I think one decent litmus test for any story is: is it about what it's about?
This may sound kind of silly --- how can a story not be about what it's about? Except that I think this happens fairly often, to some extent. It's one of my pet peeves, and it's something I think about a lot in my own work. I spent years learning how to make my stories be about what they're about, and this is still something I struggle with.
Here's what I mean: a lot of stories neglect their crux or their core issue, getting distracted by shiny objects or fun digressions. I'm not just talking about stakes, or plot stuff generally -- I'm talking about the heart of the story, the thing that we keep coming back to and obsessing about. The emotional core. This could be the central conflict, if it's an especially conflict-driven story, but it could also just be a main thematic concern. Or a relationship that everything revolves around, or a community that is at the heart of things. I usually feel like the more you can stay in touch with whatever that thing is, the stronger the story is.
To explain what I better, though, let's pick on a famous example of a story that isn't about what it's about: the original Star Wars trilogy.
Feel free to disagree, but I think the crux of the Original Trilogy is whether Luke Skywalker will go down the same way as his father. Anakin Skywalker was a young Jedi with tons of power and potential, but he fell to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader. When Luke shows up, everyone is worried he's going to swerve down the same path. It's the closest thing to a thematic through-line these movies have. And it's what the climax of Return of the Jedi is (mostly) about: the Emperor finally meets Luke and tries to turn him, only to have Luke turn Darth Vader back to the Light Side instead.
But of course, these movies aren't at all about whether Luke will fall to the Dark Side, especially the first one. The Dark Side is only mentioned once in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan mentions in passing that Vader was seduced by it. The question of whether Luke is going to repeat his father's mistake is crucial to the ending of Return of the Jedi, as I mentioned above, but it's only discussed in one scene in RotJ before that, where Luke returns to Dagobah and finds Yoda on his death bed. Only in The Empire Strikes Back is the danger of Luke falling to the Dark Side made into a real issue, especially when Luke rushes to confront Vader before he's ready. (And Vader's attempt to sway Luke to his side in Empire is a darn sight more effective than the Emperor's similar attempt in Return of the Jedi.)
Obviously, part of the issue is that George Lucas didn't know that Darth Vader was Luke's father when he made A New Hope. (He didn't even know that the movie he was making was called A New Hope!)
But also, to do justice to the question of whether Luke will embrace the Dark Side, these movies would have to get, well, dark. We'd need to see a lot more of Luke being tempted by darkness and rage, probably more than the brief flirtations we witness in Empire and Return --- maybe similar to what we saw with Anakin in the Clone Wars animated series, or Quinlan Vos in some of the Dark Horse comics. You'd have to build a whole arc in which Luke gains confidence in his Jedi skills, but he keeps being tempted to take shortcuts or lash out, and we'd need to see the danger grow in tandem with his power. That would be a very different trilogy than the one we got, to say the least.
Let's address the Bantha in the room: it's probably true that Star Wars wouldn't have been nearly as popular if it had come closer to telling the story of Luke being tempted by the Dark Side. It's probably one reason why Empire Strikes Back, though beloved and critically acclaimed, was the least successful at the box office of those three original films. A lot of the appeal of Star Wars, originally, was that it was a fun ride, featuring pew-pew-pew space battles and lovable characters -- this is what gave rise to the four-quadrant blockbuster as we know it today -- and I honestly love the goofy fun of it all. It's what I fell in love with as a kid.
So I'm not giving advice on how to create something popular or widely beloved here. Rather, I'm expressing an aesthetic preference.
So how do you make sure your story is about what it's about? Let's start by acknowledging that a story can be about more than one thing, and there's nothing wrong with an episodic structure or a travelogue or whatever. A story can deal with a whole cluster of ideas.
But when I'm writing a story, and especially when I'm revising, I look at a couple of things:
1) What are the characters asking themselves and each other? What is/are the problem(s) or philosophical issue(s) that they worry about and debate and fuss over? Put another way, I think a really good scene is worth its weight in gold, and when I write a scene where the characters are talking about something and they seem really alive and present and I can feel their personalities shining through, I think to myself: I should find ways to get them to talk about that thing more, whatever it was. It's obviously something that cuts close to the bone for these people.
2) What does the ending come down to? If the final moments of the book come down to an omelette-making contest in which the hero proves they can make the best omelette in the world, then I probably need to see the hero practicing making omelettes before this --- but I might also want the hero to worry about whether they're ever going to be a good enough omelette-chef, and what exactly is the nature of a perfect omelette? Do we judge omelettes by cohesion, shape, fluffiness, some other criterion? Is there any such thing as a Platonic ideal of a perfect omelette? Etc. etc.
Like I said before, earlier in my career I wrote many stories and a few novels that weren't really about what they were about, so this is something I think a lot about. I don't think this is a question of writing skill, exactly, so much as just paying attention to what's important in the story so you can strengthen that. Of course, every story is different and there are no rules, so take this with the usual heap of salt.
I was lucky enough to get a screener of Women Talking, the new movie directed by Sarah Polley that hits select theaters on Christmas (and opens wide in January). And... wow. I loved this film so much. It was beautiful and brutal and stunning and thought-provoking. I stan an ethical debate, and that's basically what this movie is: a group of women in an insular religious community debating what to do in the wake of a horrible series of crimes committed by some of the men. Polley conducts a masterclass in using both music and startling imagery sparingly, for maximum effect, and she gets some incredible performances out of her powerhouse cast, led by Rooney Mara. If you get the chance to see this one soon, you definitely should.
Okay this is going to sound weird, but... I Love My Lady by Johnny Mathis. In the late 1970s, Johnny Mathis was having a bit of a career resurgence, thanks to a series of duets with Deniece Williams. And the crooner decided to branch out, recording an album with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (Chic, Sister Sledge, etc.) But Mathis' record company declined to release I Love My Lady because they were too chickenshit. The record sat on the shelf for decades, finally seeing the light of day as a standalone release in 2019. And damn, it freaking slaps. Mathis' famously honeyed voice soars over some of the most gorgeous arrangements Rodgers and Edwards ever came up with. It's not a disco album exactly, more just a gorgeous uptempo soul album.
First of all, because I have no shame... if you like this newsletter, please forward it to some friends. I'm not going to be able to use the Dead Parrot Site to promote this newsletter to folks much longer, and my ability to budget the time to write this thing every week will go up proportionately with the number of subscribers I have.
Also! If you're in San Francisco on Weds. December 21, I'm taking part in a reading at Adobe Bookstore on 24th street with a group of local literary mainstays, including Daphne Gottlieb, Alvin Orloff, Denise Sullivan and Kimi Sugioka. We're going from 7 PM to 9 PM. Presented by Manic D Press and The Fabulist. Come say hi!
ICYMI I helped to create a trans superhero for Marvel Comics, named Escapade. Plus her best friend Morgan and their flying turtle Hibbert. They debuted in Marvel Voices Pride #1 (2022) and now they're appearing in New Mutants #31-33. Issue #32 just came out! I am really proud of how funny and scary and thinky and gut-punch-ful these issues are. I feel like the X-Men comics are always about trauma one way or the other, and I've been finding a lot to say about it here. But also, fun and chosen family! Please go to your comic book store and grab these!
Meanwhile, I've written a young adult space fantasy trilogy that features a ton of trans, non-binary, genderfluid and pansexual characters, along with a ton of ambient queerness. Victories Greater Than Death is about a teenage girl on Earth who's secretly the clone of an alien superhero, and now it's time for her to return to the stars and reclaim her identity. Except... that's not what happens. Because you know what? Your identity isn't just something that other people can hand to you, even if you were a superhero in a past life. The third book, Promises Stronger Than Darkness, comes out in April, and -- along the lines of what I was talking about above -- it's paying off all those questions about identity and self-hood and how to be a good person. (Which is, NGL, harder than being a hero.) Anyway, Promises Stronger Than Darkness is on NetGalley now!