiential Appeal” falls under this umbrella too (as well as, again, a dash of “Literary Appeal”). Some stories don’t seem like much when you look at them from the outside, because their allure is in the reading experience. You begin to read, and it’s like a switch has been turned on; you find it near impossible to tear yourself away, and hard to forget once you’ve shut the back cover.
TL;DR: A story may stand out if it induces participation by continually investing in retaining the interest and engagement of the reader across various aspects of the storytelling.
3. Invokes Affection
Innovation and participation, however, are not everything and, on their own, may even be insufficient. Innovation alone can end up feeling quite surface-level, and participation may propel a reader through but runs the risk of being forgotten once the story ends. For a story to truly stand out, one needs something for the reader to take away, a feeling that remains with them after the story is done. An investment in affection (which I use here to mean both senses of the word: the feeling of liking/caring for someone/something, as well as the feeling of being impressed upon by something) is key to locking the reader in for much longer than a story lasts.
Hodapp describes “Emotional Appeal” in a story as one that “engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls.” A story that stirs deep feelings in the reader is bound to win them over. Mythcreants considers “Attachment”, which falls under this umbrella, to be the most important of their ANTS quartet, and I agree. For a story to stand out, the reader needs to feel strongly compelled by something in the telling, often characters (preferably the main ones) but also places, themes, events, or even language (another dash of Hodapp’s “Literary Appeal” here for you). Emotional impact is crucial, and the best case scenario is to not only put the reader through the wringer while reading the story, but also for them to come out of it with some of the residue of that feeling following them around.
TL;DR: A story that invokes affection will stay with the reader long after the events end.
Return to that list you made at the beginning of this piece. See if you can map each of the things you listed to one of the IPA parameters, and see if you can describe/articulate even further what exactly was most striking, and identify how exactly the author deployed these elements in the story to achieve this effect. Do some seem to fall squarely in one IPA parameter, or do they seem distributed across? If you were an author hoping to achieve something similar in your own story, how would you do it similarly or differently?
The stories that most stand out, I believe, have all three IPA elements present to a significant degree. How, therefore, does a writer ensure they have a good dose of IPA (pun intended) distributed across their story? We could list opportunities for days, as there are so many ways to deliver innovation, induce participation and invoke affection in a story. Writers may be better served by asking a few related questions.
Consider the goals of the story you’re telling. What do you hope to achieve? What does the ideal version of this story look like?
After listing these out, go through each element and brainstorm ways to sharpen/improve its impact under the IPA umbrella. For example: If you want your story to be voice/language driven, do you want innovative voice/language (e.g. told in an atypical dialect) or participatory voice/language (e.g. briskly told with strong introspection) or affective voice/language (e.g. a melancholy-sounding first-person narrator)? Decide what best suits the demands of the story and go with that.
During revision, keep returning to these goals/aims to see if they change, and if such changes offer you opportunities to inject new IPA into the story.
From the Grapevine:
(news from the press & the interwebs)
⭐ A collector’s item from Kirkus Reviews
“Broad and imaginative in scope…this installment surpasses the first.” Kirkus gave Warrior of the Wind its first 🌟starred review!🌟
WOTW is now available for request on Netgalley! All who use this service wish to read early advance copies can head there now and place your request. (Alternatively: if you’re a member of our private Discord group, you can get access to a digital epub arc without going through Netgalley or other services. Join the channel to learn how.)
More giveaways! Yet another Goodreads giveaway for WOTW is happening right now. Same as last time: 100 Kindle copies for US-based readers. Ends Sept 18. Enter here.
WOTW is featured in this month’s Publishers Weekly article, “8 New Works of Science Fiction Influenced by Africa and the Diaspora”
David Mogo, Godhunter was recommended in The Republic’s August reading list
Lost Ark Dreaming was recommended by author SL Huang in the August 30th issue of Shelf Awareness
For the Road:
(a miscellaneous column for useful takeaways) | Last month’s takeaway: Between the Covers
I finally took the time to watch RRR earlier this month. I’m a huge fan of South-Asia-inspired films that feature cinematic, hyperbolic representations of myth and legend (Baahubali, anyone?) so this was right up my alley. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much, though! The runtime of 3+ hours initially put me off (I tend to tap out after 2h30m) but this had me rooted to my seat, equal parts fun, funny and WTAF? I could also 100% relate to the (admittedly, also hyperbolic) representations of colonial rule, though I could’ve done without the subplot of one protagonist falling in love with a colonizer who’s presented as Not Like The Others (there’s no such thing as a good colonizer, but I digress). A great watch, nonetheless. Queue this up for a long weekend in your near future.
If you’d like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter and answered in an essay, you can drop your question in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!
Your friendly neighbourhood author,