I’ve just put the finishing touches on another story draft: “Moura,” a piece I got a rewrite request on about a year ago, but which I really couldn’t quite make work. The things I wanted ambiguous, people seemed to think weren’t clear enough; that was the main complaint, besides that it’s kind of slow and sometimes (in the earlier draft) felt like nothing happened in parts.
Some of that is addressed, though in rereading the story at a great remove, I still didn’t see what was wrong with it… not until I started reworking it. Then, I realized, the whole point of the story — the discovery of something that ought not to be possible, but seems indeed to be real — was robbed of all its tension because everyone crucial, including the protagonist, already believed it was real from the start. The protagonist was struggling with it, and struggling with it, but essentially, as soon as she heard the idea, the reality clicked in her mind and she knew it was the truth. When I reversed that — had different characters believe the idea to different degrees, but especially made the focus of the story the protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable, and slowly, by degrees, discover and admit that, yes, it’s not so far-fetched, and might even be true — suddenly the story had a tension it had been missing.
(For me, there’s still maybe issues with one part of it, but the vast majority of the story fell into place suddenly when I realized that change needed making.)
One thing that we can get from all this is that when you get feedback about a story, people won’t always pinpoint what’s actually wrong with it. The ambiguity of the phenomenon in my story was a problem, but the root cause of it was the fact that it was taken at face value by everyone. Once my protagonist actively doubted it, she started forcing others to be more clear, more specific in their claims and evidence, and that solved the problem.
It’s like with tasting homebrewed beer: people are great at noticing something’s off about a brew, but they’re not so great at guessing why. Someone might say, “Wow, that beer just has no character,” but the actual problem is it’s being served too warm, or needs a few more days’ worth of dry hops, or simply hasn’t aged long enough to serve. (Like the ESB I just put on tap right now, which was both flat and too plain last weekend, but is lovely and I’d say close to my perfect ESB right now, undercarbonation aside.)
It’s also like medicine: you may be having pains in your legs, but that doesn’t mean the problem is in your legs… as anyone with lower back problems can tell you! Pain sometimes radiates to other parts of the body than where the real problem is, as so it is with problems in stories: when some aspect of the story is misaligned, other aspects tend to end up being misaligned as well.
So when people — plural — tell you there’s something not working with your story, it’s often because something really, actually isn’t working… but you knew that, or you wouldn’t be requesting their feedback. However,one needs to be very careful not to overestimate their diagnosis as to why that problem exists! It may be a case of a second order problem, proceeding from something more fundamental.
When you have friends who are good at penetrating down into those fundamental problems in stories, treat ’em well, cherish them, buy them beer (or whatever). They are rarer than you may realize.